Breeding Stock | Mating Turkeys | Eggs | Incubation | Hatching | Brooding | Chicks

Breeding Heritage Turkeys


The intention at Heritage Turkeys is to promote traditional varieties of turkey and to ensure their valuable attributes such as an ability to mate naturally, to rear their own young and to free range outdoors are retained for future generations.  To achieve these objectives we have a fairly rigorous breeding agenda.

One often hears that breeding traditional varieties of turkey is difficult, but that is certainly not our experience or a viewpoint we support.  Traditional varieties of turkey are in our opinion no more difficult to breed and rear than any other poultry as long as you
adhere to basic management requirements and apply common sense.

Below we have identified the breeding strategies and methods that have worked for us at Heritage Turkeys.  We acknowledge there are other ways of breeding and rearing these delightful birds, but this is how we do it, and it has been successful to date.

Before embarking upon an incubation project make sure you have undertaken sufficient reading on the topic, and that you know exactly what is required.

Diary:  It is essential to keep a diary and record essential breeding data such as pairing date and laying dates as this
information is easily forgotten.  Essential data such as egg setting date, pipping date, hatch rate, number of clear eggs
or dead in shell must be recorded for effective management of your breeding birds.  Try to take daily readings of both the room and incubator temperature and humidity, where possible keeping the time of recording consistent. This allows you to understand the elements that influence the incubation process, and ultimately improve results.


Breeding Stock:

Breeding Stock - Selection:  The careful selection of both stags and hens is the secret of producing good quality breeding birds, and it is important to refresh your understanding about the criteria and characteristics of the variety you are breeding before placing them in groups.  Always use the best example of traditional turkey to breed from, and make sure they actually meet the criteria for that variety as defined within the current British Poultry Standards. 

Whatever your reasons for breeding make sure the birds you use are specifically selected for the purpose as random pairings rarely give the results required.  Many people are interested in showing their birds and organise their breeding groups to improve certain characteristics such as carriage, appearance and colouring in the hope that this will improve their chances when exhibiting.  However, whilst there is no problem with aspiring to meet the British Poultry Standard one must be careful not to dilute or diminish the utility attributes and integrity of the breed. 

Only breed from birds that are healthy, well fleshed, free from deformity, and are without any external parasites.  One must not breed from a bird where poor fertility and hatchability have been a problem in the past, or where chick mortality has been an issue.  To do so would serve no purpose other than to retain these negative traits.

Breeding Stock - Optimum Characteristics: 

  • Vigorous: healthy and fully prepared to meet the rigours of the breeding season,
  • Fitness: no known history of weaknesses or tendency towards illness in line,
  • Standard:  meet British Poultry Standards, but not at expense of utility factors,
  • Mating:  must be able to mate naturally,
  • Eggs:  must lay good quality eggs to support the incubation process, 
  • Fertility:  must lay a good percentage of fertile eggs,
  • Hatching:  must sustain a good percentage of hatching chicks,
  • Chicks: must be robust with a low mortality rate,
  • Brooding:  must have inclination to brood and rear own young,
  • Robust:  must be sufficiently robust to free range outdoors in all weather.

Breeding Stock - Feeding: The breeding process can be exhausting for the birds, and to perform at their best it is essential they begin the season in good condition.  In January we begin feeding our breeding birds a proprietary breeder mix, and support this with additional supplements. 

We also provide additional fresh green foods even though our breeding groups free range outside on grass.  Importantly we give
all our birds oyster shell as this is an excellent source of calcium essential for strong bones and good egg shells, which is an important consideration at this time of year.  There is fresh water at all times and we usually add a lightly crushed clove of garlic to each drinker.

Experience has shown that poorly prepared birds produce inferior eggs with diminished hatchability rates and higher chick mortality.  So providing a good diet before the season starts will ensure your birds are in excellent condition as the breeding season begins, and more able to withstand the rigours of a long season. 
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Mating Turkeys:

The number of birds you keep and the level of control over breeding you require will dictate whether flock mating or pen mating will be used.

Mating - Record Keeping:  Good record keeping is essential as this will allow you to express fertility and hatchability as a percentage, with the higher values indicating which matings are most successful.  It is  important to remember that fertility and hatchability are not the same thing. Fertility is indicated by whether an egg has the essential components to start life.  Hatchability is the ability for a fertile egg, when given all the appropriate conditions, to progress though all the various stages to hatching.

