An extract from the book by Katie Thear
published by Broad Leys Publishing Ltd
When they get their head feathers, they are hardy enough. (Cottage
Economy. William Cobbett. 1821)
There are three ways in which turkeys are
kept on a small scale. Some of these will involve breeding on-site. The
turkey enterprises may be differentiated as follows:
Turkeys can be classified by their breeds or plumage colour, and
by their type, as there are within some breeds, large, medium and small birds
that finish at different weights.
- Farmers and smallholders who buy in poults during the summer to rear
for the Christmas market.
- Breeders who raise their own turkeys for the market
and sell the surplus poults.
- Enthusiasts who keep and breed traditional coloured
turkey breeds for interest and showing.
Genetic Factors Affecting Turkeys
Plumage colour, body conformation, breast width and egg production are
genetic factors that pass from one generation to another. Both body conformation
and egg size are of good heritability and can be improved with selected
breeding. Egg production and hatchability are of low heritability so these
factors can only be improved over time with family breeding and individual
Some plumage colours are dominant and others recessive. For example, black
turkeys mated with bronze produce black offspring. If these offspring are
then mated together, their offspring will be either black or bronze.
Although black plumage is dominant to bronze, the latter is dominant to
any plumage colour other than black. So, if bronze turkeys are mated with
another colour their progeny will all be bronze. If these are then mated
with each other their offspring will, as before, produce both bronze birds
and those of the original colour. If these latter, original colour progeny
are mated together they will breed true. This plumage colour is recessive
to bronze. These colour factors can be summed up as follows:
- Black x Bronze = Black
- Blacks (from Black/ Bronze) x Blacks (from Black/Bronze) =
Black or Bronze
- Bronze x Any Other Colour = Bronze
- Bronze (from Bronze/AOC) x Bronze (from Bronze/AOC) = Bronze
or Original Colour
- Original Colour x Original Colour = Original Colour
Those keeping coloured turkeys as a hobby may be interested in having
several different breeds. In this situation, buying top quality birds at
the outset is essential, for the capacity to improve the quality of the
stock is limited by the small numbers kept of each breed. Real improvements
in fertility, egg production and hatchability can only be achieved through
detailed record keeping based on a system of trap nesting. This is a very
time consuming process and is unlikely to be practical for small breeders.
The careful selection of both stags and hens is the secret of producing
good quality breeding birds. The first step is to acquire good quality stock.
When buying birds find out about food conversion, body conformation, meat
to bone ratio and their finished weight range. For breeding stock, ask about
their fertility, hatchability, egg production and weights at maturity. Check
each bird carefully to ensure that it is well fleshed and free of deformities,
old wounds or external parasites. Turkeys are meat birds so good conformation
and meat to bone ratio is important, but excessive weight is to be avoided.
Before you buy, make sure that you know what you are looking for. This
means finding out about the breed and its characteristics beforehand. Birds
that are being bred for showing may have been selected for different characteristics,
such as carriage, appearance and feather colouring, rather than for more
utilitarian considerations. Traditionally, the best breeding birds were
those that were fairly upright and not too broad and heavy in the breast
because this can lead to difficulty in mating.
Even with some of the traditional heavy breeds, there is a danger in breeding
for excessive backward curve of the neck and too large a breast. As with
most things, moderation is best, with ideal breeders having the following:
Good Breeder Characteristics
- Healthy and vigorous:
no weaknesses and tendency to illness
- Reasonably upright in carriage:
weight evenly distributed to walk well
- Good meat to bone ratio: for a table
bird, without being excessive
- Good example of breed standard:
not at expense of utility factors
- Able to mate naturally: A.I. is
not appropriate for traditional breeds
- Good egg production: hens lay an
acceptable number of quality eggs
- Good fertility: acceptable number
of fertile eggs
- Good hatchability: acceptable number
of eggs that hatch
Rearing good stock
If rearing your own potential breeding stock, look for a uniformity of
size, shape and colouring, and only keep the best for breeding on. Maintain
detailed records so that you know which are the healthy, vigorous birds
with good production.
Tag or ring the birds that are kept, with details of their parentage.
