Let's start with general housing of your turkeys for the average enthusiast. We keep our growing turkeys in our fenced in orchard with a hen house as their home. Honestly though, they prefer roosting on the roof of this house instead of inside on the roosting poles. How you house your birds will depend on your location.
There are two main purposes for a house and that is to protect them from predators and to protect them from the elements. Unless we are in the middle of a hurricane, we really don't need protection from the weather unless it is for shade and we use trees for that but we have the house just in case. We leave ours open for them to come and go as they please but if you have predators roaming around at night you will most likely have to close them in from dusk to dawn.
If you don't have a moveable form of housing, you'll need to make sure you can get inside to clean out the buildup of droppings. You'll need to have round poles that run horizontally inside for them to sleep on (roost as it's called) so the amount of pole space will depend on how many birds you have. Remember, as they grow, they will need more space. You will also need ventilation. Ammonia can build up from the droppings and hurt their lungs. If you live in a cold area, you want to protect them from the wind and snow but you still need some form of ventilation to allow for the escape of moisture and ammonia.
As you can see from this photo, we house our turkeys with chickens without problem but that is normally not recommended. If you live in an area with earth worms, chickens can pass along a turkey disease called Black Head which is deadly to turkeys. The turkeys contract it when they eat the earth worms which are carriers. We have lost turkeys in the past to black head but not with this breed and we've had them for many years. That's not to say they are immune to it, I'm just saying we have not had a problem and have not taken any steps to prevent it.
Selecting a Breeder
Fresh hatched birds are hard to evaluate and if you paid retail for them, you certainly donít want to cull them before raising them to eat anyway. But for breeders, you need to start thinking about what you want to keep from day one. If you find an obvious flaw at any time, mark that bird somehow so you will not let it enter the breeding pool. Many people use colored leg bands and those work great once they are older but for the very young, try a black marker on the back. Donít use red nail polish or you will send them into a frenzy of cannibalism! Once the marked birds begin to feather out, you can separate them or leg-band them as culls.
You want only the most healthy and vigorous to carry on their genes so mark any bird that seems to be sickly or barely hanging on. After health, cull for things like crossed beaks, crooked legs, or out of proportion birds. As they grow, you will start to see subtle differences. The males will obviously grow faster and be bigger but you are not trying to grow the biggest bird you can. That has already been done. Midget Whites are supposed to be a small bird that dresses out to look like a miniature broad breasted turkey. Our Toms dress out at 13 pounds and the hens a few pounds less. What you do want though is a plump bird of good proportion.
It helps if you have several together when you start judging so you can distinguish the small differences. I like to view the bird starting from the back of the head and glance all the way down the back. A wide head and wide back will generally translate to a wide and plump body all the way around. It would be great if you could ďundressĒ the bird before judging it but you canít so pick them up. Feel up under the feathers and check out the breast bone. You want it to be long and straight with wide, plump, and well rounded muscles. After all, the breast is what makes a beautiful roasted turkey on the serving platter.
I purchased my original flock through the mail. The least amount I could purchase was 15 and the price seemed expensive at the time but I considered it an investment. Once the poults were near grown, I sold several pairs for $100 each which more than paid for my birds, and it got others into raising them that might not otherwise have done so.
I kept only 6 hens and two toms but had to separate the toms due to fighting. From this small flock I was able hatch well over a hundred each year. Actually I lost count since I sold some and lost some to predators along the way but ended up filling the freezer, selling several, and gifting many to dear friends and neighbors to enjoy for the holidays. I could have raised more as these birds just keep laying but I had all I needed. They do go ďbroodyĒ but I remove their nest box until they are ready to go back to work and it seems to help.
You donít have to hatch your own since you can buy them but turkeys are expensive. At over $10 a piece right now, there is just no way I would buy the amount we need so hatching was the perfect solution for us. I figured an incubator would soon pay for itself since my small flock gave me close to 20 eggs a week. I invested in a large cabinet size incubator but you can buy smaller table top units for much less. I use my incubator for all types of birds so it has more than paid for itself the first year.