 

Mating - Flock:  Turkey keepers with a sizeable flock can run several stags with a large group of hens.  However, care must be taken to ensure there are sufficient hens in the flock, and a ratio of one stag to 6-8 hens seems to work well.  A large field is required as the stags require space to organise their breeding group without the risk of constant fighting.  The downfall is that accurate records cannot be kept with this mating strategy.

Mating - Pen:  Arranging your breeding birds in smaller groups within a pen permits a greater understanding of exactly how the mating process is going, and provides an easier arrangement to manage the process.  Certainly anyone wanting specific pairing should use this method.  A good healthy stag can sustain and easily fertilise a group of six hens, and with experienced birds in optimum condition this can be as many as 10.   However, where the number of hens to a single stag is small then care must be taken to ensure his amorous attentions do not damage the hen.

Mating - Turkey Saddles:  We constantly comment upon the importance of natural mating for traditional varieties of turkey, but this is not without problems.  Some stags are rough with the hens and we find this is a particular issue in a flock situation where there is constant competition for females.  But even where there is only a single stag within a group some can still be rough with
their mating and, unless there is a very good reason for using him, we would change the male for a gentler stag.

Some heavy stags can seriously damage a hen's back with their claws by tearing the skin and causing nasty wounds, and we find a 'first year hen' of heavy varieties particularly vulnerable to being damaged this way.  The simplest protection is to use a canvas turkey saddle on the hens back which is easily fitted without restricting her natural movement.  It is important to use the correct size saddle for the particular variety of turkey you are protecting.  Stags should also have their claws and spurs trimmed before the season starts as this gives time for any sharp edges left by cutting time to wear smooth.  We cannot stress enough that vigilance is an essential requirement at breeding time if damage is to be spotted in time and the breeding groups must be checked regularly.


We have found that using hens in their second year with an experienced stag significantly reduces the risk of damage, and given an appropriate pairing we do no use saddles. (Top)

Eggs:

Egg - Laying:  We find some of our turkeys will lay an occasional egg as early as January, but for us the season really begins from mid march onwards as that is when the required 14 hours daylight is available to initiate the laying process.  Our turkeys start going off lay from August onwards, although we often get eggs into late September and some even in October.

To achieve heavier birds for Christmas some breeders start to artificially increase lighting levels to encourage earlier laying as this gives a greater growing period for turkeys intended for the table.  However, given the current trend for smaller table birds we just leave it to nature and have found this works well for us.

The volume of eggs will vary according to the particular variety of turkey and how it is managed and fed.  But as a general rule under optimum conditions lighter breeds can  lay up to 100 eggs and heavier breeds as few as 50.

Where breeding stock is concerned, although hatching from first year eggs is perfectly feasible, we believe hens in their second year produce a more robust and viable egg.

Egg - Storage:  Eggs must be collected at least twice a day and kept with the pointed end downwards. Eggs can can 'stored' for a maximum of 10 days in cool conditions whilst a clutch or setting is gathered.  You must acknowledge that hatchability diminishes the longer an egg is stored, and that a refrigerator is not a suitable place to keep them.  We tilt our trays of stored eggs daily to avoid any issues with contents sticking to the shell.  Those received through the post must be rested with the pointed end down in a tray for 24 hours and allowed to settle before being placed in the incubator.  Eggs must be at ambient room temperature before setting in the incubator to avoid to sudden a change in temperature. 

Egg - Quality:  An egg intended for incubation must be checked to be free from cracks or other surface damage because they are unlikely to hatch and will take up valuable space in your incubator.  But more importantly, cracked or damaged eggs have a high risk of becoming contaminated and exploding in the incubator, and possibly infecting other incubating eggs.  Similarly, misshapen eggs or where it is not of an appropriate size or structure must not be incubated because the developing chick is unlikely to thrive and progress to a successful hatch.
 
Eggs - Washing:  Contrary to many, we see no point in washing an egg with a sanitising agent as this removes the cuticle which had been provided by the hen as a natural barrier.  However, although we do not wash eggs, we do rub off any mud or droppings prior to placing an egg in an incubator.

