Raising Turkeys: What You Need to Know

These Birds Aren’t Just for a Holiday Harvest; Raise Them Year-Round

by Lee Connor
PHOTO: A small number of turkeys can be raised in a relatively small area. NEVISON FARMS

If you’ve raised chickens, you have a good basis for raising turkeys. Perhaps you’re considering raising some for the holidays. If so, keep in mind that most commercial breeds will mature between 14 to 22 weeks of age (or 25 to 30 weeks for heritage breeds). You’ll need to purchase birds in late May or early June (heritage) or July (commercial) to be ready come November. Here’s what you need to know to get started raising turkeys.

Eric Nevison from Nevison Farms, Minnesota, keeps Narragansett (pictured) and Royal Palms.

Proper Housing for Raising Turkeys

In “Growing Your Own Thanksgiving Turkeys,” educator Katie Ockert with the Michigan State University Extension writes that turkey poults are raised very similarly to chickens. “They will need to be kept in a brooder for the first six weeks and can then be transferred into a coop setting,” she writes. “Turkeys will need a larger area to grow than chicks due to their size, and size requirements will increase as the turkey grows.”

Growing up to 3 feet tall, turkeys are big birds that require space to thrive. Their housing should certainly be appropriate for the number/size of the birds contained. This is where so many beginners go wrong. Ventilation is vital for all poultry and especially so with turkeys and their housing doesn’t have to be anything too fancy.

I kept my five birds in an 8-by-6-foot garden shed. Old barns/stables can also be easily converted for housing turkeys. Following advice on ventilating, I bored two holes, under each apex to allow a good cross-flow of air. I then covered these holes with a fine wire mesh to prevent admitting vermin.

My birds roosted securely in this shed, spending most of the day roaming outside in my securely fenced orchard. Turkeys like to perch; a 3-inch round wooden pole placed about 3 feet off the ground will provide them with a very comfortable roosting spot.

Whatever form of housing you employ when raising turkeys, I can’t overemphasize the need for adequate ventilation. With poultry, many of us think we need to keep our birds snug and warm, but what we really need to do is keep the air inside the house fresh and moving. This will prevent moisture and ammonia build up, thus keeping birds comfortable and healthy.

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Fencing for Raising Turkeys

I used 6-foot high wire fencing when raising turkeys to keep my birds contained and keep out the predators. This works effectively with the stags (male turkeys) but not always so well with the inquisitive hens. Lighter heritage breeds often retain a good flying power.

However, if you keep your birds occupied and they have enough space (a breeding pair will require 90 square feet of space as a minimum) — and providing that they’re well fed —you shouldn’t have too much of a problem with them straying.

Don’t allow turkeys to roam free in the average garden as they’ll quickly destroy new plant growth and flowers. Containing curious turkeys will also allow you to keep them away from harmful plants and other potential hazards.

Sheralan Marrott of Red Top Ranch, Tennessee, raises Bourbon Reds.

Feeding Turkeys

Just like chickens, raising turkeys requires a starter crumb (when they are very little), then they are moved onto a grower pellet and, finally, onto a maintenance pellet when they’ve matured.

You can’t however feed a diet suitable for a chicken to a turkey. Turkey poults (chicks) have a far higher protein requirement than young chickens. Feeding them chicken pellets would certainly lead to all kinds of growth and health problems. Thankfully, your local feed-supply store will carry specially formulated turkey feeds that have the necessary protein amounts.

A turkey starter crumb will contain a protein count of between 22% to 24%, and this is usually fed until the poults are 5 to 8 weeks old. This will contain all the protein, trace elements and micronutrients required for normal early development.

Check the manufacturer’s recommendations but, around the 5-to-8-week stage, most poults can slowly be moved across to the growers pellet (preferably one made by the very same manufacturer as that of your chosen chick crumb). Grower pellets have a lower protein count of around 20%.

Turkeys that are fortunate enough to range over a field or orchard will, of course, supplement their pelleted diet with grass and all manner of insects, spiders, worms and even lizards. They also adore treats such as plums, apples, sweetcorn, etc. Cabbages, hung up in their living quarters are excellent at relieving boredom, giving these highly inquisitive birds something to peck at.

A maintenance diet pellet — consisting of 16% protein —is given when the birds reach adulthood. Once turkeys mature, they’re surprisingly hardy birds and capable of surviving the harshest winters completely unscathed.

