By Don Schrider – There are many reasons raising turkey poults is rewarding — not the least of which is keeping turkeys to have a few pets. Turkeys are very social and inquisitive. They can make excellent additions to your backyard flock, and will reward your husbandry efforts with many funny antics. For those of you experienced with brooding day old chicks, the primary differences in brooding poults are: poults are slower to learn where to eat; poults are more apt to pileup in corners; poults are more easily frightened; poults are more easily chilled.
For the first week of raising turkey poults, you’ll notice they sleep for hours at a time. Sleep will be followed by short periods of time of brisk activity, and then more sleep. Happy, healthy poults will be active when awake and will tend to move a short distance away from you or your hand as it enters the brooder. Young toms are usually bolder and will be the first to stand their ground or to peck at some new object.
Poults that are lethargic usually are suffering from something such as too little to drink, too little to eat, a bacterial infection (in the case of a poult whose navel do not seal up completely prior to hatch), too little warmth, or a brooder disease like coccidiosis.
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When raising turkey poults, we need to have a building clean and ready for the poults with brooders up to temperature and running for a few days to ensure they are working properly. A brooder house of 10-feet by 12-feet is about ideal to use to brood turkey poults. Such a building will brood up to 150 poults from day-old until they reach 8 weeks of age. One-hundred and fifty poults seem to be the maximum number of any one group for which optimum results can be achieved.
There should be a brooder located more or less centrally in the house, and the corners should be rounded by use of boards or a brooder ring — this removes corners in which poults can become trapped by other poults.
Corners are the site of most brooder pileups. Use of a round barrier, shaped into a ring around the brooder, made of cardboard or wire, is important to keep the poults near the brooder, feed, and water for the first week. The brooder ring can be moved back gradually as the poults grow — each week the ring is enlarged so as to give the poults more room and they are encouraged to spend more time outside the brooder by moving the waters and feeders further out as well.
Brooder temperature should be 95 degrees Fahrenheit and the poults should have the ability to move away from the heat source to prevent overheating. The general rule of thumb is to reduce the temperature of the brooder by 5 degrees (F) per week, though many producers maintain one brooder temperature and simply give the poults more space away from the brooder. The heat source for the brooder is usually suspended, often 18 to 24 inches above the bedding material. Care must be taken to ensure the bedding is not over-heated as fire can result.
When brooder temperature is ideal for raising turkey poults, they will spread out with some under the brooder, some outside it. When too hot, the poults will tend to lay in a ring as far away from the brooder as possible. When the brooder temperature is too low, the poults will lay in a tight group under the brooder.
Feeders and Waterers
The brooder should contain more than one waterer and feeder, and these should be spread out evenly so that all poults will have equal access to food and water. Waterers should be placed on platforms of screen or slats nailed to a wooden frame to raise the waterer above the shavings. Waterers should have a narrow lip containing the water; this style of lip prevents the poults from becoming wet and then possibly dying from chilling. Open water containers should not be used as poults can drown in open water bowls and pans. Newspapers should be placed around the feeders to prevent the poults from eating shavings.
For the first few days of a poult’s life, we need to worry about dehydration, chilling, crop impaction, wet litter, and pile ups. These are the issues that most often lead to complications and death.
Dehydration is the #1 killer of poults in the first three days. The best prevention is to simply dip each poult’s bill in the water as you place them into the brooder area. In this way, a large number of the poults will learn to drink and then will teach most of the rest. Check the poults every few hours for the first three days. Any that seem sluggish should have their bills dipped in the water to be sure they are drinking.
Having a good brooder, set at the proper temperature will go a long way toward preventing chilling. Additionally, we should check the poults every few hours the first three days to ensure that they all spend time under the brooder; if you find a few resting away from it, move them under the brooder by hand.
Crop impaction is a result of eating the bedding, usually comprised of pine shavings, instead of the feed. To help prevent poults from mistaking shavings for feed, it is a good idea to place newspaper under the feeders for the first week. Some producers use boards or cardboard under the feeders for the first week or two. The idea is to prevent feed from spilling and mixing with the shavings so that the poults do not accidentally eat shavings.
The care of the bedding material is probably the single most overlooked aspect of good husbandry during the brooding phase of a poult’s life. Wet litter in a brooder is simply a “No-No.”
The brooder area is warm and the addition of moisture leads to the perfect conditions for the breeding of disease-causing organisms. Moisture and warmth also cause the bedding and accumulated droppings to release ammonia. Wet bedding can cause poults to chill from their breasts as they lay even while their backs are warmed by the heat source.
The simple act of stirring the litter helps the carbon of the bedding material trap gasses, like ammonia, and decreases moisture buildup. If more poultrymen stirred the brooder litter there would be fewer instances of brooder-related diseases.