Change stags regularly to avoid inbreeding. Hen birds producing poor quality
poults should be removed from the breeding programme. Maintaining these
standards and separating and culling sub-standard birds will lead to better
stock to sell to customers.
To achieve these goals effectively, quite a number of birds may need to
be kept. The greater the number, the greater the opportunity to improve
the quality of the stock from one season to the next. Therefore, for the
smallholder or small-scale breeder hoping to produce good birds to sell
on, there is a case for concentrating at the outset on just one breed, such
as bronze or black turkeys where there is likely to be a ready market.
Both stags and hens should have identification tags or rings so that accurate
records can be kept for each of the birds. They are available from specialist
suppliers. A breeding ratio of one stag to ten hens is the right proportion.
Fewer hens may lower the overall fertility. Conversely, having too many
hens will produce the same effect. This is a generalisation, for there can
be considerable variation, with heavier breeds often having a lower ratio.
Turkeys start to lay eggs from 28 - 30 weeks onwards. They lay most eggs
in their first year, with numbers decreasing in the second year and again
in their third year. Stags are also at their most fertile in their first
year so using young birds to produce poults for sale gives the best results.
A stag used for a second season will have a reduced fertility. Balanced
against this, is the fact that performance will be a known quantity from
the second year, if accurate records have been kept.
It is a good idea to keep some stags in reserve in case one is needed.
Reserve stags should be penned out of sight of the breeding flock to prevent
over-excitability. If a stag is inactive or if the eggs produced after his
mating activity are not fertile, he will need to be replaced.
Introducing the sexes
Introduce the sexes about a month before laying begins. This is the time
to change the diet over to breeders’ pellets, if they are not already
on it. It will ensure that there are no deficiency diseases to be passed
on to the progeny.
Provide them with a good quality ration and fresh water with access to
insoluble poultry grit at all times. Once breeding begins, rotate stags
each week, returning the removed one to a pen by himself. Careful checking
of egg fertility should soon show whether a stag is worth using or not.
Bear in mind that fertility and hatchability are not the same thing. Fertility
is indicated by whether an egg is fertile when candled over a bright light.
Hatchability is whether it eventually hatches. Both are expressed as percentages,
with the higher ones being indicative of good breeding stock.
A breeding flock does not have to be kept inside. They can be out in a
protected yard or on pasture during the day and are much better for being
so. Place their feed in an area to which wild birds do not have access.
Covered feeders with an enclosed unit from where the turkeys can trigger
a small amount of feed at a time are suitable. Water containers need to
be raised above the ground on a plinth, to keep contamination to a minimum.
Depending on the scale of the enterprise, either a system of flock mating
or of pen mating will be used.
With a big breeding flock, flock mating can be practised. This is where
a large area of ground is available so that several stags can be run with
the females. It should be emphasised that it is only a practical proposition
on a field scale, where the space is sufficient to allow the stags to form
their own breeding sets, without the risk of fighting. On a smaller scale,
pen mating is more appropriate and more accurate records can be kept.
An indoor or barn pen used for mating should have plenty of light and
ventilation or be near to the open air as the turkeys need these conditions.
Fertility is also directly affected by the amount of light.
The pens need to be at least 1.2m high. If the birds are particularly
flighty, or have not had one wing clipped, it may be necessary to increase
the height to 1.8m. If two pens are adjacent, the first 90cm should be of
solid material to prevent stags from each pen trying to fight. It is a good
idea to have two pens and alternate the birds each month to provide an opportunity
to clean one out and give that area a rest. The floor of the breeding pen
should be wood shavings or clean chopped straw.
Perches or straw bales should be no higher than 45cm from the ground.
Nest boxes can be placed along the shadiest side of the pen. A nest box
should be at least 45cm x 45cm x 60cm high. As well as individual nest boxes,
you could provide larger communal nest boxes because turkeys will accept
them and they may be better able to spread themselves out. Nests should
be accessible for egg collecting without needing to enter the pen. It is
also a good idea to place drinkers and feeders where they can be removed
for cleaning and refilling without having to enter the pen.
