If you wish to read about processing your own turkey, check out my post, How to Butcher a Turkey. You may also be interested in my post “Keeping A Mixed Flock: Can You Keep Chickens & Turkeys Together?”
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to raise your own turkeys for Thanksgiving? Maybe you’ve read about the inhumane conditions on large scale poultry ‘farms’ and in the processing plants where these birds are slaughtered. Perhaps you’d prefer to raise your own bird with organic feed. Are you interested in becoming more self sufficient by raising most of your family’s food?
Whatever the reason, if you wish to raise your own turkeys, there are a few things to take into consideration before you order baby turkeys, or poults. This short guide will give you the basics for getting started, raising and processing your own turkeys.
Starting with Turkey Poults
Many hatcheries sell day old turkey poults in the spring. If you are planning to raise heritage breeds, I highly recommend ordering from a no kill facility, such as Sand Hill Preservation Center, to be sure that your poults are raised humanely from the very beginning. They do not sell the broad breasted varieties that are sold in grocery stores.
Turkeys poults are usually only available straight run, meaning you will have both males and females in your order. Most hatcheries specify a minimum order of 15 turkeys to maintain necessary warmth for shipping. You may want to split an order with friends or neighbors if you don’t wish to raise that many. Some feed stores have chick days in the spring when you can order just a few chicks, ducklings, and turkey poults at a time. Allow a minimum of 3 1/2 months from hatching to processing. Most people start their turkeys by the middle of June to reach butcher weight by Thanksgiving.
As I write this (in 2013) the cost of day old heritage turkeys is somewhere in the $9-11 range and broad breasted are around $5. Shipping is usually extra. The investment is considerable, so be sure you have the proper brooding area set up in advance to keep them warm when they arrive.
Caring for Poults
Providing the proper care for your young turkeys is basically the same as caring for chicks. When they arrive, dip their beaks in the water dish to teach them to drink. They will usually find the food on their own. Your poults will need temps around 95F for the first week, decreasing by 5 degrees Fahrenheit each week until they are fully feathered out. This is a general guideline and they will let you know if they are too hot by panting and hanging out as far from the heat lamp as possible. If they are crowded under the heat lamp and piling on top of each other, they are too cold. Be sure there are no drafts to chill them and their water dish is not deep enough for them to fall in and drown.
What Kind of Turkey Should I Order?
If you are interested in keeping a flock of turkeys to hatch their eggs and raise poults each year, order a heritage breed of turkey. Heritage breeds include (among others) the Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Black Spanish, Blue Slate, White Midget, and Narragansett turkeys. Heritage breeds are able to mate naturally and may be kept as breeding stock for future generations.
The turkeys you find in the grocery store are the Broad Breasted White turkey, which grow larger and have more breast meat than heritage breeds. Because the Broad Breasted White (and Broad Breasted Bronze) turkeys have so much breast meat, they can’t mate naturally. The male is unable to successfully mount the female and fertilize her eggs. The turkey industry has selectively bred through artificial insemination for larger and larger birds. I have read one anecdotal account that young toms were able to mate before they grew too large. I can’t confirm this.
If you wish to raise turkeys as economically as possible and butcher the whole flock at the end of the season, the Broad Breasted White may be just what you are looking for. I raised a flock of Broad Breasted White and Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys and processed them myself in October one year. The largest weighed approximately 19 pounds when dressed. They were raised on pasture with meat producer feed free choice.
As you choose the breed of turkey to raise, keep in mind that turkeys with darker colored feathers may not look as nice on the table as the white birds. It is very difficult to get all of the dark colored feather shafts cleaned from the skin. So if presentation is important to you, look for a breed with light colored feathers or be prepared to spend more time picking the carcass clean.
Cost of Raising Turkeys
If you are hoping to save money on your Thanksgiving bird by raising it yourself, you are likely to be disappointed. When turkeys go on sale for the holidays, it is common to find them priced so low that homegrown birds cannot compete. However, if you raise your own grain and your turkeys are able to free range for some of their food, you may be able to save money on raising them. I have read that turkeys can forage for much of their nutritional needs when allowed enough room to roam. Be aware that predators enjoy a turkey dinner as much as you do!
