A Bad Year For Turkeys

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If you’ve been following our Instagram page, you’ve seen that we recently lost a few dozen turkeys in a storm that dropped over three inches of rain. The forecast had called for rain, but not *that* much rain. Then, a day later, we get another one-to-two inches of rain in the morning. Luckily, we only lost a few birds after that one, but it was daytime and birds tend to do better with rain during the day, especially if things are going to go wrong. Anyway, that was the last of a series of incidents that have made it quite clear at this point that this is a bad year for turkeys.

Our first round of birds was broad-breasted white turkeys. We normally only get broad-breasted bronze even though they’re a tiny bit harder to pluck, and we get them from the same place. The same place and, by extension, the same genetics. A flock’s genetics isn’t something you automatically think of, but you should. Why? Well, our schedule was built around what we had always done, but these white turkeys grew a little slower so they ended up being underweight when it came time to process them. Not good. Well, not ideal anyway. We also lost a dozen or so during the brooding stage to a few freak situations where they more or less thwarted everything we had done to keep them safe so that they could kill themselves. It was just…weird.

Then there were the heritage birds that we hatched out from our breeding flock. Everything was going great, the hens had laid quite a few eggs this year and we had a very successful hatch overall. Then, we put them out to pasture when it was time and in two days they had all disappeared. Where did they go? What in the hell happened? No bodies. No feathers. Just, gone. We knew something was up, but with no evidence to go on you figure it’s either predators or they flew off into the woods and, predators. Then, we found that there was still a small handful (4) left, and we took great care of them to ensure that we could at least keep our breeding flock afloat. You see, our big tom was taken one night and the day before that, one of our hens was too as she sat on her nest. We now know that it was a couple of coyotes that were wreaking havoc on our turkeys (and chickens), had eaten through our electric poultry netting and taken advantage of a fence charger that we didn’t know wasn’t working. Easy to overlook when you put in a brand new battery only a few weeks prior, and the telltale *click* was heard for weeks until the battery finally died and we didn’t think to listen for the click. Then, I’m pretty sure that one of our guardian dogs (Kelby) decided to play a bit too hard with one of the young toms who had survived and then we were down to three survivors from the new birds, total. So, heritage turkeys were obviously not going to be sold this year. Our breeding flock is now down to a couple of toms and a few hens. Thankfully we’ve got them for next year.

A short time later, we got our usual broad-breasted bronze turkeys, and they did very well in the new brooder area we had created last year. Nothing weird, no strange deaths or disappearances. There *was* one instance where they crammed into a corner and killed a few of their own, but that’s almost expected with birds—though we rarely experience it and it is definitely preventable as long as you’re not raising white-feathered turkeys on our farm this year.

The third round of turkeys was close behind, as the window for raising turkeys in Wisconsin is quite narrow. It takes a minimum of four months for broad-breasted turkeys, and we typically raise about 350 turkeys per year amidst thousands of chickens. There’s only so much space to brood birds, so we have had to get creative. The third round was back to broad-breasted whites. You see, I thought it would be clever to switch colors so that when we went to catch them for processing we would know to leave the bronze and take the white (or vice versa). So much for being clever. Our luck being what it has been with turkeys this year, and it has never been this bad, the white turkeys had soon found new and ingenious methods to kill one another on accident. I’ve heard a lot of tales and stories about turkeys, and up-to-now, I had never really believed them because we had never had anything so outrageously stupid happen to us with our birds. Now we have, so I figure there must be some truth behind all of the things I’ve heard.

Which brings us back to this week and the storm that pushed us over the edge to no-turkey-to-sell land. We lost 50 in one storm and then another several turkeys died in the storm this morning to bring our numbers down to a point that we had to cancel an order for our birds. Now, I’ve listed turkeys as sold out, we have our list of individuals who reserved a turkey, and we’re going to hold on for dear life because we’ve got two more months of trying to keep turkeys alive on the farm. This has all been complicated by the fact that one of our guard dogs decided, out-of-the-blue, that he wasn’t going to guard animals anymore this year. We’ve tried several different times to train him back into the area, stayed out with him to see what he’d do and we’ve tried to normalize what used to be normal a couple of months ago. None of it works. He waits, he bolts, he runs somewhere and then we’re stressing out for hours looking for a huge, white dog and we fall behind on chores (etc). The frustration builds. So, he’s relegated to the kennel a lot right now. Usually, he doesn’t go too far, but he doesn’t make it easy to track him down and since I’m by myself during the day I don’t have much time to figure things out for him. Of course, this means that Kelby has to patrol the entire area by herself, and clever Great Horned Owls in our area are taking advantage of that and knocking off chickens and turkeys alike. Thankfully, they seem to only come around every 3-4 weeks for another whack.

As I sit here typing this and reading the words aloud as they pour onto the screen, this all sounds like a very long, frustrating list…and it is. That being said, after farming for a few short years one learns to *expect* things to go wrong. You’re never sure when it will, or how bad it will be, but it’s inevitable. Our skins have grown tougher and bear plenty of scars from working with Mother Nature and the great world of Agriculture, as every season is punctuated by instances that try your patience and ability to persevere. The way I see it, you have two choices, either curl up in a ball and quit, or ignore what has happened, will yourself to move on and find the answers to the question, “What do we do now?” This year, it seems as if all of our unfortunate instances have been focused into a short time frame and with turkeys. This is probably another good argument for a diverse farm, as we do have plenty of good things going on as well.

To conclude, this is just my acknowledgment of all of these things that have happened, and I wanted to share them with you so that you get to vicariously experience a farming world that is far less perfect than we tend to see in pictures, stories or in our own imaginations. Writing is a good way for me to decompress too, so there is a hint of selfishness in taking some time to outline what the past month or so has been like. For all intents and purposes, turkeys are no longer being sold this year, but we’re already looking forward to next year’s turkeys and I know I’ve got to take some time to work with Maria and refine our operation so that we can mitigate the damage if this sort of thing was to happen again. I’m very confident that we can improve and that we can increase our odds of preventing things like this in the future too. The only downside is that this season we only get one try. Now, we have to wait a year. Really, we only get what…40 tries? When you think of it that way, it highlights the importance of passing on knowledge to the next generation, but that’s another topic for another day.