How to Raise the Best Turkeys

Narragansett tom turkey with his tail fanned out.
Narragansett tom turkey

How to Raise the Best Turkeys

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to raise turkeys on your homestead? Maybe you’ve heard that these birds are so stupid that they will drown in the rain or that they are very difficult to raise. Not true! I’ve had very good results in raising my own turkeys for meat… and so can you.

There are a few things to take into consideration before you get started and place an order for baby turkeys. This guide will give you the basics for getting started, raising, and processing your own turkeys.

You may be interested in my post “Keeping A Mixed Flock: Can You Keep Chickens & Turkeys Together?”

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Heritage turkey poults hanging in their Redneck Brooder Box.

Start With the Best Turkey Poults

Many hatcheries sell day-old turkeys, also known as ‘poults,’ in the spring and early summer. There are a variety of breeds available, including heritage turkeys and broad-breasted hybrids. Broad-breasted white turkeys are the type you find in the meat section at the grocery store.

Some hatcheries specify a minimum order of 15 to maintain the necessary warmth for shipping. You could split an order with friends or neighbors if you don’t wish to raise that many.

Feed stores often have special ‘chick day’ events in the spring when you may 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 broad-breasted turkeys or 6+ months for most heritage breeds.

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 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 grows larger and has more breast meat than heritage breeds. Because these 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 is the best option. I’ve raised BB turkeys and processed them myself for years. The largest weighed approximately 25 pounds when dressed at 4 months. They were raised on pasture with meat producer feed free choice once they were able to forage for bugs and other sources of protein.

For Turkeys With “Best Dressed” Appearance…

As you consider which breed of turkey to raise, keep in mind that turkeys with darker-colored feathers are harder to clean than white birds. It is very difficult to get all of the dark-colored pigment from the feather shafts washed out of the skin. So if the presentation is important to you, look for a breed with light-colored feathers.

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Cost of Turkey Poults

The cost of day-old heritage turkeys starts at $11+ and broad-breasted (BB) are usually $7+. The best price I have found online is through Sunnyside Hatchery in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. They sell BB Whites for $5.25 each for straight-run poults. (2020 price catalog… I do not make a commission.)

Shipping is usually extra. In my area, there is a farm that orders large numbers of BB turkeys at a lower price. So check on Craigslist or with your local Extension office to see if there are any farms that offer poults for 4H clubs or local farmers.

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 the best results.

If you’re still not sure what breed of turkey to raise, check out my post ‘Broad Breasted vs Heritage: What’s the Best Turkey for Your Homestead?’

Do turkeys eat weeds?

How to Care for Turkey Poults

Providing proper care for your young turkeys is basically the same as caring for chicks. There are a few differences, so be sure to read through these tips:

  • Dip their beaks in water to teach them to drink
  • If they don’t eat on their own, add finely chopped greens to their feed
  • Give them chick grit to help them digest their food
  • Give them enough space in their brooder to move around and find a comfortable temperature
  • Do not use newspaper or any other slippery material to line the bottom of the brooder as these can cause ‘spraddle leg,’ a condition that causes permanent problems with walking
  • Keep the temperature at 95 F for the first week, then reduce by 5 degrees each week until they are fully feathered out
  • Add probiotics to their water or give them chick grit with probiotics
  • After 2 or 3 days, add electrolytes to their water to give them extra nutrients
  • Feed poults a high-protein game bird feed with 28% protein

These are the basics of caring for baby poultry. Remember to check on your babies often. 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 that 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.’

The 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 can’t compete.

However, if you raise your own grain and your birds 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 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 a 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.)

Update: I have raised BB turkeys again since then and the price was approximately $1.09 per pound. In 2012 the cost of feed was higher for a number of reasons, including a huge number of new chicken keepers entering the market, and biofuel 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.

2022 – The cost of meat producer feed has gone up to about $17 per 50# bag.

The cost of raising your Thanksgiving turkeys depends on how much feed and bedding you can raise and the cost of feed at the time of purchase.

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 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 don’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 the cost. If you are raising heritage birds for breeding, you’ll need 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.)

Big Turkey

How to Process Your Turkeys

If you intend to sell turkeys it is very important to check your state and local laws about selling home-butchered poultry. Many states do not allow poultry to be butchered on the farm and you must send them to a processing plant where the dressed birds are inspected. Expect to pay upwards of $5 per bird for processing fees.

Because my family is working toward a self-reliant lifestyle, we process poultry for our own consumption.

For complete instructions on processing turkeys, check out my post, How to Butcher a Turkey.

I find that processing a turkey is a bit more difficult than for chickens. Turkeys are heavier 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 blood out of the circulatory system. I didn’t find this to be a problem.

Roasting turkey

Preparing Your Turkey for Cooking and Freezing

After processing your turkey, be sure to allow it to sit for 24 to 48 hours in the refrigerator. Skipping this step will make the bird tough. Try soaking your bird in a brine solution overnight for the most tender and 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 them 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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