Monday, November 17, 2008

Flocks of turkeys

Picture: some of my beautiful boys on 11-14-2008

Covered in this post:

When to get baby turkeys delivered
What to put on the shipping label

What kind of poult should you choose?
Handling when they arrive to reduce mortality

This is my third year raising turkeys for the holidays. Having raised lots of chickens, I consider turkeys, especially large numbers of turkeys, to be much more difficult to raise. They seem to be much more delicate than chickens -- out of the box mortality from the hatcheries has been 50%. Since I really didn't have any chance to care for them, I'm pretty sure it's not something that I've done, but I've found that by taking special care of the poults I can reduce the subsequent mortality significantly.

Get them delivered earlier in the week:

This part is aimed at people who are going to buy a lot of poults. Like 10 or 20 or more. I buy 300 or so a year.

First, confirm the delivery date with your hatchery. Try not to get poults delivered on thursday or friday if at all possible. The worst possible thing that can happen is that they sit in the post office over the weekend. The extra day or two will kill some of your birds. Choose a hatchery that is close enough to you to get the poults quickly -- and also to keep yoru business local. I agressively support local businesses for all sorts of reasons; ecology, efficiency, cost, and most of all because I'm in the buy-local business, so I've got to practice what I preach.

Have the shipping label marked "call on delivery" and have your cell phone number on the shipping label. In the event that they arrive on a weekend, you want to go down to the post office distribution center and get them. Yes, they will call you at 5am on sunday. Yes, you really do want to go get your poults RIGHT THEN. Heritage poults are expensive -- $9-$12 each. Losing 3 of them hurts. losing 15 of them is a big hit. Sleep with the phone next to your head.

This is aimed at people buying less than 5 turkeys:

The best way to buy small quantities of turkeys is at your local feed store. Call them and ask when they'll have turkeys in, and don't go pick yours up for a day or two after that delivery. The feed stores typically sell poults at their cost, or near it, and you want the feed store to absorb the shipping mortality -- so buy delaying your purchase you're making sure you get past that hurdle.

What kind of turkey should you pick?

Heritage breeds and "standard" breeds and "broad breasted" breeds are all about the same when they're poults. that is, they're the same weight, and have the same basic issues. You'll see poults that range from $2 to $15. I raise heritage because I can collect and incubate the eggs. They fly, I don't have to do feed restriction, and they don't get too big for customers ovens. So for me, they're easier to deal with. I will raise a small number (like 20) of the broad breasted for folks that must have a 25lb turkey. The heritage breeds I choose max out at about 20lbs dressed weight, with the average (hens and toms) being 16lbs.

What kind of turkey should I pick?

If you must have a bird that is over 25lbs dressed weight: broad breasted turkey

If you want a bird that is a little bigger than heritage, but doesn't get as big as broad breasted, "improved" or "standard"

If you want a bird that is rare, endangered and basically what people would eat 50-100 years ago, you want a heritage

If you want a bird that will lay fertile eggs that you can hatch, you want a heritage or standard turkey.

If you want to increase the chance that the hens will sit on the eggs, you want a heritage. I've found them to be more broody than standard turkeys.

Broad breasted cannot mate naturally, they have to be artificially inseminated, and don't do very well when they are more than a year old. They get very big and have leg and back problems. Standard or heritage birds will easily live 4-5 productive years as laying hens.

You know when your poults are arriving. How do you care for them?

Look, everyone has some idea of how to best care for poults. I'm trying to make a profit, and it kills me to lose even one poult. So this may be overkill, but it's what I do to save as many poults as I can.

I raise my turkeys in tubs. 30 gallon tupperware, with a feeder and a waterer placed in them on a bed of chips. I do this to make cleaning easy - transfer poults to new tub, dump old tub and rinse, repeat. I put 15 poults in each tub.

each tub has its own 200 watt infrared heat lamp. I use a thermometer to make sure that the temperature of the chips under the center of the lamp is 102 degrees, and that the lamp is aimed at the center of the bin. I turn the lamp on and get the chips hot for the poults the day before they arrive. The poults will regulate their own heat by moving in closer to the light, or away from it. You want to watch to make sure that no poult is off in the corner, or gets wet. Elevate your waterer a few inches if you need to. drafts are fatal -- that's why i use tubs. No drafts.

I put a layer of newspaper over the chips for the first two days. Yes, I'm risking the poults spradling (having their legs slip out and get deformed, usually fatal) but I've found few cases of spraddle and the newspaper prevents the poults from eating a a wood chip. If they do it will block their stomach and they're done for.

I feed the chicks chick starter and crumbled hard boiled eggs. I put marbles (buy a bag at your local dollar store) into their feed and water dish -- both so they cannot lay in the water, and so the feed and water is shiny. They will peck at shiny. you want them to peck at the feed and water.

As I put each poult into the bin I dip its beak into the water. I do this for every single poult. I then tap the waterer with my finger. Poults will come over and interpret a tapping noise as something they should be interested in. I'll then tap the feeder. I use the red plastic feeders. they're easy to clean and cheap.

Summary: Newspaper over chips first 2 days. Hottest part at 102 degrees. Crumbled hard boiled eggs to supplement chick starter. marbles in feed and water to make it shiny. Dry and warm at all times. Dip poults beaks in water when they arrive, tap on food and water once all poults are in the tub or brooder.

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