When I started raising Midget Whites, I wanted to do it perfect since these were endangered and I felt their survival was important. I studied everything I could get my hands on pertaining to turkeys. What I read sounded very difficult and time consuming and I almost got discouraged and thought of giving up. But I bought them anyway and tried to do as much by the book as possible. I soon discovered that for me to do everything the way the experts recommended, I would have to stay home and watch turkeys and eggs all day. Well, that just wasnít feasible so I did what I often do, I adjusted. I figured out what had to be done and what I could let slide. My hatching and finishing rate may be slightly less than if I had done it as directed but not by much. For me, it was a trade off and as a result, I spend very little time tending turkeys yet get amazing results. If you are like me and have a job, a family, a farm, church, and volunteer responsibilities, you can adjust and still do a great job with your turkeys. Donít let the experts make you think this is out of your reach because it is not. So, if anything I say in this article contradicts something you have read elsewhere, that is because I am explaining my method, not theirs!
In order to have fertile eggs, you must have both a tom and a hen. One tom can service several hens. If you have more than one tom together with your hens, they are going to fight. If you have several toms, they are going to fight the tom who is trying to breed and you may get very few fertile eggs. It's best to have one tom with his hen or hens. If you want several different toms for diversity, you may want to keep them in different pens.
The actual breeding starts as the days become longer. Our toms strut almost constantly. This is the dance of spring. They fan their tail feathers and pop them to make a sound while they drag their wings in a most comical way. The hens will begin to "squat" early in the season which means they are ready to accept the toms. While she is squatting on the ground, the tom will step up onto her back and begin the dance. Eventually she will raise her tail feathers while he lowers his and the copulation will take place. This takes some practice with a young tom but he'll eventually get it. Soon, she will begin laying fertile eggs.
I have provided them nests to lay but some use it while others just drop an egg where they happen to be at the moment. In a perfect world, I would gather the eggs several times a day but I work off farm so I gather them in the evening. I do not wash them but if they are soiled really badly I will wipe them off with a dry paper towel. The reason you do not want to wash eggs meant for hatching is because they have a natural film of protection on the egg shell that if removed, could allow bacteria to enter the egg. I place the eggs in a carton and store in a cool area of the kitchen until Saturday.
I have plastic trays that are made for my incubator and they hold the eggs in the proper position, point side down. I use a separate tray each week to hold the eggs laid during that week. Fertile eggs will last longer than a week before incubating but the hatching rate begins to decline with each passing day after the seventh day. It takes turkeys 4 weeks to hatch (incubation time) so every Saturday I set the eggs laid during that week while I remove the birds hatched the night before from eggs set exactly 4 Saturdays earlier. My incubator has 4 shelves, (3 of which rotate/turn) so it helps me to keep track of them. I place the new eggs on shelf one while I move the previous weekís eggs down one shelf to shelf two, and so on. By the end of the third week, they have made their way down to the hatching drawer where they will no longer be turned.
Eggs must be turned the first 3 weeks of incubation. Actually it is recommended you turn them up until 3 days before hatching but that would not work for me and my system. I find they do just fine not being turned 7 days before hatching. If your incubator does not do so, you will need to roll them by hand. This keeps the bird from sticking to the inside of the shell. In nature the hen does the turning for you. By the last week, the bird has filled the egg and is getting in the proper position to hatch so moving them now can actually cause difficulty while hatching. Most experts recommend you do not incubate eggs in multiple stages of development, such as my once a week additions, but I do and have had no problems. They also recommend you clean the incubator after each hatch which is impossible with my system because it is never empty. I clean it once a year and have not had a disease outbreak yet.
You will need to monitor the temperature and humidity in the incubator but each one is a little different so follow the manufacturerís instructions. We like the cabinet incubator because it has a five gallon bucket water reservoir on top to keep the humidity pan filled and it has an automatic egg turner and of course it keeps the temperature set to the proper level, 99.5. I go days without even checking it since it is pretty much self-contained. My dad was very frugal but he taught me to buy the best and youíll only have to buy once. I believe I would not be raising turkeys now had I not purchased a good incubator that saves me time and trouble. Money well spent in my opinion. If you canít afford it at first, get an incubator piggy bank and every time you sell a turkey or some eggs, put the money in the bank. Soon, youíll have the money to get a top of the line model.
