Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Raising Heritage Turkeys

I'll admit, we were pretty clueless when we first decided to raise heritage turkeys, but it didn't stop us from taking the plunge! We chose the Bourbon Red breed as it is supposed to be a beautiful, hardy breed with good-tasting meat and some old instinctual traits still left. Having a heritage breed was important to us as well for breed preservation. Plus, our neighbor farm down the road raises them and was willing to sell us some of their baby Bourbon Red turkey poults!

Hatched in April, our four poults did pretty well considering many have trouble surviving, but we still lost one around 8-10 weeks old. He/she was completely fine and out of nowhere one morning was found lying dead on the floor of the pen. We aren't sure what happened.

young poult a few weeks old

We raised the turkeys from day-old poults in a brooder box (actually a clear plastic bin) with food, water and a heat lamp. We made sure to put shiny objects or marbles in the water and put their food on top of aluminum foil so that they are tempted to peck at them and figure out that it is food and water for nourishment. We changed and freshened the food/water every day. Eventually once they had grown we moved them to a larger brooder box full of pine shavings with holes in the top and sides for ventilation. They weren't too happy not being able to see completely out of the sides of the box at all.

turkey poults, around 6 weeks old

Probably around 6 weeks or so, or whenever they had fully feathered out, we moved them outside to their permanent pen with a heat lamp stationed overtop of the roosting structure that we turned on at night for warmth. They love being outside! We built a higher up roost and carved out a makeshift "window" with chicken wire screen in front of the roost so they could have a place to sit and see outside of their pen into the rest of the yard. They now roost on this bar every night, even in the rain. I think they like their lower roosts during the day since they are covered and in the shade.

We waited quite a while until they were bigger to let them outside their pen for free-ranging time, which also inevitably meant mingling with the chickens. They were probably around 11 or 12 weeks old. Oh my, how they have LOVED free-ranging! Firstly, they LOVE eating greens (but not as much as human treats) and they are super curious about their surroundings although are a bit hesitant to wander off too far. Sometimes they chase the chickens around, who are either afraid of the turkeys or annoyed by them. At first some of the hens (chickens) as well as the young cockerels were challenging and pecking on the turkeys, but now if they start to get into a dominance battle, the turkeys usually all gang up on the chicken perpetrator and run him/her off. They seem to work together as a team.

I will say, though, we foresee problems with bullying by the turkeys as one hen sometimes gets singled out by all three of the turkeys. We had to put who we think is the tom turkey in "time-out" the other day because he was incessantly biting the top of one of the hen's combs and wouldn't stop.

We have taken some preventative precautions for Blackhead disease since we allow our turkeys to mingle with our chickens. Mostly this consists of mixing cayenne pepper into their food and water but we have also given them a medication a couple of times to discourage anything that might be developing in their systems.

I was not expecting the turkeys at all to be like they are in reality with their funny personalities and attachment to us. They follow us around all the time, want to be right up next to us constantly, crowd us whenever we try to pay attention to the chickens, are extremely chatty and expressive of their excitement, and will hop up in our laps if we are sitting down outside. They are super inquisitive and investigative about each and every new thing, sound, or sight in their surrounding environment. Often they will tug at my dress, peck at my painted toenails, and try to steal whatever item I am carrying in my hand that halfway resembles food or plants. Although their constant attention can get annoying, I guess they can be quite endearing :)

On the other hand, they are not nearly as smart as the chickens (but much more friendly). They can't figure out to go back to their own pen for food and water once they are let out, and other times do pretty dumb things. The other day I was feeding the birds leftover fruit and one got a hold of a cherry which got stuck in the turkey's airway on the way down. My husband had to do a quick turkey rescue and propel the cherry out of the neck area to restore breathing. It was that turkey's lucky day :)

But someday, we know we will have to process at least one or two of them for meat that we don't keep for breeding, and that will be very, very hard. If they are big enough by October, we may process one then, or else wait until December. The other option would be to keep these turkeys for breeding and then process their young (once grown) for meat. It will be tough either way, but we want to have that experience of raising our own meat, giving it a good life, and being thankful of the nourishment it provides us.

Sharing with:


  1. I think this is actually a very pretty breed of turkey! I wouldn't mind having a few around here. It's interesting to hear how they get along with chickens. Sounds like you have to keep and eye on them or they may gang up on the chickens if you aren't looking!

  2. I too have chickens and I am thinking of adding turkeys next spring. I have heard that starting turkeys with chickens as chicks, the turkeys bond to the chickens. The chickens "teach" the turkeys how to feed and drink. I have heard this in several places. I believe Joel Salatin (Great guy worth checking out) does this. Anyway, very nice page. All God's blessings, Jim