Editor’s Note: This article is a corrected version of an article previously posted, which incorrectly used the label “heritage”.
Be it out of curiosity or naivety, we decided to do a trial run of raising a backyard flock of turkeys for a summer. We already had a large flock of backyard chickens that laid plenty of egg to supply our needs with extras left over to sell to friends and neighbours.
So we were not complete novices when it came to poultry. But turkeys are not chickens. To borrow from Joel Satalin, the turkeyness of the turkey is not the same as the chickenness of the chicken. Beyond the basics of food, water, and shelter, these two species of birds have different behaviours and requirements.
As a result of our backyard turkey trial, we’ve learned some lessons and wish to pass along some key tips to anyone else who is considering raising their own Thanksgiving dinner. But before I proceed to the tips, I’ll quickly lay out the logistics of our turkey setup.
First, we ordered six-day-old turkey poults from a hatchery. Not the standard, big-breasted, flightless kind, but seven Artisan Gold turkeys, a breed with a tendency to roam and roost. Second, for the first four weeks we kept the turkey poults in a brooder before moving them outdoors to a mobile shelter.
Our final step was to open the door on the mobile shelter, allowing the turkeys to pasture on a fresh grasses and forbs within an electrified poultry fence. We then moved the mobile shelter and fence up and down the rows of our orchard. As a side note, their favourite edible was comfrey.
Tip #1: You Can Place Chicks and Poults Together in a Brooder
Turkeys are less resilient than chickens when very young, but they can benefit from the presence of a few chicks who can keep them company and show them the ropes. Both arrived as day-olds in the same box delivered from the hatchery. We kept the chicks and turkey poults together out of necessity; we only had the one brooder. This worked for us because we had a small number of each, eleven chicks and seven poults; and since the chicks were broiler birds, their growth was on par with the turkeys, at least while they shared the brooder.
From the start they were familiar with each other and huddled for warmth. Between the chicks and the brooder lamp, the poults could keep warm when the needed to. The more intrepid chicks showed the turkeys to the food and water. The birds also shared the same organic turkey grower feed, which meant extra protein for the chicks compared to their standard ration. The birds also shared water, which we fortified with apple cider vinegar and garlic.
When they outgrew the brooder the chickens and turkeys went their separate ways. But our success rate was 100% — all the turkey poults and chicks survived their most vulnerable phase.
Tip #2: Turkeys Need a BIG Shelter
Turkeys take longer to grow, but they grow to be massive compared to chickens. For example, a broiler chicken processed at 8 weeks typically weighs 2.4kg and has put on 60 times its weight since a day old. Whereas an Artisan Gold turkey processed at 16 weeks (if it’s a female), weighs 6.6 kg and has put on 132 times its weight since a day old, a male processed at 19 weeks weighs 9.9kg and has put on 200 times its weight since a day old. Those bigger turkeys need a big space to grow. At a minimum, our turkeys needed 4 square feet each by the time they grew to full size.
When they turkeys moved out of the brooder, they went into an 8 ft by 12 ft mobile shelter that allowed them to eat fresh grasses. The shelter was on wheels, covered with poultry wire, and topped with a tarp for sun and rain protection. The roost area was elevated, accessed by a ramp, and had its own door and an additional layer of ¼ inch hardware cloth. The entire floor area of the shelter was open to the ground.
Initially, the turkeys easily entered the roost area each night — until one day, they wouldn’t. We had made the doorway too small and needed to enlarge the opening. As they continued to grow, the space inside the roost was almost maxed out and the turkeys looked to roost elsewhere, which leads to tip #3.
Tip #3: Turkeys Like to Roost as High as They Can
Well, if they can fly, that is. And our turkeys could fly. While still young, they readily went into the roost area of their mobile shelter. But as they grew the turkeys wanted to roost higher off the ground. When they gained the freedom to roam about on a piece of pasture, they wanted to spend their nights on top of the roof.
While they may have preferred being up so high, we did not like them being so exposed to predators and had to shoo them down each night and herd them into the shelter and then up onto the roost.
To curb this need to be high when they slept we tried trimming their wings. First, clipping only a single side, but they still managed to get up onto the roof. We trimmed the wings again, this time clipping the flight feathers on both wings. It made little difference. With a good running start, they could still manage to flap and scramble up the mobile shelter and onto the roof. We just accepted the fact that each night we needed to bring along a rake to shoo them off the roof. It was safer than leaving them exposed. And while they could scramble onto the roof, they never flew over the fencing.
So, in conclusion, if you wish to give raising a small flock of turkeys a try, don’t expect them to behave like chickens. You can expect them to grow large, need extra help when very young, and want to roost as high as they can - unless you opt for a big-breasted breed that can’t get airborne. And depending on how much energy you wish to expend caring for them, it may be your better bet.
In the end, we found it quite satisfying to raise, prepare, and consume our own turkeys. We will do it again.
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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