by Jennifer Sartell of Iron Oak Farm
If you’ve been following me here on Community Chickens, the Iron Oak Farm Facebook Page or on our You Tube Channel, I’ve been documenting the progression of our Black Spanish turkey hatch. I’ve been sharing videos and photos covering each step of this exciting time. Some of the topics I’ve covered have included:
How to program the incubator settings for turkeys;
The transition period from incubator to brooder
First Day in the Brooder
I even cover how to help out a broody turkey hen so she can do the work for you in my post DIY Turkey Nest Box.
Ideally, I wanted our hen to hatch out a brood of turkeys and raise them herself. But in the past two springs, our turkeys hens have proven to be lacking in the maternal instinct department.
This year I was determined to hatch out some turkey poults, even if it meant using an incubator. I’ve been calling them our “back up” eggs because in the past, our turkey hens have been spotty with their nesting habits and have failed to hatch us out any poults. The ironic thing is that this year, we’ve decided to hatch out some of our own, and it seems like our hens are more diligent than ever. So we might have a lot of turkeys this year!
Throughout this process many of you have asked several questions about hatching turkeys, and I’ve picked up a common theme from your comments that there isn’t a lot of information out there on breeding and hatching turkeys. This makes sense as most of the turkeys in the US are artificially inseminated in factory farms. Backyard turkey rearing hasn’t caught on as well as chickens. Some reasons for that might be because turkeys need more space to raise, they’re harder to find (you don’t see them for sale at every feed store in the spring), and they’re not usually raised for egg production.
Turkeys are a different kind of commitment than chickens. While they do lay edible eggs, turkeys haven’t been bred generation after generation to produce eggs the way domesticated chickens have. In my experience, they will lay really heavily throughout the spring and then production sort of dwindles off throughout the summer and into fall. If you choose to raise turkeys it’s either for a pet, or to breed, or for meat. Which can be a daunting thought to those that are just starting out in the farm movement. But for those of you out there that are interested, hopefully I can help by sharing our experience, which in my opinion has been really successful.
We approached incubating turkey eggs in much the same way that we hatch out chicks in our incubator. So if you’re familiar with that process you should do great with turkeys.
For some great tips on the incubation process read my series Incubating Advantages. It’s mostly about chicks, but there’s some good information that would apply to turkeys as well.
We started with 9 turkeys from our original flock. That year we processed 5, leaving the biggest and best looking Tom and four of our best looking hens. These will be our breeding stock.
To help you select your breeding pair, learn about what your breed should look like. Visit poultry shows and study the first place winners. Sometimes the judges leave comments on the cages which can be very insightful. Otherwise, choose the most healthy and vibrant pair from your stock.
Laying and Egg Fertility
Our turkey hens started laying their second spring. So they were about 10 months to a year when we first started seeing eggs. We raise heritage Black Spanish turkeys. It takes these heritage breeds a little longer to fully mature.
Our turkeys breed naturally…organically… without the use of artificial insemination as many of the larger breeds like the Broad Breasted White require.
Once the hen is laying, there’s a good chance that your male is old enough to start doing his part as well. Our turkeys are very discrete, and I rarely see them mate, but try to get a visual of the deed being done. Make sure they’ve worked things out and that the male has mastered his form. Sometimes things can be clumsy in the beginning and you want a good secure mating pattern to ensure fertile eggs.
After the hen is mated, she will lay fertile eggs for a week to 10 days. The further out from the conception date, the lower the chance of fertility. If your Tom is mating with your hens regularly, then eggs can be collected with consistent fertility.
Wash your hands thoroughly before you handle eggs as the oils in your skin can block the invisible pores on the outside of the egg shell. Keep the nesting box clean so you have a better chance of collecting clean eggs. Clean eggs hatch better because debris blocks the pores of an egg and it can also be a perfect breeding ground for bacteria…especially in a warm, moist incubator. If your egg is soiled and you don’t have the option to swap if for a clean one, let the area dry and then brush off what you can with a dry, stiff bristle brush.
Eggs should be collected daily and can be stored in temperatures between 50-65 degrees. This is ideal, but I’ve gone beyond these temperatures and still had success. A cool dry place like a basement would work well.
The eggs will stay fertile for about a week. You can go beyond this, but the fertility drops the further you move away from the day the egg was laid. Once you have a nice clutch collected, the eggs can go into the incubator at the same time. This works best because you can treat all the eggs with the same processes as incubation progresses, and all your poults will hatch on roughly the same day.
