By Christina Allen – Of the few people keeping flocks of heritage turkeys, most seem to either just buy a few poults to raise for harvesting in the fall or are larger scale breeders. There is scant information on breeding and keeping turkeys on a homestead or small heritage turkey farm.
I am working to keep critically endangered Jersey Buff turkeys and keep a small naturally breeding flock. At first I modeled their facilities similarly to my day-ranging heritage farm for chickens. But after reading Temple Grandin’s book Understanding Animal Behavior, I closely watched them and started to change their housing and rearing areas to suit their likes and dislikes. It is quite obvious. If you build it right, they will take to it enthusiastically. Many people say turkeys are stupid. But it’s clear to me that we are the dull-witted ones who haven’t spent much time on a heritage turkey farm. We try to make animals conform to our ways instead of seeing what they are trying to “tell” us. Turkeys have quite an extensive vocabulary. Each sound means different things. But they can’t speak words, so it’s our duty to observe them and see what they want and provide it. In turn, I get sociable happy birds that are great moms and with high survivability of them and their offspring. But I’m not following the conventional agribusiness model. I’m approaching it more artistically, naturally, and environmentally.
What I’ve Learned from My Small Heritage Turkey Farm
- Turkeys like circles, not squares.
- Roosts need to be the same level so evening roosting time is more peaceful.
- Heritage turkeys are good parents and will co-parent any baby poult (often two hens on one nest). Even the toms often will protect the poults and keep them warm.
- They are ground nesting birds and prefer deep grasses (cut or fresh) and the constant temperature of the ground.
- The first three weeks of a poult life are the most difficult. They start as small as a baby chick and need more nurturing during their first three weeks. After that their survivability jumps remarkably.
- They are curious birds and need regular new stimuli (or “toys”) to keep them actively engaged and not bored. “Sticking your neck out” takes on a whole new meaning with turkeys. However, they can get into trouble easily if dangers or hazards are within reach.
- There is no sense in letting hens hatch naturally if it’s too early in the season, if it is too cold or inclimate weather. Eat the early eggs. They will keep laying until they are successful and often hatch out two times in one season.
- The hens need some privacy for nesting but still like to see out a bit. Make nest box opening just hen-sized so toms won’t disturb the hen or the eggs. I use sliding doors.
- Having a nursery for the young poults allows them a place to learn how to eat bugs, foods, fruit, and grasses; learn how to fly well; and will bond with their mom(s). If they are held in confinement, or retarded in some way, at certain stages of growth, they will never learn some of these skills well.
- Turkeys are extremely sociable birds and benefit from early handling.
- Marble (or shiny things) in their food or water attracts young poults to learn to eat and drink quickly.
- Leg injuries usually can be readily corrected when young and observed quickly. They respond to gentle physical therapy often with 100% recovery.
- Heritage turkeys are great to day-range in orchards for total spray-free organic fruit orchards. They have a “sweet beak” and love fallen fruit, insects around the fruit trees, and the long grasses at the base of the trees (so little trimming is required, as if you trimmed with scissors around each tree!) They also fertilize the orchard in the process. Finally we have successful organic fruit production with this integrated system.
- Turkeys are easy to herd. I heard of some famous turkey trots that so inspired me. A simple bamboo pole held horizontally is enough to gently move the flock anywhere.
- Work with the birds at their speed; don’t work too fast.
- Herd the turkeys into openings that funnel them into small enclosures for easy catching and handling any time of day.
- These birds require lower protein (and much less of it) if they have a varied natural diet from pasture. The feed costs will be much less than conventional turkeys.
- Diatomaceous earth: use it in their dust baths – they love it!
- Electric poultry netting fencing around the orchard works well for their day-ranging. They can fly well; usually it is because they are chasing off hawks or other threats…sometimes though it is just for joy in the evening or morning dances. They will walk around the perimeter until you let them back in. They are easy to herd back in an opening. Full grown toms don’t usually fly out. Repeated escapees can have one wing clipped; it will have to be redone as the feathers grow back.
- They don’t mind snow, sleet, and rain. But with a hard, driving rain or cold, extreme wind, the birds will need some place to shelter.
- Toms will fight when mature and you may need to choose who will be your breeding toms before it gets too violent. Fortunately, this is also the best tasting turkey of all! And there are many people now who seek out heritage turkeys. This breed dresses out beautifully with its light colored feathers.
- It is also sociable and gentle for visitors. Many of my birds can be petted and touched by strangers. They are always the biggest hit (except maybe in tough competition with baby lambs.)
- They are a bit of work on our heritage turkey farm , but I enjoy them more than I ever possibly could have imagined. One needs a sense of humor with turkeys. They are an elegant bird, well worth saving from extinction.
Housing on Our Heritage Turkey Farm
Some of the facilities I have made for our turkeys include a “hobbit house dust bath,” “the Blue Roost,” the “Pentagon Nursery,” a 6″ PVC pipe feeder with covered top (for keeping mice out at night), and a bamboo woven wattle wind barrier fence. I’ve also made bentwood trellises for day-time perching and recycled a large rabbit cage for a temporary holding house for up to six birds.
The Blue Roost has a sloping north roof that comes right to the ground and protects them from the north wind and rain. It is open (with hardware cloth) on the south, east and west sides, so they feel outside, which they prefer. There are two doors: one person sized, the other turkey sized. There are plenty of horizontal perches. It is about 10′ x 20′.The new Pentagon Nursery from Stromberg’s starplates allow poults to seek warmth from any nesting hen. All hens raise the young together for better flock bonding and survivability. There are sliding doors, on the inside and outside, for each of the five nest boxes. Once a hen goes broody, the outside door can be closed and any early hatching poult can explore the central (and safe) nursery. Starplates are steel plates, with channels to hold 2×2’s, 2×3’s or 2×4’s. You drill holes in the struts and bolt them into the starplates to build a solid, mini-dome framework.
Christina Allen has been a professional artist for nearly 30 years. She lives in Southern Maryland, homesteading, with her husband, her flock of rare Jersey Buff turkeys, heritage chickens, and sheep. They enjoy sustainable gardening by raising most of their own food. Christina finds much inspiration for her artwork in this way of life and with the beautiful Chesapeake Bay around the area. She is also an avid handweaver, spinner and knitter.
Originally published in Backyard Poultry June / July 2009 and regularly vetted for accuracy.