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Turkeys 101

When I first started this blog, the only followers were other hobby farmers.

Fast forward over three years, and it’s a different story. I love my followers and I’m truly grateful to anyone that takes a second out of their day to listen to little ole me. . . . Thank you!

But I’ve been thinking, and I’ve realized that some of the things that I talk about on here (you know, bucklings, kidding season, hatching, soap making, etc) are probably not topics that most people discuss everyday.

They are for me, but before our little farm was started, that wasn’t the case. Back then, I hadn’t the first clue about the difference between a hen and a pullet or that you could actually eat fertilized eggs. 

So, I propose this: a series of 101 posts about the topics you’re most likely to encounter on this little piece of cyberspace. And, since it’s November (or better known around here as Jim Bob’s Month), let’s start with turkeys.

 Turkey 101

What do you call male and female turkeys?

Young males are called jakes, while adults are toms (or gobblers). Young females are called jennies, while adults are hens. And chicks, they’re called poults, but unless you’re talking to someone who takes their turkeys very seriously, you’ll most likely hear them called chicks.

How long do their eggs take to hatch? 

About 28 days, give or take. You can hatch them using natural incubation (meaning using a broody turkey hen or a broody chicken to sit on them) or artificial incubation (i.e. incubator). 

How many breeds are there? 

A lot. There are many heritage breeds (ones that our farming forefathers commonly kept), some of those are endangered. There are even extinct breeds (some of which, breeders are diligently working on recreating). Then, there are more commonly found breeds (we’ll get to those in a moment).

There are small turkeys (such as Midget Whites) and large ones (White Hollands). And of course, turkeys are bred in an amazing assortment of colors. Like Chocolate (literally Chocolate turkeys – and on my wish list). Black (Black Spanish). Or how about buff (Jersey Buffs)?

Then, there are the two breeds most commonly consumed in the US: Broad Breasted Bronze and Broad Breasted Whites (with the Whites being the most popular of the two because they make a more attractive carcass). Both are the creations of modern industrial agriculture, and are bred to reach maturity very rapidly, which in turn shortens their natural lifespan and makes it difficult for them to breed. In fact, nearly all Broast Breasted turkeys are artificially inseminated. Oh, yeah. . . . you read that right.

So, in other words, if you’re looking to breed or have a turkey as a pet, choose one of the heritage breeds, instead. But if you’re looking for a breed to raise quickly to slaughter age, the Broad Breasted ones might be the choice for you. 

What is strutting and gobbling? 

See video below. When you see pictures of a beautiful tom turkey with his wings down and his tail feathers fanned out behind him. . . . that’s strutting. The loud noise that the tom makes, that’s gobbling. Both are done to attract a mate. Although, sometimes female turkeys will also strut. 

How do you sex turkey poults?

Sexing turkeys isn’t quite as easy as other types of birds. For the most part, look for the ones that are bigger, have thicker legs, and bigger snood bumps. In some breeds (like Bourbon Reds), once the poults have feathered out and have their adult plumage, check the tips of the feathers on the back and chest. On males, the feathers will have black edging on the tips. See the picture of our Bourbon Red tom’s, Jim Bob, feathers below.

Jim Bob Feathers

Do turkeys really have a beard? 

They sure do. See the picture of one of our turkeys, Snoody, below. They also have a snood (that’s the long fleshy thing that droops down over their beak) and caruncles (the large bumps).

Turkey Anatomy

 And a little closeup view of the snood and caruncles. A little odd looking, huh?

Jim Bob Anatomy 

Are turkeys easy to raise?

I’m going to tell you the truth. They’re not as easy as chickens or ducks, at least not to me. The old belief that turkeys drown while looking up at the rain isn’t true, but they can be sensitive to their brooder conditions. With proper care, they’ll grow in to beautiful, gobbling birds. Just remember the old saying, “A cold and wet poult is a dead poult.”

How do you brood poults?

You can use a brooder that you’ve bought or built specifically for that purpose, but a lot of people make do with shipping crates, plastic storage totes, etc so long as the birds aren’t overcrowded and have enough room to spread out if need be. 

For bedding, you can use wood shavings (only pine, never cedar since it’s known to cause health issues in birds), paper towels, old towels, etc. Some people use newspaper, however, as it’s a slippery surface and doesn’t provide enough traction for the poults it can (and will) cause orthopedic problems (example: splayed legs). 

