Do Turkeys Need a Coop?
You’ve decided to add turkeys to your farm, and the first question you may be asking yourself is do turkeys need a coop? The answer depends on a few factors. Are you planning to raise broad breasted turkeys for the Thanksgiving table, or do you want to keep heritage turkeys year round? Will your turkeys free range or will they be kept inside a fenced yard? The answer will also depend on the climate where you live and whether you are getting turkey poults (very young turkeys) or turkeys that are more mature.
If you are planning to raise your turkeys from poults, then the answer to “Do turkeys need a coop?” is a resounding yes. Once the poults outgrow their brooder, they will need a secure coop at night just like any other type of poultry. If your turkeys will be raised among chickens, then the turkeys may learn to go into the coop at night by following the example set by the chickens. However, if blackhead disease (histomoniasis) is a problem in your region then it is not advised to raise turkeys and chickens together. If you are adding adult turkeys to your flock, you may not be able to train them to sleep in a coop. Turkeys are notoriously suspicious of new things and prefer to make their own decisions, despite our best efforts to convince them otherwise.
Housing Preferences of Broad Breasted Versus Heritage Turkeys
Broad breasted turkeys tend to accept coop life more readily than their heritage turkey relatives. It’s common for broad breasted turkeys to be perfectly content sleeping in a coop. Heritage turkeys however, have a huge independent streak, and they may not appreciate your efforts to keep them safely housed at night. Heritage turkeys often prefer to sleep outdoors rather than in a confined space. Trees, rooftops and fences are all places that heritage turkeys will likely choose as a night-time roost at one time or another. My first heritage turkeys slept in a coop until they were three months old, and from that time on they resisted sleeping indoors. Knowing what I know now, I would have designed my turkey coop differently and made it larger, and just maybe (although that’s a BIG maybe!) I would still have turkeys that slept in a coop at night.
Designing a Turkey Coop
A turkey coop needs to be designed a bit differently than a chicken coop, especially for the larger, less nimble broad breasted turkeys. Broad breasted turkeys will need a roost that is low to the ground to prevent injury to their legs or feet when jumping down from the roost. The roosting bar should be wider and will need to be placed farther from the wall than is typical for a chicken roosting bar. Broad breasted turkeys can become unable to roost as they grow larger in size. They may choose to sleep on the floor of the coop, or they may appreciate something low and easy to roost on such as a straw bale. As you design your turkey coop, remember to incorporate a door large enough to accommodate their mature size. The door should be placed low to the ground, and any ramps or ladders should be easy for big feet to navigate. The size of the coop will also depend on whether the turkeys will be kept confined to a coop and attached run or whether they will have access to a large pasture. The more time the turkeys will spend in the coop, the bigger it needs to be.
Understanding a Heritage Turkey’s Instincts
I’ve learned over the years that the answer to the question “Do turkeys need a coop?” can be “No” in certain situations. A heritage turkey’s natural instinct is to sleep up high with a good view of their surroundings. A tall, spacious barn-type structure is more suited to a turkey’s tastes than a typically shorter and more confined chicken coop. Incorporating hardware cloth to form a large screened upper section in the coop walls, instead of solid wood coop walls, is one design element I’ve seen that may satisfy a turkey’s desire for a view of their surroundings as they roost up high in the rafters. Try to think like a turkey when designing your turkey shelter and you’ll have a better chance that they will actually use it.
Heritage turkeys are amazingly hardy birds that are well adapted to withstanding the winter weather. I know many people that keep heritage turkeys and who share my experience that their turkeys prefer to roost outside all winter long, even in the snow and freezing temperatures. As long as they have a structure that they can use to take shelter from the elements, when and if they choose to do so, a traditional coop may be unnecessary. The two caveats I will add to this statement are that our turkey pasture is surrounded by electric poultry netting, which prevents the larger four-legged predators from accessing our turkey yard at night. If we did not use electric poultry netting, I would probably have made more of an effort to convince the turkeys to sleep inside a coop. If you have a livestock guardian dog, that may also ease your mind a bit about letting your turkeys sleep outside. Our winters are fairly mild here, but if you live in an extremely harsh climate with freezing temperatures or snow much of the winter, I recommend making more of an effort to convince your turkeys to sleep in a coop.
Simple Turkey Shelters
A turkey shelter can take a variety of forms, but a high structure with a roof and possibly a couple of sides that provide protection from the rain, snow, and prevailing wind may be all that is needed. These open-sided structures also provide much needed shade in the summer and have the benefit of not trapping warm air inside like a coop. The nighttime shelter that we have used successfully for several years is a six-foot high roosting structure with multiple roosting bars that is covered with a corrugated metal roof. In addition, we have several daytime shelters and lean-tos made from pallets and scrap wood. These options are not fancy to look at, but they provide protection from the winter weather and the heat of the summer while still meeting a turkey’s desire for open spaces. In addition to that, it beats spending a lot of time and effort building a coop that your independent minded turkeys may not use - or even more frustratingly, use to sleep on top of instead of inside it!