Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Turkeys, and thoughts about trait selection.

The Lady of the House was kind enough to get some really lovely photos for our Patreon Patrons so we could get them their special content for the month. Normally I'd be doing that earlier in the month, but it's been busy here. That said, as a side effect of that we have some extra beautiful photos to share. Unsurprisingly they are of turkeys and the remaining chicken, because they are looking great lately. Also I want to talk about trait selection and why breeding has a place in this circumstance.

Last post I discussed briefly keeping both turkeys instead of just one of them. At this point not so long after we've pretty much decided both of them are staying. Why are we going to keep both of the turkeys. Let's start off by talking about normal domestic turkeys, their behaviors, and other features of them.

The first and only focus when breeding most domestic turkeys is feed turning into meat. The feed conversion ratio of your average production turkey is 2:1 at 10 weeks of age. White turkeys are preferred to avoid unsightly blemishes on the skin when plucked. The commercial breeds also are bred for leg and breast meat, as well as high egg production (relative to turkeys). The thing they aren't bred for is survival instincts, and intelligence.

Wild turkeys are a whole different beast, and have a lot of traits that are desirable for homestead situations.
One of the really positive things about wild or heritage breed turkeys is the brains side of things. Smarter turkeys forage better, and survive better. It's not just problem solving, turkey smarts are a different thing. Turkeys are smart about their environment, paying attention, and getting out of danger. Wild turkeys, as a hunter can tell you are one of the most difficult things to hunt because of how good they are at noticing danger, and getting away from it.
We don't have wild turkeys, don't get me wrong. We have turkeys however that do have a number of those traits. This is really helpful for us since we don't want to have constantly enclosed turkeys. I'm not saying their current enclosed time of never is ideal, but letting them roam is good for us and them both. Their ability to recognize threats like a coyote, communicate them with distinct calls, and get away is very beneficial. Not only do they survive, their alerts tell us something is wrong allowing us to respond effectively. At this point we just need to train the dog when he hears their signals to respond quickly instead of being lackadaisical as he was. That intelligence combined with the strength to fly rapidly from danger is very good for us. What that means is, instead of just butchering these two with the traits we want, we will keep them, attempt to find well matching hens, and breed for more turkeys with the traits we like. If we're the only one that want that, it's fine, we'll raise them and cull the ones that aren't The Best. If others want those traits, then we can trade or sell the chicks that match the traits we want.
Our ideal turkeys would produce a good number of eggs that hatch into chicks with a good survival instinct, and grow relatively quickly. A 10 week turnaround isn't necessary for us since we are happy to have the turkeys on the ground until we want them in the roaster. I'm going to be honest, we have less information about breeding turkeys than we probably should, but we aren't going to be breeding them 'till next spring at the earliest anyhow. Gives us time to learn more about how best to care for poults, and time for me to get better at herding the big dinosaurs. As for the little black hen, who isn't so little anymore except in comparison to her turkey brethren, we hope to have companions for her shortly. We are keeping our eyes out for people getting rid of their chickens as winter approaches.

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  1. You've also said something you like about these turkeys is that they're pretty friendly. I imagine that's a great trait in a farmstead turkey, because it means that you won't have to essentially "hunt" them every time you want them to do something (go inside, eat over there), and that they won't attack you, Critter, the dog or the only chicken smart enough to hang out with the smart turkeys.

    There have been some interesting studies on the impact of breeding for human friendliness in foxes (they keep puppy traits and start to look like dogs), it would be interesting to see if anyone has done the same thing with birds.

    1. I'd be curious if the white coloration in non white birds means the same things that it does in mammals, specifically tame/neonatal traits. I should have the Lady of the House look into seeing if they have done such studies on birds, she's very good at searching journal databases with a sort of magic touch I don't have. (By magic touch I mean, mysteriously the woman with a biology degree is better at searching scientific databases than the humanities guy)

      You are entirely correct about the friendly trait. I'd be curious also to compare their level of neophobia to more commercial breeds of turkey. Just something I'd be curious about.

  2. A wonderful, informative post! I too have a little black hen, a Black Giant named Mary Grace. She's a valued member of the flock.

    We have a deer herd that comes by every evening for corn left out for them. Our dog, a German shepherd/chow mix, is good with them. He doesn't chase or threaten, and last evening he went out to sniff right where they were snacking. A peaceable little kingdom here.

    1. Thank you, much appreciated! This little one is a Americuana/Australorp cross, and is the only survivor of coyote and fox depredation in our little flock.

      The dog is good with the chickens, but for some reason the turkeys really excite him. He doesn't chase them because he's trained not to, but he'll run near them to get them to fly because he thinks it's funny.