Thursday, August 2, 2012

Raising Heritage Turkeys - much easier than we thought!

Two of Valhalla's turkey poults at three days old
(a Narragansett on the left and a Midget White on
the right). Even at this young age they were fearless,
extremely friendly, and endlessly curious.
I admit we were intimidated by the idea of having turkeys. We had read articles and books about turkeys, spoke to others who had raised them, and were therefore very worried about their fragility, proclivity for disease, apparent willingness to keel over dead for the slightest reason, and overall stupidity. After all, when you read that "turkey poults need to be immediately hand-fed both food and water the moment you receive them or else they won't learn what to do by themselves," it can be kinda scary.

One difficult thing about raising birds or any other animals is the fear that we'll be inadequate stewards and lose them through unwitting neglect.

But we took stock: Valhalla had already successfully raised newly hatched Guinea fowl, Ancona ducks, and Freedom Ranger chicks, plus also successfully cared for month-old Khaki Campbell ducks. We were committed to Heritage breeds and turkeys were listed high on
our wish list for poultry. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (an excellent organization of which we are members) lists 13 varieties of turkeys that range from "Critical" to "Study." An alarming 7 varieties are listed as either Critical or Threatened.

Consequently we thought that we were duty-bound to make the effort, though we had been forewarned about the perils of attempting to raise them. We selected two varieties: Midget Whites (critical status) because they are smaller than conventional turkeys, very friendly, and good foragers; and Narragansetts (threatened) who have similar personality characteristics but are larger and historically important as descendants of original turkeys brought from Europe and the American wild turkey. We ordered from Stromberg's in Minnesota and were impressed with the quality of poults that were delivered healthy and exactly when they were supposed to arrive.

By the way, most responsible hatcheries require a minimum order so that the little birds can stay warm enough by sharing body heat during shipping. Minimum for turkeys is 16 and we were allowed to split the order with 8 Midget Whites and 8 Narragansetts. As noted, most of the two-day old poults were squirming to get out of the box when they arrived.

The water trough brooder worked well for chicken
chicks, but the tiny turkey poults outgrew it in just
over a week! Their legs grew so fast that they looked
like tiny fluff-balls on stilts, regularly crashing into the
overhead screens while leaping around trying to fly.
Being cautious we dipped their beaks in water and then in food right away before gently placing them in the brooder that had been prepared beforehand using a large galvanized water trough. Usually before we could reach for the next poult, the previous one was already dashing between waterer and feeder - quite unaware that they were supposed to be too stupid to find them on their own.

Only one was distressed on arrival. The tiny Narragansett seemed to have been shoved into a corner by the others during shipping and appeared dead or dying. Refusing to give up on him, we dipped his beak into the water as we had the others, and after the third or fourth effort he suddenly drank and very suddenly popped his eyes open. Then we continued to hold him, dip the beak repeatedly and as he grew stronger, dipped it into the food where he began to nibble. Back to the water; back to the food. Within just a few minutes he was strong enough to walk and take nourishment by himself. He still seems to be a bit vision impaired to this day, but keeps up with the flock while they range and is otherwise quite healthy.

We checked them frequently, changed their water, added food, put in fresh litter, always constantly waiting for them to start dying off. But, they didn't die as per what the literature warned about. They didn't even die at all. By day three, when they were flying all over the brooder whenever we lifted the cover, Chris noted, "I don't think these guys are as sensitive as people say."

Every bird got handled at least twice daily. We'd reach in, pick up a chirping poult, and gently pet and talk to it until it calmed down, then release it back to the flock. We noticed that the Narragansetts became accustomed to handling faster than the Midget Whites, but neither variety seemed terribly upset by the procedure. Unlike other birds we raised, these guys look you in the eye when you hold them as if you ask, "So, who are you and what's going on here?"

One thing that caught us by surprise is how fast these turkeys grow.

We were able to keep Guinea fowl and chickens in the small brooder for a few weeks with no problems, but by the end of week two the turkeys were jumping, flying, and banging off the overhead fly screen. Time for a quick fix!

We were worried - remember all those turkey horror stories? - because we had read that turkeys have almost zero immune system for 12 weeks and couldn't be safely exposed to outside sources of potential disease. And we were a long way from that time. Heck, we had just started. Worse, the literature constantly repeated the dire need to tightly control brooder temperatures at all times, and that's exactly when the heat wave hit here at Valhalla with the mercury soaring over 110F for days at a time: too hot for people, and way too hot for tiny turkeys in a metal brooder outside!

The new brooder in the living room, where the turkey
poults could be more easily monitored within a
temperature-controlled environment during an
extreme heat wave.
So Chris quickly designed a brooder for the air conditioned living room. This one was going to be a cage on waist-high feet 10 feet long, 3 feet deep, and 2 feet high. Plenty of room for the 16 frisky poults to run around, hop on things, and even fly a bit. We left a gap in the top so we could hang warming lights and put two hinged access doors on the front to ease changing water, feeding, adding bedding, and handling. They were moved without serious incident.

The poults investigating a new toy for the first time.
Within minutes they were ringing the bell and having
contests to see how many times they could peck a
tiny yellow bead at the top of the string of spheres.
We added some "toys" for them to play with - a plastic cup, a few blocks of wood, and some dangling things with mirrors and bells (the kind commonly sold for pet canaries) and they seemed to enjoy themselves enormously. An interesting point for all young birds: they get bored easily and are prone to pick at each other. Toys and distractions keep them occupied and keep little beaks from pecking their brothers and sisters. They clearly loved watching us go about our business during the day, but above all, the poults were absolutely obsessed with learning to fly.

