Tips for Naturally Brooding Heritage Turkeys

Tips for Naturally Brooding Heritage Turkeys

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With self-sufficiency gaining popularity, you may be considering expanding your flock beyond just chickens. Why not add heritage turkeys to your farm? Heritage turkeys provide not only a source of meat; they also produce delicious eggs for about six months out of the year and provide beauty and a never-ending source of entertainment. 

Broad-Breasted versus Heritage Turkeys 

It is important to understand the distinction between the broad-breasted turkey varieties that are the staple of Thanksgiving dinner and heritage turkeys. Broad-breasted turkey poults are sold in feed stores in the spring and are often labeled “white” or “bronze.” Broad-breasted turkeys cannot reproduce naturally because they have been selected for abnormally large breast size, hindering reproduction. In the commercial turkey industry, artificial insemination produces fertile eggs to raise the next generation of Thanksgiving turkeys. If you want to raise turkeys year after year from your flock, you will need a heritage turkey variety. 

The Definition of a Heritage Turkey 

According to The Livestock Conservancy, heritage turkeys are defined by these three criteria: 

  • capable of reproducing through natural mating 
  • have a long productive outdoor lifespan 
  • have a slow growth rate 

Heritage turkey varieties include Royal Palm, Bourbon Red, Bronze, Black, Slate, White Holland, Beltsville Small White, and Narragansett. 

A turkey poult on its first adventure with momma.

Flock Size 

We keep a small flock, also called a rafter, of heritage Narragansett turkeys. Our flock currently consists of one breeding tom and seven mature turkey hens. We don’t keep more than one tom year-round because I find it impossible to keep two mature toms from fighting with our set-up. We keep our flock together year-round with no separate breeding pens. You’ll want to have a few turkey hens in your flock to minimize potential injury to your hens from over-mating by the tom, as well as to make sure your tom has company while some of your turkey hens are broody or raising young. A bored tom may look to your chicken hens for company, and that may cause some problems, as you can imagine. 

Tips for Successful Natural Brooding 

Although you can use an incubator to hatch turkey eggs, I prefer letting a broody turkey do the work for me. It avoids the mess of an indoor brooder, and it is a heartwarming experience watching a momma turkey with her little ones. When the conditions are right, and if you have a good momma turkey, you can expect up to a 90% hatch rate from natural brooding. Here are a few things that I’ve learned over the last several years raising poults that will improve your chances for success.  

A broody turkey and her beautiful speckled eggs.

1. Provide a Safe Nesting Area 

It’s not uncommon for turkey hens to go broody in unsafe areas for raising poults, such as out in the relative open where a predator can easily find them. Sometimes they’ll go broody under the coop where it would be difficult for you to check on them. We have a small coop that we leave vacant most of the year except when raising poults. Turkeys don’t need anything fancy, but I recommend providing a separate nesting area, with a door that can be closed at night, to keep the soon to be momma turkey and her little ones safe. Be sure to provide a soft nesting material to minimize the chances that eggs will break during the 28-day brooding period. There will usually be some breakage, so give your broody turkey a few more eggs than you are hoping to hatch, just in case. 

2. One Broody Hen per Nest 

Chickens aren’t the only ones that like to share nests; turkeys do it too. It’s always a cute sight to see broody turkeys sharing a nest, and it’s tempted me into letting them hatch eggs together more than once. However, I have seen broody turkeys competing over eggs, and I’ve had some less-than-optimal hatches with more than one broody turkey in the nest. Now I resist the urge to let them share a nest, and I only allow one broody turkey in the hatching coop. I try to minimize the number of coop intrusions by fencing off the hatching coop to keep curious chickens and other turkeys from investigating when the broody momma is off the nest for her quick bathroom and food breaks. Don’t be surprised if your broody turkey seems like she’s on the nest for more than a day without taking a break. Turkeys are determined broodies and can set for a long time between breaks! 

Narragansett turkey poults in their coop.

3. Give Them a Healthy Start 

Turkey poults need proper nutrition early on to boost their immune system. Turkey poults grow more quickly than chicks, and because of this, they need feed with a higher protein content than chick starter. I feed a 30% game bird starter to our poults for the first six weeks. They can then be transitioned to a turkey grower with approximately 20% protein. I also put powdered vitamins and electrolytes in their water for the first week or so to give them an extra boost. 

4. Minimize Stress 

Young poults have fragile immune systems, and they can be easily chilled or stressed. If the weather is cold or rainy the first couple of weeks after they’ve hatched, I minimize their outdoor time by keeping their coop closed for the worst weather part of the day. While it is fun to pick up and hold the young poults, try to avoid chasing or panicking them in your attempts to get a snuggle. Too much stress can be detrimental to them, more so than it is for chicken chicks. 

We use temporary fencing to separate momma and her poults from the rest of the flock.

5. Provide Protection from the Flock 

Although turkeys are much larger than chickens, turkey poults are just as tiny as chicks. It’s important to minimize the risk of the little ones getting stepped on. This can easily happen if the momma hen is chasing off a curious onlooker or if your tom turkey tries to get romantic with the momma after his long separation from her during her broody period. This is another reason I like to put up a temporary fence around the hatching coop to give momma turkey and her poults a safe area for them to grow up until they get a bit stronger and are ready to meet the rest of the flock. I typically take down the fence when the poults are about four weeks old. 
 

I hope these tips help you raise your own heritage turkeys! 

Poults learn to fly at a young age, so provide them with lots of roosting structures.

Stacy Benjamin lives on 4.5 acres in St. Helens, Oregon with her husband and her flock of four dozen-ish chickens and heritage Narragansett turkeys. She is an avid gardener who enjoys preserving her garden harvest, as well as making handmade soaps and other natural products. Find her on Instagram @5rfarmoregon and @5rfarmsoap and on her website www.5rfarm.com 

Originally published in the February/March 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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