Let’s Talk Turkey

Turkeys are easy and profitable. They forage all day long as they roam around playing follow the leader. Even if you have to keep them in a turkey tractor or run, notice when one starts to walk the others follow. It’s the fowl version of a pack animal. They’ll eat nothing but bugs, grass and other vegetation if you have the space to free range. And unless you have predators that can climb trees at night, that’s where they’d rather sleep… in the trees… no need to build a coop. Even though it takes a chick a bit longer to grow to harvest size (about 5+ months) that’s still a great profit margin. As I write this I get caught up in yet another private conversation (with me and myself) where I’m scratching my head wondering why I didn’t do this sooner..?

turkeys6Like chickens, turkeys let the light and the seasons dictate what they do and when. Turkeys want to lay low in the winter, and then mate like crazy and hatch chicks in the spring. At some point afterwards (while the hen is broody and sitting on her eggs) move the toms to seperate quarters, they aren’t very careful and can squish the babies. Sometimes an overly aggressive tom that wants to resume mating will even (purposely) kill the chicks as they try to follow momma around… talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time! Hens however are very good at what they do. They are very careful, protective, watchful and nurturing. Though possible, it is a rarity to find a tom with these qualities.

Fertile turkey eggs can survive a long time. You’ll often find a pile building up (in a very secret place) long before the hen goes to sit on it. It could be two weeks or longer but she’ll get around to it. Once she goes broody, she transforms into a dedicated egg brooder/hatcher for sure. It’ll take the better part of a month before you see the hatchlings.  Once they start to emerge mom will keep a sharp eye on the chicks, keeping them under feather most of the time. If you can, provide a nesting box on the ground and she just might use it. (Most hens prefer tall grass or another inconspicuous spot.) If you find that she’s laying eggs everywhere BUT the box, try moving it. It just doesn’t look like a safe place to her and a different location could change her mind. And if you keep your turkeys in a confined space, make sure she has plenty feed and water during the entire ordeal.

turkeys5

One difference between chickens and turkeys is that chickens grow to full size just a bit quicker. But don’t fret, your turkeys (depending on the breed) will be a really good size well before the end of the year for that fabulous meal we all love. They are similar to chickens in that the older they get the tougher the meat, especially the legs and thighs. After a year it’ll be stew meat. Tag the tom and hens in order to tell them apart when it comes time to harvest, you’ll want to keep them around for the sole purpose of making many more since they’ll be good producers for up to 10 years.

turkeys4

This fine gentleman is a Chocolate Heritage tom. The snood on a tom’s head expands and retracts. It hangs down when he wants to look beautiful for the ladies and it can also determine the pecking order, where other males look to the tom with the longest snood. And it almost always reveals the mood he’s in: hanging down = fired up about something! The tuft of hair sticking out of his chest is called a beard and can be seen as a way to determine age. A large tuft (like the one above) indicates this guy is about two years old, maybe older. But females can sometimes develop small beards too so don’t use it as a way to determine sex.

Turkeys have excellent eyesight. They’ll see you long before you see them. It’s funny because our hogs have really poor eyesight and mostly rely on ground vibration to know what’s going on around them. So I have a different approach to tending to each. With the hogs, I start “talking” to them from afar so they know I’m coming. I hear a grunt and all is well. But the turkeys are way ahead of me so I don’t look directly at them and even have to pretend I don’t see them at all. Direct eye contact makes them (especially new moms) very nervous. They know why they’re on your farm! I can hear ’em now, “I’m not stupid! You’re gonna eat me someday! Everybody loves turkey!” Unless you have an unusually friendly turkey, keeping your distance is ideal.

turkeys3

With that in mind, a free range homesteader should try hard to gain the turkey’s trust so it remains calm to avoid flight*. Turkeys are very fast runners and can sense your every move. If one gets out, then just say hasta la vista. And although they really don’t want to fly, they certainly can and will if threatened. In the fall, I let my turkeys roam the garden to clean up the bad bugs. We have deer fencing all around and yet they’re perfectly fine roaming from one end of the garden to the other and back again, never trying to escape. Well one day, a red fox got in and every one of my turkeys shot right over that 8 ft fence without hesitation or difficulty. But they must really like living here, because the group came back within minutes and I was able to walk the group into the run**. In other words if they want to and they’re out in the open, they can just leave. I think I must be trustworthy.

turkeys1

As with most farm animals, the male to female ratio is 1:many. My plan was to have one tom to five or more hens but it didn’t quite work out that way. I ended up with three toms believing I purchased only one. After fighting it out I learned the hard way that only the strong survive and so now I’m down to two. Too bad. So with one tom dead and the other tom keeping a safe distance, we’re in a pretty awkward situation right now. The main tom is the biggest, strongest and loudest. He’s a real good gobbler and makes a lot of chicks. He constantly fluffs his feathers all spring and does a dance that causes a powerful vibration, making a sound like a low drum roll. It’s all very attractive. The two toms seem to be coexisting so far mostly because the “backup” tom knows his place. I suppose the real test will be when I move them back in with the hens this fall.

Speaking of such, you definitely want a good gobbler. But watch out, gobblers will attract wild turkeys and before you know it, you’re the neighborhood turkey wrangler! It may sound entertaining but when other turkeys come around and start hanging out all the time, it can mean no peace for your homestead. For example: our main tom wants to immediately fight with the second-in-charge when other toms are within eyesight; it’s as if he thinks the rafter*** grew and now he has to prove all over again that he’s still numero uno. Silly gobbler. If hunting wild turkeys is allowed in your area then kudos to you, you’ve found the equivalent to a duck call for turkeys! Otherwise, try to be diligent in chasing the outsiders away so your tom doesn’t feel threatened and go completely bonkers on you.

turkeys2I’ll continue to update this post as we learn and grow. Especially where raising the poults is concerned, I know the information on that subject is a bit sparse! Sorry! Keep checking back, okie dokie? 🙂

*If you’re property is predator-free then clipping the wings would be an ideal way to prevent flight. But keep in mind the turkey cannot escape a fox, coyote, etc. if it can’t fly.

**To get a domesticated turkey to go where you want it to, calmly walk behind it and use your arms to direct. Want the turkey to go right? Hold out your left arm and take one step to the left and so forth. It’s as easy as conducting an orchestra, directing traffic, waving a yellow stick to taxi an airplane…

***Turkey terms:

A full grown male turkey – tom or gobbler
A full grown female turkey – hen
A just hatched baby turkey – sometimes called a chick
A baby turkey – poult
A young male turkey – jake
A young female turkey – jenny
A group of wild turkeys – flock
A group of domesticated turkeys – rafter

Resources:

outdoornews.com
wikipedia.org