Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys by Backyard Poultry contributor Don Schrider is the latest revision of a book on raising turkeys originally written by Extension poultry specialist Leonard S. Mercia. Although this new edition emphasizes market production, a lot of the information pertains as well to a small backyard flock — or rafter — as a gang of turkeys is rightfully called.
Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys starts out with an introduction to typical turkey behavior. Among many of the turkey’s interesting characteristics is that fact that: “Turkeys utilize their wedge-shaped bodies when traveling. On range, when a turkey encounters an obstacle such as dense weeds or brush, it uses its body shape to force its way through; its head leads the way, finding an opening, and then its body expands that opening as its legs drive it through. This instinctual behavior can cause problems for the turkey, such as when it encounters a fence — the head makes it through, but the rest of the bird cannot.”
From feeding and disease prevention to incubation and brooding, this book is a wealth of information for those interested in turkeys. Get your copy of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys today!
Not only that, but turkeys don’t seem to have a reverse, as I discovered years ago when one of my early turkeys wedged itself between my compost bin and the chain link fence. Instead of trying to back out, the turkey kept forging ahead until it got good and stuck. That experience taught me to always count my turkeys whenever I do chores, in case one has gotten itself into a predicament from which it needs to be rescued.
Even old pros say they got dozens of tips for their flocks by reading this guide.
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After a brief history of raising turkeys and their origins, the book discusses turkey selection from among one of the three types:
• Wild turkeys, which you would raise if your intended market is a high-end restaurant that serves game;
• Heritage turkeys or standard turkeys, which will yield a higher price per pound when raised on pasture;
• Commercial broad-breasted turkeys, if you want a truly large bird and are okay with keeping turkeys confined indoors.
In discussing heritage turkeys, Don subscribes to the notion that domestic turkeys don’t come in breeds, but are all varieties of a single breed. This convention was established by the American Poultry Association when it began standardizing turkeys in 1874, the idea being that all the various domestic turkeys “share a basic shape, or type; the differences are largely cosmetic in nature.”
Although those early standard turkeys were basically the same breed in different plumage colors, some of the later “varieties” differ markedly in both behavior and type. I maintain that the origins and populations of each “variety” should be carefully reviewed, and the concept of turkey varieties versus breeds needs to be rethought.
The next chapter discusses buildings and equipment for different management systems: porch rearing, range rearing, and confinement. Next comes a chapter on feeds and feeding, which I found somewhat confusing; and I have trouble endorsing the idea of formulating rations using poultry meal.
A welcome addition to this new edition is an expanded chapter on incubating turkey eggs. I especially agree with Don’s assertion that “Sometimes a turkey poult will pip and never hatch. I follow nature’s example in that I never help such out of the shell.” One of the many reasons he gives is that a high pip rate with a low hatch rate is a heritable defect; the more chicks or poults you help out of the shell at hatching time, the greater the problem will become in future generations. As Don says, “Do not help fix a genetic fault into your line of turkeys through a misapplication of kindness.”
Next comes a chapter on brooding. If you have a small rafter, Don recommends letting a hen turkey brood your poults for you. His experience is that turkey hens make good broodies and better-than-average mothers. I suppose that depends on where you acquire your turkeys in the first place. If they have been naturally hatched and brooded, they will likely make better mothers than turkeys purchased from a line with generations hatched in an incubator.
In my own experience, my Royal Palm turkeys were more persistent broodies than my Bourbon Reds, but persistence does not equate with reliability. Although the Bourbon Reds made better mothers, they sometimes left the nest before any eggs hatched out. The Royal Palms, on the other hand, were often disinclined to leave the nest at all. I’d typically find little yellow poults unhappily wandering around the broody’s pen while the oblivious mother remained mesmerized on the nest. Persevering in letting such hens brood, as frustrating as it may be, can eventually lead to a line whose future generations indeed make good broodies and better-than-average mothers.
If you’re raising turkeys for market, however, you’ll need more poults than your hens can handle, and that means incubating their eggs (or buying poults) and brooding them yourself. Don suggests that a brooder house of 10 by 12 feet is ideal and that for optimal results 150 poults seems to be the maximum number to brood together in one group.
This chapter ends with a discussion of brooding challenges and stress factors you should strive to avoid. Don is right-on when he says, “All in all, the first three weeks of a poult’s life are the most challenging.” As Don points out, this is especially so with poults acquired by mail order. The first poults I ever had came by mail and were intended as winter holiday dinners, but come Thanksgiving only one remained. She ended up as a barnyard pet. After all, who could eat a survivor?
The next time I ordered poults, half of them lived past the three-week stage and I ended up with two nice breeding flocks. Just as Don points out, I experience a lot fewer early deaths in the poults hatched on our farm compared to those acquired by mail.
The chapter on pastured production discusses pasturing pros and cons, management for good sanitation, rotational grazing, range shelters, fencing, and guardian dogs. That “Guardian dogs need little or no training,” is a philosophy I do not endorse, and indeed the next page includes this contradiction: “Guardian dogs… take some effort when they are young.” I was once given a guardian dog that supposedly was naturally trained by its mother to guard goats. This dog wouldn’t let our goats out of the barn and, worse, enjoyed killing poultry.
Completely new in this edition, and one of its best chapters, describes predators, their habits, clues to identifying the culprit, and appropriate preventive measures. I fully agree with Don that having predators on your farm or homestead is not necessarily a bad thing. If they are not bothering your livestock, they are best left alone, since “Some predators will, through protection of their territory, actually prevent other predators from coming onto your farm to hunt your livestock and poultry.”
The chapter on breeding includes details on genetic quality, breeder selection, and mating methods. This chapter focuses on natural mating of heritage breeds, in contrast to the older edition’s focus on artificial insemination of broad-breasted turkeys, which cannot mate naturally.
The obligatory chapter on killing and processing turkeys is well illustrated. “The Turkey Enterprise” chapter covers such things as production systems, marketing, and organic certification.
An all-important chapter on flock health discusses disease prevention and includes an alphabetic list of the more common turkey diseases with details on treatment and prevention, and a section on various methods for the humane euthanizing of terminally sick or injured birds.
Rounding out this book on raising turkeys is a collection of interviews with seven successful turkey producers. The final word comes from master turkey breeder Frank Reese, who raises turkeys because “I enjoy watching turkeys running, jumping, flying — just being turkeys.”