Turkey Trial - Part 1: Growing Thanksgiving Dinner
Last year around Thanksgiving we thought it would be rather neat to serve turkey that we had raised ourselves. After a bit of research we decided to give it a go. Prior to picking-up our order of six turkeys from the hatchery, we started to build a turkey tractor. I say “we”, but Dad did the research, design, and building. I helped by holding things in place while he worked the drill or stitched together the hardware cloth where he told me to. In typical fashion, we managed to complete the tractor just as the turkeys outgrew the brooder (nothing like leaving things to the last minute and then scrambling to finish the job). The turkey tractor was a mobile coop on wheels, allowing us to move the birds onto fresh grass, provide water and feed, and lock them in at night. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day-old turkey poults arrived on May 8th in a cardboard box along with the some day-old broiler chicks. We ordered six turkeys, and the hatchery sent along an extra as an insurance policy. We placed both the day-old chicks and turkey poults into a brooder box for the first four weeks, during which time they stayed roughly equal in size. Once the turkey tractor was finished and feathers replaced the birds’ downy fuzz, we moved the them from the brooder to the great outdoors. The chickens continued to share quarters with the turkeys for a few days before moving into their own area.
Unfortunately, we had a problem with a very persistent family of raccoons that reduced our broiler flock from 11 to two. They also got one of our turkeys (turns out that insurance turkey was a good idea). One stubborn turkey did not want to go into the roost area where it would be secured from predators by a sturdy 2 by 4 frame, ¼ in. hardware cloth, and a door that locked. In frustration, it was left free within the turkey tractor. Sure enough, mama raccoon came by with her family and found a weak spot in the poultry netting covering our turkey tractor. She broke in, killed the stubborn turkey, and made off with it during the night. The next morning, the only clue left behind were a few feathers stuck to a bent up piece of poultry fencing.
To prevent the loss of another turkey to our masked nemeses, we had to ensure that all turkeys were put into the roost every night. This was an annoying, but simple enough task with two or three people working to corral the birds. Especially when our children welcomed an excuse to catch and pick up the birds. However, when we went on a camping trip and Grandpa was left with the chore of closing up the turkeys, he quickly realized it was an exercise in frustration for a single person! It was time to rethink our arrangement. We set up an electrified fence around the turkey tractor. So now, even if we were away and a turkey refused to cooperate with Grandpa, we had some assurance that the spark of the fence would deter a raccoon from trying for another turkey. By this time, the birds had grown so large that they out-weighed any raccoon. However, this arrangement lasted only briefly.
The growing turkeys needed more space. So, we opened up the door and allowed them to forage within the confines of the electric fence. This gave them the ability to spread out and wander, leading to them exercising their wings and seeking to fulfill their desire to roost as high as they could. And that meant on top of the turkey tractor. Now our nightly routine included taking a rake along with us to “rake” the birds off the roof and herd them through the tractor door, which once closed, allowed us to catch the turkeys and heave them into the safe roost area. In an effort to keep the turkeys from flying onto the roof each night, we clipped their wings. This was semi-successful. A few birds were still able, with a running start, to flap onto the roof. Fortunately, they never tried to escape by flying over the fence. We carried on in this manner for two months, watching the birds feasting on grass, insects, comfrey, and raspberries and estimating how much they might weigh as Thanksgiving 2018 crept steadily closer.