Tiny turkeys enjoying their heat lamp. Photo by Steve Barnes
This last week, I played midwife to two dozen baby turkeys. In our walk-out basement for the last four weeks, my Octagon incubator was humming away, gently rocking back and forth on its electric cradle. Every other day, I’d refill the water in the chamber for the wet bulb and restock the reservoirs inside, so the humidity kept up with the balmy temperature for the precious, speckled eggs inside.
A Memorial Weekend hatching wasn’t my first choice, but it was the soonest I could collect eggs from my turkey ladies once temperatures warmed. Too cold in the coop, and the embryo inside the egg will die if you don’t snatch it up soon enough. And turkeys are, well, turkeys, which means not much wits and low dependability to keep the eggs warm unless one gets setty. And if that happens, she turns into a hissing hydra to defend her beloved treasures beneath. My suggestion? Wear sturdy gloves when approaching!
Over the course of four days, I carefully collected the eggs, using steel wool to scuff off any bits of bedding that may have stuck to the shell. Can’t wash them because it takes off the precious waxy layer on the outside of the shell! The eggs have to sit air-sack-up in the incubator (the air sack is on the fatter end). Air, of course, is lighter than the white or yolk in the egg and migrates to the top. The little chick inside needs that bubble of air to breathe before it can peck through the hard shell, and if the air sack isn’t there…then the story’s over. One of the reasons I candle all my hatch eggs is to see that the air sack is present at the correct end of the shell.
Each week in the incubation process, I candle the eggs again to check for progress. First blood vessels can be seen forming, then a dark central object casts its shadow, then the whole egg except the growing air sack turns quite dark when viewed through the light of the candler. If an egg stays clear with just the yellowy yolk as the process continues, then the egg is infertile and has to be removed before it makes trouble for the other ones in the clutch.
Finally, it’s hatching time, which means little sleep for me. Every three hours, around the clock, I’m there checking on the progress. There’s always one little turkey who hatches a day before the rest—eager and rambunctious. Once its little legs have gotten stronger and shrunk down from their original watery nature, the turkey is ready to come out of the incubator and into the nearby brooder box with its cozy heat lamp.
“Ree-kee-kee-kee!” cries the brown and tan speckled turkey chick, eyes blinking. That first one can get terrible lonely, crying out for a companion. So I’ve gone to rolling up a yellowish wash cloth and setting it next to the little one, and that helps considerably. It’s like a little kid with its favorite stuffed animal.
Turkey egg shells are very tough (you know this already if you’ve bought some from us and tried to crack them—egg Kungfu). The membrane between the shell and the chick can also be exceedingly tough, so I have a handy nut pick that I use to assist the process most delicately. If a turkey chick struggles too long, it will expire from exhaustion. If I intervene too soon, though, the chick can bleed to death—it’s a delicate balance.
Four nights into the process, 24 chicks from the original 30 eggs (which is a very nice percentage success rate with turkeys) are scuttling around in the brooder box. Past the tender hatching stage, we’ve now entered the “pancake” phase of turkey chick life. Before their hips grow strong enough to take their tiny weight, their shape splays out rather round, like a fuzzy pancake with legs and a head on a long neck. A younger one might get bumped by an older, rambunctious chick, and over it goes. The little one screams and kicks its legs violently, but it just can’t get any purchase to turn over and lays there, helplessly. Up-side-down is not a good position for any bird, and these little ones especially, since they will eventually suffocate.
That’s where my role as the official “pancake flipper” comes in. Might as well get a good book and a cozy chair nearby. Hear the little scream, reach in and flip the pancake. Wait five more minutes, flip another turkey pancake. Now and then one will lose its sense of equilibrium, and I have to give it extra attention for it to learn which way is up again, the tiny head bobbing about in confusion.
Creamy turkey chicks, speckled chicks, dusty gray chicks all bounce about, learning what food and water is and sprawling out for a nap. These will all grow up to be heritage breeds—gray, cinnamon, and white with black barring. Most will be raised for Thanksgiving orders, while a few will be kept to add to the breeding flock. Sometimes, however, folks want a bigger turkey for the holiday, so once we knew how many were successfully hatched, Mom and Steve ran to the fleet store to pick up a few additional turkey chicks to add to the crew.
But those little beasties came with an attitude. Just a couple of days bigger, the fearsome four wanted to peck the littler ones, and I had to separate them. Pecking had apparently been a problem in their stock tank home at the fleet store, so the bad behavior had to stop! The remedy? Peace, love, and kidney. Curious? Here’s how that goes.
First, the home-raised chicks had never had to suffer the stress of being shipped in the mail, of living in a busy store with beeping fork lifts and prodding children. They had been able to enjoy a life of peace and quiet, other than the gentle rumble-de-thump of the washing machine that always seems to put them to sleep. These newbies needed that peace and loving attention of a caregiver. So, I gave them their own brooder box until things quieted down and they could be trusted with their new playmates. They had plenty of electrolyte-rich water and our custom grain mix for feed, cozy bedding, a warm light...
But that still wasn’t enough. They even wanted to peck on each other’s vents! Now, as a poultry raiser for 19 years, I know that this trait is a symptom of nutrient deficiency. Time to bring out some organ meat. High in iron, protein, and other necessary vitamins, organ meats finely chopped are a great supplement for little chicks (both chicken and turkey). My usual go-to is liver, but I really only needed to work with a small piece of meat for these guys, so I found a lamb kidney, got it thawed, and started chopping. A few minutes later, the turkeys were presented with a Tupperware lid topped with a small pile of fragrant, chopped kidney.
The result? In the last four days, I’ve used up the whole kidney, the pecking has ceased, and the two groups are how happily living together in their palatial cardboard circle in the chicken coop. So, when you’re feeling cranky and stressed, ready to lash out at those nearest you, maybe the remedy would work as well—maybe we all need a little peace, love, and kidney in our lives. Time to check on those little turkeys again. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com
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