When it comes to raising poultry, chickens get all the love. Although the little cluckers might be more popular, turkeys still have a loyal following among small-scale, sustainable farmers.
“I enjoy the birds, their sounds and expressions,” says Lynn Gillespie of The Living Farm, in Paonia, Colo. Gillespie started raising heritage varieties, including Narragansetts, Bourbon Reds, Slates and Bronze, alongside Broad Breasted Whites eight years ago and believes that the birds are a profitable addition to her farm.
The biggest reason to raise turkeys, especially heritage varieties, is for the holiday market, according to Don Schrider, author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys (3rd edition, 2013).
“There is a huge demand for turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he says, “and it can be a very profitable market.”
But it’s also possible to create a market outside of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The birds produce eggs and meat that is popular for bacon, sausage and ground turkey.
Although turkeys are low-maintenance and suitable for beginning farmers, they are not chickens.
“They might look similar,” Gillespie says, “but they need different care; if you raise your turkeys like chickens, there is a good chance that all your turkeys will die.”
With a little know-how, it’s possible to successfully add these feathered fowl to your farm.
Choose The Best Turkeys
Farmers can choose between commercial/industrial varieties and heritage varieties. Industrial varieties, such as the Broad Breasted White and the Broad Breasted Bronze, are fast-growing birds that produce meaty, moist breasts. It takes about 20 weeks to grow the birds; hens will grow up to 20 pounds and toms, up to 70 pounds. Industrial birds are often raised in poultry houses with limited light and access to the outdoors.
The rapid growth cycle of commercial varieties means the meat is cheaper to produce and sell, which can appeal to a broader consumer market. In contrast, heritage turkeys come in multiple varieties—the American Poultry Association recognizes seven distinct varieties including Black, Bourbon Red and Royal Palm—each with its own feather pattern and color. Heritage birds are raised outdoors and take up to 16 months to reach 12 pounds.
Although the market for heritage turkeys is smaller, the birds fetch a premium price.
“You have to choose between meat and flavor,” Schrider says. “The volume of meat on an industrial bird is greater but the flavor of a heritage bird is much more intense.”
Once you know which variety you want to raise, locate a breeder. To ensure the birds come from disease-free stock, choose a hatchery that participated in the USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan; a reputable hatchery will be able to provide their NPIP number. Eggs and poults can be shipped via the U.S. Postal Service.
Industrial varieties are often raised in confinement. Poults are started in a small section of the poultry house, and as they grow and need additional space, they are moved into the main part. It’s also possible to raise industrial varieties on pasture.
To keep poults safe, keep them in a brooder until they are at least 8 weeks old. Be sure to provide at least 1 square foot of floor space per poult to prevent cannibalism; after 6 weeks of age, increase it to a minimum of 2 square feet. Poults that are confined past 12 weeks of age need at least 3 square feet of floor space each. In a brooder, Gillespie favors keeping poults in groups of up to 15, but not more: Poults will potentially smother each other in larger numbers.
Once the birds are old enough, they can be released onto the pasture until harvest, either to free-range or be kept with electric fencing and a shelter. Be sure to keep turkeys and chickens separate, especially in areas where blackhead disease is a problem.
“Chickens will be immune, but they can be carriers and turkeys will get it,” Schrider explains.
To protect the flock, keep turkeys at least 200 feet from chicken pastures and use a barrier to keep them separate; both flocks should have their own pastures, housing, feed and watering equipment. If birds are being raised on pasture, it’s essential to provide shelter and roosts as well as fresh water and feed. Pastured turkeys eat a mix of formulated food mix and forage.
“Poults need more protein than chicks,” Gillespie says. “You need to feed them a turkey starter not chicken starter.”
Gillespie also feeds her turkeys weeds, salad trimmings and alfalfa hay. “They should have a fresh supply of greens every day,” she says.
On pasture, turkeys must be moved often. Electric net fencing is an inexpensive, easy-to-use system that allows for rotational grazing while keeping turkeys from wandering too far afield.
Cats, snakes, raccoons, foxes, hawks, owls, snakes and other predators prey on turkeys. A secure coop, electric fencing and galvanized wire pens are the best defense to keep your flock safe. Keep in mind that heritage varieties can fly. (The breasts of industrial birds are too heavy to allow them to take flight.) Schrider suggests clipping their wings to keep turkeys from escaping their fencing.
Marketing Turkey Eggs & Meat
Outside of Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is still a small but profitable market for turkey products, such as bacon, sausage and ground turkey. With a goal of increasing demand, the National Turkey Federation launched a 20 by 2020 campaign to encourage people to consume 20 pounds per capita of lean turkey meat by 2020.
