Like many preppers, we've been looking for ways to expand our self-sufficiency. With 25 years of experience raising chickens for both meat and eggs, adding another meat fowl seemed like a good move. Although we had raised both broilers and laying hens of many breeds, we hadn't found a good all-purpose bird among the chickens, although many lay claim to the title. They either laid poorly (eating all the while) or were very short on meat when killing time came.
As readers may know, chickens in America have been bred for two tracks: meat (fast growing, often leg problems, too big to properly breed) and egg layers (broodiness bred out, goal of one egg per day bred in, hens 'wear out' quickly, especially if pushed to lay with extra light.) The standard way of raising for us had been get chicks from a hatchery, raise to eating/laying size, replace with a new set as needed. This is not a self-sustaining plan. So, after extensive research, we chose the Midget White Turkey (MWT) and began our personal experience with this breed.
MWTs have several huge advantages for the homesteading prepper: (1) they're smaller, eat less, need smaller housing and can do some foraging for themselves, (2) they love human beings and are easy to handle, (3) they are good setters and mothers, and (4) they taste wonderful. The meat is close grained and takes like real turkey. Every bite, from the long, oval breast to the broth from the bones smells and tastes like an old-fashioned turkey dinner. Finally, (4) they are easier to kill and clean than bigger birds, and in a scenario where food has to be eaten because of lack of electricity or refrigeration, a MWT can be polished off in a meal or two, depending on the size of the group.
I say 'we', because two homesteads are raising the MWT right now so as to have a larger gene pool. SW Farm used electricity in the shed this past winter and raised the birds, initially, on wire. NW Farm got young birds from SW Farm and raised them in a well-insulated shed on wood and on the ground. So we got to see how different methods worked.
The turkey lore warns of grave problems with disease if turkeys are raised on the ground, and this may be so for young birds or other breeds. SW Farm found that the turkeys didn't like being on wire and their claws became so long and curved they had trouble walking on a regular floor on the coop. As soon as they were let out on the ground they ran to get dust baths, then began to graze. The claws were worn down, as the Lord intended. So both Farms moved to a 'barnyard' setting for the turkeys. SW farm uses a moveable pen, with protective netting. NW Farm uses a stationary yard, with netting, again, against hawks. Both flocks have done well with no losses to disease. SW Farm did find it's easier and healthier to have a low screen made of furring strips covered with hardware cloth in the coop under the roosts. There's less walking in droppings and a quick cleanup by removing the screen, raking out, then replacing it.
Turkey are susceptible to coccidiosis, a bowel disease that makes their droppings look like chocolate pudding. They do not 'grow out' of this like chickens do. It can progress to blood loss and small, unthrifty or dead birds. So we began the birds on commercial feed with Amprolium. After the birds graduated to regular pellets we still had to treat for coccidiosis with liquid medicine added to their water. Oddly, the stated cause for coccidiosis in turkeys is from the ground, previous birds, or their own feces. In our case, the housing was new, the birds were on wire (droppings fell through and were promptly cleaned up) - there was very little contact, yet they got the disease. The Merck vet Manual seems to imply it's almost impossible to avoid. With treatment and more space, they seemed to recover, and now there is only an occasional problem that I suspect is more from too much forage than disease. Perhaps a reader is more expert and can respond to this idea.
Throw away all the turkey legends when dealing with MWTs. Midgets are not stupid, won't drown looking up at the rain, aren't susceptible to diseases that ravage the commercial birds, such as blackhead, and do not have to be artificially inseminated. When we initially ordered our birds we had one loss upon arrival and another due to an accident with the waterer. All the others flourished. They got wet as dishrags on rainy days, don't mind walking on snow (and we had a lot of it) and seemed hardier than chickens in many ways.
The poults (baby turkeys) were ordered from Murray McMurray Hatchery and came as 3-day old birds on 4/21/2010. As poultry go, they are expensive, and only straight run were available from any breeder.
They were brooded very simply, with a heat lamp and draft shield. The first egg was laid on November 1st at SW Farm. NW farm didn't have the first egg until spring. This is probably due to the fact that SW Farm has a light in a coop with large windows and NW doesn't.
You'll immediately notice that these turkeys mature much more quickly than chickens. Not only do they get bigger faster, they display pecking order behavior and sex-linked behavior only a few weeks old. Initially it was hard to tell which were the males and which the females from our straight-run order because the females would fluff out their feathers, fan their tails and display aggressively while finding their place in the flock. A turkey fight is pretty impressive - the birds grab each other by a beak lock and fight until one is exhausted. They can and will draw blood in the fight. They also peck the head and beak of another bird and can damage the beak. So beak clipping is necessary. If you clip too deeply, be ready to cauterize with a hot knife. We did not de-beak them as poults. Females will fight this way as well as males.
