What started as a seasonal endeavor to raise turkeys for meat, became so much more. It was a pleasure to cater to our seasonal visitors; in spring, summer, and early fall, the air was full of their trills and peeps. Watching their antics brought much laughter; but it only lasted four or five months. Come winter it was empty pens. No more turkey chatter. Stray feathers caught in the grass were mementos they left behind.
Then one year, a miracle (to me) happened. We are now blessed with the gift of year-round funny, feathered residents. A handful of turkeys can now call our land their home.
My guy, Larry, was raising meat turkeys (Broad-Breasted Whites) when I met him. Being an animal lover—birds in particular—I was fascinated. I had seen wild turkeys all over New England but had never seen a live domestic turkey. He taught me how to care for them. They were quirky, curious, and easy to like.
The following year, I was excited when he ordered more. We partnered in raising turkeys that year, up to and including processing and butchering. In November, the freezer was full of yummy turkey.
After processing that batch, I was grateful for the meat (and the experience) but I missed the little critters. What could I do though? They were meant for meat. That’s when I learned about heritage turkeys. Through me, my guy learned about them as well. Probably got sick of learning about them, as it’s hard for me to hide my enthusiasm when it comes to animals.
The next year, we ordered Broad Breasted Whites again. It was a repeat of the previous year. Except, that year I took over the turkey raising almost 100%. Again, I felt a sense of loss when they were processed. Larry admitted to missing them as well, but he did not miss the prospect of feeding and housing additional animals through winter.
When it was time to order turkeys the following year, I was less enthused. I understood and supported growing our own poultry, but it felt as if the balance between life and death was skewed on our property. I wanted more life. I wanted to see the cycle of life continue past raising an animal for four months. I wanted more year-round residents, instead of summer visitors. Yet when it came time to order, my partner had different wants.
Or so I thought.
On that spring morning, we drove to pick up the Broad-Breasted turkeys (that year we got Bronze). When the clerk at the feed store read the list of items Larry had ordered, six Bourbon Reds were on the list. I laughed, and said something like, “I wish.” I told her there was a mistake. Then she showed me the invoice. He had, in fact, ordered my dream heritage turkey. Six of them. When the clerk placed them in the cardboard carrier, I tried hard not to get teary-eyed but failed. I once again marveled at my partners’ ability to keep a secret from me.
We left the shop with 26 Broad-Breasted Bronze poults (10 would go to a friend), and 6 Bourbon Reds. Cradling the heritage turkey poult box on my lap, it felt like I was bringing home a newborn baby. I was beyond thrilled, but a little scared as well. I had never raised heritage turkeys. What if I messed it up? What did I know about raising heritage turkeys? Back then: nothing. That all changed.
For those beginners out there that want to learn the basics of raising heritage turkeys from poults, I will do my best to pass on my initial experience with Bourbon Reds (and a surprise, different heritage-breed flock we didn’t plan on). Our goal for heritage turkeys was/is to eliminate the need to purchase genetically modified turkeys. Our goal was/is for our breeding stock to mate, lay eggs, hatch said eggs, and raise the poults for at least the first two weeks. Our goal was/is (when Mother Nature allows) to produce our own meat birds, on our own property.
We live in New England, and heat, feed, bedding, and housing choices are based on our preference, cost, and availability. I’m sure others use different foods and methods, but this is what I did with my first batch of heritage turkey poults. Use what works for you.
Everyone has a different method when it comes to animal husbandry. I make every attempt to keep costs low, but after raising birds for a while now (with some mishaps with housing in particular), I do not skimp. I believe that providing the best products, clean housing, ample food, fresh water daily, safe night-housing, and daytime supervision grows and keeps animals healthy in a safe environment.
