When you hear “free ranging” do you think of a bird that is unconfined by the 4 sides of a fence? I don’t know the technical terms, but here’s how I see it: there are 3 types of “ranging” you can offer your birds. It depends on the amount of land and birds you have, your neighbors and personal preferences.
Our adult bird’s pen is large enough that it can supply grass and some clover for our 1 tom and 5 hens. While we still offer them feed, they do get a good supply of greens and bugs spring-summer. The pen is large enough to sustain 6 adult birds, but this isn’t so when the poults come!
Think about it: one hen hatched out 19 poults this summer! Unless selling ’em as young’uns, you will need a very large pen and a whole lot of feed!
Fencing and food isn’t cheap and we are! When we found ourselves with 30 poults this spring, we pulled on our homesteading caps and improvised by selling poults and adapting a partial ranging method!
At first we used daytime ranging for the young birds. When they reached approx 2 months of age we would separate ’em from the adults and turn them loose to range outside the pen during daylight hours. With “mamma” behind the wire they would wander and forage, have the time of their lives but always remained around the fenced area. They had their own water station outside the pen and come sunset, we’d scoot ’em back in.
It worked until they were about 4 months of age. They then became bolder and wandered onto the neighbor’s property…which wasn’t good! It’s then that we set up moveable pens. These are just like the original except smaller and without corner braces.
Driving metal fence posts in, we’d set up the wire and let the birds forage that area. When it began to look beat down, we move on. In this pen they had a roost, a secondary water and feeder. The old pen remains intact and the land gets a rest. We water the grass, clean out the debris in this time.
It works well!
Contained ranging is when a large area is well-fenced and soil has been sown with a good cover crop. While heritage turkeys don’t need the high protein diet of broad-breasted varieties, adults still need 10% protein. Recommended for turkeys are a clover or legume (bean or pea) crop. They need more space if completely reliant on the land! Account for 30 sq feet of space per bird. Give that to ’em and you can rest assured there will be enough for everyone!
Don’t want to buy feed? Buy seed! Over the winter months you will have to buy something, but think about it: peas do well in cool temps while beans do well in heat. Where we live we could (tentatively) 100% free range our birds for half the year. That’s long enough to raise a crop of poults!
In order to practice this method you need some way to work and water the soil. Buy seed in bulk! Depending on your location you may have to battle crows or pheasants if planting legumes. They like ’em too!
While I’ve never tried this method before, I’m eager to try clover! Seems to me the cost of clover seed would quickly outweigh the cost of feeding 30+ birds for 6 months!
True Free Ranging
I don’t recommend this method unless you have at least 15 acres! Some neighbors don’t take kindly to large birds visiting their lawn, particularly when they roost in the tree above their car and leave soft and mushy gifts behind.
While I grew up with true free range birds (no cover crop, roaming a will) and love the method, know that heritage turkeys are great wanderers of pasture lands in particular. As a kid I’d see ’em almost 1/4 mile down the fields. Due to the dogs we had around, they weren’t afraid of coyotes…which always ended badly for ’em!
There are some methods for keeping turkeys close to home. If getting young poults, its easier!
Home Base for Free Range Poults
If you mail-order or get week old birds from a local, they’ll need protection for the first while (a box, heat lamp, etc), but when time comes to move ’em outside, move them into their permanent house! It should be able to house them as adults.
In the beginning, attach a run of some kind in order to contain and keep the lil’ guys from getting lost. Set the heat lamp in the turkey house and get ’em used to going in at night. Keep food and water inside as well and make certain they have adequate roosting. As they mature (approx 3ish months old), remove the run and let your poults begin to roam. For the first while, shoo ’em into the house and shut them up at night, both to establish a home base and as a protection from predators.
As they mature the turkey house will be established as the location for food (toss ’em a bit), water and roosting and you won’t have to sent ’em in every night. They’ll just do it from habit. And if you need to catch one? Easy-peasey! Lock the door at night and in the morning, go catch the one you need!
Home Base for Free Ranging Adults
“Why does she keep talking about houses for free-range birds?”
Because in my mind, its worthwhile! I’ve tried to catch too many free-range turkeys who didn’t want to be caught! It can take a very long time without four walls to contain ’em! With a house-established-as-a-roosting-spot, birds can be locked up after they’ve roosted. Believe me! It makes life easier for everyone!
Suppose you get birds as adults? Nesting boxes can be an attraction for hens, as is moving their water and some food into the house. But really and truly? You may have to shoo them in for a while before they learn. Sooner or later, they will!