You may be interested in my post “Keeping A Mixed Flock: Can You Keep Chickens & Turkeys Together?”
How to Raise Turkeys
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to raise turkeys on your homestead? Maybe you’ve heard that turkeys will drown in the rain or that they are very difficult to raise. Not true! I’ve had very good results raising my own turkeys for meat and so can you. 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. There are a variety of breeds available, including heritage turkeys and the Broad Breasted type (the kind you find in the meat section at the grocery store). If you’re not sure which you’d prefer to raise, check out my post ‘Broad Breasted vs Heritage: What’s the Best Turkey for Your Homestead?’
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Most hatcheries specify a minimum order of 15 to maintain necessary warmth for shipping. You could 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 for the Broad Breasted varieties or 6 – 8 months for heritage.
Cost of Turkey Poults
The cost (2018) of day old heritage turkeys start at $11+ and Broad Breasted (BB) are usually $7+. The best price I have found online is through Schlecht hatchery in Iowa. They sell BB Whites for $5.50 each. (I do not make a commission.) Shipping is usually extra. In my area, there is a farm that orders large numbers of BB turkeys and I can get them for a much better price. So check on Craigslist or with your local Extension office. (This year the price for BB Whites is $4.25 per poult from my supplier.)
Because turkeys lay few eggs, mostly in the spring, availability may be limited (especially for heritage breeds) and the cost is higher. The investment is considerable, so be sure you have feed and the proper brooding area set up in advance for best results.
Caring for Poults
Providing the proper care for your young turkeys is basically the same as caring for chicks. I recommend adding vitamins and electrolytes to their water and they do need a higher protein feed than chicks. When they arrive, dip the tip of their beaks in their water to teach them to drink. They will usually find the food on their own. If they don’t, add some finely chopped spinach or other edible greens to the food dish to encourage pecking.
Poults will need temps around 95 F 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.
If you are having problems with sick or weak poults, please refer to my post ‘How to Care for a Sick Chick.’
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 BB White (and BB Bronze) turkeys have so much breast meat, they can’t mate naturally. The male is unable to successfully mount the female. 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 BB White may be just what you are looking for. I’ve raised BB turkeys and processed them myself several times. The largest weighed approximately 25 pounds when dressed at 4 months. They were raised on pasture with meat producer feed free choice.
For Turkeys With “Best Dressed” Appearance…
As you choose the breed of turkey to raise, keep in mind that turkeys with darker colored feathers are harder to clean than the white birds. It is very difficult to get all of the dark colored pigment form the feather shafts washed out of the skin. So if presentation is important to you, look for a breed with light colored feathers.
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 heritage 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 at $3.50 each plus feed, it does not include the cost of electricity for the heat lamps and pumping water, hay or other bedding, or processing.)
I have raised BB turkeys again since then and the price was a little bit lower, around $1.09 per pound, even though the cost of poults went up to $4 each. In 2012 the cost of feed was higher for a number of reasons, including: a huge number of new chicken keepers entered the market, and bio fuel production was consuming much of the corn and soybean harvests. The cost of meat producer feed at our local farm supply store is now $13.59 per 50 pound bag of meat producer 22% protein. Keep reading for feed requirements.
What Should I Feed My Turkeys?
When you bring home young turkey poults, their first food should be a high protein ration with 28 – 30% 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 and field peas on the side. Use cracked grains and give them a dish of grit 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 achieving the best weight gain for butchering. If you are raising heritage birds for breeding, you’ll to follow a different feeding program.
How Long Does it Take to Raise a Turkey?
If you are raising BB turkeys, they 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. (Update: I have since raised BB turkeys on 22% meat producer feed and had them dress out at up to 25 pounds in 4+ months.)
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.
Processing Your Turkeys
For complete instructions on processing turkeys, check out my post, How to Butcher a Turkey.
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 feistier 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 or a shrink wrap bag made for freezing turkeys.
Plan ahead and remove your turkey from the freezer far enough in advance to allow it to thaw completely before cooking.
Have you ever raised your own turkeys? Did you process them yourself? Please leave a comment!
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