by Meredith Chilson One week as a turkey rancher. Wrangler? Farmer? Mostly…watcher.
Just as I do when there are new chicken peeps under the heat lamp in the garage, I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time sitting in the lawn chair pulled up next to the little turkey pen.
My friend Kathleen and I are raising turkeys. We researched, read, even asked YOU…and finally, after a long talk with the experienced man who will be processing the birds in November, decided we would give it a try.
These are already expensive birds. We placed our order for 20 little birds through a locally owned feed store—minimum order 15. We’re raising them on organic starter/grower—which costs just about twice as much as “regular” feed. We knew, though, that this would not be a moneymaking project. We have large, extended families and friends who, like us, are concerned about what goes on their dinner plates. These turkeys will be raised in a happy, healthy environment, and their lives, however brief, will be appreciated and respected. For us, that’s worth a lot.
I’ve raised lots of little chicks—some under the heat lamp and some under mama chickens. Nearly everyone I talked to said raising little turkeys (poults) is very similar. And in some ways, it is.
The basic needs of the little birds are met the same way—with a heat lamp for warmth and security, starter/grower feed (although turkey starter has more protein in it than chick starter) in long, low trays, water jugs with shallow lips.
They peep and scratch and lift their heads to swallow water.
But the differences….
Here’s what I’ve learned after just a week:
Turkey poults are more fragile than newly hatched chicks. When I was told to put marbles or small colored stones in the waterers, I was skeptical. I have never, ever had a little chicken fall in a waterer. These little turkeys LAID in the water. Face first.
All is well; no bird drowned. They could have, though. That first day with us, they just weren’t strong enough to lift themselves out of the water if they tripped into it.
Which brings us to difference number two.
Little turkeys appear to be … ah…not quite as bright as they might be. They do trip into their waterers. And into their feeders. And over not much at all. Sometimes they walk backwards, or run flat out across the pen and stub their toe on the edge of the feeder and splat down into the dish. Usually, when this happens, they just take a nap.
They might not appear quite so bright as little chicks, but they are friendly and more trusting.
When I’ve reached into a pen of little chicks—for whatever reason—the little chickens scurry to the opposite of the pen. Little turkeys climb into (or onto) a hand. If there are people talking near the pen, the poults tend to congregate on that side of the pen, too.
I’ve noticed, also, that turkey-specific sounds and activities begin very early. By the second day, I could hear the occasional “Chirp” that a turkey makes, and by day 4 some of the little guys were “strutting” around the pen with their chests puffed out, tiny tails raised, and wings out and lowered.
Finally, I know already that these birds are ready to fulfill their destiny as well-fed meat birds. They eat. And eat. And eat. I laughed when the woman at the feed store said the turkey starter came in only 50-pound bags. In my experience with chickens, it took about 3 weeks for the little birds to go through 20 pounds of feed. I called the store today to be sure they had another bag on hand.
Obviously, I’ve been watching these birds a LOT. I love watching little birds, but I’m finding these turkeys particularly fascinating. As similar as they might be to chicks, they are showing me every day how different they are, too. I sort of think they may be watching me, too.