Raising Turkeys03 July 2006
By Gerry Bolla, Livestock Officer (Poultry) and based upon an earlier edition written by Ian Embury, Former NSW Agriculture Livestock Officer (Poultry) - The keeping of turkeys on a small scale is usually restricted to a few birds that are kept out of interest or for the table.
Purebred turkeys are now almost unavailable in large numbers. The bronzewing turkey that was so prevalent up to the 1960s is now seldom seen, as it is not used for commercial production, although small numbers are kept by fanciers.
Fast-maturing white-feathered hybrid strains are today produced in vast numbers under intensive conditions. By 10 weeks, under ideal conditions with a well-balanced ration, a turkey in a modern white hybrid turkey flock would average 6 kg in weight, with a feed conservation ratio of about 2:1.
There are few remaining reliable small hatcheries which provide day-old turkey poults to backyard poultry keepers, while the larger hatcheries supply contract growers. The cost of day-old poults is high. Commercial turkey breeding hens produce only about 45 live poults each year.
Competition for the small Australian turkey market is very vigorous, with two very large vertically integrated producers and a number of small family operations producing for available outlets.
As previously stated, the main commercial turkey used in Australia is the hybrid white bird. For large commercial hatcheries these birds are the progeny of specially selected male and female parent stock. The males (toms) are chosen for their body conformation and fast growth rate; the females (hens) are chosen for their egg-production ability, lack of broodiness and growth rate.
The small backyard producer should select breeders from well-grown 7-month-old birds. These birds should be mated immediately so that the first eggs produced will be fertile. The preferred mating ratio is 1 tom to 10 hens.
It may be worthwhile to help maintain fertility by using two consecutive batches of toms during the season. Remove and replace all toms at the same time to guard against the odd birds being ostracised.
Fit all hens with canvas saddles to protect their backs. Also, as a further precaution, clip the tom’s toenails.
Broody hens should be removed regularly and placed in broody coops suspended above the ground. Provide broody hens with feed, water and overhead protection.
As with most heavy birds in the southern hemisphere, it is difficult to get fertile eggs hatched in time to produce birds ready for the Christmas market. This can be alleviated to some extent by housing the hens in ‘brown houses’ from 18 weeks of age. These houses are darkened from the outside sunlight, and provide 6 to 8 hours of light per day. This continues until the hens are 24 weeks of age, when the light is increased to 18 hours. Production of eggs will start 4 weeks later, reaching 50% production within 6 weeks. The toms are not ‘darkened’, but receive sufficient light 6 to 8 weeks before mating to increase their total ‘daylight’ hours to 14.
Breeding birds must be in good condition before mating and should be checked for internal and external parasites.
To avoid breakage of eggs provide a single nest 0.5 m wide by 0.5 m deep for every 5 hens.
A community nest 0.6 m wide by 2 m long, suitable for 15 hens, may be used as an alternative to single nests; however, there is usually a higher incidence of egg breakages in community nests.
Nests should be in a protected area and be provided with a floor covering of rice hulls, coarse sand, shavings or straw. Constant vigilance is required to ensure that the nests do not become a harbour for external parasites. The nests may be elevated from ground level but must be easily accessible to the hens by being fitted with a ramp and ledge. It is, however, usual for nests to be placed at ground level.
Collect eggs three times daily and store for no longer than 7 days in a room that provides a temperature of 10°C and a relative humidity of 85%.
Turkey eggs hatch in 28 days. In forced-draught incubators, eggs should be maintained at 37.7°C during incubation, reduced to 37°C at hatching. The relative humidity at setting should be 55%, rising to 70% at pipping. These are equivalent to wet bulb readings of 30°C and 33°C.
Turn eggs at least three times daily, until the 26th day, through an angle of 45°. Larger incubators are fitted with automatic turning devices.
Poults are notoriously difficult to start drinking and feeding as day-olds. Small heaped amounts of feed should be evenly spaced over the floor in the brooding area. One small round feeder (25 kg capacity) is adequate for every 25 poults.
Drinking water is even more important for day-old poults. The producer should introduce poults to water by dipping their beaks in the water immediately they are placed on the floor. Each small automatic water font is suitable for 50 poults.
Attract the poults to water and feed by hanging bright 100 watt ‘spotlights’ over these areas 1 m above litter level. Poults can be further encouraged to eat by placing feed in small silver-coloured aluminium trays, and to drink by putting coloured marbles in the waterers.
The temperature for day-old poults should be around 35°C, as day-old poults need plenty of heat. This temperature should be reduced 1°C every 3 days until a temperature of 21°C is reached.
Temperatures are to be used only as a guide because the best way to adjust the temperature for the comfort of the poults is to observe their behaviour. If they crowd near the heat source and chirp loudly, the temperature is too low. If they move well away from the heat source and start panting, they are too hot. Ideally they should be fairly quiet and spaced evenly under and around the heat source (see the diagram at right).
Poults are best brooded in small groups of preferably up to 250, separated by 50 cm high brooder surrounds.
Beak trimming at 10 days of age will prevent cannibalism.
Once fully feathered at about 7 weeks of age, the poults may be given outside range of 1500 m2 (0.15 ha) per 100 birds.
Intensively housed birds are brooded and reared in the same shed at a density of 5 birds per square metre and processed by 12 weeks of age.
A turkey starter diet of between 24% and 28% protein should be fed until 8 weeks of age. Ideally, feed a 28% ration for the first 4 weeks and reduce to 24% for the next 4 weeks. This protein level is reduced to 20% and fed until marketing.
The following rations may be fed with the addition of a vitamin and mineral supplement, plus a preventative for blackhead disease.
Prepared feeds should be placed in self-feeding-type hoppers to provide unrestricted access at all times.
Traditionally, turkeys have been bought at Christmas and Easter as big birds, ranging from 2.5 to 5.0 kg plus in size (dressed weight). This requirement is slowly changing as families buy smaller one-meal birds at other times of the year. ‘Further processing’ of turkey portions is enabling the processor to attract a larger share of the consumer’s budget. The consumer can now buy over sixty different cuts of turkey and further processed turkey products such as turkey hams, steaks and sausages (smoked and broiled).
Source: Published by NSW Department of Primary Industries - June 2006
© State of New South Wales 2006