Lessons learned from my first season of turkey-raising

 

Most of the blogs I read are homesteading or microfarming sites and for the past month have all had scant posts mainly consisting of “Haaaalp, there are not enough hours in the day!”  Which I can relate to.  I simply cannot get it all done between dawn and dark, no matter how hard I work. On the bright side, my chronic insomnia is at an all time low due to overwhelming exhaustion by the time I collapse into bed.

 

It’s just been one problem after another. Something ate all the blueberries; gotta net the plants.  Something is eating all the blackberries, gotta make a tree-limb-n-twine-lashing fence around them. Something died out in the woods and the dogs keep dragging home greasy bones, a pelvis here, a femur there; gotta find whatever it is and bury it.  Why are the huckleberries dying?  Not enough nitrogen says the internet; time to pee in a bucket, mix in a gallon of pond water, and use it to fertilize them (studies reliably show that human urine, which contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, is an excellent replacement for chemical fertilizers, and provided you aren’t sick, it’s pretty much sterile, though you might not want to use it when the plant is actively giving fruit that you are harvesting).

And on and on.  So much work, so little yield yet.  Do you realize those wild-eyed preppers are right, we’ll all die if the electric grid goes down because none of us knows how to produce our own food successfully?  I never really believed it until this summer when I’ve worked so damn hard just to keep everything from out-and-out dying, let alone yielding anything edible.

 

But let’s talk about those turkeys.

 

We started out at the end of April with two adorable Broad-Breasted Whites and two Broad-Breasted Bronzes.  We thought we’d process them at five months, right around the beginning of October, but they just grew so incredibly fast.  Earlier this month one of the bronzes went lame…

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so we took it to Munsell’s Poultry Processing; he dressed out at just shy of 15 pounds and into the freezer he went.  Bronzes have dark spots on their flesh and don’t look as lovely when roasted whole…

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Note the dark spots on his flesh

…so I was really looking forward to seeing how the Whites turned out.

 

Several days ago I loaded up the three remaining mondo-ginormous turkeys and hauled them to Munsell’s…

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…but when I went to pick them up, the girl told me that the USDA inspector had condemned two of my birds after they were opened up due to septicemia.  One white was deemed acceptable:

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I was so shocked I could hardly speak. I keep a very clean coop if I do say so myself, frequently cleaning feeders and waterers with disinfectant and letting the birds out to free range all day.  How could my birds not be healthy?  They’d looked and acted just fine.

 

The ladies who slaughtered them came out to chat with me and said it just happens sometimes. One of them told me she raises turkeys herself and sometimes the inspector condemns them.  They told me they process around 500 head of fowl per day and on average the inspector condemns about 20 birds.

 

Still, I fretted about it all evening and tried to find information online about how to prevent this from happening again, but I could not find much information aimed at the small-time backyard turkey producer. What I found was publications generated by the poultry industry, which I started to read with interest.  Last year, around 1% of turkeys were condemned after slaughter, which is significantly better than my 50% condemned rate, though it’s not really comparable since I had only four birds. But guess who has much higher rates of condemned birds?  Antibiotic-free producers!   Ahhh, that makes a lot of sense…my birds had septicemia, which is usually caused by E.Coli infection, and guess what we never, ever give any of our poultry?  Antibiotics.

 

So I’ve learned some things for next time.  To summarize:

 

  • Broad-Breasted turkeys, which are the industry standard, are specifically bred for extremely rapid growth with an excellent feed-to-meat conversion ratio.  This rapid growth stresses the birds, however, which means…

 

  • They are prone to infection.  If they are given antibiotics regularly, losses will be lessened, but…

 

  • If you are committed to raising them antibiotic-free, expect to lose significantly more birds, either due to mortality or due to being condemned at the time of slaughter.  Make sure to buy twice as many poults as you want finished turkeys.

 

So next year, maybe we’ll try a slower-growing heritage breed of turkey.  They take longer to reach a decent dressing-out weight and the feed conversion is a lot less efficient (which I don’t care about, since we only raise a few birds and we free-range them for part of their feed). We are leaning toward raising either Midget Whites, which are reported to taste very good and be easy to raise…

…or Bourbon Reds, which dress out rather larger:

In case you are planning to raise turkeys, here are the sources of information I found helpful regarding septicemia (be aware that these publications are produced by the poultry industry and have a pro-antibiotic slant to them):

Specialists explore new options for managing flock health while defending judicious antibiotic use

Antibiotic-free poultry production: Is it sustainable?

Even though we only ended up with two out of the four turkeys in the freezer, it was a good learning experience for our first attempt.  I’ll leave you with a few other tips I learned:

  1. Turkeys are friendly toward humans but somewhat aggressive toward each other and other varieties of birds.  Use Blue Kote to deal with pecking injuries. Given them half a head of cabbage suspended on a rope in the brooder so they have something to peck at while they’re little so they don’t get in the habit of pecking one another.
  2. Turkeys and chickens cannot be raised together due to the risk of the turkeys contracting Histomonas meleagridis from the chickens, which causes Blackhead disease.
  3. You MUST feed the turkeys separately if you are raising them in the same area as other poultry such as ducks and geese.  Turkeys are total pigs and will eat all their own food and then go eat the other birds’ food.  The Broad-Breasteds (BBs) will overeat if given free access to all the feed they want; we allowed ours to overeat and gain weight too quickly.  Here is a feeding chart (assuming free ranging in between feeding times):

4.Turkeys are excellent free-rangers and want to be out and about all day from an early age.  Plan for this.

5. It can be hard to find feed for turkeys. You need to start them out on 26-28% protein; we found a game bird feed that worked for this.  You can lower the protein to 20-24% later and then finish them out on 16% to get a nice layer of fat on them before slaughter.  Withhold food for at least 15 hours before slaughter so that the crop and intestines will be mostly empty.

6. They need a much larger coop than you think if you are raising BBs.  Our coop quickly grew too crowded.

7. Unbelievably, they seem to like to get in water.  Maybe ours were just imitating the ducks and geese, but they would actually get in the pond to cool off on hot days.  One saw my husband on the other side of the pond and swam all the way across to him! I wish we’d gotten a picture of that absurd sight.  Anyway, if you don’t have a pond, your jakes and jennies (but NOT poults) might appreciate access to a kiddie pool full of fresh water when it’s hot out.