For several years of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, the quality of the featured roasted turkey grew more and more disappointing. This was often due to the mass-processing practice of injecting slaughtered birds with water and other additives to boost weight. The early culling of immature birds for selling small turkeys and the ongoing hybridization of various breeds were also to blame.
So my family decided to attempt to raise our own heritage turkeys. Little did we realize what this decision would involve.
With a number of years raising successful flocks of chickens, we made some assumptions based on scale of the animal. We did not, however, take into consideration genetic makeup or behavioral patterns. Our current flock of Rhode Island Reds chickens was still in its prime. The hens laid a substantial daily number of eggs, and the single rooster did great at what roosters do.
So instead of buying replacement chicks or incubating eggs to replace them, we purchased five Narragansett turkey chicks. We took into consideration the possibility of premature deaths that can occur for myriad reasons, yet having enough survivors to supply us with meat for the year end holidays.
Using a stock feeder to serve as a chick brooder, the chicks settled into their new surroundings. And they thrived.
A Matter of Scale
It turns out that this was really a short-term solution for housing. Within a couple of weeks, they grew quite large for chicks. They feathered out and bounced off the barrier screen that covered the top of the feeder.
The feeder/brooder could accommodate 10 to 15 chicken chicks for up to a month. But the turkey chicks indicated their need for larger facilities.
Luckily, we had a couple of vacant 4-by-4-foot “brooder coops” with 4-by-4-foot screen-topped “runs” attached. Into these went the turkeys.
They could pick at the weeds that grew from the dirt floor, get natural sunlight on warm days and supplement their diet with whatever insects and worms that they could find or dig up.
Yet within a month, they had outgrown these quarters. Their heads almost touched the screen mesh on top of the runs. Future habitation would require a lot of crouching to get around.
Read more: Want to raise turkeys? Here’s how to start.
Moving out & In
Earlier, we sold off our annual supply of roosters, except for one to keep our hens happy. This meant our rooster pen, with an 80-square-foot run and coop outfitted with a feeding station and roosts, sat empty.
It just made sense to relocate them to this pen, with room to roam and explore.
As the months progressed, the chicks grew into pullets. As they got larger, there were indications that this, too, would not work for long-term housing. By now, we couldn’t really call the turkeys chicks, as they took on features that differentiated the sexes.
With the final count consisting of three toms and one hen, and with space to roam disappearing, we realized another move was inevitable.
By the time summer firmly established itself—with a substantial increase in feed consumption, periodic restapling of the chicken wire to the pen’s wooden frame, an ever-decreasing amount of vacant pen space, and the holiday season being months away—it was time for yet another move.
Move Over, Rover
We had fenced in a large expanse, approximately 2,500 square feet, with field fencing to serve as a dog run to keep our three dogs confined when we were away for any length of time. Well, we evicted the dogs and moved in the four turkeys.
By this time, they had grown substantially, and moving them was no easy feat. A quick swipe in the face from a 25-pound panicked bird’s wing can knock off one’s glasses and leave a red welt. And carrying 20 pounds of flapping fury four times on a hot afternoon really tests one’s patience.
The initial concerns of the birds flying over the 5-foot-tall fencing and escaping were almost immediately dispelled. Aside from initial wing flapping, the turkeys never showed any inclination of trying to lift their girth off from the ground, content to lumber from point A to point B in slow methodical steps.
Now with plenty of room to roam, the hen could get some relief from the slow-strutting toms. And there was plenty of ground to scratch, insects to prey upon and abundant weeds to nibble.
With a covered wooden frame from which to hang a feeder and water font, and a simple three-sided wooden shelter to escape any inclement weather, they settled into their own little world.
And Then It Turned Hot
Spring slipped into summer, with the temperatures rising into the high double digits and then sliding into triple-digit territory. The birds, especially the toms, were rapidly growing to a point where their strut seemed ungainly.
By midsummer, we were well into having to spray all of our poultry with cool water every couple of hours to prevent loss due to heat stress.
We discovered a turkey’s IQ is somewhat on the low end. The species’ “elevator doesn’t necessarily go to the top floor.”
We had heard stories of turkeys drowning in torrential downpours because they don’t have the sense to get out of the rain and actually will stand out in the open with their heads raised to the sky with their mouths open. It became evident that this might be more than a rural legend when we cooled the birds with a water spray.
They would line up and put their heads in the direction of the spray, mouths open and eyes rapidly blinking against the onslaught of cooling moisture.
Party-Time Gone Awry
One morning, we found one of the toms had died. He appeared healthy and active at the morning feeding. However, within a three-hour period, he had keeled over in the middle of the pen.There was no hope of resurrecting him.
It was relatively cool as the heat of the day had yet to develop, ruling out heat stress as a cause.
Fungus Among Us?
Poultry can succumb suddenly for a number of reasons, many of which can’t be determined without post-mortem lab work. Turkeys are sloppy eaters and drinkers, with more feed and water falling to the ground than they actually consume (or so it sometimes seems).
