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Repost: A Lesson on Turkeys

I finally found some turkey eggs this past week and starting sticking them in the incubator! I am so excited to hatch some poults this year! So I decided to talk a little bit about turkeys. We get a lot of questions about them, here are some answers.

First, just relatively, here are the sizes of the eggs we see on the farm. We don't raise guineas anymore, but here are the comparable sizes of some eggs. Guineas and Chickens take 21 days to hatch. Turkeys take 28, so we have to wait a whole 4 weeks to see if these eggs are ready to go! The shells are thicker, so they are harder to candle. Ducks, well it depends on the breed. We won't get into that, since we are talking turkey today.

So folks often ask me if I sell turkey poults or turkey eggs, and the answer is no. I still haven't hit the ceiling on raising turkeys for meat production for Thanksgiving. So I need to hatch all the eggs I can (so I don't sell them as eggs) and I need all the babies I hatch to grow into meat birds for the fall.

Turkeys lay very sporadically, and they are very picky about where they lay. We lost some hens every year because they wander into a neighbor's field to lay eggs in a big clump of grass or some bushes. If they are outside our fence line, our dogs can't protect them. They get eaten by coyotes, and their eggs get taken by anything from owls to snakes to foxes. They only start laying right around the start of spring, and they'll quit laying by July. Very unlike chickens, who can lay year round. Turkeys are very much driven by biology, they only want to lay when it makes the most sense to hatch their babies and raise them.

We usually incubate all their eggs. It allows us some control over the process, it ensures the eggs are safe (doubt a coyote is going to get into my house and unlatch my incubator...) AND it keeps those ladies laying for their whole season. If a mama stops to hatch, she also stops laying. We have had some mamas wander off and hide in our raspberry bushes and successfully hatch some babies. We even let this nice lady keep her brood, until a few of them disappeared. She wasn't protecting them from predators, so we had to take her babes away and raise them in the brooder. We just haven't seen these turkeys be as bright about where to hatch and how to raise their babies.

Having baby poults outside with their mama, they are ripe for being picked off by airborne predators, which are very difficult to stop. They can also get themselves into trouble. So we'd love to have a mama raise her own babies (we had a chicken do it once, and it was so wonderful). But if the babies don't survive, it isn't worth it.

So turkeys have a short laying season, which doesn't make them ripe for egg production to sell. We only get a limited time for them to lay, and we need to hatch those babies. Also, compared to a chicken - to purchase baby poults from a hatchery for heritage turkeys, they can cost $9/poult or MORE. Baby chicks, depending on the breed, can cost $1-$4/each. So turkey poults are way more valuable than turkey eggs for food.

Another big difference is that meat chickens take 8-10 weeks to get to size. We raise multiple batches of meat birds throughout the year, filling our freezer several times. Turkeys take much longer. Double breasted turkeys take 14 weeks to get to full size. So, yeah, we could have turkey available in summer if we raised double breasted birds in the early spring. However, these guys don't breed naturally, so it's not what I am talking about here.

Heritage breeds take 28 weeks to get to full size. That's more than 6 months my friend. So let's do the math, they don't even start to lay until late march, early April. 28 weeks later, we are looking at mid-October before they are ready. Now do we see why turkey is so popular at Thanksgiving? I have another month to hatch eggs that will be able to grow to size by Thanksgiving. Another month after that to have them to size by Christmas. And after that, the younger ones will be too small, and get to stick around as my breeding stock for next year.

The biggest trick has been keeping them home, and keeping them laying in their own coop. Because they would rather do THIS, than go where I want them to go!