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Tips for Raising Turkeys



Turkeys make a wonderful addition to the homestead for so many reasons. They are hugely charismatic, as well as providing a source of meat and beautiful speckled eggs. Their endearing personalities will win you over in a hurry, so prepare yourself for a lot of excitement, laughs and more than a little drama in your new life with turkeys. Before deciding on what kind of turkeys to get, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the differences between heritage and broad-breasted turkeys. If you plan to keep a self-sustaining flock of turkeys and hatch poults every spring, then you’ll want to go with a heritage variety. I keep heritage Narragansett and Blue Slate turkeys, although you really can't go wrong with any of the beautiful heritage turkey varieties.


Can you Keep Turkeys and Chickens Together?

An important thing to know before getting turkeys is whether blackhead disease (Histomoniasis) occurs in the part of the country where you live. Blackhead disease is caused by a protozoan parasite that can be carried by chickens and is easily spread to turkeys, in which it is often fatal. Contact your local agricultural extension office to find out if blackhead disease occurs in your geographic area. If it does, then you should not keep turkeys in shared facilities or on the same ground that chickens have lived on within the last few years.


Caring for Young Turkeys (Poults)

There are a few important differences between raising turkey poults and raising chicks. Poults tend to be more fragile in their first couple of weeks of life than chicks, and it takes a little more effort to ensure that poults have a healthy start in life. Poults tend to be easily chilled and they have weaker immune systems than chicks, so you’ll need to pay close attention to their brooder environment to make sure that the temperature is correct and that it is kept very clean to prevent them from acquiring any illnesses that occur in damp or dirty conditions. The brooder temperature for poults should be kept five degrees higher than it is for chicks at all stages of development. For the first few days after bringing home your poults, try to minimize handling them as well as their time spent outside of the brooder to give them a stress-free start. It’s a good idea to add vitamins and electrolytes to their water to give their immune systems a little boost. Poults tend to be a little slow to figure out where their food and water are. Encourage them to eat and drink by tapping your finger in their feed and water several times a day to mimic the behavior that a momma hen would use to teach them to eat and drink. Another thing that you can do to encourage them to eat and drink is to add a few colored marbles to their feeder and waterer which will draw their attention and encourage them to eat and drink.


Feeding

Turkey poults need to be provided with a very high protein starter – as close to 30% protein as you can find – which will support their rapid growth rate. If you can’t find a feed specifically labelled as turkey starter, you can feed game bird starter which is essentially the same thing. It’s very important not to feed your poults chick starter as it does not contain the nutrition they need to develop properly. There are also special formulations for developer/grower feed for turkeys. Once turkeys reach adulthood, they can be transitioned to the flock maintenance or flock layer feed that you feed your chickens.


A good way to feed heritage turkeys is by offering feed free-choice, meaning that feed is always available in feeders throughout the day. Turkeys will tend to forage and find a lot of their own food if given access to pasture, but they will return to the feeders throughout the day to supplement what they find on their own. Despite the fact that turkeys can find much of their own food, in order to ensure that their dietary needs are fully met they should still be provided with a nutritionally complete poultry feed. Having free-choice food available throughout the day is also a good way to ensure that the less dominant members of the flock have their chance at the feeders. Having multiple feed and water stations is a good idea if you have a larger flock. Since broad-breasted turkeys are prone to rapid weight gain which can lead to health issues, free-choice feeding is not the best option for broad-breasted turkeys. It is usually better to restrict the amount of feed offered to broad-breasted turkeys, especially if keeping them healthy past their intended typically short lifespan is desired.


Housing and Shelter

When it comes to housing your turkeys, don’t expect them to automatically use the chicken coop. Turkeys prefer high roosts and open spaces. They will often choose to sleep outdoors, typically on top of a roof or on fences or railings. Turkeys can be trained to sleep indoors, but they prefer large, high roofed buildings more similar to a barn than a coop. Keep their preference for high, open feeling spaces in mind when designing their housing, and you’ll have a better chance that they will actually use it! If your turkeys decide to sleep outdoors, don't despair, but you should offer them protection against predators. Electric poultry netting is a good option for turkeys that sleep outdoors in a designated yard to keep them safe from four-legged predators at night.


Flock Dynamics

A common question many people ask is “How many turkeys should I get for my first flock?” Turkey poults are sold unsexed, meaning that you can’t select whether you want males or females. If you want to improve your odds of getting both males and females, it’s a good idea to buy several poults. Turkeys are social birds, and although turkeys can coexist with other types of poultry, they will tend to stick to their own species group. This is another reason to get several turkeys, not just one or two. In addition, a minimum of two to three turkey hens is advisable for each tom turkey. Turkey hens tend to go broody, so it’s a good idea to have multiple hens to keep your tom occupied if one of more hens are brooding or raising poults. Having several hens per tom can also reduce the likelihood of over-mating and injury during mating.


People often ask me if it is possible to keep more than one tom turkey without them fighting, and the answer to that depends on your set-up and the personalities of your turkeys. Tom turkeys will begin to display and challenge each other for dominance when they reach several months of age. Sometimes the toms will work out the hierarchy and manage to coexist peacefully for the most part. It’s also possible that none of the boys will back down and they will continue fighting, and it can get very vicious. You may have no choice but to keep them fenced in separate areas if you want to keep multiple toms or you may need to reduce the number of toms in your flock. Although turkeys may try your patience at times, I guarantee that the joy they bring you will be well worth the learning curve of caring for these big, beautiful, charismatic birds.



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