With the bird flu raging all Spring of 2015, and news of potential impacts on the turkey populations, it just felt like a good idea to hedge against the possibility of a shortage by raising our own Thanksgiving turkey this year.
Have I ever raised turkeys, you ask? Nope and I didn't know thing one about it either. I had only been raising my chickens for a few months, so, it isn't as if I was an expert poultry farmer or anything. All I could do is read what I could find on the internet and just jump in with both feet. Sort of what I do with most things in life.
First thing was to find turkeys, no wait, first things was to figure out how to house and feed them. That's right. What I learned about housing is that they aren't any different than chickens. They need more space, chickens use about 2 to 3 square feet per bird inside the coop, while turkeys need 4 to 6 square feet per bird, but, the type of housing is pretty similar. The one difference is the roosting. Turkeys like to be as high as possible. Well, chickens like to be up high too, but, turkeys will insist upon it, and will even look for nearby roofs and trees if their housing isn't to their liking.
As far as what they eat, at first it will be just a combination of chick starter and game bird feed. Turkeys apparently need more protein than chickens, so, anything I can do to up the protein content of their daily intake is a good thing. The one thing I was so glad I researched was the fact that turkeys can have a tendency to starve themselves when they are stressed. It isn't enough to just lay down some feed and water and wait for them to get hungry. They will literally refuse to eat even to the point of death.
The next thing to know is what breed of turkey I wanted to raise. There are tons out there, some heritage breeds, some rare breeds and the standard cross bred turkeys that are what most mass produced turkeys are.
So my goal was set, and the plans were in motion. Let the journey begin.
It's Turkey Day!
Not thanksgiving day, The day I was getting my baby turkeys. I had windged and vacillated for days trying to make up my mind if I really wanted to get myself into this or not. I hadn't even told my husband that I was going to do it until the day I did it. He knew I was considering it.
I found an ad in the local news website classifieds for newly hatched turkey poults (that is the term for baby turkeys), and they were Bourbon Reds, which was one of the breeds high on my list. I had heard they were delicious and easy to raise, so, I called the guy up and arranged to come get a couple of his new turkeys. Picking them out was easy. I didn't care about Toms or Hens. It would be nice to have at least one Tom, but, either way, didn't really matter to me. I grabbed two that seemed healthy and popped them into a cardboard box for the trip home. They peeped most of the way, and I'm sure it was a traumatic experience for them.
At that time I had four chicks that were about a week older than the turkeys already in a brooder box in the garage. I used a plastic storage bin covered by window screen as the turkey brooder, and put in next to the chicks' brooder. They could hear each other but couldn't see each other. In the turkey brooder I set up a chick feeder and waterer and covered the floor with newspaper topped with pine shavings. I put a heat lamp at a comfortable height to keep it at 90 degrees in the bin. I dipped their beaks in the water, and showed them the feed. Once they were settled I left them to have some quiet.
After a few hours I checked and the poor little things hadn't moved from where I put them. They must have been thirsty, but, they refused to drink. I made some porridge out of oatmeal and some chick feed mixed with warm milk and set it in front of them. No go. I dipped their beaks in the porridge. No go. I got some on a spoon and put it up to their beaks, still no go. I knew they had to eat fairly soon, so, I resorted to a desperate act. I took a little on my finger and put it into their mouths. They weren't happy about it, but, they ate it. I kept doing that until they had eaten enough to leave them be for a bit. I repeated that every few hours until bed time. I made the porridge wet enough that they got some hydration as well as food.
The next day they started all over again refusing to eat, but at least they were drinking a bit. Again I fed them on my finger, and after a few times they started eagerly eating when they saw my finger coming toward them. I didn't really want them to bite me every time I was near them, so, I substituted a spoon and they accepted it. Still, force feeding was the only way they would eat. I would try waiting them out, and it just was clear they weren't going to voluntarily eat.
After a few days of this I had an epiphany. Turkeys, by nature, are extremely social birds, and can die of loneliness. They need at least one other turkey at all times, and will move as a flock, rarely wandering off on their own. So, my idea was to put a mirror in their brooder, right behind the feeding dish. They are also insanely curious, and cannot resist checking out anything new, so, they wandered over to it, seeing two other turkeys in their reflection. As they leaned toward it, they thought they were seeing those two other turkeys leaning down to eat from the feeder. They responded by copying the other turkeys behavior, and voila, they were eating on their own. I kept the mirror in their brooder until they were ready to move outside.