Most books will tell you to ďcandleĒ the eggs and I enjoy doing that but have long since stopped candling on a regular basis. My hatch rate is so high that I donít worry about dead or rotten eggs spoiling the lot. The purpose of candling (shinning a light through the shell) is to see if the embryo is alive inside the shell and to see if the fluid is drying up at the suggested rate for each stage of incubation. If not, you will need to adjust your humidity. Until you get things worked out and feel comfortable with hatching, you may want to watch it more closely. Again, a good incubator is going to take care of the humidity for you (around 50% until hatching and then up it to 65%) as long as you monitor it and add water when needed. Candling is fun to do though and very educational for children. I think part of the attraction of raising poultry for me is the magic of taking an egg and watching it come alive and turn into a beautiful peeping bird.
If you havenít guessed by now, I am a big fan of incubators. But, you can hatch birds the way it has been done since time began by letting the hen do it. Midget Whites do go broody but I have never allowed them to hatch their eggs so I have no personal knowledge about that. I do know others claim they are very good mothers. If you only want a few birds each year, this may be your best bet. You will probably need to protect the sitting hen with a temporary screen around her to keep other hens from laying in her nest. Hens can fight over them and break the eggs. You will need to provide her with her own water and food since she will not want to leave the nest.
My eggs begin to hatch Friday night and finish Saturday morning. I raise the humidity slightly by plugging some of the ventilation holes on the incubator or you can add a sponge to the water pan. I don't like to leave the humidity up more than a day though due to my having eggs of all ages in the incubator at the same time. It is tempting to open the incubator when you hear the little peeps coming from it but don't. If you open it while they are hatching, the humidity will drop suddenly and drastically and can cause them to dry out inside the egg and get stuck. We always find that some start hatching but seem to need help. This is where I start my culling process. If it is not strong enough to get out of the egg, I don't want them in the breeding pool. Their siblings break free from the shell strong and eager. Those are the birds I want to raise!
Turkeys can actually live 3 days after hatching without food or water because they still have part of the egg yolk inside their abdomen to provide nourishment. If you order turkeys through the mail, they may actually be three days old by the time you receive them. I usually let them remain in the incubator until Saturday afternoon, at which time they will be moved to a ďbrooderĒ. Your turkeys (either hatched or purchased as hatchlings) will need a brooder to keep them warm until they feather out. You can use all sorts of things to do this as long as it is safe and convenient. If you only have a few turkeys you can use a box in the garage with a hanging lamp but be sure it is not a fire hazard. With a little work you can make a box out of scrap lumber and place a rod over the top to hang a heat lamp or purchase a heater made for brooders. We find that a heat bulb works just fine and doesnít cost that much.
Since we hatch and raise many each year, we made a large brooder box out of treated lumber for the frame and light fiberglass panels for the inside. It is easy to clean, light, and very sturdy. We leave the bottom open to the ground but made a lid to close and keep out predators. You must have ventilation so we finished a portion of the upper walls with chicken wire to let air in but it is high enough not to become drafty for the birds. If you live where it gets really cold, you can adjust this ventilation with plastic ďcurtainsĒ on cold nights and remove it on sunny days.
You will need a way to adjust the heat lamp. We have a thin metal rod that runs across the top of the brooder and that is what we use to support the heat lamps. We adjust the height as needed by using a wire to attach the light fixture to the rod. I always want to make sure the birds have a way to escape the heat lamp if they get too hot but I also want to be sure I have enough heat source so all the birds can bask in its glow without piling up on each other. Watch your birds. A warm happy bird is ether sleeping spread out or walking around pecking at the feed quietly. If they are piling up on each other, making a lot of noise, they are cold and the birds on bottom will be crushed and die. If they are too cool, lower the light or add another light. If there are no birds under the light and they are in the far corner with their mouths open, they are about to have a heat stroke. You should raise the light or turn one of them off. If your box is big enough, I always like to have two lights in case one bulb blows while I am away. I will place one lower than the other so as the temperature changes during the day, the birds can self adjust by moving from one light to the other. Like I said, I am away from home all day and canít check on them until evening so I want them to be able to take care of themselves.