“A heritage turkey is one of a variety of strains of domestic turkey which retains historic characteristics that are no longer present in the majority of turkeys raised for consumption since the mid-20th century. Heritage turkeys can be differentiated from other domestic turkeys in that they are biologically capable of being raised in a manner that more closely matches the natural behavior and life cycle of wild turkeys. Heritage turkeys have a relatively long lifespan and a much slower growth rate than turkeys bred for industrial agriculture, and unlike industrially-bred turkeys, can reproduce without artificial insemination.” — Wikipedia
Two Days to Two Weeks
Since I was caring for our turkey poults, and my friends’ 10, I separated the babies into two stock tanks. My friends’ 10 Broad-Breasted Bronze in one. Our 16 Broad-Breasted Bronze and the 6 Bourbon Reds in the other. All of them received the same food, housing, and care. For simplification, the meat turkeys will be referred to as the BBB’s.
Housing: Like all our past baby birds (ducklings and chicks), the turkey poults were housed in a 100-gallon metal stock-tank brooder with heat lamp hanging from a homemade wooden stand. Easy to clean, and a better retainer of heat, the stock tank kept the poults safe and warm. As the tanks were in front of a large window, after a few days the heat lamp was shut off during the sunniest part of the day. The door of the room was kept closed to retain the natural heat of the sun. A layer of pine shavings was placed on the bottom of the tanks, with thick paper towels over them. The paper towels would be removed after a few days. Paper towels made it easier for me to monitor the color of their poop, and to me, it seemed easier for them to walk on.
Food: Medicated starter crumbles for one week, and then unmedicated 20%-protein chick starter mixed with some of the meat bird 24% crumble (we had a literal ton of that food so I used it). Electrolyte/vitamin powder mixed with their water was available always. The round waterers were placed on small discs of wood to limit the amount of shavings accumulating in the rims.
Two Weeks to Two Months
While caring for the babies, I noticed that four of the meat turkeys were noticeably smaller than the rest… as in half the size. Their color was dark like the BBB, but the size was very similar to the Bourbon Reds. Having never done BBB before (Larry had only done Broad Breasted White), we assumed these were the female BBB. We brushed it off, thinking females were just smaller. Besides, that meant we had almost ALL toms in our batch. A huge plus for us as the males gave more meat. This size discrepancy issue would come back later in a most interesting manner.
Housing: My meat poults were growing much faster than the heritage ones, so the BBB were moved to a large, elevated chick brooder in the same room (it has trays beneath to collect feces). The heritage turkeys stayed in the stock tank. Both groups of turkeys no longer needed heat lamps as they were feathering out and the weather was mild. Natural sunlight from the window provided ample warmth throughout the day.
At the 3-week mark, summer was in full swing. The days were in the mid 70’s. My friends’ babies were delivered to him at 3 weeks, so I could now focus on my birds. We gave him one of the small poults (assumed to be a female) and 9 larger ones.
I began bringing my poults outside to enjoy the weather for several hours daily. The two flocks were carried outside individually in rabbit cages and then placed in separate poultry tractors. The tractors were tarped, and angled to allow them to enjoy the sunshine or seek shade. The tractors were large, which allowed me to sit inside with the heritage turkeys for socialization. A method I use with all our “keeper” birds. The heritage turkeys quickly became adept at using the 8 -foot sturdy roosting pole.
Food: Continuation of the 20% chick starter crumble, mixed with a bit of the meat bird feed. The poults scratched around in the tractors and sampled bugs (flying and crawling), weeds, and grass. I also offered them assorted peas, lettuces, grubs I came across, etc. They were not as adventurous as the meat turkeys when it came to food, preferring their crumble to anything else.
Two months to Five Months
Update on the four wee BBB’s: Surprise! They were not BBB at all. They were something else. Not BBB, but a heritage breed. I had been observing them since day one, and something inside told me, regardless of what Larry or anyone else said, that they were not BBB. As they grew, it became obvious. The coloring, size, head shape, etc.… was a stark contrast to the BBB’s they were living with. When I was confident they were heritage, I moved them in with the Bourbons.