As adults, females will still fight over the mating order, the nests and pecking order. I found it necessary to re-clip the beaks of the more aggressive ones. But toward humans, they are friendly, interested, and will allow themselves to be fed by hand and handled. Keep in mind that birds discover things by pecking, and they'll peck your clothes and skin. Our turkeys were trained not to peck hands and even a nesting hen would only give a 'warning peck' to a human, that is, not really bite down hard. A hard bite will leave a blood blister, and those claws are sharp. So be warned and wear gloves yourself if you're clipping beaks or some unwanted attention. MWTs are very forgiving, though. Where a chicken would run away for a week after a de-beaking, the next time the Farmer came in they were all gathering around.
Under normal conditions, overall MWTs are less aggressive to humans than other fowl I've seen. This is good, because a WMT male weights 13 - 18 lbs. dressed out, and the females 8 - 10 lbs. So far there have been no aggressive attacks defending the hens as there were when we had a rooster, even when entering the pen during mating.
Turkey males will fight to the death, so once the birds were able to be out in the ambient temperatures. we chose one male and segregated the second. In my flock, the chosen bird (called 'Studley') seemed like the best choice - he was big and healthy - that was almost making the fatal mistake among small turkey breeders of choosing the big birds and ruining the breed. But 'Thanksgiving' (to remind everyone on the Farm of his destiny) wound up being the flock male because the females liked him better, he seemed to breed more easily, was more attentive and protective, and all around more like the classic MWT bird. After observing both with a chance at the flock, Studley 'flew into the freezer'. He was very tasty, and wasn't greatly missed.
A turkey killing cone is highly recommended when killing time comes. A bird that big flopping around makes a huge mess and can break wings. They're strong - don't plan to hold one down.
We use the 'brain stick' method once the bird is immobilized in the cone. Take the head of the bird in your left hand, and a small knife with the end honed into a sharp on both sides half-circle, in your right. Insert the blade into the slit in the turkey's upper beak, push the blade toward the palm of the hand holding the head, (think of a line from the blade through the eye and into the brain) and give a sharp twist. (Obviously, you're wearing gloves, although we've never seen a blade go through the skull.) There should be one sharp cry and then the bird is dead. Immediately cut the veins on either side of the neck and bleed out the bird. There will then be the flapping and shaking, which is why the cone is so important. Even then, you want to stand back, because a flopping head can spray blood all over the Farmer. The bird should be eviscerated, plucked and chilled as soon as it's bled out.
MWTs seem to have a high quality down. We didn't have the chance this year to test it out, but it might be worth cleaning and using the down. Also, the biggest flight feathers of a turkey have been, and in places still are used to make quill pens.
In the NW Farm flock, it took a couple of months to determine that some possible males were females. This is because the Midgets seem to come in two types, those with rose colored feet and more reddish necks in the females, and those that are paler in the neck and have white feet. Both sexes have a beginning snood. There is no question, though, as the males get older, that the red necks and wattles, the snood, and blue heads are very distinctive in addition to the tail fanning and low spread of the wings. MWT males are beautiful birds when displaying.
We soon learned that a 'nesting house' or area was necessary. When the large white eggs with purple/brown speckles began to come, some birds became broody. They would compete for nesting space, and the others would keep coming into the nest to see what was going on. A nesting bird coming out for daily food and water was getting beat up. So we segregated the nesting birds with her young.
A nesting MWT hisses like a goose, fluffs up her feathers and tries to defend her eggs by pecking, but another bird would steal the eggs with a curling motion of her beak, or even sit on top of the nesting bird, crushing eggs. Since SW Farm has limited space, I chose one female to lay on all the eggs. Gestation is 28 days, and the first bird hatched Turkeys will lay eggs for several months, at least 6, but not all year. The eggs are good to eat, a bit more viscous than hen's eggs, and some people say a bit stronger. They are excellent for baking and quickly incorporate air when beaten. We had very tender meringues and high-rising quick breads with the extra eggs.
Extra eggs? Yes. SW Farm learned not to try to let a hen brood in the winter. This past year temperature\s were regularly in the 'teens and the eggs died in the cold in spite of everything I could do - two heat lamps, etc. It's sad to see a hen lose her whole clutch, or to open an overdue egg and find a fully formed poult frozen to death.
At NW Farm they there's no electricity in the shed, so the birds did not start to lay until this spring. This is a good idea, in my opinion. Perhaps SW Farm's birds were too pampered. If meat is needed in winter and the hens are laying, plan to incubate them yourself. There are both electric and non-electric incubators - an ingenious one is available from the Amish at Lehman's.
The standard lore is that turkeys will lay 110 - 115 eggs in 28/30 weeks, 7 - 8 months. They are 'eating size' at 32 weeks and ready to lay. We found that the turkeys were small for eating that early, and this is the main reason that MWTs are not commercially raised - they don't grow fast enough. But for the small farm, time is not that critical.
MWTs will eat out of your hand, so when we were ready to cull our extra male, we put him in a smaller cage and made a point of feeding him high carbohydrate snacks. The lack of exercise makes the meat more tender, and the high carb diet put on some fat. But MWTs will not pork up the way store birds do.