The bottom of your brooder box is important. You want it to be open bottom so moisture can seep down to the dirt but you will need to provide some sort of bedding. Use what you have available but some things work better than others. They will eat anything very small so saw dust doesnít work well. We prefer to use mulch. We have tried hay/straw and it will do but it tends to stay too wet. Donít spend a lot of money on this, look around and see what is cheap in your area and try it. As it gets soiled, simply add a new layer on top. This becomes great compost and the compost decomposing in layers actually seems to be beneficial for the birds. It creates a probiotic environment in addition to breeding bugs and worms, which they love. Over the season the bottom will slowly rise up (assuming you hatch new ones all summer) so make sure your box is deep enough to hold the constant building of layers of bedding but not so deep you cannot reach the birds. Once the season is over, clean out your box and use the compost on your garden.
Once we moved to Texas we did encounter a problem that necessitated we find a new solution to our home made brooder. One Saturday I had just filled it with a new batch of poults and got them all warm and settled in but a few hours later I heard them all chirping something terrible. I opened the lid to see what was the problem and was horrified to discover that little black fire ants were all over them and had killed several in no time. I tried every solution imaginable but to no avail. There was simply no way to keep the ants at bay and if I were to continue breeding and raising turkeys (or chickens for that matter) I would have to invest in an electric battery brooder which I did. We now successfully keep them save from the ants.
Now that you have them safe and warm, it is time to feed and water them. Adult turkeys can see extremely well but baby turkeys are nearly blind and will have trouble finding their food and water. They do see color and they love anything with ďblingĒ. They always try to peck at my wedding ring when I reach inside the brooder. Use this to your advantage. I place bright sparkly marbles in their water and feed as an attractant. Depending on how many birds you have, you can use a jar with the little plastic screw on water lid or buy a poultry waterer at the farm store. Just make sure they will have enough water to last the day if you can only check on them once a day. For feeders, I like to use the chick feeders where they can stick their head in but canít get their feet in. Again, put lots of colorful marbles so they will peck at the colors. They will accidently taste some feed and soon figure out how to eat. By the time they are a week old, the marbles will not be needed.
Tiny turkey poults need a very high protein diet. Depending on where you live, you may or may not be able to find turkey feed. If you canít, wild game bird feed should do since it is high protein. If all you can get is chick starter then get the highest percent protein or add protein to their diet. If you are like me, the one thing we have plenty of is eggs so I like to boil eggs daily and cut them up small to supplement the feed while they are in the brooder. Do not use medicated feed. I would make my own feed before I fed them medicated chick starter. If they do not have non-medicated at the feed store, ask them for it. If enough people request it, they will begin to carry it.
Water is important as well. If it is cold, do not add cold water for day old turkeys. It will chill them so add room temp or slightly warm water. In a few days it will not matter (or in warm weather) but I try to keep it warm on Saturday and Sunday. As an added boost of protection, sometimes I add ground red pepper to the water. Just a few sprinkles will give them extra vitamins and the pick-up they need in addition to making the water red, which is an attractant to them. They have no ability to taste the heat from the pepper so donít worry about it burning their mouth.
If you use my system of hatching weekly all spring and summer, your brooder will have birds of all ages. I do not find this a problem since the young birds tend to learn how to eat and drink from those that are a week or so old. As soon as they begin to feather out and for sure by a month old, remove the birds from the brooder to their new home on pasture. Crowded conditions in a brooder can lead to cannibalism or pecking each other. It can be out of boredom, cramped space, lack of protein, or simply they see something that attracts their eye. If your brooder is big enough, and you give them boiled eggs or high protein feed, and have the colorful marbles, I donít think you will have this problem. But, if they ever pick one and he starts to bleed, the others will keep on until they kill him and learn a bad habit in the process. Remove any that have an injury or have blood on them. Sometime I put them in a box to themselves in the bathroom until they are well enough to go back in the brooder (doesnít every farm house have animals in the bathroom). If all else fails and this is still a problem, get the fingernail clippers and clip off the very end of the top beak. You will see a little hook like thing but donít take off too much. If it bleeds you clipped too far. You only want to get the beak tissue which is like your fingernail. It will grow back soon but hopefully they are out on pasture by then and not picking at each other.