Turkeys incubate for 28 days at 100.5 degrees. We used our Brinsea Mini Advanced incubator which would technically hold 7 eggs, but it would be tight, especially after they hatched. We set 5 eggs and three were fertile.
Here is a video showing how we programmed our incubator for the turkeys eggs.
You can candle your turkey eggs starting at around day 5 or 6. The shell of a turkey egg is pretty thick, and it can be difficult to see what’s going on. To candle, move into a dark room and hold a flashlight at the bottom of the egg so the light glows through. You should be able to see the hint of veins spreading across the egg shell. If you can’t see this, give the egg a few more days. I was certain one of our eggs was infertile but after 2 weeks, it was progressing right along with the rest.
On day 26 Stop rotating the eggs and double the humidity. On our Brinsea Mini Advanced, the eggs stop turning automatically and we add water to the second chamber in the center of the incubator. On this day I also like to get our brooder ready. Get the feeders and waterers washed, and get the temperature regulated using a thermometer. You want it between 95 to 100 degrees.
Our turkeys piped on day 28. Right on schedule. Pipping is the first crack of the eggshell made from the inside with the turkey’s eggs tooth. The egg tooth is a small, hard lump on the end of the beak that the turkey will use to break through the shell.
The pip is usually a pyramid shaped break and from there, you want what is often called a zipper crack, where the poult breaks the shell apart creating a division around the circumference of the egg. It will thrust against the two shell halves slowly dividing the egg in half.
Hatching takes hours, so be very patient. The video below was toward the end of the hatch and even then I had to edit out a lot to make the time shorter. The chicks will make progress little by little followed by long periods of resting.
Once a chick is hatched I usually try to let them fluff out in the incubator, but the turkeys were slightly taller than chicks and I felt like they were having some space issues so I let them fluff out in the brooder. If you do this, make sure the temperature of your brooder is between 95 to 100 degrees before you place the poults inside. Freshly hatched poults are damp and can catch a chill very easily. Move them quickly and surround the poult with your hands till your reach the brooder.
This last poult needed a bit of assistance. The inner membrane was shredded instead of torn like a zipper. This is most likely due to a humidity issue. Probably because we opened the incubator to get the first two poults out which let out too much moisture.
We helped seperate some of the fibers after the membrane had dried and turned a tan/tight brown color. That way I knew that the poult had absorbed the blood/fluid from the veins that are in this layer.
Soon after, the poult unhinged that middle section and popped off the top of the shell.
(I plan on writing a post about assisting in hatching in the near future, but for now, only do it as an absolute LAST resort, it is very dangerous and can often lead to death of the chick/poult.)
- A turkey brooder is very similar to a chick brooder, so if you’ve ever set one up for chicks you’re ahead!
- They need a safe, dry container.
- Bedding: pine chips work best.
- A source of heat, like a heat lamp.
- Thermometer to check the temperature.
Make sure that the brooder has an area where the heat lamp isn’t as direct so they can move to this cooler space and regulate their temperature. This is also a good place to store the waterer so it doesn’t get too hot.
Raise the heat lamp each week to lower the temperature of the brooder by 5 degrees. This slowly weans them of that warmth until they feather out.
Food and Water
Poults learn how to eat and drink from their mother. So for the first few days you’ll have to be Mom in this department. Show the poults their water by carefully picking up the poult and dipping the tip of the beak in water. Repeat this a few times a day until the poult is eating and drinking on its own.
You can start turkeys on chick starter, but I find that they do better on a game feed with an even higher protein percentage. Feed stores don’t often stock this, so you might have to have it special ordered. Do this way in advance of your hatch date so that you have it when the poults are ready.
You’ll also need chick grit available at feed stores, which is tiny gravel that helps a bird digest its food.
And a waterer designed for newborn poultry. For the first few days you can add an electrolyte supplement to the water to give weak poults a boost.
Have food available at all times.
Turkey poults really are easy to raise. They are less messy than chicks (in my opinion) because they don’t tend to scratch and throw bedding everywhere. The water stays clean, and they are just a very gentle bird. Turkeys really are an amazing addition to our farm. I’m so blessed to have been able to experience these animals full circle. We’re back where we began with a second generation of turkey poults in the brooder.