Ask the Experts

All of us have different regimes when it comes to raising turkeys. I always find this fascinating and informative and a great way to pick up tips. I interviewed two turkey keepers, Eric Nevison from Nevison Farm, Minnesota, who keeps Narragansett and Royal Palms, and Sheralan Marrott of Red Top Ranch, Tennessee, who keeps Bourbon Reds.

Housing: “Currently all our birds live in a barn together,” Nevison says. “I created a coop inside it — two stalls wide — but since the flock has grown so much bigger, we just keep the door open and let them walk around and roost where they see fit each night.”

Marrott has a similar setup. “I have a pen and big coop — part of a barn — for mine for nighttime that has plenty of roosting spaces,” he says. “They prefer a roof overhead to protect them from rain and snow. Mine free-range during the day, and in the summer, they need lots of shade, fresh air with a breeze and shallow dishes of water to stand in to cool down. If predators/extreme weather aren’t a problem, roosts under a shed roof would likely be fine for adult turkeys.”

Fence Height: “Heritage breeds are lighter and better at flying than the broad breasted,” Marrott says. “I have a 4-foot fence, and my turkeys hop/fly over it — even with clipped wings! They then suddenly forget how to fly back, pacing the fence until I help them. In my, admittedly limited experience, grown toms don’t do this, but youngsters and hens looking for a spot to go broody do. I could only guess that a 6-foot fence might keep them in place if their wings were clipped.”

Nevison had a different take. “Turkeys are birds but are not keen on flying unless they need, too,” he says. “Most of ours roost 4 foot from the ground in our barn. I’ve never seen any of our turkeys fly up high, and I think this is possibly because they know that the barn/farm is a safe area with no predators, etc.”

FeedNevison feeds his birds corn, wheat mash and black oil sunflower seeds as a main base. “We also bring them all our scraps,” he says. “They will devour a smashed-up pumpkin or squash.”

Marrott insisted that turkeys need a higher protein diet than chickens. “For the first 12 weeks of life, I like a starter feed that’s 28% protein,” he says. “Then I go to a lower protein feed — but at least 20% — for the rest of the time.”

Worming: Do turkeys need worming?This was a particularly interesting question for me as I’m very keen to remain as close to nature as possible with my particular birds.

Marrott hasn’t had to deworm his turkeys in the three years he’s had them. “They have access to wooded and pasture acreage all day, so this likely helps,” he says. “When they are poults, I add herbs to their food and water to keep their systems strong and prevent parasite overload.”

Nevison agrees. “We’ve never wormed any of our birds,” he says.

Heritage Birds

All around the world, more people are going back to the older ways, and when it comes to raising livestock, more and more of us are applying the principles of slow food. This philosophy (started by Carlo Petrini in Italy in the 1980s) envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and is good for the planet.

Slow food is based on three interconnected principles:

Good: Quality, flavorsome and healthy food.

Clean: Production that doesn’t harm the planet.

Fair: Accessible prices for consumers and fair pay/conditions for workers.

Commercial poults pile on weight fast and grow at an astonishing rate: The toms have so much breast meat they can’t mate naturally (also often suffering skeletal disorders and leg issues) and the hens need artificial insemination. As a more sustainable and ethical alternative, many turkey breeders and consumers are increasingly turning away from those monstrously huge breeds and turning to heritage breeds, which are closer in size and hardiness to their wild ancestors. These birds — although taking longer to rear — also happen to be flavorsome and succulent.

To get started raising turkeys, you’ll need a least a pair of turkeys. They need companions, and a single turkey would not do well all by itself.

These Royal Palm (left) and Slate (right) male turkeys are heritage breeds.

Popular Turkey Breeds

Some of the popular heritage breeds when raising turkeys include the following.

Bronze: This is the bird most people would think of if asked to describe a turkey. With that iridescent sheen upon its feathers — this is the bird of farmyard paintings — familiar to us all. It is the patriarch of all the turkey varieties.

However, rather surprisingly, due to the public’s preference for white birds (that produce a clean-looking carcass with no ugly dark feather stubs) and the commercial breeding of exaggerated, huge-breasted birds – the Bronze faced near extinction in the 1970s. Thankfully a small core of breeders took the Bronze under its protective wing. Show birds are kept to a more normal weight range that doesn’t exceed 24 pounds.

Narragansett: This all-American beauty descends from Black turkeys (brought to America by European settlers in the 1600s) being crossed with wild native turkeys. This has created an extremely hardy bird. Little supplemental feeding was given to these turkeys; they found most of what they needed on the farm.

For a while, although never quite reaching the acclaim of the Bronze, the Narragansett was extremely popular (especially so in the Midwest/mid-Atlantic States) but slowly it fell into the Bronze’s shadow and was finally eclipsed by it. The recent interest in slow food and appreciation for flavorful meat has once again brought this Cinderella of the turkey world out in the limelight.