It is normal to lose some but if you are losing over 10% then you might want to look for the problem. Usually the biggest cause of loss at this age is from the birds getting chilled and piling up on each other. If they have plenty of room, proper temperature, food and water, you should be successful.
At a young age, the turkeys are very vulnerable to all sorts of predators. Only you know what is lurking on your farm (or maybe some you donít know about). We like to get them out on grass as soon as possible though so we have used moveable pens to protect them from predators and the elements. There is any number of ways to do this. If you are handy, you can design and build your own. Simply build a wooden or PVC frame and cover it with wire. As long as it is light enough for you to move, it will work. Or, you may want to buy some that are on the market but those seem too expensive to me for what you get.
You could also try the electric netting. If you donít have an electrical source, you can use the solar powered chargers. We tried the netting with limited results. It worked great at preventing attacks by dogs, raccoons, possums, cats, rats, and coyotes but the owls and hawks thought it was their personal buffet. I could hear an owlís nightly kill outside my bedroom window and got to where I woke up automatically about 4 in the morning to see his shadow carry away at least one bird a night. So, the only true predator tight solution I have found is the moveable pen.
Your birds will grow fast though and soon they will outgrow the moveable pen. But, by then they should be better prepared to protect themselves. The great thing about heritage turkeys is they can fly so they can escape once they get their flying feathers. The bad thing about heritage turkeys is they can fly! That means you really are not going to keep them in a fence if they want out. So, if you live on a small plot of land and donít want your turkeys bothering your neighbors, youíll have to clip their wings or you will have to keep them in the moveable pens until you eat them. But, if you live on a few acres, turn them loose and let them find a good portion of their own food. They will likely roost in trees if you have them and they will forage in forest or fence rows as well as cover a pasture looking for grass, seeds, and bugs.
You still need to feed them though so pick a place you want them to come home to and keep their water and feed there. I donít like to keep feed out for them all day once they are big enough to put on pasture but I do want to get them used to coming home for ďsupperĒ every evening. This will make it easier if you need to catch some and it keeps them from going so far from home. Donít be surprised if their favorite place to roost is on your roof top if you have them close enough to the house to find it. I think there are many reasons and maybe the best is because it makes them feel safe. Iím not sure it hurts anything but the husband hates it so I try to discourage such behavior.
We find that the Midge Whites love people and want to stay wherever the people are. Ours often hang out in our back yard and look in the patio door. When I go outside, they all follow my every step. I have heard it said and I am witness to the fact that turkeys are one of the most stupid animals on earth. Every night, ours fly up into the oak trees to roost but once they hit the ground again in morning, they forget they can fly. If they happen to land on the wrong side of the fence, they walk up and down the fence row all day long looking for a way to get through the fence instead of flying over. Eventually, as they become more mature they seem to figure this out but by that time, they are freezer bound. We solved this problem by fencing in the orchard and using the turkeys to keep the grass and bugs eaten down. We cut their wings and so far it has worked fine.
Just remember they tend to stay where they are raised so if you raise them in the back yard, it is going to be hard to move them out to the back 40 once they are big enough to fly. They are going to want to come home to your back yard. So, place the moveable pen wherever you want to finish them and they will more than likely stay there for the duration. Where you raise them will depend on how much land you have and what you prefer but I personally enjoy being around the birds so I keep them close to the house so to keep an eye on them.
Itís hard to say what percent of their feed they find for themselves but I know when we process them, their craw (stomach) is full of grass, berries, bugs and even food scraps. This ability to graze and harvest nature is what makes them so great to have. It makes the meat healthier, improves the texture and certainly improves the taste. But, unless you have planted a grain field for them to harvest, you will still need to feed them a pellet poultry feed daily until processing for best results.