With the water font being close to the hanging feeder, the feed on the ground was damp. We suspected that it could have been moldy food that was the cause. But all of the other birds were just fine and showed no signs of any ailment or negative reaction that might have resulted from an unsanitary feeding area.
We did a thorough cleaning and disinfecting around the feeder area and relocated the water font several yards away from the feeding station. This was to help ensure no further possibility of mold and/or fermentation and another untimely demise. The two remaining toms and the hen were now safer.
With a false sense of security, we began planning for the holidays, which were still months away, trying to decide which birds would be served at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and whether we would have enough freezer space to hold such a big bird in case we had a desire for a turkey dinner during the following spring or summer.
Dog-Days Afternoon Follies
With summer’s end in sight but not yet gone and temperatures lowering to a more tolerable range, we experienced fewer bi-hourly showers.
One day, there was an egg in the straw bedding of the shelter. The hen had reached a new benchmark in her development, and the toms were becoming more “protective” of her. They placed themselves between her and whoever might enter the pen.
The toms displayed more frequently. They spent most of the day with their tail feathers fanned, wings drooping almost to the ground. They raised their necks and heads upright and pushed back into their fluffed back feathers.
Their neck wattles turned a bright red in color. The hen would subsequently lay an egg every other day, like clockwork.
Stuck on Its Back
One afternoon, a bird was lying on its back in a heap with its wings splayed out and nothing moving. With trepidation upon entering the pen to remove another carcass—this time the hen’s—I noticed the feet clawing at the sky and the head lifted upward in wide-eyed panic with the beak gasping silent screams.
Evidently, she had somehow ended up on her back, whether tipped over by an amorous tom trying to mount her or trying to give herself a dust bath. With her wings splayed out, she couldn’t get the leverage to roll herself back upright. How long she remained in that predicament was anyone’s guess. Without help she would have eventually died.
Luckily, after flipping her over on to her belly and once on her feet again she strutted off as if nothing happened.
Shortly after one of the tom turkeys developed a crooked neck as if somehow he got a muscle sprain of some sort, perhaps in a fight with the other tom. Research suggested that this might be a result of Mycoplasma meleagridis, a chronic egg-borne upper respiratory disease found in turkeys.
Though the tom didn’t exhibit other symptoms of this condition, nasal discharge and difficulty in breathing, we put the bird on an antibiotic. This seemed to help but the wryneck would return once off of any medication for a while.
Aside from having an “S” shaped neck, he seemed to be a healthy bird. He experienced no loss of appetite, no lack of attention to the hen, no coughing, no signs of loose droppings and no weight-loss or listlessness.
Though he lived a seemingly normal trouble-free life, the remaining wry-necked tom succumbed, we assume, to his chronic ailment by the second month of the new year. Shortly after the afternoon feeding, at which time all seemed normal and with no indication of impending problems, he was found dead in the pen.
A neighbor had witnessed a lot of thrashing in the pen and was surprised he had expired.
Now alone, the hen provided a steady stream of eggs. As turkeys are reputed to be a very social species and don’t do well alone, she became best buddies with our three goats in an adjoining, though much larger, fenced-in area.
She immediately sidled up to anyone who entered her pen, could be hand-fed and followed the fence line anytime someone walked by the pen.
Because of the unexpected demise of the two toms, we researched the literature and came up with a possible cause. If you find a turkey dead on its back with legs outstretched to the sky and neck and head stretched upon the ground and no evidence of trauma, you can assume the probable cause of a heart attack.
In butchering the third tom we did observe an inordinate amount of fat in the abdominal cavity.
We adhered to the scheduled transition of one feed to the next as they grew. However, we never transitioned to a lower protein maintenance feed. With the high protein levels in his grower feed increased its fat content, possibly putting a strain on his heart.
So, what lessons has this tale of misadventure taught us? Like every new venture, one needs to experience a learning curve. No matter how much research one has done, it ultimately becomes a “been there, done that” process of maximizing on success and learning from failure.
Room to Roam
Turkeys need a lot of room to roam, much more than a small flock of chickens because of their size. Up to 50 percent of their recommended dosages of vitamins and minerals come from free-range pasturing.
So just remember, more room means healthier birds.
Harvest Age Notes
The optimal timing for slaughter is between 18 and 28 weeks for turkeys—20 to 24 weeks being ideal. Any younger and the fat deposits are insufficient, resulting in a dryer meat.
Slaughter beyond 28 weeks can result in too much fat and stringier consistency to the meat, especially the breast meat.
Turkeys are a very social species. A single bird doesn’t do well alone and will attach to another species in close proximity. However, a mixed flock of turkeys and chickens isn’t a good idea. Each can experience susceptible to adverse reactions to diseases that each species may carry.
An immunity to a parasite or bacteria that a chicken may carry can harm and even kill a turkey, which has no such immunity. Even housing turkeys in quarters once occupied by chicken flocks can result in sick birds, stunted growth and even death.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.