Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
This is a guest post and entry in Round 1 of the Farm Dreams writing contest. The prizes for this round include: First Prize: A $300 gift certificate toward any purch
This is a guest post and entry in Round 1 of the Farm Dreams writing contest. The prizes for this round include:
First Prize: A $300 gift certificate toward any purchase of Featherman Poultry Processing Equipment, including pluckers, knives and more!
Second Prize: A 164' roll of electric poultry netting from Kencovevalued at $140!
Third Prize: A large heirloom pack of assorted seeds from Baker Creek (northern or southern region) plus a copy of Jere and Emilee Gettle's recently published book The Heirloom Life Gardener.Valued at $125!
Fourth Prize: A $55 gift certificate good toward any purchase at Lehman's!
Round 1 ends began January 15 and ends March 15 so GET BUSY WRITING and email your entry to us today!
Let's face it, if you're drawn to homesteading then you're interested in growing your own grub. We all need sustenance every day but it's the holidays and seasonal events we look forward to and remember the most. In America, there's one day of the year that symbolizes food and the harvest more than any other, and that day, of course, is Thanksgiving.
Quick...word association: I say Thanksgiving and and most people say?
So it's only natural that in addition to producing your own eggs, greens, pumpkins and potatoes that you'd like to raise your own turkey year after year. The most sustainable way to do that is to keep your own flock and hatch out the baby poults each April that will keep you company until Thanksgiving.
Of course, if you want to breed turkeys then the only breeds you will be able to keep on your farm are of the heritage variety. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defines a heritage turkey as:
The most commonly raised turkey in America is the Broad Breasted White. Like the Cornish X meat chicken, the Broad Breasted White is an industrial breed, definitely not a heritage breed. Due to years of genetic selection for the largest birds with a very meaty breast area, these pairs can no longer mate naturally and must be artificially inseminated. That's right...something as natural as mating is now, thanks to humans, impossible for these birds.
If you're like us, you probably believe that It is important to preserve multiple breeds of turkeys. Small farms have the ability to market and sell heritage turkeys, thereby keeping these breeds alive, literally and figuratively.
You can begin with a heritage breed such as Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Standard Bronze, White Holland, Blue Slate, etc. By hatching your own, or better yet allowing your turkeys to nest and hatch their own, you'll become more self-sufficient and completely independent from hatcheries. If you have ever attempted to order poults from a hatchery then you know how expensive and unpredictable it is to get poults from them, many of which won't survive anyway. It is not uncommon to expect your poults to arrive one week only to find out the hatchery has had a delay. If you want to be in charge of your own schedule and ensure that you get poults each year, then you will have to do it yourself. If you want to lessen the dependency on outside producers and reduce your carbon footprint of flying or trucking in poults, then hatching your own will get you there. Also, keeping a breeding flock is the best way to get strong healthy turkey poults each year. You will have the ability to build up resistance to common diseases in your area and will be able to select for birds that thrive in your specific environment and way of raising poultry. Finally, hatching your own, depending on the size of your breeding flock, allows you to become a micro sustainable hatchery in your area. You'll have no problem selling your poults in mid-size or larger markets via Craigslist, etc.
Of course when choosing your original birds you will have to start with stock from someone else. Raising poults from day-old through to the fall is the best way to begin. Purchase more poults than you will need so that you have a large pool to choose from at the end of the year. At the end of one season you will be able to choose which birds to keep for breeding the next spring based on qualities that work well on your particular farm. This will be different for everyone depending on the desires they have for their turkey enterprise. Defining your ideal bird ahead of time will give you a goal to work towards.
Don’t expect to get where you want to be for a few years as your flock should continually improve over many generations. Keeping turkeys on your farm through adulthood will allow you to see which are the heartiest birds. It’s one thing to see who grows the largest by fall, but it’s another to watch the flock through the winter to observe who is able to stay strong and illness-free despite the cold wet weather and lack of forage. This is how a flock will improve over multiple generations. Another item you will want to watch for is who the fertile birds are come spring. The hens that lay the most eggs may not necessarily be your largest birds, and if you are in the turkey game for raising meat birds, then this might not be ideal. Also, your most fertile tom might actually turn out to also be the most aggressive bird in the flock, which could turn ugly quickly. When you are selecting which birds to become your breeders you must keep the total picture in mind. Problems can arise when you have tunnel vision and select for one trait only.