Setting hens are very attentive. I even have to boot mine out of the nest to be sure she eats. There will be one, large smelly poop a day, and it's better done outside. Food and water kept near the nest is a good idea, and a handful of rye grass from the garden or scraps will keep her in good health. When the poults come, she'll eat and drink from their food source, although I keep adult food available for her. So there has to be enough for all, and the water fount has to be appropriate for chicks.
MWTs don't like change. It takes a long time for them to adjust to a new coop or a change in their old one and to find nests. When they come from the hatchery they take longer to find food and water than chickens - this is extremely important to know. Like all chicks, they are susceptible to drowning in a small amount of water, so there should be a special waterer), or marbles put in the fount so the water can be drunk but not swum in. When raised by another bird, though, this doesn't seem to be a problem. Our poults found the food and water with no problem, were kept warm, dried after coming out of the egg, gently gathered under the hen's feathers when cool...this is the upside of having birds raise their own.
Their long necks mean it is easy for them to scatter food, so SW Farm found that a deep container, like a window box, filled only to 2 or 3 inches, made a good feeder. NW Farm fed the birds daily in a large pan to conserve the grain - the birds were only given enough for each feeding. A plain bucket works for water. They drink a lot, so be prepared for daily fillings. MWTs are not as omnivorous as chickens, either. They like the occasional bread crust but prefer something green, and will graze like wild turkeys, whereas our chickens will eat anything that doesn't eat them first. MWTs can eat a grain of corn whole, useful info for those who grow their own feed. They swallow, rather than peck at the food. In winter I used some scratch feed, but they preferred the whole rye grains rather than the cracked corn. (I personally wonder about that cracked corn - my birds don't like it the way they used to and I think it's because of the poor quality and genetic alteration. I'm planning to start growing some feed this year.)
MWTs make sounds that have meanings. The male, of course, has the traditional 'gobble'. Females will whistle to find each other to point out food, or when they see Their Farmer. They make a different sound when about to lay an egg or talking to their eggs and chicks that sounds like 'buddle up'. This sound, with raised back feathers, means an egg is on the way. If you're collecting to incubate, wait and gather the fresh egg as soon as it is dry. Don't wash the eggs, because this protective coating is part of God's plan to keep the egg safe from bacteria.
There is also a sound almost like the bark of a small dog MWTs make when agitated or really need something. There is a little murmuring sound at mating, or when they're choosing a mate, or when the male is trying to talk a female into mating. Males mount the females, who present themselves by settling on the ground, putting their feet on the females' outspread wings. This is another reason not to have too big a male - if you're raising them on wire, they can get hurt. We had some cases of torn feet. A receptive female will raise her tail, and a male doing his job will be working at this all day.
Once the eggs are laid, they should be candled at intervals and the unfertilized eggs discarded. Don't wash or refrigerate the eggs. I'm told eggs will keep at room temperatures for up to 20 days, but a clutch can be assembled in less time than that. Also, it seems to be true that a hen remains fertile for about a week on the nest, even away from the male if she lays additional eggs. Mark the date the egg was laid with an indelible marker, candle at least twice during the incubation period and mark the egg. Remove eggs that don't hatch by 10 days after that date. A bad egg will actually explode with a sound like a small caliber pistol, and they smell horrible. I found that a chart (many available on line) showing the development of the bird inside the egg helped in learning to candle eggs.
Cooking the MWT is a little different than the store bird. First, store birds are injected with water (and sometimes flavored solutions that contain salt), and are fattier. Homegrown Midgets have a finer grain of meat and smaller breasts. The whole bird, plucked, is a bit more oval than the standard store turkey. They can be dry plucked, but it's pretty hard work, and should be chilled for 24 hours to allow rigor mortis to pass off for more tender eating.
Once the bird is ready to cook, slip your hand between the breast meat and skin, and place pats of butter there and on top of the drumstick. This will baste the bird from within. The butter can be seasoned, if you like. We found cooking them in a covered roaster was best, then removing the lid for browning. This takes about half the usual cooking time. In general I think fresh cooks faster than store-bought. The 'dark' meat will be darker than on a commercial bird and folks who like it raved about the MWT. (I'm not a big dark meat lover, so I think this is a fair assessment.) It will be tougher if the birds have had more exercise. Remember, the store birds are raised in crowded conditions for meat, only, grown just until they are saleable, but your birds will be raised in barnyard conditions. For a special meal, choose a bird, put it into a smaller pen for a couple of weeks, and feed it the high carbohydrate diet for best eating. This is what the old-timers used to do with chickens.
Leftover MWT makes excellent soup, croquettes, pot pie, etc. Unlike the store bird, this meat is good and doesn't need a sales pitch to get eaten. We foresee a time when any meat will be welcome, but for the small farm, the Midget White seems to be a very good choice.