Getting Started With Turkeys

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We bought twelve, day-old turkeys back in May. They are five weeks old. We are raising them for meat. We have raised chickens for meat for several years, but not turkeys. So this is something new for us.

One turkey will go to our good neighbor who lets us use some of his land (at no charge) for our agrarian pursuits. We may barter one or two birds with friends who raise beef. We’ve done this, pound for pound, with our chickens in the past. We hope to have land to raise a beef or two someday. But we’re doing what we can with what little we have now.

I’ve heard that turkeys are harder to raise than chickens because they are more stupid. Being more stupid than a chicken is really stupid. Now, I’ll bet there are people out there who love chickens and will assert that chickens are actually very intelligent animals. Well, I happen to enjoy and appreciate chickens myself, but I maintain that they are still stupid. Or, to put it more nicely, how about this: they are “brain deficient.” It’s a proven fact that chickens don’t have a brain in their head.

As evidence of this fact, I present the famous Wyandotte rooster, Mike, of Fruita, Colorado.If you haven’t yet heard the story of Mike the headless chicken, prepare to be amazed.

Back in 1945, Mike’s owner, a farmer named Lloyd Olsen, decided to make a meal of Mike. He chopped his head off in the back yard. The bird didn’t die. It walked around like it still had a head. What would you do if you had a headless chicken strutting around your barnyard?

Yes, Mr. Olsen took the bird on tour. He charged people a quarter to see his famous chicken. He made a lot of money off that bird. Mike even made it into Life magazine. He lived for 18 months without his head before accidentally dying in a hotel room in Phoenix. You can learn more about Mike the headless chicken here.

Anyway, I can tell you that young turkeys have a different “personality” than young chickens. For one thing, they are more curious, and stupid. Did I mention that turkeys are stupid?

When we first got the 12 chicks, I put them in my Whizbang Garden Cart Turkey Brooder. That sufficed for a week before they started jumping over the edge of the cart.

The top edge of the cart is about 29” off the ground (or, in this instance, the floor of my shop). The turkey chicks were about 5” high at the time. So they were jumping over the edge and falling a distance six time their height. That’s the equivalent of you or me jumping off a three-story building. Of course, turkeys have wings and we don’t. But at a week old, their wings don’t work very well. They do not land very gracefully. The point is, it’s a stupid thing to do, especially more than once. Somehow, though, they survived.

After a week, I moved the ugly little darlings to a larger enclosure with taller sides inside my shop. We fed them turkey chick starter and made sure they had clean water at all times. In addition to that, we made a point, right from the start, of feeding them comfrey leaves. I was surprised that, at two days old, they eagerly took to the green leaves (I’ll admit, this was an indication of some intelligence on their part).

At first, we cut the leaves into little slivers with scissors. As the birds have grown, I’ve cut the leaves larger. Now that they are out in a chicken tractor, I take whole stalks of comfrey and start at the stalk end cutting chunks off with pruning shears. I switch to scissors when I get to the leafy top. I do this comfrey feeding twice a day and the turkeys swarm over the forage like feathered pigs, gobbling it all down.

And speaking of pigs, we adopted a pig-raising technique from Northern Farmer, Tom Scepaniak. In his Plain Talk interview with Rick Saenz. Tom tells how he introduces soil to newborn piglets in the barn. They can smell it, play with it, and even eat it.

With that thought in mind, I used a shovel to chop out a circle of sod, with long grass and weeds on the top, and I put it in the brooder with the turkeys. They were too yound and weak to peck and eat the greens but they had a lot of fun trying. Every day, I put in a fresh piece of sod and it was a big attraction to the little critters.

When the time came to put them out on “pasture” (otherwise known as our lawn, as seen in the beginning photo) the turkeys were no stranger to the greens and have become good grass eaters.

I’m not an expert on raising turkeys but I’m learning. And, so far, I’m doing pretty good at it. All twelve turkeys are healthy and growing. I really do think comfrey leaves and sod have contributed significantly to this success. It’s something to keep in mind the next time you get some turkey chicks.


P.S. If you have not yet read my other poultry-related essays, I invite you to do so. Here are the links...

Turkeys in Tractors & Comfrey For Feed

Backyard Poultry Processing With My 11-year-Old Son

My Whizbang Plucker Story

Frequently Asked Questions About The Whizbang Plucker

Introducing My Deluxe Homemade Chicken Scalder

Talkin’ Bout My Chicken Tractor

Talkin' Bout My Chicken Tractor (Part 2)

FREE Chicken Feed

The Next Best Thing To A Whizbang Chicken Plucker

My Chicken Plucker Parts Business

The Best Place to Buy Plucker Fingers


Anonymous said...

My husband wants to try turkeys but we have have been warned about how stupid they are.

Stories about drowning in the rain & that sort of thing.

Maybe next year.

Lynn Bartlett said...

Congratulations on raising turkeys! We started that last year by purchasing Bourbon Reds, and lost close to half of them before they were 6 weeks old. We have 5 left, after butchering a few during the winter. This spring one turkey disappeared, and my youngest found her with a brood of 17 poults! We thought we would leave them with her, since maybe she would have a better track record than we did. Unfortunately, within a week they all disappeared, and we never found out what happened to them. So, we are back to the original 5. We do enjoy eating their eggs, though.

Marci said...

Herrick, we actually enjoy the turkeys more than the chickens. The turkeys have more personality than the chickens for one thing. I love the way they sing while in the brooder. Also, once they are larger and out on the pasture, I can gobble gobble at them and they answer me. =) Also, the chicks run from you when you mess with them in the brooder. The turkeys actually run to us. We were told that you CAN NOT raise turkey poults without the medicated feed. We did it anyway and this is the 7th year we have raised them. We have a poultry feed made to our own recipe. We feed it to all the poultry on our farm from day one to either death or retirement (stew pot) for layers. We just do a few things different. We add some oyster shell to the layers feed and when the turkeys are brand new, we give them some raw milk and we pick grass and put it in from day one. They eat it up. Also, if chicks or poults do not do well, we give them some hard boiled egg. It works great. We raise the broad breasted white turkeys. We raise them for about 16 or 17 weeks.

Anonymous said...

I heard Joel Salatin say that turkeys spend 24/7 the first eight weeks looking for a way to die and almost bulletproof after that. I believe that 50% their diet is plants, unlike chickens which is less than 20%. The best part is more meat for the same amount of processing.

MrsBurns said...

If you ever have the chance to attend a conference where Joel Salatin does his impersonation of a turkey with it's head caught in an electric fence, please take advantage of the entertainment opportunity. Worth the price of admission. His point: they ARE stupid and will do the same stupid and dangerous things over and over and.....

Anonymous said...

herrick; so are your turkeys finished out? any observations from plucking turkeys in the standard whizbang?


Anonymous said...

Chickens and turkeys are DEFINITELY not the most intelligent farm animals (pigs and goats take that award), but heritage chickens and turkeys are worlds beyond the commercial birds. Try comparing a Bourbon Red turkey to a Broad Breasted White. It's like placing Marie Curie against Paris Hilton.

Unknown said...

hi, I just found your blog. We have a few turkeys, and agree they are stupid! We thought they would be similar to chickens, but they're not at all. We tried to free-range them and the gobblers couldn't even figure out how to get out of the cage! Anyway, I see this is an old post, so just wondered what happened next, any more turkey news? did you keep going with them? I can't see how to search your blog, so just asking the question instead :) by the way your chicken killing instructions are great, I've just referred to them in a post because I can't be bothered writing my own instructions when you've covered it so well. Cheers, Liz