I joined several online groups, researched the varieties, and found out which heritage breeds the feed store sold. I posted pics to all the groups, and on my social media sites. It was almost unanimous. They were Narragansetts. To say I was thrilled is an understatement. I danced around the turkey yard. For someone who never thought she would have even one flock of heritage turkeys, I now had two! To boot, Narragansetts were my 2nd favorite variety (Chocolate being my 3rd).
The only issue was that now we were down four meat turkeys for the year, as I planned on trading my friend his wee Narragansett (she turned out to be a hen), with one of our BBB.
It was all good though, we had over-bought on the BBB so would not starve, or be unable to meet our barter quotas. Besides, with more heritage turkeys, we were securing even more turkeys for the future.
Housing: As soon as they were fully feathered, and the nights were warm, the now larger heritage flock, (and the BBB) began living in the poultry tractors outside. The BBB’s tractor was twice the size of the heritage’s, and unmovable. Both had tight tarps that covered most of the two rounded sides. All exposed cattle guard was poultry netted (we used zip/cable ties) for safety. Both tractors were within two separate large fenced in yards (also poultry netted to keep out predators). The smaller tractor was moved once a week to give them fresh ground.
*NOTE: The heritage turkeys, especially the Narragansett hens, flew out of the yard on a regular basis, mainly when let out into their yard. I had to remove them from the bee enclosure, the meat turkey yard, the Brahma chicken yard, etc. I opted not to clip any wings until they matured, as all the flying was due to excitement and immaturity, and after flying out they wanted back with their flock. I would revisit the clipping issue in the future.
Supervised free-range: At almost three months, I began letting the Bourbons and Narragansetts out of their yard. This is always a big day for me, as it is a true testament of how well I have socialized my birds, and how well I taught them to follow my directions to best of their avian ability.
Must to my surprise, the heritage turkeys were great at following directions. They were allowed fifteen minutes of exploration the first few times, increasing in fifteen- minute increments as time passed. By four months of age, they were allowed entire mornings, or afternoons, to free range, while I was home. It was then they could spread their wings (literally). Again, it was mainly the Narragansett hens who took flight and explored almost every rooftop on the property. I let them enjoy this freedom and still did not clip them, as when I encouraged them to come down-they obliged. Whenever I left the property, and at night, they would be escorted to their tractors and secured.
Food: When I was down to one bag of starter crumbles, I began mixing it with 16% layers pellets, the same feed our ducks and chickens ate. This would now be their main grain source. They became more interested in the foods I was giving the meat turkeys, and began eating lots of garden veggies- chopped green tomatoes being a huge favorite! The electrolyte/ vitamin water was given only on the hottest stretch of summer days, along with a waterer of plain water.
On a chilly autumn morning, we said goodbye to our ‘seasonal visitors’, the Broad Breasted Bronzes. As always, Larry and I did the task alone, in as calm an environment we could provide. Before we ended their life with us, each bird was thanked for their gift and encouraged to return to us in another animal form, such as a year-round resident or wild animal to prowl our lands, if they wished.
The heritage turkeys were moved to their winter shelter—a lovely wooden structure built by Larry—to a new location on the property. It had an attached yard and faced south to absorb the winter sun.
This is where this story ends. Not with the original six Bourbon Reds I was given by Larry, but with nine heritage turkeys, the three Narragansetts an apparent gift from the Universe.
That November, all nine were healthy, friendly, and strong. A total of three toms, and six hens. By early spring they would be sexually mature. We would see who mated with who, which hens would be good mothers, and who would not be. There would most likely be some downsizing of the toms, as I am guessing that—like my experience with roosters and drakes—any more than two and there would be trouble. The biggest wish was to have poults running around the turkey yard with their mommas. No heat lamps. No stock tanks. Just Mother Nature doing her thing. But all of that was yet to be seen. That fall and winter would be spent simply enjoying them. Enjoying our heritage turkeys, which for me, their staying past fall, was already a dream come true.