Friday, May 12, 2006

Economic realities of turkeys

Katherine came in this morning to tell me that six slate poults (baby turkeys) are dead this morning. That bring the total to around 20-something, which is half the number we started with. They cost $8 each, and with half of them dead, that means they effectively cost $16 each. Add $5 processing cost to each one, and they cost $21 each before they've even eaten one bite -- and turkeys eat a lot. Over the next six months, they'll eat hundreds of dollars of feed.

This morning's poults died as a result of either getting too cold or suffocating. People argue about whether or not they're dumb -- and we're rather inclined to agree that they are not the brightest birds. We have a brooder that's open on the bottom. Baby chicks come and go as they feel warm or cold. This gives them room to run around outside if they want -- and if they're feeling warm enough. Maybe baby turkeys aren't smart enough for this system. Overnight a bunch of turkeys had left the warmth of the brooder and huddled into the corner of the stall where the brooder is located. This morning, my daughter found six dead ones in the corner. Apparently, at some point last night, they ran out into the stall, and when they got cold, they huddled in a corner rather than running back under the brooder. This has worked quite well since they arrived last month. Why did they suddenly forget where to go for warmth last night?

We had high mortality last year with the turkeys, and we lost money big time. I didn't want to do turkeys again, but the family talked me into it. Quite a few last year were lost to equally stupid reasons ... a stray cat that came along and managed to eat about a dozen babies, a dozen that just wandered off one day and never returned. Yeah, we learned from that. This year, we have them in an area that is definitely inaccessible to any varmint that might come along; and we will only use a controlled release plan for putting them on pasture, starting them on a small fenced in area until they're smart enough to go into their house at night, and then giving them unlimited room to roam.

I am equally unhappy with the job the mama turkeys have been doing with their babies. One hatched about six of the eggs in her nest, then left. Several more eggs hatched or were pipped, but the babies died, of course, from getting cold. Too bad we didn't realize what had happened until it was too late. The six babies all disappeared within a few days.

Two more hens had nests on top of the barn storeroom. I heard chirping up there a couple days ago, so we put food and water up there for them. One by one, however, they fell down to the barn floor. The mothers are quite odd. Yesterday, they left the babies huddled in a corner with a barn cat eyeing them, while they chased a squirrel and a duck, who presented no threat to their babies at all. I repeatedly redirected the barn cat and finally picked up all the babies and put them near the two hens, who don't seem to know or care which babies belonged to whom.

Another hen has a nest on the floor in the corner next to the storeroom. She suddenly has a few babies, and we're thinking it's some of the ones that fell from the top of the storeroom, where the other hens hatched eggs. We're keeping an eye on her, because it is entirely possible -- probable -- that she will leave her nest before her eggs are ready to hatch since she already has a brood of poults. If she leaves, we need to get those eggs into an incubator ASAP so they will still hopefully hatch.

It is hard to believe this is our fifth year raising turkeys. We still feel like novices. The past couple years we nailed tin into the corners to round them out and eliminate the corner. If you don't have a corner, that should eliminate the risk of them huddling into corners, but that had it's problems too. We had some turkeys get stuck behind the tin and die, even though the tin was two feet high -- somehow they managed to go over the top and fall into the small space behind the tin. Who knew baby turkeys could jump that high? We tried putting chicken wire in the corners to round it out, thinking that they'd still be able to breathe if another poult got on top of them, and some still died -- probably from the weight of the birds stacked on top of them. They don't even really need corners to die -- last week I went into the barn in the early evening to find about 20 piled on top of each other next to the wall, so I herded them all back under the brooder.

On one hand, I can see why commercial turkey growers go to such lengths to reduce mortality -- putting drugs in the feed and water and keeping them confined forever. On the other hand, none of those things make the turkeys any smarter. My daughter had seen the poults huddled into a corner last night, and she herded them all back under the brooder. I guess someone could spend the night with them to make sure they all stay put ... but ... it already looks like the turkeys will be a financial loss this year. I don't know how to turn it around at this point.


june in florida said...

So sorry about the chicks,they do seem incredibly dumb,you have to wonder how the wild turkeys manage to survive. I lived in Nw Arkansas for a while and we had wild turkeys on the farm.Maybe wild ones are smarter.Btw just because no comments are left we are still reading the blog, just nothing to say!

Deborah said...

Thanks June. When you think about the fact that a turkey only needs to replace itself, you realize how much "waste" is built into the system. I've heard some people say that wild turkeys are smarter, but they don't need to be. If they have one poult survive to adulthood each year, that's enough to continue the species.

We see this every year with our guineas. They are hardly domesticated at all. They act very wild, and you can't get near them. They hide their nests quite well, and in mid- to late-summer, a mama guinea will come walking out with 20 keets behind her. Over the next few days, the number will dwindle. If one makes it to adulthood, that's success for them. But enough about guineas ... if you keep reading, you'll no doubt see me ranting about them later this summer as they lose more babies.


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