In 2012 I raised 16 Broad Breasted turkeys and processed them at home. The total cost came to approximately $1.20 per pound. This price was based on pastured birds raised with a conventional meat producer feed. At the time, I was paying from $14.99 to $16.99 per 50 pound bag of feed. I was able to purchase most of the feed on sale for the lower price. (Note: this was the cost for day old poult and feed, it does not include the cost of electricity for the heat lamps and pumping water, hay or other bedding, or processing.)
What Should I Feed My Turkeys?
When you bring home young turkey poults, their first food should be a high protein ration with around 28% protein (look for a turkey starter feed or game bird feed) to fuel their fast growth. At 8 weeks, most turkey growers switch their birds over to a 20-22% feed. By the time they are 14 weeks old, turkeys can be allowed to find more of their own food by foraging, if you have the room. You can switch them to a grower feed with around 18-20% protein and a few scratch grains on the side. Use cracked grains to help their digestive systems utilize their feed fully. About 2 or 3 weeks before butchering, add extra carbohydrates to their feed to help fatten them up for the table. Toss in excess or bug infested apples, tomatoes, and other produce to clean up your garden and save money on feed. This might sound a bit complicated, and you may find that it is difficult to locate a feed mill with the different formulas used by the commercial turkey growers.
I found that starting my young turkeys on game bird feed for the first month, then switching over to meat producer feed provided them with enough nutrition to reach a nice butchering size. They were given cracked corn as a treat and they had pasture for foraging. After the initial month I didn’t worry too much about the extra protein that was recommended because I wasn’t looking for the fastest growth, largest dressing weight, or cheapest birds. If these are concerns for you, I would recommend finding a source for a 28% protein feed for your flock.
Note: These feeding instructions are based on acheiving the best weight gain for butchering. If you are raising heritage birds for breeding, you will want to follow a different feeding program.
How Long Does it Take to Raise a Turkey?
If you are raising a broad breasted breed, your turkey will reach butchering weight faster than a heritage breed. I found that in about 3 1/2 months I had Broad Breasted turkeys that dressed out at around 12-14 pounds. After 4 1/2 to 5 months they dressed out in the 15-19 pound range. If they had been kept on higher protein feed, the weights would have been higher.
I started with 17 poults on June 17th. One died shortly after arriving. I had 2 young birds with deformities that didn’t prevent them from thriving, but I knew that as their weight increased they would have more trouble walking and eating. They were butchered young and roasted. The remaining 14 birds were butchered from the end of September through the end of October. The hens dressed out at a lower weight than the toms.
I butchered all but one turkey on my own. I found that processing a turkey is more difficult than chickens. The biggest differences are that turkeys are heavier, more energetic, and more intelligent than chickens. Lifting a live turkey can be pretty hard on your back. I put my birds into a feed bag with a hole cut in one corner for the head to poke through to help restrain them for slaughter. Then I chop the head off with a hatchet. You may choose to put the bird into a killing cone and nick the arteries in the neck to bleed it to death. I feel that severing the spinal column is more humane, however some people feel that this doesn’t allow the heart enough time to pump the blood out of their circulatory system. I didn’t find this to be a problem.
Preparing Your Turkey for Cooking and Freezing
After processing your turkey, be sure to allow it to sit for 24 hours in the refrigerator before cooking. (I haven’t found this to be necessary when freezing the turkey, only when cooking fresh. The thawing time gives the muscle tissue time to relax and become tender.) You may want to try soaking your bird in a brine solution overnight for tender, juicy meat. If you plan to freeze your turkey, plan ahead and purchase freezer bags that are large enough to hold your birds. Clean the bird thoroughly, pick the pin feathers, and rinse. Place the neck, gizzard, liver, and heart in the body cavity, if you wish, then place in a very large freezer bag. I was unable to find vacuum sealer bags that were large enough to fit a turkey.
Plan ahead and remove your turkey from the freezer far enough in advance to allow it to thaw completely before cooking.