Most people think of “turkey” only in terms of a yearly holiday main course and little else. For many poultry enthusiasts, a turkey represents much more. A small turkey flock can add a true sense of awe and majesty to a backyard. There’s such an air of elegance to a tom’s (male turkey’s) powerful strut with his head tucked in, suspended snood and tail feathers displayed in a proud fan. Of course, there is no holiday meal quite like the savory homegrown flavor of a bird you raised yourself from poult to pot.
The fine art of raising turkeys has its differences and parallels with that of other farm birds. If you are conscious with their care and management, they assimilate nicely alongside other poultry endeavors. Able to suit a variety of lifestyles and end goals, turkeys are full of opportunity for fun, food and even a little profit.
Turkeys, taking approximately 16 to 22 weeks to reach desired market weight and very seasonal in demand, make a perfect spring or summer project. Depending on your climate and housing availability, they can also be raised year-round.
When getting starting raising turkeys, take some time to note the resources you have available. Choose a few end goals and learn what it will take to accomplish them. Do you need just a Thanksgiving main dish with a few extra leftovers for later? Do you need leftovers to gift to friends and family? Would you like to sell a turkey to the neighbors for their holiday feast?
Space requirements for raising turkeys to maturity are approximately 3 to 4 square feet per individual when confined. If you want to incorporate a strict pasture or free-range style system, you need at minimum a full 100 square feet per bird. Of course, if you utilize confinement and supplement with some outdoor access, you won’t need quite so much outside space.
Another thing to consider is the approximate feed consumption of so many turkeys. Unless you have dense pasture and the proper space requirements, your birds need a complete feed ration.
A Bit About Brooding
Brooding poults (young turkeys) is much like brooding chicks or ducklings. Brooder space should be approximately 1 square foot per poult. You need just enough air circulation so that their litter—large wood shavings tend to be best—is kept dry with no draft. The minimal dust from these shavings reduces risk of respiratory infection and absorbs moisture well enough to avoid slipping hazards.
If you have ever constructed a brooder, you know it’s pretty simple. All you need is something with solid walls; a cardboard box, empty water tank or plastic tote can all do the job just fine. Make sure there is a place to securely hang your heat lamp above the brooder that keeps it at least 18 inches off the ground. Note that you might need to raise this as the poults grow to avoid burns and pecking at the glass.
As with chicks, you should start your poults’ first week at a balmy 95 degrees F. You can decrease the temperature by 5 degrees weekly until the birds are fully feathered, typically from 6 to 8 weeks. Once they’ve reached this point, it is safe to move them to their larger permanent housing. If your brooder gets too crowded before the birds are ready to move out, an expansion might be necessary.
Turkey poults are a bit rougher and more aggressive with each other than broiler chicks. If you notice a few “bullies” excessively pecking the weaker ones in your flock, you can use a red heat bulb. The red lighting can help prevent pecking and is less disruptive to the birds’ sleep.
When you bring your poults home, it can be advantageous to dip their beaks in their water so they are familiar with its location. A few marbles placed in the bottom of the water source is a small step of cheap prevention against accidental drowning. Poults should also be offered a free-choice starter feed during the brooding stage. For feed and water, make sure each poult has one inch of personal space.
Regularly check on the poults during their first few days. Aim for even distribution around the brooder and regularly observe them eating and drinking. This ensures that the temperature is ideal and the young birds are in good health.
Turkeys are fast-growing birds that demand a high plane of nutrition and protein to meet their growth and development needs right from the start. An initial good starter is at least 28 percent protein and, if possible, medicated against coccidiosis—especially if you intend to raise your birds outdoors at any point. This is a small step of insurance to prevent deadly coccidiosis. This disease, caused by protozoa, can wipe out young animals fast and is stubborn to treat.
Another cheap insurance step: Include water-soluble electrolytes in drinking water. While this isn’t a medication, the extra vitamins and nutrients can help jump start young animals’ immunity.
You have a few housing and management options for your growing birds. Turkeys can be raised anywhere from a movable coop on a pasture, fully free-ranged or in a coop or a barn or shed. The most important things across all housing styles are ventilation, protection from the elements and safety from predators.
As with any poultry, free-range turkeys come with the risk of predators in spite of larger more intimidating stature. A portable electric fence is one option for a pasture-based flock. If you can watch your flock during the day, you might not need any fencing, but you still will need a shelter to put them away at night. If you choose the confinement route but still want to incorporate some low-maintenance outdoor space, build an inexpensive wire fence run.
Turkeys, like chickens, have a natural instinct to roost. But when you are raising turkeys for market purposes, this is not recommended in your housing layout because it can cause breast blisters and bruising—not to mention that commercial market breeds are too heavy to do this safely. Instead, provide dry litter at all times, deep enough so they can nestle into it. This keeps birds comfortable. Adequate litter also prevents damage or injury to the best cuts of meat.
