Then & Now: The Care & Feeding of Turkeys

By Posted in - Heritage Livestock & Homesteading on June 13th, 2015 0 Comments

A friend recently gave me a facsimile copy of a fascinating little book that was published in London in 1780. It is The Farmer’s Wife; or The Complete Country Housewife by Alex. Hogg. The book contains instructions for managing all types of poultry, hogs, and honey bees; as well as recipes for sausages, hogs-puddings, wines, “cyder,” beer and other drink, butter and cheeses, and for preserving fruits and vegetables.

The section about raising turkeys immediately caught my attention because I have a particular fondness for them. Here is an excerpt, 18th-century spelling and all, on how to feed young poults (turkey chicks):

“The breeding of Turkies is often found to be a work of some difficulty; but it may be rendered more easy by the following mode of proceeding. Keep the hen and young ones in a barn or outhouse, for six weeks ater the young are hatched, which will not only keep them warm, but prevent the young ones from eating small slugs or snails, which seldom fail of scouring them to death. At the end of six weeks let them be brought out into a place where the sun affords a moderate heat: this place should be enclosed with wicker, to prevent their ranging; and they should be fed (as from the time of their being hatched) with curds, in which is a little rue cut small, and some ant eggs. They may be permitted to stay out about two hours, but as they grow more hardy, a greater proportion of time should be allowed them in the open air, till they are capable of shifting for themselves. Soon after the turkies are hatched you should carry to them a fresh turf of short grass every day; but, for the reason above-mentioned, particular care must be taken that no slugs or snails are on it… Some people feed them with new made cheese cut into small bits, instead of curds, and give them new milk, or milk and water to drink. Others boil oatmeal and milk together till it is very thick, and chop wormwood small, or hard-boiled eggs into it, and give them this for food.”

I can just see the farmwife sending her children out to gather ant eggs from under rocks and logs! And I was delighted to see the tip about feeding curd or new cheese. Apparently the practice goes back a long time. I can’t remember where I learned the “old timers trick” of feeding poults yogurt to keep them healthy, but we have definitely observed that ours do much better when they have it. The cultured proteins are easy for them to digest and provide healthy gut flora vital to their immune system. For their first few days, we also add to the poults’ water a crushed garlic clove for its antibacterial qualities, a little organic raw apple cider vinegar and honey. We do not use antibiotics on any of our poultry under any circumstances, preferring natural methods to build immunity in our flocks.

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I was fascinated to read of Hogg’s use of the medicinal herbs rue and wormwood for poults, especially because of his warning against letting them eat snails and slugs which can serve as intermediate hosts for parasites harmful to young turkeys. Most healthy heritage-breed turkeys develop a natural resistance to parasites by maturity. The anti-parasitic affects of wormwood are well known to me since we use it to treat sheep, but I was curious about the rue so I looked into it further and found a reference to rue leaves as a treatment for croup in poultry on page 303 of Herbal Simples by W.T. Fernie, M.D., London 1895.

Hogg continues:

“Turkeys are by nature inclined to range; wherefore they are kept to most advantage in open countries, because vermin are not there harboured in any great number. Turkies, being by nature tender, they cannot be looked after with too much care, or kept too warm while they are young.”

Perhaps in his experiences Hogg had observed that poults are much more susceptible succumbing to environmental stresses such as cold, dampness, bacteria and parasites than young chickens, ducks and geese. It is indeed important to keep them in a very clean, warm and dry environment when they are small. We keep ours in the brooder house for at least 8 weeks (compared to 3-6 weeks for baby chickens) and pay extra special attention to their care. Fortunately, once turkeys have matured, they are often described as “tough as nails” and we would call that an accurate description. It’s getting them to that point that is the trick.

On feeding adult turkeys, Hogg explains:

“If they are permitted to feed on corn they will devour great quantities; but if denied this food, they will, when full grown, by feeding on seeds, herbs, &c. thrive greatly.”

True, true! They can rack up quite a feed bill, so once our turkeys have matured we only give them a little feed and then watch them combing the fields and woods for seeds, grasses and insects. They are beautiful birds and we feel blessed to have them grace our farm.

Our turkeys feasting on dogwood berries in the fall.

Our turkeys feasting on dogwood berries in the fall.