Turkeys are like monks
As our little turkeys grew enough to spend time out in the grow out pen, they exhibited all the traits of monks. They were peaceful, curious, quiet, and never bothered anyone. They just wanted to live in peace and harmony.
The bigger chicks were not interested in harmony, they just wanted those weird looking birds to stay clear of them. We had placed the bottom of our fire pit upside down like a saucer and propped it with stakes to create a little shade structure in the grow out pen. The chicks claimed it pretty quickly, and would chase the turkeys away whenever they had the audacity to try and share it. So, another shade structure was made for the turkeys at the other end of the pen. We felt really bad for those little monks. They were so sweet and gentle. While I loved my chicks, they started to feel a bit like a gang of thugs.
The turkeys turned out to be a Tom we named Hanksgiving, and a Hen we named Krismus. They are inseparable, moving in concert with each other everywhere they go. If one gets out of sight of the other, even if they are just on the other side of a clump of grass, they peep and peep until they find each other again.
Turkeys love to photobomb
It's easy to get pictures of my turkeys. You just sit outside with a camera or phone in your hand, and soon you will have two curious turkeys posing and peeking. Thsi is my daughter being photo bombed.
Fast forward from when they were babies to now. The feeding issues never reoccurred and the housing question once they were too big for the brooder was solved by using an old plastic playhouse. They don't love it, but, it works to keep them warm and dry. I just attached a 4x8 board as a roost to the windowsills inside, and secured plastic on the windows. The door has a gap, as does the plastic on the windows, to provide plenty of ventilation. They have to be herded into it at night, preferring to try to sleep on the roof instead of inside the house, but, once inside they settle in nicely til morning.
The thing to really know about turkeys is that they are the most crazy curious creatures you will ever find. Any new thing in the backyard is scrutinized. New people are barked at, yes barked, like a seal. That was another surprise to me, the fact that they don't gobble until they are adults, the females basically never gobble, but, they have a host of other noises. They bark like a seal when they are announcing either an intruder in their yard, displeasure at something you are making them do (like get down off the playhouse roof), and when they lose each other. The female mostly peeps and chirps, but, the Tom is loud and can only be silenced by confining him.
Now that they are basically fully grown, the Tom has started gobbling. It took him quite by surprise one day, like a twelve year old boy that squeaks for the first time. It was clear when Hank accidentally gobbled he didn't like it. He kind of jumped a bit.
Another thing to know is that turkeys can, and probably will, get mean. Hank and Kris started chasing our chickens, singling one out and cornering her, scratching and jumping on her. You can tell they are going to do it, because they look sideways at the chicken in question, and then all of a sudden they lunge, chasing at a full run. The chicken doesn't have a chance to outrun those long turkey legs, so, the only thing we could do was confine the turkeys unless we were walking with them. So, every day, at least once a day, I take them out, with my long handled rake in hand, and walk them around the yard for an hour or so. Every so often they try to lunge at a chicken, and I chase them with the rake, reminding them who is boss and who those chickens belong to.
I've read that turkeys have been known to kill chickens, and once they get a feel for it, they become obsessed. Other people have written that their turkeys never bother anything. That was not our experience, and the interesting thing was that the chickens they prefer to go after are the very same ones they shared the grow out pen with. Perhaps a little revenge?
Something else I've had to do is keep one wing clipped on each turkey. They really, really want to fly up into the trees, and I can just tell they won't come down even if it's raining. Turkey feathers are not water resistant, and if they get wet and chilled they will probably die. Most turkey farmers, and people who raise turkeys year round have turkey sheds that have high roosts and plenty of space for them. Since I am only raising them til Thanksgiving week, I didn't invest in a big shed for them, so, unless I want my neighbors complaining about the turkeys in the trees, I have to keep them clipped. That hasn't stopped the turkeys from peering over the fence from their rooftop perch and spying on the neighbors back yards. It's a little creepy.
Just a few more weeks and it's butchering day. I have it all planned out. We're going to use this large bin and set it up as a little gas chamber. They'll fall asleep, and then die without trauma. Then we can chop off their heads without them going crazy. Turkeys are big birds, and those wings can be dangerous. Better to have them already gone before we try hanging them upside down.
But, that will be for another post. For now, they are happy and growing. If I could keep them til Spring they would be really good size, but, with them chasing the chickens, I just can't justify cooping them up in that pen all winter long. It's just not a good life. Hopefully at least the Tom will be Thanksgiving sized. Guess we'll see.
I'm a mother of eleven children, wife of 37 years, Latter Day Saint, and 911 Dispatcher and a budding homesteader. Come along with me as I journey toward self sufficiency, one baby step at a time.
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