I remember a poster from a long time ago that said, "As soon as I figure out all the answers, they change the questions!" That's what it's like living on a farm! I can't imagine that we will ever feel like we know what we are doing.
But I also think that people knew a lot more a hundred years ago than we do today when it comes to natural animal husbandry. After eight years, we thought we had pretty much figured out this whole turkey raising scenario. If we get them from a hatchery or hatch them in an incubator, we raise them in a brooder until they're old enough to go outside. Depending upon how cold it is, that would be around one or two months of age. If they're hatched by a turkey mama, we don't have to do anything, unless we want to ensure that she doesn't lose any, in which case we catch them all and put them in a portable poultry pen (also known as a chicken tractor). In any case, if mama hatches them, she keeps them warm and teaches them all they need to know about catching bugs, eating, drinking, flying, and other important turkey topics.
But what do you do when the babies start out with a turkey mama and she gets killed by a predator? As I said in my last blog post, I wasn't sure we did the right thing by catching the babies and putting them in the barn, although at only three weeks of age, they would have probably died from hypothermia that first night without their mama or a heat lamp to keep them warm. Unfortunately, all three died today. They never started eating or drinking. We tried sprinkling the grain on a white paper towel the way we do with newly hatched poults, but they totally ignored it, unlike younger ones who peck at it and then realize it tastes good. The level on the feeder never went down in two days. It never occurred to me to dip their beaks in water, because they've been drinking for three weeks already, haven't they?
I spent a lot of time the last two days watching the turkey mama with nine, one-week-old poults wandering around the yard. Baby turkeys in a natural setting are an amazing sight. They eat non-stop, pecking at everything. The mama never takes them to the chicken house to eat grain or drink water from the waterer. I was hoping that somehow I would figure out how to get the three orphaned turkeys to eat, but I didn't have any amazing revelations.
On the one hand, I was tempted to let them loose in the garden so they could eat and live in the environment to which they were accustomed. However, there was the issue of keeping warm. And considering how long it took us to catch the third poult -- and what a good flyer he was -- I was afraid we would never catch him again if we let them loose, even in the garden, which is fenced in. There are so many tall weeds and plants in there. They would have far too many places to hide.
I have a feeling that my Grandma Rosie would have known what to do in this situation, and if she didn't know, then one of her friends or neighbors would have known. A hundred years ago, all turkeys were free range and raised by their mama, unless there was some type of extraordinary circumstance -- like the mama was eaten by a predator. None of the books tell you what to do with orphaned turkeys, because almost no one today lets turkeys set on eggs and hatch poults. Knowledge of natural animal husbandry has mostly been lost.
A couple years ago, an Illinois extension agent called me in the middle of winter and said he was trying to find turkey poults. Did I have any? Extension agents are supposed to be experts in these types of things, yet this man had no idea that turkeys don't naturally lay eggs in the winter, which means you can't hatch eggs in the winter. My turkeys don't start laying eggs until April, and then they take 28 days to hatch after they're put in an incubator or the mama starts setting. However, the turkey mamas don't always get the urge to set that soon. As I mentioned, we just had a mama hatch nine poults a week ago. I am a bit worried about them surviving, because I'm not sure they'll be feathered out enough before it gets too cold.
One year we had a chicken hatch babies in October, and as they got bigger, they didn't all fit underneath her at night, and when we got a real cold spell in November, they all started dieing. Each morning, we'd find another one dead. I think it was probably the unlucky one who wound up on the edge of the huddle overnight.
But I digress. It is terribly frustrating to learn things through trial and error. So, whenever this happens again, what do we do? How do you convince a three-week-old bird to start eating grain when it's never eaten grain in its life? And of course, this just makes me question the whole issue of feeding grain to turkeys, because they eat so little (or none) when given the choice. I've suspected for a while that we (as in all modern Americans with turkeys) might be feeding more grain than would be natural, so that the weight gain is faster. But not knowing any centenarian farmers, I might have a hard time finding out how turkeys were raised a century ago.