Heritage turkeys have similar needs to other poultry. In fact, most of it is basic-as-can-be with a few unique twists.
Water–Turkeys drink most in the morning. Expect 6 adult birds to go through approx 1 gallon per day. In the heat of summer they will need more. In order to avoid contamination and for ease of drinking, boost the bird’s system at least 4 inches off the ground.
Food: We overwinter our birds on a mix of grains, corn and legumes. They also need grit (tiny rocks) when feeding non cracked grains or corn as their gizzard cannot grind it up without. If the weather dips into the -15C, we mix in a bag of protein feed to help with warmth and functionality.
See Natural Mothering for hen’s spring feed and Raising Poults for baby feed.
Turkeys are clean eaters, unlike the chicken or even the duck. They are prolific bug-hunters and hugely enjoy grass, clover and dandelion greens. For some, this is a down side to keeping ’em: they won’t eat your leftover table scraps or even freshly picked leaves from the garden!
If it isn’t growing, flying or hopping, they won’t eat it…unless…its fruit, corn on the cob or squash. The turkeys’ beak is designed like-and-yet-unlike the chickens, with less ability to “tear things up.” Soft foods (such as a cut-open winter squash or fruit) go down in chunks. Dry corn-on-the-cob kernels go down whole.
Overall, you must think of the turkey as a grazing animal, instead of scavenging bird, particularly when free-ranging.
Pen Space: if birds are confined to a pen, they’ll need approx 10 sq feet of space per bird. We prefer to give ’em 15! If wanting to 100% free range yet keep turkeys confined, at 30 sq feet of space per bird they need a hearty protein cover-crop of clover or legumes. If unconfined, they will find their own food, though they may wander far to find it.
Roosting: If building roosts outdoors or in a house, allow approx 2 sq ft of space per bird. Make it at least 3 ft off the ground. To date we still don’t have a turkey house! Just willows, a lean-to and the massive roost shown below. If there’s one unique thing about turkeys, its their desire to stay the night in high places. My first experience with roosting turkeys amazed me: the birds were swaying on power lines…30 ft in the air! If 100% free ranging they will find their own roosting places and though it can be difficult to stop ’em, there are ways!
Shelter: this is where heritage turkeys vary from broad-breasted varieties. They are extremely hardy, braving the snow and cold temperature of -15C-20C most of the day. However, it is wise to provide them with a shelter if thick trees are not to be had. Originally we had a small, three sided lean-to and sheltered roosting area. It was adequate. But even more than cold, turkeys need protection from heat. A pen with willow trees or thick foliage is ideal. If not, set up a lean-to shelter for ’em.
Nests: when springtime comes hens get the itch…and they get it real bad when we change ’em to a protein feed. Provide nests or your hens will disappear over the wire and make their own nests in bushes, under equipment or in the neighbor’s yard! Give ’em a dark, isolated box that is 18×20 inches. Beware: you may find more than one hen stuffed into a nest! Hens enjoy being with like-minded hens!