Of the 80 Broad Breasted Whites and 20 heritage varieties Gillespie raises on The Living Farm, most are destined for Thanksgiving tables. Some of the heritage turkeys are reserved for breed stock, but she is confident the farm could sell turkey most of the year. Gillespie also acknowledges the challenge of marketing heritage varieties during the holidays.
“Stores sell turkeys below the cost of producing a turkey,” she says. “You have to educate your customers as to why your turkeys cost more than the store.” Raising certified organic turkeys is one way to boost your return on investment.
To boost year-round demand, Schrider encourages farmers to educate shoppers about heritage varieties, including the best cooking techniques.
“You’ve got to use heritage cooking techniques, such as slow-roasting and basting, with heritage birds,” he says. Organizations such as Slow Food USA and Chefs Collaborative have recipes for preparing heritage varieties on their website.
Beyond meat, there is a niche market for turkey eggs. Hens start laying at 32 weeks—compared with 20 weeks for chickens—and lay up to 120 eggs during peak laying season, which extends from January through June.
Although Schrider calls turkey eggs “perfectly good eating eggs,” he notes that the proteins in their egg whites are thicker than in chicken eggs, making them unsuitable for light, fluffy foods. “They are good for pound cake but not angel food cake,” he says.
The Living Farm delivers turkey eggs to its farm-to-table café, The Living Café, in Paonia, Colo., and features them on the menu. The over-easy offerings are popular, according to Gillespie. “It gives people a chance to try something new,” she says.
Heritage Turkey Breeds
Slow Food USA, an international grassroots membership organization for good, clean and fair food for all, has identified eight heritage turkey varieties that are facing extinction and encourages farmers to preserve these varieties by raising them and encouraging consumers to add them to their plates.
Until the Broad Breasted Bronze was replaced with the Broad Breasted White in the 1960s, it was one of the most popular turkey varieties in the United States. The birds have copper feathers on a background of brown and black with white bars on the tail. Toms weigh up to 36 pounds; hens can reach 20 pounds. The Bronze is listed on The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List in the Watch category, with less than 2,500 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 10,000.
Known as Black Spanish in Spain and Norfolk Blacks in England, Black Turkeys originated in Europe and crossbred with wild turkeys after migrating to the United States with colonists. Although poults often have white or bronze feathers, the mature plumage is metallic black. The birds are small; toms weigh just 23 pounds while hens weigh in around 14 pounds. The Black is also listed in the Watch category.
Named for its birthplace of Bourbon County, Ky., this variety was developed from the Jersey Buff for improved meat production. Also known as Bourbon Butternut or Kentucky Red, the turkeys have brownish to dark-red plumage, heavy breasts and flavorful meat. Toms weigh up to 33 pounds, and hens tip the scales at 18 pounds. The Bourbon Red is also listed in the Watch category.
Also known as Buff, these turkeys were named for the color of their feathers. Toms weigh 21 pounds; hens, 12 pounds. The variety originated in the mid-Atlantic region and struggled to gain prominence despite its color providing advantages for processing. By 1915, it was nearly extinct. The variety is still available through small breeders and hatcheries. It is listed as Critical, with less than 200 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 2,000.
A variety developed at the University of Massachusetts by crossing a commercial Broad Breasted White with a Royal Palm. The Midget White is a smaller bird with a broad breast. Toms weigh 13 pounds; hens average 8 pounds. Although it’s a flavorful meat bird, it was bred for improved egg production; hens lay up to 80 large eggs per year. It is also listed as Critical.
Named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, the variety is a cross between wild and domestic turkeys. The Narragansett has similar coloring to the Bronze breed but is smaller in size. Toms weigh 30 pounds; hens, 18. Hens are strong egg layers. It is currently a Threatened variety, with less than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 5,000.
With white plumage and contrasting metallic black edging on its feathers, the Royal Palm is a small turkey variety with toms weighing
16 pounds and hens averaging 10 pounds. The Royal Palm is also listed in the Watch category.
This variety is also known as the Blue Slate, Blue or Lavender because of its solid to muddled blue plumage. Hens weigh about 14 pounds; toms average 23 pounds. Because there are fewer than 5,000 breeding birds in the United States—landing the Slate in the Watch category—production potential is unknown.
Convincing farmers to raise turkeys is a little like convincing diners to try turkey eggs for the first time. Gillespie offers some encouragement. “You will need to practice with turkeys before you are proficient at raising them,” she says. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s worth it.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.