Originally published in APPPA Grit Issue 94. 

On an Ask APPPA call, treating and preventing blackhead in turkeys came up as a topic, which is a perennial concern for turkey producers. 

According to Terrell Spencer (Spence), one of the distinctive signs of blackhead is yellow Sulphur colored poop; however, blackhead may present like other illnesses. Therefore the definitive identification is to open the dead turkey and examine the liver. The liver will be pitted with bulls eyes on an infected turkey.

Spence has battled blackhead for years and has not yet been able to eliminate exposure to his flock and has experienced mortality as high as 30%. He has effectively treated with Cayenne pepper fed directly to the birds with a  bolus. He found cayenne after conversations with another poultry farmer and re-viewing references to treating with crushed red pep-per in poultry journals dating back to 1910. 

Patrick McNiff, another panelist on the Ask APPPA call, experienced blackhead in his flock recently.  Based on a recommendation from Jeff Mattocks, he heavily sprinkled cayenne on the feed twice a day. He offered garlic water and vitamin E oil on the surface of the water in the drinker reservoir. He was losing 2-3 birds per day over the course of a week. Less than two days after the treatment, the mortality stopped. At processing, the livers showed no signs of blackhead.

Garlic water can be pre-pared from one clove per five gallons of water.

Slice the clove and soak overnight.  The vitamin E oil can generally be added at the rate of a “dropper” per waterer. 

According to the ATTRA publication “Parasite Management for Natural and Organic Poultry: Blackhead in Turkeys” by Spence, turkeys are likely to be infect-ed through the consumption of earthworms and cecal worms while on pasture.  The disease was most likely deposited there by laying hens, which gives way to the classic poultry advice of not raising turkeys and chickens together. The layers are carriers but may never show signs of illness. Many producers mix broilers and turkeys, which is thought to be ok be-cause the broilers do not live long enough to be carriers for the disease.

In addition to not grazing the turkeys on the same pasture as the laying hens, Spence lays out the following preventative measures in his ATTRA publication: rotate to fresh pasture frequently, reduce stocking density, encourage roosting, and promote a healthy immune system. 

If you are unable to isolate your layer and turkey pastures, then you need to evaluate your risk and focus on the husbandry practices outlined by Spence and ensure you’re feeding a nutritionally balanced diet that’s suited for the age of the turkey. Proactively treat the flock with cayenne, vitamin E to boost the immune system, and garlic water to act as an anti-microbial. 

Remember. Not every sick turkey is infected with blackhead, and if your turkey has a black head, you might consider checking out fowl pox instead. Cut those dead birds open and take pictures of the livers. Then ask for help from the APPPA community if you need help identifying blackhead infected livers. 

May your turkeys live long enough to bless Thanksgiving tables everywhere.


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