In fact, they had such a good time flying the length of the brooder and trampoline-ing off the fly screen at the end that they caused a minor incident. One afternoon we heard them all loudly chirping and carrying on for some unknown reason; Chris raced into the living room to see what the problem was while I strolled in at a more reasonable pace behind her. We were stunned to watch them dart out of the hole they had knocked in the fly screen and hop to the floor.

KK the cat with the turkeys he almost ate just weeks
ago. They grew, KK. They're still growing, too.
And they're still not afraid of you.
However, we were not nearly as stunned as the three Valhalla cats who were slack-jawed watching it rain birds, practically on top of them. The poults were completely at ease, showing that in this case ignorance was indeed bliss. They had no idea that both Vixen and KK regularly capture and eat much bigger wild birds without hesitation, while Joker has clumsily mangled more than a few himself.

Before any of our mesmerized feline Valhallans could snap to their senses and do the natural cat thing, Chris began scooping up arm loads of cats while I shuttled poults back into the brooder. Time to upgrade to hardware cloth, which we were able to do without further incident.

All that was nine weeks ago. As soon as we were able we transferred them outside into their own predator-safe house with a small fenced area to run in. With a warm (hot) spring and early summer it was quick. After they got big enough to fly out we put a net over the yard to keep them in. Finally, we took a look and decided that they were ready to free range with the rest of the birds.

One of Valhalla's nine week old Midget White turkeys giving a
lecture on the evolution of animal husbandry practices from
biblical times to the present (translations currently unavailable).
That was another "problem" that turned into a non-issue. Everything we read (exception: Joel Salatin's books) issued dire warnings not only against raising turkeys with chickens and other poultry but even having the two breeds on the same farm. Good grief.

Wait a minute, we thought. These are heritage birds. Early farmers were generalists by necessity, not specialists by choice. They had a few of everything all of which ran together. Maybe in over-crowded confinement conditions all these warnings and excessive medications are necessary, but these birds need to join their fellows running around the open fields that surround the house all day long.

We opened the door and never turned back.

All birds on the property are trained to instantly
come when called with a green bowl. Whenever any
of the turkeys, ducks, or chickens begin drifting into
the forests - where the foxes, coyotes, and other
predators live - simply picking up the green bowl
will cause a joyous stampede back to safety.
True, we lock them up at night as a safeguard from local predators (we have plenty ranging from hawks and owls to raccoons, possum, fox, coyote, bobcat, and even a panther that was heard and spotted nearby). Everybody but the Guineas get locked up; they opted for the trees all on their own and so they hide there at night. During the day the yard becomes a poultry free-for-all. Guineas chase the chickens, who chase the ducks, who chase the Guineas. Go figure. Meanwhile the turkeys simply roam around and seem to enjoy the show. One consequence of the frequent handling is that they have no fear of humans and follow us around like puppies. Kneel down to fix something and in moments you've got 16 sets of dark blue eyes intently supervising. Sit in a lawn chair and they hop up to roost on an arm or sit in a lap expecting to be petted.

One of the young Narragansett Toms
strutting his stuff on the railing of the front deck.
Meanwhile they roam the area with heads down consuming forage and insects along with the chickens, ducks, and Guineas. Last year the ticks were so bad that we picked them off every time we went outside, sometimes (no exaggeration) by the hundreds. This year, despite a dry, hot summer that encourages proliferation, ticks and other insects are hard to find close to the house.

One requirement that the ALBC has established is that Heritage breeds need to be able to reproduce naturally, something that commercial turkeys are incapable of doing. So even though a few of these birds are destined for the dinner table we intend to keep the hens and one or two toms from each variety with the hope of expanding the flock. By becoming breeders, even on a very small scale, for these rare Heritage varieties we will be able to contribute to the overall numbers and quality of the livestock gene pool. It's part of the Valhalla mission.

Our takeaway point is please don't be scared off of trying Heritage breeds of turkeys by what you might read or when you hear about situations that are much different from your own. These are savvy, tough birds fully capable of getting around on their own and making a living foraging, with the added bonus of being exceptionally good natured and friendly.

For Valhalla at least they have been by far the easiest birds we've raised and some of the most enjoyable.
Photo on the left: Gordon with a chatty Narragansett who had been underfoot in the garden. Instead of pecking or scratching, the young turkeys relax while letting their legs dangle when being carried. They still need to be occasionally carried various distances because if a turkey is ever physically injured in an accident or in a predator attack, staying relaxed while being picked up and carried to safety could mean the difference between life and death. 

* * *
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Just getting a project like Valhalla up and running has required a significant investment in time, money, and labor. With roughly $500,000 already invested over the last two years into the Valhalla Project for property acquisition, feeding and housing Soldier participants, infrastructure and facility improvements, animal purchases and feed, tools and building supplies, forest and pasture management expenses, and much much more, resources are running thin. We need YOUR help to keep Valhalla functioning efficiently - while at the same time expanding vitally important programs to assist post-9/11 combat Soldiers and war zone civilian workers to transition back into the civilian world. 

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  1. hi, can you tell me how long a turkey needs to mature before being processed? thank you

  2. Congratulations on your success with the turkeys! Hopefully they are still doing well!

  3. I wonder why heritage turkeys are declining in numbers when it is consumed seasonal during thanksgiving.