We over-winter our hens (future mamas) on scratch consisting of corn, wheat, barley, etc, with an occasional bag of protein feed. When spring rolls ’round (April for us in a zone 7a), its time for a solid change! Hens ought to be put on a 14%-16% protein feed.
Its time to begin building strength for the days ahead! The protein intake of a hen also effects egg production, nutritional contents of each egg and as a consequence, the vitality of poults who feed on egg before hatching.
Protein feed is a worthwhile investment, unless you 100% free range your birds on a good cover crop. If so, they will find what is necessary in foliage and bugs!
Honest Talk about Turkey Hens
If you want good mothering hens you do need to be aware of two things. Not all breeds are “known” for being top-notch mothers. The Royal Palm is among them, being bred as a show bird. If you desire heritage turkeys with natural mothering skills, its wise to choose a breed known for their inclination toward it! Check them out at livestockconservancy.org.
When raising turkeys for meat production, you’ll want the biggest and best (Standard Bronze or Chocolates) but when it comes to natural mothering, you’ll want some smaller hens as well.
Why? Keep reading!
The large breed heritage hens are heavy, weighing anywhere from 10-15+ lbs. As a result, they may break eggs while nesting. You don’t want this to happen! Broken eggs will coat the remaining eggs and block pores (the yolk is particularly bad), decreasing eggs hatch-ability.
Their weight is also problematic after poults have hatched out. With smaller poultry, a step-gone-wrong has little effect. With a 20 lb bird, it can be fatal. For this reason, we have Narragansett hens and while the toms grow to be large, females remain at a comfortable size.
Above all else? Tame your birds! Turkeys are excitable and very difficult to handle if left wild, particularly when poults come into the picture.
Let’s dive into the how to’s, now that we’ve covered the basics!
At the beginning, collect the first eggs (our appear in April) and take ’em to the kitchen for breakfast. There’s a catch with setting hens in the spring. Y’see, the chances of an egg hatching will diminish the longer an egg sits. You’ll want to make certain hen are laying often and that in approx 2 week’s time, 15-20 eggs are produced. This is the amount one hen will take.
Keep track with pen and paper. When production is high enough, begin leaving the eggs in the nest (unless you have a mixed flock). This will help you find the hens who want to brood.
Choosing the Breed
If you have a flock with several breeds, springtime poses the question: do you want “pure” birds or a mix? Eggs and poults sell at high prices when pure. If this is what you want, separate your hens and toms of each breed into their own pens. Let eggs begin to build up (unless selling for hatching). Suppose you don’t have a broody hen within one of the breeds? Give her eggs to another hen. It won’t hurt anything! Just be certain if selling poults that you know which breed each hen has!
Watch Your Hens
As eggs build up, watch for signs of a broody hen. If the nest fodder is partially covering the eggs, you know at least one hen has nesting in mind. This is a natural instinct to protect something she is taking note of. Hens will continue to lay (probably in the same nest) until there are approx 15-21 eggs. One day you’ll go to get the eggs and find a hen that doesn’t want to budge. Go and prepare a brooder for her.
Just in case: if you have two hens on the nest, this is normal. While they love brooding together, I’d recommend separating ’em unless you have two nests in the same cage. We’ve tried the together method (as pictured above) and it didn’t work very well!
Separation from the Flock
While you don’t need to literally remove your bird from the flock, she ought to be given a secure place where she is safe from predators, has access to food and water, can get away from her eggs to pass droppings and won’t be disturbed by other hen’s attempts to join her. I’ve heard of people using dog cages, A-frames with chicken wire stretch over and a box in the corner.
The primary reason for this separation? To keep the other hens off the nest, avoid late additions to the clutch and also to keep hens from breaking eggs in their desire to have the clutch.
We like to use our “turkey tractors” which my husband built and designed for this purpose. Place the box in position (inside or outside the main pen), add the eggs, turkey, some food and water…ta-da! She has a dark, comfortable resting spot, near the other birds but still away from ’em.
Then, its time for the waiting game. Mark your calendar and wait for 28 days. Keep food and water supplied for your hen. Don’t disturb or shoo her off the nest out of curiosity. Let ‘er be and if perchance 28 days come and go without signs of hatching, leave her until day 30. If still no sign of life, remove her from the nest and dump the eggs. They are duds.
Wanna see the real deal? Go to my facebook page, click on the “Natural Mothering” video and you’ll get a window into it all!