This year we are raising pioneer turkeys! No, they are the same breed that we’ve raised in years past, but this year the turkeys are enjoying an accommodation upgrade and are traveling our pastures with Andrew’s new prairie schooner shade structure. Sylvan and I decided to check on them this morning and were met by a chorus of appreciative gobbles as we approached.
Turkeys have an undeservedly bad reputation among farm animals–ever heard the one about how turkeys will drown in a rainstorm by looking skyward? I thought so. Suffice it to say that it is raining as I type, and Andrew does not feel compelled to stand over his turkeys with an umbrella. Perhaps the root of these slanderous rumors is the fact that turkeys are fragile in some rather surprising ways. When they first arrive as day old poults, turkeys need immediate attention. Whereas baby chick seem to hop right out of the box and head to the food, the water, or the heat lamp, baby turkeys need a bit more guidance. This is why we raise the chicks and the poults together–the turkeys observe the chicks and learn from them how to perform basic survival activities. Once they get it (“ooooooh…so I eat the feed!”), they’re good. But if we were to attempt to raise a brooder full of turkeys without chicks, I suspect that we’d have pretty brutal mortality.
The other thing about turkeys is that they are extremely susceptible to parasites. For this reason, we have to keep careful track of where turkeys were in years prior and make sure to give this year’s birds pasture that is untouched by turkeys. Eventually we can cycle back around and reuse turkey ground, but not for several years. Massive turkey farms, obviously, do not have the luxury of rotational turkey grazing–they keep their birds healthy with regular doses of parasiticides.
Outside of those two vulnerabilities, however, turkeys are tough and smart. They forage significantly more aggressively than the chickens, and they are extremely social (try gobbling at them–they gobble back!). While I’m perfectly content to keep bald eagles as our national bird and turkeys as our national entree (at least on Thanksgiving), I consider it my mission to at least make sure that turkeys get a little respect!