American as Apple Pie

The wild turkey is native to North America and is a true American icon. Domestication began 2,000 years ago by Native Americans who, very much like now, penned them and used their meat, feathers and bones. For those lucky enough to have wild turkeys visiting the bird feeders in the backyard, you’ll know that the process of domestication must have been relatively simple! They are big, curious birds with a hearty appetite and soon get tame.

All the different breeds, with their dazzling array of colors and feather patterns, found around the world today are descended from the wild birds that fortunately still roam the forests of North America. So, if it’s so American, why is it called a turkey?

Linguist Mario Pei puts forward an interesting idea to explain the bird’s name. He proposes that the first turkeys imported to England came not from North America but via merchant ships from the East. The importers lent their name to these birds, so they became known as turkey cocks/turkey hens — and the name subsequently stuck — the usage becoming widespread.

Author Layla Eplett writes in “Talkin’ ‘Turkey:’ The Linguistic Link Between the Bird and the Country,” a blog for Scientific American, that Pei thinks during the 15th and 16th centuries, the bird’s arrival in Great Britain came via Turkish merchants in Constantinople, who had orignally imported the birds from America. “The British had a lackadaisical habit of naming things after where they arrived from, rather than the place they originated,” she writes. Read more at https://bit.ly/3QGom1d.

Royal Palm: Now for all those who shudder at the turkey’s supposed ugliness: Take a good look at the Royal Palm. These regal stunners first appeared on a farm in Florida in the 1920s —arising randomly from crosses between Narragansett/Bronze and wild turkeys.

These small, active, gloriously colored birds can produce a very good meal for the average family. The hens are also prolific egg layers.

Royal Palms are closer in size and weight (no more than 22 pounds) to their wild ancestors. They make excellent foragers and prove very useful in keeping down numbers of insect pests. Be aware, though, as a light breed, the Royal Palm can certainly fly a bit when the need arises!

Bourbon Red: This distinctive bird, with its rich red feathering was developed in the early 1900s. Once again, it’s a smaller bird, that has high heat tolerance. Former New York Times food columnist Marian Burros declared the Bourbon Red “the tastiest turkey in America,” sparking a nationwide interest in heritage breed turkeys.

Other Breeds: The Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit membership organization whose mission is to protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction, and the American Poultry Association also list the following heritage turkey breeds, in addition to the ones I’ve listed: Beltsville Small White, White Holland, Black and Slate.

Blackhead Disease

Turkey poults are generally regarded as being far more delicate than young chickens; they can certainly be more prone to disease and one of the most feared of these diseases is blackhead. This is caused by a protozoan worm that chickens carry, but turkeys suffer from — empathizing the point many turkey keepers make — the necessity to keep chickens and turkeys separate.

Worming every six weeks when raising turkeys disrupts the life cycle of this destructive worm. Several organic breeders now use herbs such as oregano in the feed as well as taking the preventive measure of keeping poults well away from chickens and land where chickens have been kept.

Raising Turkeys for Eggs

Turkey hens take longer than chickens to mature in the egg-laying department. They typically reach it at 7 months but can take up to a year. And while a chicken might lay almost an egg a day, turkeys only lay two to three eggs a week.

Turkey eggs are bigger and have a higher protein content than chicken eggs, and some say a richer taste. Their eggs are usually a creamy white color with speckles and tougher shell.

Turkey hens (females) are smaller than toms (males) and don’t have elaborate tail plumage.

Before you buy any turkeys, check with local authorities, especially if you live in the suburbs, that raising turkeys (or indeed any poultry)  is actually allowed. Many modern houses — even those on large plots — don’t allow any livestock to be kept. Make thorough checks before getting started raising turkeys; it would be heartbreaking to settle your birds in and get used to them being around to then be forced to give them up later.

Remember that all poultry needs looking after 365 days a year. Who (in your circle of family or friends) will be willing to feed/water your birds whilst you are away on vacation? And whilst a lot of people who would happily tend a few pet chickens, many would feel rather intimidated by the size and appearance of turkeys.

And last, but not least, it’s always better to retain a cordial relationship with your neighbors. Male turkeys will make their famous “gobble-gobble” sound at the slightest provocation, and hen turkeys aren’t exactly silent either! Therefore, to maintain positive neighborly relations, inform them of your plans and win them over to your ambitions of raising turkeys.

This story about raising turkeys was written for Chickens magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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