Feeding Through the Needs
As your turkeys grow and develop, so should their diet. Be prepared for each tom to go through as much as 100 pounds of feed (hens, 60 pounds) by the time they are ready for market. According to the USDA, to sufficiently put on weight, larger turkey breeds consume about 1 1⁄2 pounds of feed a day for toms and 0.8 pounds for hens. For medium breeds, that is 1 1⁄4 pounds per tom and 0.6 pounds per hen, and for the smallest breeds, it’s 3⁄4 pounds per tom and
1⁄2 pound per hen. Keep this in mind as you put together your feeding routine.
Feed a turkey-specific feed ration, too. A generic poultry mix or broiler chicken feed does not meet the recommended protein requirements. However, you can gradually decrease protein concentration as your birds grow. Pennsylvania State University Extension recommends that poults be fed around 22 percent protein when they are between 4 and 6 weeks old. After that, the protein requirements continue to decrease.
For birds around 10 weeks of age, 19 percent protein is appropriate. At 12 weeks and beyond, the final stage of feeding or the “finishing” period, protein can be as low as 16 percent. Keeping birds on the higher protein starter for longer is an option if you want to put weight on faster. Just remember to use only nonmedicated feeds as your birds near market weight.
If you want your birds to eat some roughage in an outdoor or pasture setting, also provide a turkey-sized grit with their feed. This is necessary for their gizzard, an internal organ of mechanical digestion, to do its work properly.
The importance of raising turkeys away from other birds, wild and domestic, can’t be stressed enough. There are several shared poultry diseases of concern, but for those who already raise poultry, a nasty protozoan disease called blackhead is especially important to highlight. This disease is detrimental to turkeys and can be acquired via contact with infected chicken flocks.
Because chickens are somewhat resistant to blackhead, they could be undetected carriers. For this reason, it’s always recommended that turkeys be raised separately from chickens and other poultry. They can be raised on the same property successfully, but make sure their equipment and housing are separate.
The ideal weight for harvesting your birds depends on you and the breed you have selected. The Broad Breasted White grows to between 25 to 35 pounds or more for toms and 15 to 20 pounds or more for hens. This is why it’s important to put some thought and consideration into breed selection when raising turkeys.
Commercial varieties reach heavier weights with the best feed-to-meat conversion. Alternatively, traditional or heritage varieties are smaller and take longer to reach their optimal size. That doesn’t, however, diminish the varying advantages in areas such as flavor, hardiness or foraging abilities that these breeds possess over their commercial counterparts.
A nice thing about raising turkeys? They have a very high dressing percentage. With some variance, on average these birds dress at around 75 percent of their body weight. You can use this knowledge in advance to determine the ideal live weight goal for your flock.
Well before harvest time, find a processor or learn how to do it yourself. If you have extra birds and you want to make money from your labor, you can also use this time to find some buyers. Locally raised turkey is a high-value product, so take advantage and use it as a promotional angle. Pastured turkeys are especially in demand with many buyers willing to pay more. Such birds are known to fetch as much as $4 to $6 a pound, depending on the area and local demands.
There’s no price tag, of course, that can be placed at the end of four or more months of hard work. The biggest satisfaction you’re guaranteed to get from raising turkeys is sitting down to your next holiday meal with a main course you raised by hand.
Sidebar: Breeds of Note
Here are a handful of breeds to consider for starting your poultry flock.
These attractive red-and-white birds add a pop of color to the flock. They are medium size in the turkey world and are recognized for their flavorful meat.
- Size (pounds): toms, 33; hens, 18
- Soes well in: pasture, partial outdoors and confinement
Broad Breasted White
This is today’s commercial breed of choice. These birds are the largest and fastest growing breed.
- Size (pounds): toms, 36; hens, 20
- Does well in: confinement
This was the original market bird predating the Broad Breasted White. These birds’ coppery color gives them the very “traditional” Thanksgiving look. This breed has two strains: the heritage variety and the commercial (Broad Breasted Bronze) variety. Their strength and hardiness make them a versatile backyard choice.
- size (pounds): toms, 36; hens, 20
- does well in: confinement and partial outdoors
This breed adds a touch of elegance to any backyard. These birds are considerably smaller and slower maturing than the other breeds but are excellent at foraging. These birds are light enough to fly and roost.
- size (pounds): toms, 16; hens, 10
- does well in: partial outdoors or pasture
This is another medium breed of distinct coloration that comes in a variety of shades from gray to blue. The Slate is also known for its robust immunity, general hardiness and flavor.
- size (pounds): toms, 33; hens, 18
- does well in: pasture, outdoors and partial confinement
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Chickens magazine.