Keeping Turkeys

by
Ross Simpson

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2002, 7(1):4

There are four types of turkeys grouped by their size: (1) Wild, with eight subspecies and Maya-Aztec domestic color variations, toms 20 25 lbs., hens 9 13 lbs., (2) Bantam and Midget, toms 9 18 lbs., hens 6 11 lbs., (3) Standard, toms 30 35 lbs., hens 15 20 lbs., and (4) Broad Breasted, toms 35 45 lbs., hens 25 35 lbs. Do not confuse the highly inbred, artificially inseminated White and Broad Breasted Bronze fowl that are unable to mate and hatch their own young with the Standard White Holland and the Standard Bronze, which can mate naturally and hatch and brood their own poults.

Most turkeys are Standard types. Color describes the breed or variety. Like all poultry, it is best to obtain stock from two different unrelated lines. This will avoid inbreeding and provide good hatchability and healthy, strong poults. Some breeds, like the Blue Slate, always produce poults in a variety of colors. Just like Blue Swedish ducks and Blue Andalusian chickens, Blue turkeys hatch 50% blue, 25% black and 25% silver.

If you are not interested in breeding for show but want a healthy, colorful flock, you may want to mate different colors or breeds together. The color and pattern possibilities in turkeys have not been fully explored. New varieties or colors happen all the time. Some are mutations within a variety while others may be crosses between varieties. It may be possible to recreate a lost color or variety. You may find an unusual color and desire to breed more of the same. With only one bird of a color to start you will need to mate with a white recessive, then line breed to produce more of the desired color. Bantam and Midget turkeys at present appear only in White, but with a little work colors like Calico, Chocolate and Lavender could be produced.

Baby turkeys are called poults. They should be kept separate from other poultry. Although adult turkeys are aggressive, poults are not and can easily be injured and prevented from eating or drinking by chicks, keets or pheasants. Poults are a little more delicate to chills and should never be placed with waterfowl. Isolation from other fowl is also important because other poultry may carry diseases that are harmless to themselves but lethal to poults. The use of hardware cloth (1/4-inch wire netting) for the floor of their brooder box will also help prevent transmission of diseases in poults. Their immune systems do not fully function or mature as fast as in other poultry. As they grow and move to bigger pens, a larger gauge wire floor will be needed. Adult birds can be mixed with other poultry, including waterfowl, if pens are large enough. Greens are important for all birds of any age. Finely chopped grass can be floated on water or put in feed to encourage poults to start eating and drinking. If a turkey hen hatches her own poults, she should be kept in a pen with solid sides. She will pace back and forth in a wire pen and trample her poults. When the poults are about four weeks old they will have enough feathers so as not to get wet or chilled in the morning dew. They should be returned to the protection of their pen at night to insure they find enough food and water and to keep them safe from predators. A broody hen can be placed in a small cage with a dozen eggs until hatching to prevent coon or possum raids.

When the poults are about half grown I like to let them out of their pen for exercise and foraging experience. Before letting them out, start whistling to them at feeding time like their mother would do. It is easy to imprint and train them. When you can't find them or want to encourage them to return to their pen, whistle. They will reply or come running. Even as adults they will come when called this way.

If you want to raise several varieties or colors you can keep all your toms in one pen and all the hens in another. Once a week take the desired tom and hen to a separate small pen. After you observe mating, usually right away, return them to their original pens. Your hens will not be stressed or injured by over breeding and toms will not have a chance to stomp or break and eat eggs. For a few hours each day the toms can be let out to graze. When they return to their pen the hens can be let out.

About 50% of an adult turkey's diet will be grass and other plants. Sand is the preferred grit for my birds. Yearling or stag toms are not as good as two-year old toms for breeding. If you plan to hatch turkey eggs in an incubator, do not hold them in storage for more than a week because hatching percentage will be considerably decreased. All eggs should be dated and incubated as soon as possible. Bantam hens can cover three turkey eggs, while a large chicken can manage six. Some chicken hens will not adopt poults even if they have hatched them, so keep an eye on your setting hens.

Turkeys are intelligent, beautiful and excellent meat fowl. When allowed to pasture with cattle they will scratch and pick corn out of the manure, spreading it around and improving the pasture. They will eat dock, nettles, chicory and other pest weeds. Turkeys do require protection from coyote, fox, coon and possum attacks, as do all other domestic poultry. The pen is not to keep the birds in a cage but to protect them from a world full of predators. Turkeys can and should be included in any collection of poultry.


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