Eggs - Bought In:  Many turkey keepers begin be buying in fertile eggs and hatching their flock themselves, and with a little research there are many opportunities to acquire eggs from breeders who advertise in poultry press or on the internet.
But do beware, as in our experience hatchability is likely to be diminished once eggs have passed through the postal system.  Also there is significant risk when buying over the internet, and without having had the opportunity to see the parent birds and the circumtances they are kept in.
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Incubation:

Fertile eggs can be incubated naturally by the hens that lay them, by another hen generally known as a broody, or artificially using a purpose made incubator, and any of these options can provide you with a successful hatch.  However, which method you use will depend upon you particular circumstances and how many eggs you are looking to incubate.

Incubation - Natural Hen:  Evolution has equipped poultry with a perfectly adequate mating, incubating and rearing strategy, and given your particular circumstances that is often the best option.  So, if you provide the right environment and circumstances your hen will lay her clutch and rear them naturally.

A caution here is that some birds do not take to brooding and rearing their own young very well and where that is the case, unless there was a very good reason, we would not breed from that particular hen.  Our justification for this strategy is that to do so would only perpetuate an undesirable fault.

Incubation - Broody Hen:  Our strategy is to regularly take the eggs from our rare varieties of turkey and incubate them artificially or by using a 'broody hen' as a foster mother.  Our justification for taking eggs from the natural mother is that this will increase the numbers of eggs being laid, and using a 'broody hen' offers a natural alternative.

Anyone with a flock will soon recognise any hens that have an inclination to go broody, and it would be seen as a fault for someone interested in egg production.  However, for someone with surplus eggs and who wants to rear them naturally, then a broody hen is a bonus.

Incubation - Equipment:  Given the sophisticated automated equipment available today it amazes me that the old boys achieved what they did with wooden incubators and paraffin heaters.  But aesthetics aside, the current equipment wins on all levels by being easier to manage and offering good hatch rates. The secret to success with artificial incubators is a full understanding of the equipment and the process.

As for the most appropriate choice of equipment for your circumstances you must be realistic about the number of chicks you want to rear and the amount of involvement you want with the process.

Fully automated incubators are probably the first choice for most poultry keepers.  But in reality these may not be cost effective if you only want to rear a few birds, and selling surplus stock on is not always an easy option.  Any surplus cockerels or stags we have generally go to our table, but this strategy may be an issue for some.

To avoid any surprises and enable prompt responses make sure you read and understand the manufacturer's instructions before setting your eggs in the incubator.  It is absolutely essential everything is scrupulously clean before you start, and kept that way throughout the incubation and rearing process. 

There is always a flood of second hand equipment coming up for sale at the beginning of the season. Many 'bargains' can be found, but do beware. Make sure that spares are still available, and always try to see the kit before you buy.

Incubation - Location:  The incubation and chick rearing area must be free from draughts with a fairly stable temperature. Importantly, equipment must not be located close to windows or doors where they can be compromised by extreme or rapid temperature changes. 

Incubation - Set Up:  Automatic incubators once set up correctly will maintain a constant temperature and humidity and also turn the eggs regularly.  It is essential to read and fully understand the manufactures instructions before committing your valuable eggs into the incubator.  At the beginning of the season we run the incubators empty for a few days to make sure everything is working.  You must be aware that there are no second chances with the incubation process which, once it has started, must progress through to its logical conclusion.

Incubation - Timing:  The incubation time for a turkey egg is 28 days.  However, the optimum incubation time of 28 days can vary a little either way if there has been a slight long term variation in temperature or humidity.  We always give our eggs a little longer just in case they are slow developers, and we always do a final candling of eggs that exceed 28 days before we discard them.

Incubation - Temperature:  37.5 degrees centigrade is the optimum temperature to incubate turkey eggs, and we run our incubators at this throughout the season.  

Incubators running a little higher than 37.5 will cause an early hatch, and slightly lower temperature will result in a later hatch. 
Importantly, any deviation by a degree or more over a period of time, or any major fluctuations in temperature even short term, will cause damage to the developing embryo. 

We remove eggs from the incubator and place them in a separate hatcher at 25 days for the final stages of incubation, and this is run at a constant 37.0 degrees centigrade.

