The average life span for a factory farmed domestic turkey
is 2 to 6 years. Commercial flocks are bred to be abnormally
large due to genetic alteration, and are purposefully fed
a diet laced with drugs and chemicals. These factors, along
with the raising of turkeys in intensive confinement systems,
can result in later health problems and early death. Commercial
turkeys can reach 18 to 26 pounds by the age of only 15 weeks,
and hens can weigh over 30 pounds and toms over 40 pounds
when they are fully grown. An adult turkey's normal body
temperature is 107.5° F, with young turkeys ranging between
102° F to 106° F.
Water - Clean, fresh water must be available at all times.
The use of a poultry fountain or automatic watering unit is
recommended to avoid spillage and to keep water as clean as
possible. In warmer weather, check water often throughout
the day. For colder weather, the use of a water heater is
recommended if you live in an area that has freezing temperatures.
Heater pallets are available for metal poultry fountains.
Feed - Turkey feed can be purchased at most farm supply stores.
Pre-mixed turkey feed generally contains antibiotics and animal
by-products, and commercial turkey feed is designed to promote
fast growth, which is very harmful to an animal that has already
been bred to be abnormally large. Our recommendation is to
purchase "mixed grains" or poultry scratch (an equal
mixture of cracked corn, oats and wheat with a dash of grit)
and sunflower seeds (also available at feed supply stores).
Sunflower seeds are an important source of calcium necessary
for proper formation of eggshells. Adding Timothy hay pellets
is also a great way to provide roughage without adding a lot
of extra calories. For hens during laying season, a calcium
supplement should be added to the feed. Turkeys generally
self-regulate their food intake; however, if you notice that
your turkey is exceeding his or her normal weight, restrict
the amount of feed per day. Because factory turkeys are genetically
altered, they are excessively large, which can result in leg
and foot problems. Once your birds are full-grown, we recommend
their food intake be restricted and more greens and roughage
added, such as Timothy pellets and fresh vegetables. Greens
should supply up to 25% of the nutritional needs of your turkey.
In addition to providing your turkey with basic feed, greens
including fresh pasture, alfalfa, grain sprouts, lettuce,
cabbage, and Swiss chard are good supplements for your turkey.
Turkeys also love fruit treats, but these should be given
in very limited quantities, since they can add too much sugar
to the diet.
Feeders - Turkeys, particularly ones that have been debeaked,
do not like to eat their food off the ground. Choose a container
that is heavy enough to avoid tipping and small enough to
prevent birds from walking or standing in their feed, as this
can lead to contamination by feces. Special poultry feeders
are available through farm and feed supply stores and catalogs.
Due to the excessive weight of turkeys, their legs can be
easily damaged, and turkeys should never be grabbed or picked
up by their legs (a common industry practice). To pick up
a turkey, stand behind the turkey, fold your arms and upper
body over the wings and back of the turkey, hug firmly, and
lift. If you "lose" a wing, put the bird down immediately
and start over. Handle firmly, but gently, to avoid injuring
the turkey or yourself. If your turkey is struggling or seems
very stressed, set him or her down for a moment and start
again. It may help to "cover" the bird's head and
eyes with your free hand, as this may quiet him or her down.
Always remain low to the ground when handling turkeys, as
turkeys' legs are very vulnerable to ligament tearing or breaking
from even a short fall.
Building - A garage or shed makes a fine turkey home. A good
size is 10' x 20' as this is high enough for you to be able
to walk comfortably inside. The shelter must be waterproof,
predator-proof and well ventilated. A wooden floor is best
for cleaning purposes. Plenty of clean, dry straw should always
be provided for bedding, and wet and soiled bedding should
be removed on a daily basis. Cleaning the entire building
on a weekly basis is recommended (i.e., scrub floors, walls,
etc.). For protection from predators, turkeys must be kept
safely in their shelter at night. The shelter should be equipped
with a roost. A sturdy straw bale makes a good roost for a
turkey. Hens will also need a nesting box, which can be easily
made out of straw bales or constructed of wood. Adult commercial
turkeys cannot fly and are heavy and easily thrown off balance.
It is vital that anything a turkey is using as a roost be
low enough and sturdy enough to avoid leg injury when jumping
up to roost or when coming down off the roost.
Fencing - Fencing is necessary to keep predators out and turkeys
in. Since most domestic turkeys are too heavy to fly, a four-foot
fence will be adequate. If you are planning on constructing
a fence, shop around for the best buy as prices and styles
of fencing vary greatly. Turkey fencing can be purchased from
your local farm supply store, lumber store, or through a farm
supply catalog (see resource list). The best fencing for turkeys
is a no-climb horse fencing. Do not use chicken wire alone
as fencing. It is too flimsy, and predators can easily break
Maintenance - Every three to five weeks, turkeys should get
a routine, individual health check and have some basic health
care procedures done. These include: Checking the vent for
any injury and parasites; cleaning the vent, if necessary;
feeling the breast area for scabs or sores; checking the hocks
(leg joints) for scabs or swelling; checking the bottom of
the feet and toes for scabs and/or bumblefoot; looking at
the head and watch for swelling and discharge around the eyes
and nostrils; and clipping the toenails. As with all animals,
sanitary housing, clean pasture, nutritious food, and plenty
of sunshine will reduce health problems. During your daily
contact with your feathered friends, always be on the lookout
for any physical or behavioral changes. In particular, watch
for diarrhea, listlessness, pale coloring, fluffed feathers,
loss of appetite, and coughing. If you notice any of these
symptoms, consult with your veterinarian. In large flocks,
turkeys tend to have a low disease tolerance, and health problems
are greatly reduced in smaller flocks. It can be difficult
to find a veterinarian who is willing to treat turkeys, but
they do exist. Your best bet is finding someone who works
with "exotic" birds and other non-traditional companion
Trimming Nails - Trimming nails is very similar to trimming
dog or cat nails, and your veterinarian can show you this
procedure. Many commercial turkeys have had their toes clipped
off, but still have one or two nails.
