Keeping Turkeys Healthy in Winter


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By Don Schrider – Turkeys are remarkably hardy birds. By the time turkeys reach maturity, they are very easy to care for, and are capable of surviving winter weather in great shape. When you venture into keeping turkeys, you will discover a large range of beautiful colors to be found in turkey breeds — red, white, bronze, blue, and even complex patterns with combinations of several colors. Whether you decide on a Royal Palm Turkey or a Bourbon Red turkey, who wouldn’t enjoy having a tom strutting around displaying his brilliant tail feathers? They are inquisitive, impressive, and intelligent, it is a wonder more people don’t decide on keeping turkeys part of their backyard flock.

When keeping turkeys, the nature of turkeys is the first consideration we should take into account when planning on caring for turkeys through the winter. Turkeys are inquisitive and may easily become bored when confined to small pens. They like to range, and this exercise helps to keep muscles toned, generates body heat, and increases appetite. They like to roost at night, which provides them with protection from predators. While roosting, they will huddle together, thus keeping each other warm. For a roost location, they naturally seek out a location with fresh, moving air — this provides plenty of oxygen, whisks away moisture, and prevents ammonia from manure from damaging lung tissue. They need a supply of fresh feed and water to remain healthy.

Biggest Winter Challenge is Access to Fresh Water

Providing unfrozen water may be the biggest challenge in keeping turkeys in the winter. As turkeys exhale a good deal of moisture is lost. This is largely due to the anatomy of turkeys. Unlike mammals that have sweat glands, turkeys are designed to use the breath to cool the bird during hot periods by giving off moisture. Turkeys are large birds and so need a fair amount to drink just to digest their food as well. Buckets can be used as waterers in areas that freeze. I suggest emptying the buckets at night and filling again in the morning. If possible, watering a second time in the afternoon is advisable. Buckets can be turned upside down in the sun and usually will thaw enough for the ice to slip out. Buckets can also be brought into a warm location, such as a cellar, and allowed to thaw enough to empty. If your turkeys are penned near a location with electricity, which is also covered from the weather, a heater can be used to prevent their drinking water from freezing. If a fresh moving stream is to be the water source, keep in mind that during low temperatures the turkeys can suffer frostbite to their wet toes and feet. My grandfather had a duck whose feet actually froze in this way.

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Housing Needs of Turkeys

The types of pens used to contain the turkeys must be taken into consideration when keeping turkeys in the winter. Turkeys on range will naturally exercise, burn a lot of calories, and eat to support their activity level; leaving them better able to withstand winter winds and temperatures. Smaller pens do not provide turkeys with opportunities to exercise, and so must do a good job of protecting turkeys from the elements. Pens should be so designed to block prevailing winds but allow for plenty of air movement. Turkeys can stand the full force of the wind better than a draft. So take the time to feel for air movement in the area of the roost. Cold, wintry rains can chill turkeys; turkeys should have access to covered areas—even if they choose not to use them.

Turkeys are independent thinkers and have their own idea of what is best for them. Many turkey keepers find their turkeys refusing even a roof and roosting on top of fences or in trees during the worst of New England winters. Our job is not so much to control the turkeys but to provide them with shelter they can choose to use and to design pens to support their natural health and well-being.

Roosts should be made of 2 x 4 boards turned so that they are 2″ high and 4″ across. Setting the roost boards in this way ensures that the turkeys have plenty of support for their breastbones and ensures that their feet are covered and kept warm as they sleep — preventing frostbite to toes.

Turkeys can also suffer frostbite to their faces and snoods. But in most cases, turkeys that choose to sleep in the open will tuck their heads under one wing during extreme cold or weather. Turkeys in pens are more prone to frostbite of the face and snood due to lower exercise level—which causes the circulatory system to run slower than when exercising—and to increased moisture in the air. Frostbite of the face and snood is much more likely when the moisture whisks away body heat faster, just like water does to hypothermia victims.

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We often think of keeping turkeys and other poultry warm in winter. But what we really need to do is keep the air fresh and moving, preventing both ammonia and moisture buildup, and give them ample opportunity to exercise. If we provide plenty of fresh food and unfrozen water to drink, the turkeys will fair quite well despite cold temperatures.

Winter Feed for Turkeys

While we are talking about food, winter feeding of turkeys differs little from feeding at other times of the year. We still want to provide a good, base turkey feed—available free choice so that turkeys may consume as much as they like. In addition, I suggest a late day feeding of corn, wheat, or both. Corn adds calories and fat to the diet and gives the turkeys something to burn to keep them warm at night. Wheat generates a lot of heat as it is digested, and so is an excellent winter feed. It also contains a fair amount of oil, so it helps keep feathers in good condition. Feeding these grains late in the day causes the turkeys to eat a little bit more before they go to roost at night, ensuring a full crop for the long winter night. It also helps in two other ways: it causes the turkeys to exercise as they search out the grains, and it gives them something to do to alleviate boredom.

Early Breeding

Keeping turkeys can begin with hatching poults. If you wish to hatch turkey poults early in the year, light stimulation can bring turkey hens into egg production and give toms a desire to mate. Light stimulates hormone production, and thus brings about the onset of breeding. We find light levels are necessary in some chicken breeds before roosters will breed. Wyandottes are a good example—they have little interest in the hens until spring approaches. Just as in chickens, turkeys need about 14 hours of daylight. It is best to add artificial light to the beginning of the day rather than the end, to ensure that the turkeys can see to roost. Talk about getting up with the birds!

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You can expect to see egg production begin about four weeks after lights have been used to extend day length. If temperatures are still low, be sure to collect eggs frequently to prevent chilling or freezing. Eggs that freeze and crack are no good for setting and should be discarded such that the turkeys do not learn to eat the contents and begin egg eating. Store eggs for hatching in your home in a location with a constant temperature and humidity. Save them for up to two weeks—hatchability will be best on eggs saved for two weeks or less.

Added Energy Boost Through Diet

If your turkeys seem a bit lethargic or rundown during winter, they may simply need a boost to their diets. Old timers used to give the turkeys some meat at such times. In fact, some old timers would butcher a hog and give the turkeys the whole carcass. One old timer asked me, “Why do you think the heads of turkeys are bare like a buzzard?” Of course, this was in very large flocks. While it may be unpleasant to give your turkey flock a dead animal to consume, there are alternatives. You can simply give the birds a little bit of ground beef. The protein and the amino acids in raw meat will help the turkeys satisfy what is lacking in their feed. Remember, turkeys need high levels of protein in their diets—in winter they cannot supplement for themselves with insects or other natural forage.

Keeping turkeys healthy in the winter is remarkably easy. The turkeys will reward you with their playful antics, their friendliness, and their beauty. Try these “birds of a different feather” for yourself, I am sure you will find them a great addition to your flock.

Text © Don Schrider, 2012. All rights reserved.

Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He has written for publications such as Backyard Poultry, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Mother Earth News, Poultry Press, and the newsletter and poultry resources of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

He is the author of a revised edition of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys.

Originally published in Backyard Poultry December 2012 / January 2013

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