Here are some factors to consider:
Once they have reached maturity and begin breeding, then there are additional factors to consider:
For a hen:
For a tom:
When the first fall comes around you will want to select your first breeding stock. The ratio to keep is 1 tom for every 5 hens. You can expect the hens to lay an egg every other day during the egg laying season, so you can back into the amount of breeders you need based on how many poults you want to hatch in a given time. Be sure to account for loss in your estimation. You will shoot for an 80% hatch rate, but it may take a year or so of experienced incubating to get there. The fertility of your flock will improve over time as well as you select for this trait. Here is an example to figure out how many breeders to keep:
Say you want to collect eggs to incubate from March 1 – 31. You plan on storing eggs for a week and adding a new set of eggs to the incubator once a week and having a weekly hatch. In this time period you hope to hatch out about 200 poults. Figure how many poults will hatch each week (200 divided by 4 = 50 poults per week). If you expect that only 80% of your eggs will hatch successfully, then you will need to add around 62 eggs to the incubator each week in order to get 50 to hatch. (62 times .8 = 49.6). If you want to collect at least 62 eggs per week, then you will need about 9 eggs per day. (62 divided by 7 = 8.9) If a hen will lay an egg every other day, then you will need at least 18 hens in your breeding flock. To keep the 1:5 ratio, then you will need to have at least 4 toms in your breeding flock. Keeping an extra tom or two is a good idea just to make sure you have replacements if needed.
Heritage turkeys are well adapted to the outdoor elements. Upon maturity, they will develop a layer of fat under their skin which will insulate them for the winter. As with any animal, they will need the ability to stay dry, have shade in the summer, and be protected from the wind and so a shelter is ideal. Turkeys will also roost quite high and so you will need to provide them an area to get off the ground during sleep. We have raised our heritage turkeys quite naturally and they have done very well, but we are in a climate with a mild winter (zone 7). We provide our turkeys with some type of shelter, which has been as simple as an out of season chicken tractor (a livestock panel bended into an arc with a wooden frame to hold it in place covered by a tarp) and some strong trees for them to roost in. We have also been more elaborate with a covered hoophouse and custom build roost bars. They do well in either situation.
Turkeys like to range especially during mating season, which usually begins around September. Also, they can fly! They always come back to their roost spot, but if you want to keep them more contained, you will need flight netting or fencing. Electric fencing doesn’t work well because their feathers insulate them from the shock. Woven wire or portable feathernet fencing will work fine, but you will need to clip their wing feathers so that they don’t fly over. Clipping flight feathers is much like giving a haircut. You want to trim the long flight feathers on one wing so that they can still flutter up about 4 feet to roost, but will be off balance and therefore cannot fly for any distance. You can tell the flight feathers by watching a tom strut. When he puffs up and holds his wings down his flight feathers will drag on the ground. Alternately, you can hold a turkey and stretch out it’s wing. The longest feathers are the flight feathers. With a strong pair of scissors, you will need to cut these feathers down so that they are shorter than the other wing. These feathers will grow back in time and you may need to do this two times a year. Just check out the above tutorial by Tim at Nature's Harmony Farm on how to clip flight feathers. Once the turkeys are about a year old they don’t fly much because they will be too heavy and due to the feather clipping they forget they can fly!
If you are growing young turkeys, then you will want to give them higher protein food, such as game bird feed at 30% protein. We keep poults on this high protein only for the first 6 weeks or so and then they go on standard broiler feed, which is about 20%. Once they are targeted for breeders though, there is no advantage to putting on weight and a heavy bird may actually not be able to mate, so switch them to a lower protien ration such as regular layer feed at 15% protein. The layer feed will also have supplemental calcium to help the hens lay strong shelled eggs. If your turkeys are not free-ranging where they can find pebbles, then you will need to provide them with grit such as crushed oyster shell. Also, be sure that your turkeys always have access to fresh, clean water. Your breeding flock will spend most of the year just being maintained. They will range around and you will provide them with food and water each day. If you allow them to free range as we always have and live in the south, the turkeys and chickens will make sure you don't have much of a problem with fire ants or army worms, which can devastate pastures.
Really, turkeys don’t require much other care. For their comfort, we make portable roosting and shade structures out of gates, just like the one in the picture to the right. Once breeding season rolls around, however, you will want to catch up your flock and pen them up so that you can ensure the correct ratio of hens to toms or to keep breeds pure if you are raising more than one type of turkey. We drive a livestock trailer into the pasture, leave the door open, and move their feeder onto the trailer for a few days and find that this does the trick. Soon the turkeys will be used to going on the trailer for feed and one morning you just shut the door! Then you can easily move them to their breeding area.