Common Health Problems
Bumblefoot - Turkey bumblefoot is different than bumblefoot
in chickens. Turkeys suffer from abscesses on the footpads
that resemble corns. The infection usually follows an injury
to the footpad and there may or may not be pus present. If
there is pus, it should be cultured to determine the bacteria
involved and the antibiotic treatment required. Some cases
of bumblefoot are mild and can be treated with wraps alone.
There are many methods to treat bumblefoot, depending on the
severity. For information on various treatments, visit the
shelter website at www.farmanimalshelters.org.
Coccidiosis - Coccidiosis is a protozoan parasite. Symptoms
include bloody diarrhea and listlessness. Keeping the bedding
clean and dry will help control this disease, as wet bedding
is one of the predisposing factors. Many treatments are available
and can be added to water to treat a whole flock, or given
to individual birds. If you suspect your turkey has coccidia,
have a fecal test done for this, and consult your veterinarian
for the best treatment according to the size of your flock.
Worms - A fecal test should be done every three months to
check for internal parasites in your flock. Worming medication
can be purchased at farm supply stores in easy-to-use formulas
that are added to water, or in an injectable form, depending
on the type of parasite involved. Your vet can prescribe the
proper medication necessary. If you are bringing new birds
into your flock, it is important to isolate them from your
birds until you have established that they do not carry parasites,
since they are easily spread through the fecal matter.
Lice and Mites - Lice can generally be controlled by providing
your turkeys with an area of dirt for "dust baths"
(throwing dirt on themselves). Check your turkeys regularly
for lice (they look like small, moving, clear to yellow dots
on the birds' skin). Mites are usually small black or red
dots. Older birds, birds who have a compromised immune system
due to illness, and birds from unclean environments are more
susceptible to both lice and mites, and all should be checked
regularly. Mites and lice tend to congregate near the vent
of the turkey, and if properly treated, can be eliminated.
The best method, of course, is prevention; keep bedding dry
and clean, and remove straw from nesting areas daily. Sprays
and dusts are available at most feed stores, and the use of
injectable Ivomec also controls these parasites. Check with
your vet before using an injectable wormer to ensure proper
Molting - Turkeys will molt (lose feathers) on an annual basis,
generally during the spring or fall season. During their molting
period, the birds may lose a large portion of their feathers.
This is a natural process, which lasts between four to ten
weeks. If your turkey is losing feathers during a non-molting
period, consult your veterinarian.
Heat Exhaustion - Heat exhaustion is common in turkeys; watch
them closely in hot weather. Signs of heat exhaustion include
excessive panting, open mouth breathing, drooping, dark colored
head, and collapse. At first sign of heat exhaustion, get
the turkey inside immediately and put a fan on low, as birds
can go into shock and die quickly. Mist the turkey lightly
with cool water and contact your veterinarian. Keep your bird
quiet and calm and do not handle any more than necessary.
Upper Respiratory Infections - Upper respiratory infections
are usually indicated by the presence of nasal discharge,
(gurgling), lethargic behavior, and loss of appetite. Also,
the sinus area directly under the eyes can become swollen.
If you notice any of these symptoms, consult with your veterinarian.
Antibiotics are usually required, and many are designed to
go into the drinking water, if whole flock treatments are
Egg Bound - Hens that are egg bound have difficulty laying
their eggs. Symptoms include constant squatting, straining,
panting, and other signs of distress and discomfort. This
condition should be deemed an emergency, and turkeys with
these symptoms should be treated immediately by a veterinarian.
Calcium gluconate injections may be needed. Always be sure
to remove eggs daily, and make sure your turkeys continue
to eat and drink when they are nesting.
Blackhead - Blackhead is an organism hosted by the small roundworm
of the turkey. If you have turkeys, it's a good idea to keep
a close eye out for this, as well as keep your turkeys (and
all animals) on a regular worming schedule. Turkeys affected
with Blackhead will be droopy and their droppings will be
yellow. If any symptoms arise, contact your veterinarian immediately.
This is a lethal disease, but if caught in time, it can be
treated. Very young and very old turkeys are most susceptible.
Impacted Crop - Crop impaction occurs when large amounts of
fibrous material such as grass or straw are ingested. The
material forms a ball in the crop and will not allow food
to pass through the remainder of the digestive tract. The
crop often looks pendulous, but many times it is not obvious
by sight alone. Turkeys who are impacted may survive for days,
but gradually they will become emaciated and can die of malnutrition.
Early detection is possible by feeling the crop of any bird
who seems sick or stops eating. Often, if caught in time,
it can be corrected surgically.
Splaying and Obesity - Signs of splaying are decreased activity
or reluctance to move, slipping while walking, and/or flapping
wings while struggling to walk. Splaying can be caused by
obesity and can lead to many secondary problems, such as feet
and hock sores, wing bruises, prolapsing caused by the strain
of trying to move, damaged tendons, and even cardiac arrest.
The best treatment is prevention. However, if splaying is
already occurring, it is not too late. Isolate your turkeys
and restrict their diet, and increase activity levels if possible.
If any wear appears on the feet or hocks, wrap them for protection
with soft gauze and vet wrap.
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