At Harris Turkey Farm, one thing we truly strive for is giving our animals a good quality life. We want them clean, comfortable, and have minimal stress. In order to attain this, there are several things we do. First, we considered the amount of space we would need for the turkeys. If you have ever seen pictures of commercial poultry farms, you know the animals are packed in tight. The goal is to produce quantity. Unfortunately, the quality of the animal's life suffers. The recommended area for turkeys is 4-6 Sq. Ft. per bird. That does not happen in the commercial industry. Our pastures are 5300 Sq. Ft. with a maximum of 100 birds in the pasture. That is 53 Sq. Ft. per bird. If you are raising a few chickens or turkeys, it does not require a large area to ensure they have ample space to move about. Your birds will be happier and healthier for your efforts. You may want to consider having a "chicken tractor," which is a mobile pen. It can be moved every few days with the birds right inside. They will have fresh grass and bugs with each move, and your lawn or field gets fertilized. The picture above "Beginning of the season" was the second year for that pasture. Prior to having turkeys in there that particular piece of land was almost barren. The soil is predominantly gravel with little to no organic matter. The millet in that picture is 18-24 inches tall in just a few weeks after planting. The soil has been improved tremendously by having turkeys on it.
We prepare the pasture prior to the arrival of our birds. As you can see by the pictures, turkeys completely consume the vegetation in a pasture by the end of the season. This is a wonderful thing. The bugs and plants compliment their diet, and the act of picking and grazing stimulates them, and helps prevent boredom so they are not picking at each other. But this also requires effort by the farmer to prepare the pasture. In the spring, plow or rototill your pasture so manure from the previous year is ground into the soil, then seed your pasture with things such as rye, canary seed, oats, millet, and sunflower. We like to get a 50 pound bag of birdseed and sow that into the soil. The growing plants will also provide shade from the sun, and cover from overhead predators while the poults are small.
A couple additional things to consider as you raise poultry outside are predators and diseases. We will discuss both in depth in a future blog. Free ranging is an option but predators can be very sneaky even when you are in the yard with your poultry. You don't have to provide a roost, we like to because that is their natural habit in the evening. I find it also keeps them away from the edge of the fencing where a predator could reach through and grab them.
Springtime in Maine often comes with lots of new arrivals. Whether you are buying young livestock or they are born on your farm, you need to keep them warm, clean, and free from drafts. With day old turkeys (called poults) and chicks, they need to be kept in a warm brooder, at 95 degrees for the first week. We use a securely fastened heat lamp for every 25 birds. If they are warm enough, they will be spread out and look content. If they are too cold, you will find them piled up together. The danger in this is the weaker ones get smothered and you begin to find dead chicks. We use the infrared 250 watt bulbs. Lower watts may not be enough heat, and the red color calms the chicks. The harsh, white light bulbs can increase agitation and squabbling.
You will also want to make sure to have several different sizes of feeders and watering stations available. When they are small you need them in an area where they can reach the feeding and watering stations. As the poults and chicks grow they need more space to eat and drink, and will need larger capacity feeders.
You can decrease the temperature by 5 degrees weekly by raising the height of the heat lamps until they are ready to go outside. Generally, in the springtime this will be when they are 4 weeks old and they are fully feathered. You can certainly let them free range, but only do so when you are there to supervise them because a predator can sneak in and take one or more. We keep the young turkeys in a fenced in area covered with chicken wire to keep any aerial birds of prey out. We have had a hawk in the spring sitting on the outdoor run looking for its next meal but the 1 inch chicken wire over the top prevented that. While chickens will usually return to their coop for the night, turkeys will not. For their own protection, young turkeys must be put inside for the night until they are large enough to go to the main pasture and be outside full time.