We have found that repurposing chicken tractors as temporary turkey pens has worked fine. The picture below is of our turkeys and chicken tractors from the Little Seed Farm blog. We separate 5 hens and 1 tom in each tractor and secure a Rubbermaid bin filled with straw to the side. The hens use this as a nest box so that we can collect the eggs every day. Having just 5 hens in a tractor also helps us to figure out who our best layers are. In zone 7, the turkeys will usually begin laying by mid-March. The chicken tractor allows you to keep your turkeys on pasture throughout the year and easily move them to fresh ground each day. We usually keep them in these pens from about the last week of February to the first week in April. The hens will continue to lay for many months, but if the purpose of the poults are to be grown for Thanksgiving, then hatching later than this will not allow them enough time to grow. If you don’t care about meeting the Thanksgiving market, then continue to collect and hatch eggs, otherwise, let the turkeys back out to range, but move their nest boxes with them and then you can enjoy eating fresh turkey eggs for most of the summer!
When you are collecting eggs for incubation you want to make sure to have the freshest eggs possible. Collect them every day to make sure they are not out in the weather. Extreme cold or heat will stop the egg from being viable, so when you collect them, store them in a place where the temperature is between 40-60 degrees and stand them in an egg carton. If the eggs are exposed to temperatures below 32 then they will not hatch. Also, if they are exposed to temperatures above 70, then the incubation process will begin. We find it easiest to collect and store the eggs for a week, although they will hold longer than this. The older the eggs, the less successful of a hatch rate, but you could keep them for a month and still incubate them if stored correctly. After a week we have a large amount of eggs to add to the incubator. Adding all of those eggs at once means that the incubation period will start all at the same time and all of those eggs will hatch 28 days later. This way you have a bunch of poults hatching on the same day and it makes it easier to brood same age poults together.
We have found that adding the next week’s hatch to the same brood stall works fine, but nothing after that. Once the poults are 2-3 weeks old, we have found that adding day-old poults in the same brooder can lead to crushing as the little ones get stuck on the bottom of the huddle at night. When you are hatching multiple sets of eggs the incubator must stay organized to make sure you don’t miss any eggs. When we collect the eggs we use a black marker to write the date of collection on the eggs. Then we keep a calendar on top of the incubator and write in the day that we add a set of eggs. For example, March 10th would say, “added 35 eggs 3/3-3/9” and then we count out 25 days and write, “move eggs 3/3-3/9 to hatch tray.” There are different types of incubators out there, but basically you want to keep the temperature at 99.5 degrees and the humidity at 60%.
You will also need to make sure the eggs turn multiple times a day. An incubator with an auto turner will do this for you every two hours. On the 25th day, you must stop turning the eggs and increase the humidity to 65%. The reminder on the calendar ensures that we don’t miss this chore. Whatever type of incubator you have, you’ll want to lay the eggs flat in preparation for hatching. First put a paper towel on the bottom and then lay the eggs in a single layer on top of the towel. When the turkeys emerge they will need room to move around and need a surface where they won’t slip. If you don’t have something like a paper towel to give them traction, then they could end up with a condition called splay legs where their legs spread out and they can’t stand. Never help a turkey out of the shell. If you have increased your humidity correctly then the poults should not get stuck to the shell. If you notice that one is however, you can fill a spray bottle full of warm water and spritz them lightly to help get them unstuck. Pulling the shell off or pulling the poult out can lead to excessive bleeding from torn skin or umbilical cord. Also, leave the poults in the incubator until they are dry. Once dry you can move them to the brooding area.
Hopefully your newly hatched poults will grow up big and fast. Once they have matured, you will want to go through the selection process again to find replacement breeders. Your aim with replacements is to always move closer to the original goal you had of the ideal bird for your environment. Once you have a turkey marked for breeding, then you can use large metal numbered leg bands to keep track of them. It’s a good idea to catch the turkeys up once or twice a year to check these leg bands to make sure none have come loose or fallen off. At this time you can also add them to the breeder flock where they are on lower protein food for maintenance. Whenever adding new members to a flock, always do it at night when the birds are sleeping and be sure to watch closely the next more to make sure there is not fighting. Of course, adding new genetics to your flock will mean that some genetics must go. We have found that processing older turkeys is not much harder than the young ones. Old heritage turkey breeders can weigh upwards of 40 lbs. and have a thick layer of fat. We have cooked them just like the younger birds and find them fantastic at any age!
It’s a noble and important goal to keep various breeds of turkeys thriving. Together we will ensure genetic diversity and help to preserve the many beautiful varieties of this species. You will also ensure that you are never without a supply of heritage turkey poults and you will see your flock develop into the ideal bird for your particular farm through the generations.
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