Poults will need to be kept warm with a heat lamp (or even a Brinsea EcoGlow Brooder – on my wishlist) for the first few weeks. For the first week, 95 – 98 F degrees is ideal, and after that reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week until they’re completely feathered out by raising the lamp and/or switching to a lower watt bulb.

However, I rarely rely on temperature. Instead, I prefer to judge whether or not poults (and of course, chicks, ducklings, goslings, etc) are warm enough by their behavior. If they’re huddled together, then they’re too cold. If they’re panting and/or as far away from the light as possible, they’re too warm. But if it’s a little of both, then they’re fine. 

poults

As for feeding, poults need a higher protein food than chicks. Most game bird starter feeds have around 28% protein, which is perfect for the first several weeks. After that, some turkey owners switch to a slightly lower protein feed and some don’t.

Be sure to use a shallow waterer – poults have been known to drown in anything too deep. It’s a good idea to place clean marbles or rocks in your waterer. They serve two purposes: 1) To ensure that the poults won’t drown. 2) To attract them to the water, so they’re more likely to drink. Be sure, when putting the poults in their brooder the first time, to show them where their water is by dipping the tips of their beaks in it (being careful not to submerge the nostrils). Food and water should be made available 24/7.

Where can I purchase turkeys?

Most hatcheries have straight run (meaning they’ll be unsexed, so you’ll get a mixture of males and females) poults available during Spring. Usually, you have to order a minimum number of poults to ensure they’ll be able to keep each other warm during shipping. Make sure to include your phone number, so the post office can contact you as soon as they’ve arrived. Anytime I receive shipped birds through the mail, I immediately take them home and put them in their warm brooder. Because shipping can result in weakened chicks/poults, I always have electrolytes or a sugar/water combination for the first couple of days. Poly-vi-sol infant drops (without iron) is another great item for weakened chicks/poults (and for other problems, such as wry neck, curled toes, etc) and something that I always keep on hand.

If you’d rather forgo shipping, you can most likely find turkeys available locally. Chck out the farm and garden section of Craigslist or the bulletin board at your local feed store. Also, most poultry forums (such as, my personal favorite, BYC) have a section where birds can be listed for sale. 

Or, if you’d prefer, you can hatch out your own. Check out my tips on hatching shipped eggs (something I’ve done a lot of).

What about health concerns? 

For the most part, turkeys are fairly hardy, but there are some health problems that you do have to watch out for. 

Blackhead

Also known as Histomoniasis, Blackhead is caused by the micorscopic protozoan, Histomonas Meleagridis, and is particularly dangerous to turkeys and peafowl. Other birds, such as chickens, pheasants, geese, and ducks, due to a resistance to the disease can act as carriers and infect turkeys. Symptoms of the disease include gastric issues, weight loss, yellowish colored droppings, and darkened skin and wattles (hence the name Blackhead). Sick birds often appear dull and depressed and may stand by themselves with drooping trails and ruffled feathers. In instances of Blackhead outbreak in turkeys, the mortality rate can be as high as 80-100%. 

Contact your local farm extension service to find out if Blackhead is known to be a problem in your area. If it is, keeping turkeys separate from other types of birds is recommended. 

Coccidiosis 

Coccidiosis can be a major problem when raising turkeys. Because it is a soil-borne disease, some turkey owners don’t allow their birds to touch the ground until they’re 5-6 months old and even then, putting a fresh layer of sand down for them. Symptoms can include weight loss, lethargy, droopy, ruffled appearance, diarrhea, etc. 

Most starter food in the US is medicated and will help prevent coccidiosis to some degree. However, if you choose to feed unmedicated food or if you’d just like a little extra prevention, apple cider vinegar (the raw, unfiltered kind) added to the water at a rate of 1/2 tablespoon for every quart of water or 1 tablespoon for every gallon is a known preventative regularly used by many bird owners.

Starvation

It’s not uncommon for turkey poults to starve even with food constantly available. Always make sure that you actually see your poults eat. I sometimes place a couple of 1 to 2 week old chicks in the brooder with turkeys for the first week or two to teach them to eat. 

Aspergillosis

A respiratory disease caused by fungus that affects chickens and turkeys. Symptoms can include gasping, rapid breathing, weakness, lethargy, weight loss and loss of appetite, swollen eyelids, etc. The mortality rate is anywhere from 5 to 50%. Good management and proper sanitation is key to the prevention of Aspergillosis. 

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