Chicks can be used as teachers for poults. Chicks from a disease-free source, and which have not yet been exposed to soil, cannot infect your turkeys with a disease. But they can be used to help the curious young poults learn what is good to eat and where to drink. When it comes to raising turkey poults in multiples, you may add a poult that is two or three weeks older than your day olds to act as teacher poult. The day old poults will see such teachers as surrogate mothers and will tend to follow their lead.
Since poults do not learn to eat as readily as chicks, at first feed should be placed in many low, easy to access feed containers such as shoe box lids, egg cartons, paper plates, or even pie pans. Glass marbles are an excellent tool to use with young poults or chicks. These may be placed in the feeders, on top of the feed, or in the waterers. Their shiny appearance will attract the curious poults and cause the natural behavior of pecking, and thus eating and drinking. The marbles should be removed by the time the poults are about 4 or 5 weeks old. To disinfect the marbles between batches of poults they may be placed inside an onion bag and then into a dishwasher.
Poults need a great deal of light too. Keep a 100-watt bulb above the brooder for the first week to help the poults find food and water. Light stimulates the thymus gland, causing hormone production, contributing to both good health and proper growth in young birds. Light can be an aid in preventing pileups.
Pileups are the result of the poults’ natural instinct to huddle together to stay warm or seek security. Pileups occur during brooding when the poults are too cold, when the brooder is too hot and poults cannot get as far away from the heat as they would like, and when they are frightened by strange people, dogs, predators, loud noises or brightly colored clothing. Use boards or cardboard to “round out” corners in the brooder/brooder house as a part of pile-up prevention. Rounding out the corners gives fewer locations where a turkey poult can become trapped. Light is helpful as a preventive as poults tend to pile up more frequently in the dark.
Poults should be encouraged to roost at an early age. From the first week on, most producers will provide access to a low roost so that poults can fly up to explore and to satisfy their natural instinct to roost. A roost also has the benefit of reducing the feeling of crowding by reducing the number of birds actually on the floor at any given time.
Plan to allow a minimum of 4 inches of roosting space for each poult. Important is to keep the roost low, maybe six inches from the floor, to start and as the poults’ grow their wing feathers, raise the roost to a foot or more.
When raising turkey poults, you’ll find they will become strong and large quickly by the end of the first three weeks. Be prepared to change to large, harder to knock over feeders and waters. Anticipate this need and their increasing quantities of food and water.
By three weeks juvenile flight feathers will have fully emerged. At this time you will know that you have passed one of the major points in a young turkey’s life. The next period of concern when raising turkey poults is when they reach eight weeks and are first introduced to pasture. To give the young poults more space and more fresh air, many producers used to use sun porches in conjunction with their brooder house.
Poults should have their first, full set of feathers before letting out onto the sun porch — they should be roughly 4 weeks old or older. A sun porch for turkeys is an outdoor area enclosed with wire on the sides and roofing, and with a wire floor to raise the turkeys off the ground. Use a sun porch at least the same size as the house at this time and encourage the poults to use it.
After eight weeks, poults may be fed a ration lower in protein. Grains can be fed along with the same higher protein mash, but in different hoppers so as to prevent billing out mash to get to the grain. Oats and corn are excellent grains for turkeys. Oats, in particular, are excellent and help turkeys grow strong bones, thus prevent bone deformities, as well as prevent feather picking.
Raising Turkey Poults on Pasture
Since turkeys take some time to develop their immune system, we strive to keep them off the ground for the first eight weeks. The best way to being raising turkey poults to pasture is to fence an area adjoining the building the poults are in and open a door to give them access. In this way, the poults still have the security of their brooder house and the warmth of the brooder available as needed. On day two, place half of their waterers and feeders outside to help encourage them to explore. On day three or four, place a movable outdoor roost into this fenced area. By day five, most of the poults should be spending considerable time outside; move the remaining feeders and waterers outside and from this point on, move some of them a little further out each day. By day five you will begin to see poults roosting at night outside — this is perfectly all right unless unusually cold and wet weather arrives. If the roost has a roof, and the poults have hardened off, then it is ideal to let them decide when to live outdoors instead of in. Usually, within a week or so, all the poults will be sleeping outside. At this point close the door and slowly begin your pasture rotation.
All in all, the first three weeks of raising turkey poults is the most challenging. Empty and refill the waterers at least once per day, preferably twice.
Stir the litter in the brooder at least once per day. Each time you visit, add a handful of litter to areas that receive heavy fouling, such as under the heat source. Success with turkeys is dependent upon mastering good brooder husbandry. Observation is the key element to good husbandry. Go and watch your turkeys, often, and spend time with them. Learn their natural behaviors. Identify odd behavior — such as a lone turkey standing by itself, possibly in a corner. If you can raise your turkeys past the brooder stage up to the period of moving them to pasture, then you have passed most of biggest challenges to raising turkeys.
The old-timers used to say, “Well hatched is half raised.” To this I would add the comment, “Properly brooded is well raised.” Good luck raising turkey poults! Whether you are raising turkeys for meat or for pets, there are many wonderful turkey breeds.
Originally published in Backyard Poultry June / July 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.