The reason I brought home my first baby turkeys was similar to pet-store logic. They were at the farm store when I waked in, and they were adorable. Sheesch. There were both creamy yellow down covered babies, and brown and grey striped ones to choose from. I chose mostly the stripey ones, and a couple of other color. They were both broad breasted types, and I was curious to try raising both if nothing more than for the color variations. The little turkey babies look just like chicks, although they were slightly bigger. The main difference was their enormous eyes, and the tiny little snood bump at the point of their face where the smooth beak became feathered forehead.
Before I walked into the feedstore that fateful day, I knew I wanted to start raising more types of ethical meat, beyond the “by-products” of milk and eggs (goat kid and male duckling.) I had thought thanksgiving turkeys would be a great place to start, since most people view this holiday as one to go all out on, a special occasion worthy of a special bird. Maybe I could offer them that?
Purchasing animals SOLELY for the purpose of selling their meat was a new conceptual frontier for me though. I doubt I would have gone forward with my Thanksgiving Turkey idea if the feedstore hadn’t had those cute little buggers sitting under a heat lamp in a paper towel lined aquarium. I impulse-bought my turkey babies and took them to my little farm. They made my bathroom their home for about a month as they brooded under a heat lamp in a big box bedded with pine shavings, growing in their feathers and quadrupling in size. They were lovely baby birds, very calm, inquisitive and they made the most simply precious sounds and peeps as I’d talk to them from the other room.
The feedstore manager had warned me that turkeys love to jump and try to fly up and out. I didn’t see any evidence of this right away, so didn’t worry much. After I’d had them a week, I noticed that they were taking turns perching on top of their quart jar waterer. Shortly thereafter, as I was making coffee getting ready for work one morning, a turkey baby started calling out loudly and then came wandering into the kitchen. Shit! I had to find something to keep them in the box while I was at work, I didn’t need them getting chilled and pooping all over the floor for the 10 hours I’d be gone each day. I found an old window screen in the garage and set that across the top of their box, which worked very well. I started bringing them handfuls of short, tender grass and clover as a consolation for the fact that they weren’t able to wander about all day, and when I’d return after my shift, it would all be completely gone. They were voracious greens eaters!
It became apparent the turkey babies didn’t need the warmth of the heat lamp much more after 2 1/2 weeks of age, since it was summer time and the wather was warm. They had rapidly out-grown their brooder box and were rambunctious flyers when I opened the box to fill their water and feed. I set up a transition pen for the little “turkey-turk” in my little goat barn, next to where I milked the goats. They loved all the space, and they raced about when I threw in greens. They were absolutely insane about flies, if one landed on the wall in their pen, they would all stop, and sort of hunker lower and slowly stalk towards the fly, leaping to snag it in their beaks. Since they were all doing this at the same time, often the fly got away, but when it didn’t- they’d all chase the turkey baby who had the fly in his beak. When I brought them a handful of huge June Bugs, it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen. They couldn’t quite fit the big beetles into their mouths, but they each grabbed one and greedily ran around to hide their catch from their siblings. To see 12 baby turkeys running around, each with a monster sized bug in their beak, trying to hide in the corners and swallow their catch was just the funniest thing I had ever seen. And very promising for the outdoor adventures they’d be having soon where they could forage and stalk bugs to their hearts content.
I was finding that all the negatives traits I had been reading about broad breasted turkeys were just not true. They were not stupid, they were not lazy, and they were VERY interested in greens and bugs. I was just in love with them! After they were about 4 weeks old, I let them run about during the daytime when I was home. They quickly showed me how extremely adventurous they were, they chased my dogs, they would wander into the house if the door was open, they grazed and ate everything, they wandered here and there, started getting into my garden, and then one day they even wandered down the road! I had to keep a close eye on them constantly if they were to be truly free-ranging on my little farm. Since I was working fulltime, however, that meant they had to stay confined in their barn pen while I was gone. I had to cover the whole thing with a collection of window screens to keep them safely in place.
It was time to make a turkey pasture, so they could be outdoors all the time. The trouble was, when the turkeys were in this teenager stage, they were still light enough to fly out of the fence, so I had to cover their whole outdoor pen with chicken wire to keep them from wandering my suburban neighborhood while I was gone. But they were outside in the sun and fresh air, able to exercise and forage. I made this work until they grew to a weight that kept them mostly grounded, and then I put them in the pasture with my goats. The goats and turkeys made for quite a sight grazing and wandering in the pasture together. At feeding time though, the goats became jealous with rage over the turkey’s high protein crumbles. They headbutted and crashed through the turkeys to get their feed. This was not going to work. I had to round up either the turkeys or the goats, so that I could make sure my turkeys were gaining weight for harvesting time. They could subsist on grazing and scavenging, but not thrive and grow massive and plump without their higher protein feed.
Another customer of the feedstore had ordered heritage breed turkey babies that spring, but had put the word out with the manager that they were looking for a home for them, as they couldn’t bear the thought of butchering their pets. He called me to see if I was interested. Yes please! I loved raising turkeys and so I took on their 5 beautiful heritage breed birds, with the promise that I would prepare one of them for their Thanksgiving as a trade. One of the turkeys appeared to be a female Bourbon Red, and so in a dash of crazy, I decided maybe I should look for a partner for her, a tom turkey, so I could breed heritage turkeys myself. I found a breeder selling toms of the same breed in Iowa, near to where my raw milk loving friend had moved to start her own homestead. I asked her if there was anyway she would be interested in picking up and delivering to me a big, live tom turkey? Being an adventurous woman, she agreed. About a week later, she met me at the co-op where I was working with a giant red tom turkey hog-tied by his ankles in a big box. That’s one way to transport a turkey!