Incubation - Humidity:    45% humidity is the optimum level for the first 25 days of incubation, and we run our incubators run at that throughout the season.

At 25 days we remove eggs from the incubator and place them in a separate hatcher for the final stages of incubation, and this is run at a constant 65% humidity.

More chicks are lost during the incubation period due to an inconsistent or inappropriate level of humidity than any other single issue, and we cannot stress enough the importance of achieving and maintaining an appropriate level.

Incubation - Candling:  After ten days in the incubator sufficient development should have occurred for you to be able to check fertility by candling your eggs.  Candling is the first opportunity to see new life developing, and I always find it an exciting and enjoyable event.  Placing a bright light behind each egg as you hold it up will soon identify any that are clear or infertile, and need to be discarded.  We always undertake candling in a darkened area as this provides the best opportunity to see any development that has occurred.

Incubation - Opening Incubator:  Try to keep the opening of the incubator to once a day, and only then when it is
absolutely necessary. Anything that needs to be done within the incubator should be planned for with everything ready to hand as this minimises the time the door is open and the temperature is changing.

Incubation - Turning:  Turkey eggs must be turned regularly throughout the first 25 days of the incubation period to stop the contents from sticking to the inside of the shell.  Egg turning is something hens do instinctively and is easily replicated in an automated incubator.  Egg turning must stop after 25 days to allow the developing chick to position itself correctly and begin the process of hatching.

Incubation - Power Cuts:  We live remotely and get quite a few power cuts a year, and often at a vital stage in the incubation process. Our strategy is to place blankets and quilts over the incubators and to never open the doors until power has been restored and operational temperatures reached. Do not discard the hatch due to a power failure. Some chicks may survive and progress to a natural hatch.
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Hatching:
 
Hatching - Piping:  At about 25 days your turkey eggs will start to 'pip', and you may hear the chicks tapping away on the inside of their shell, or see tiny holes and cracks appear.  It is at this 25 day stage, and even where there are no signs of piping, eggs should be removed from the incubator into the hatcher.

The process of hatching takes about three days, and for some observers this can be a difficult time.  We cannot stress enough the
importance of letting nature take its natural course in this process.   

Hatching - Tough Love:  Difficult though it is our golden rule is never to assist chicks that may be struggling to hatch out of their shell.  As long as we had prepared the parent birds appropriately, selected the eggs well and had an otherwise good incubation, we believe to intervene would only serve to encourage or perpetuate a fault or weakness.  Similarly, any hatched chicks that develop a defect are despatched immediately.  We justify this strategy as a responsibility to maintain and manage stock viability.  We have tried to 'rescue' chicks in difficulty, but experience shows that this often just prolongs their suffering which is never justifiable.

Hatching - Drying Off:  Newly hatched chicks need to stay in the hatcher until they have fully dried off and fluffed up, and only when that has been completed can they be transferred and placed under a broody lamp.
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Brooding Area:  Currently being Written



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Chicks:

Chick - Feeding:  After hatching chicks can live off their absorbed yolk sack for a couple of days.  However, to get them off to a good start in life it is advisable to get them eating independently as soon as possible.

Chick Crumb:  There are a number of manufacturers of turkey crumb to choose from. But do ensure that whichever you choose it has at least 22% protein. Also, make sure you read the label carefully to ensure you know what you are giving your birds, and follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Dipping a chicks beak into water and then into the crumb will encourage them to feed.  Also a coloured marble in the feed will encourage inquisitive chicks to peck at it and ultimately to eat. 

Water:  Fresh water must be available at all times, but make sure the design of the container is such that the chicks cannot fall into it and drown, or can paddle in it and soil it easily.  A coloured marble in the water will encourage inquisitive chicks to peck at it and ultimately to drink.

  Additional Feeds:  Hard boiled eggs fed occasionally are really good for your young chicks.  But only leave in their pen for a short time as it can quickly sour and become a problem. 

Grated or finely chopped onion is good for chicks over a week old but don't overdo it as it can be a bit strong for young digestive systems.

Honey diluted in water is a great 'pick me up' but only make a weak solution and only feed occasionally.

Green leaves such as dock or dandelion tied up and hung in the pen are an ideal way to introduce these items to your chicks diet.  Food presented this way is also great source of entertainment for them.  

 


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