Stags mounting turkey hens can cause damage with their claws, tearing
the skin of the hen and causing nasty wounds, although this is more likely
to occur with the heavier breeds. For protection, the hen can be fitted
with a canvas mating saddle. This fits over her back and sides without restricting
her wings. The stag should also have his claws clipped and spurs filed.
The protective process continues throughout the egg laying period, with
each successful mating fertilising 10 to 12 eggs.
As referred to earlier, large commercial breeds may not be able to mate
normally, so artificial insemination will be needed, although it is not
advised for the small scale breeder of traditional breeds. Semen can be
collected from the stag two to three times a week and transferred to the
hens within half an hour as it degrades quickly. One insemination will remain
effective for two weeks. It is emphasised that the technique should only
be attempted by those who have undertaken a practical course in the procedure.
Collect eggs twice a day and keep records of sizes, frequency, and the
number of good poults produced from each pen in a season. Lighter breeds
can lay up to 100 eggs in a season and come into lay earlier, whereas the
heavier types may lay as few as 50, with the laying season lasting from
16 to 20 weeks. Laying begins at around 28 weeks onwards, depending on the
Turkeys normally lay between April and June although there may be some
eggs laid in March and July, with the earliest eggs producing the heaviest
birds at Christmas. Providing artificial light early in the season may be
needed as laying birds need about fourteen hours of light per day. It need
not be much extra light, and a low wattage bulb over a pen is sufficient.
It should have a timer so that the amount of light can be programmed, unless
it is a digital system that calculates the amount of light automatically
and compensates accordingly.
Start with lighting at the beginning of February, adding an extra hour
each week so that there is a total of fourteen hours (artificial + natural)
by early March. In a good year, a breeding pen of ten layers should produce
more than 500 eggs. If you hatch more than you need, the surplus can be
sold as poults, although it makes sense to sell to those outside the immediate
area, who might otherwise end up as competitors. This will add to the profitability
of the enterprise.
Fertile eggs can be incubated naturally by the bird or artificially using
a purpose-made incubator.
As with chickens, turkey hens can go broody. They do not make particularly
good mothers, although there are always exceptions. On the whole, it is
better to use an incubator for incubating and hatching the eggs.
A broody turkey will take over a nest box and refuse to budge, complaining
when anyone tries to move her. If broodiness is not required, the best thing
is to remove her to a small, cool coop within sight of the breeding pen.
She can stay there with food and water until the broodiness has gone. This
could take a week or two. When she is no longer broody return her to active
service in the breeding pen.
Store the eggs for the incubator in a cool pantry, broad end up in cartons
for no more than a week before incubating them. Allow them to get to room
temperature before introducing them into the machine and dip them in an
egg sanitant to help ensure that they are free of pathogens. Turkey eggs
are equivalent in size to duck eggs.
The longer eggs are kept before incubation, the lower the rate of hatchability,
with the reduction amounting to around 2% per day after lay. Every egg should
be clean, free from cracks or other surface damage and not misshapen. The
incubator must also be clean, disinfected and already running at the required
temperature before introducing the eggs. It should be set up in a place
where there is very little outside variation in temperature. A spare room
in the house or a specially insulated area of a shed will suffice.
An automatic incubator will maintain the correct temperature and humidity
and also turn the eggs regularly. Ensure that the manufacturer’s instructions
are followed for there are slight variations with different models.
The optimum temperature at the centre of the egg is 37.5 O C, with a humidity
level of 55% for the incubation period.
After a week remove the eggs one by one and candle them. This will show
up those eggs that are not fertile and will also reveal whether the humidity
level is correct from the size of the air sac. Discard the infertile eggs,
returning the others immediately.
Around day 25 the eggs will begin to pip and the temperature should be
reduced to 37.0 O C with the humidity increased to 75%. The eggs should
hatch by day 28. Once dry, fluffed up and active, the newly hatched poults
will need warmth, chick crumbs and water in a place protected from rats.
(See Page 36). For a comprehensive coverage of incubation, see Incubation:
A Guide to Hatching and Rearing.
© 2007. Katie Thear.
From Starting with Turkeys, published by
Broad Leys Publishing Ltd