2019 was our first year venturing into turkey farming. We’d been raising meat chickens for a few years and felt like we were ready to take on raising a few turkeys. All and all it was a good experience and we are going to continue to raise them but here are a few things I wish I had known beforehand.
Choosing the right breed
There are several breeds of turkeys but to put it simply there are two groups, Production & Heritage. Production breeds are types of turkeys that have been selectively bred over the years to grow at a faster than normal pace and put on more meat in more desirable areas such as breast meat. Any turkey you buy from the grocery store is a production breed. Heritage breeds are domestic turkeys who maintain historic characteristics that are typically no longer present in the production breeds. They grow slower, have more evenly distributed meat, and tend to exhibit more wild turkey behavior.
We had originally planned to get 6 heritage Narragansett turkey poults from a local farm friend. We thought 6 would be enough as we’d plan to sell 4 extra to friends or family to recoup some money spent on raising them. We also thought we wouldn’t be overwhelmed by only 6. It was a great plan however it hit a snag in early April when the local farm advised us that they were having trouble hatching turkey eggs. Narragansetts, like other heritage breeds, take a long time to mature, 9 months. So, when I heard that our friend might not have them for us I took to searching the internet where I found that most hatcheries were already sold out of heritage poults. You see, if you are going to raise turkeys that take 9 months to mature, you need to buy them early or else they won’t be ready for Thanksgiving. My friend told me to give her one more week to try some eggs in an incubator but after that I’d be on my own to find some.
A few days later, we were out of town (acquiring a new giant angora rabbit) and happened upon a dozen broad breasted bronze turkey poults at a feed store. The feed stores near us typically don’t sell turkey poults so this was quite the find for us. While these were a production breed, we figured it’d be better to buy them than wait and maybe end up with no turkeys. We took home a dozen broad breasted bronze turkey poults. Yes 12 poults not 6, but I figured turkey poults are supposed to be not as hardy as chicken chicks so maybe we’d loose a few. We got them home and set up in their brooder only to receive a call the very next day from my friend “hey I have 4 narragansetts for you”. So we set off on our adventure of raising 16 turkeys, some heritage and some production.
Here’s my take away regarding choosing a breed
Baby Turkeys (Poults)
I LOVE baby turkeys. I had no idea how much I’d enjoy them vs chicken chicks. They are much calmer and much quieter. They just kind of wonder around their brooder, surveying their area, not kicking pine shavings everywhere and dirtying their water. The first 2-3 weeks with turkeys was great. At about 3-4 weeks they started flying, like really well. We were not prepared for this as we didn’t have their “turkey tractor” built quite yet and they were very much uncontained in the barn. We actually lost a poult for several hours and finally found her under the rabbit cages after hours of multiple people searching with flashlights.
Overall we had good luck with the poults but young turkeys are notoriously fragile. Ours readily eat and drank but they had also spent at least a few days at the feed store where who knows how many died before we picked up our 12. Many people report that it can take significant effort to teach your turkeys to drink and a lot of people resort to putting marbles in the water trough to encourage them to peck at the water and hopefully figure out how to hydrate themselves.
Turkey poults also differ from chicks when it comes to price. Most chicks are pretty cheap. The average meat chick from a hatchery is $2-$3, sometimes less if you order a large quantity. Most turkey poults are over $6, Narragansetts run as high as $15 a piece. When you buy from a hatchery you also need to factor in shipping costs. You can get around shipping costs with chickens if you buy from a local feed store that is selling them but, in our experience, stores near us rarely carry turkey poults. So getting into raising even 6 heritage turkeys could easily cost you over $100, whereas 6 meat chicks would probably cost you less than $20.
Housing & Pasture Raising
Even if you plan to raise your turkeys on pasture I’d suggest having some sort of poultry tractor or coop type situation for them during their “teenage” stage. We moved our turkeys outside later than we would have liked but they were still too small, in my opinion, to free range. We built a poultry tractor and kept them in there from age 5 weeks- 10 weeks. We probably could have let them free range sooner, but we had to coordinate a good day to clip their wings upon release.
That leads me to my next subject of pasture raising. It’s important to have your pasture space contained by a fence as you could quickly become a farmer who lost all their turkeys. Turkeys tend to travel in groups so if one wonders off, chances are the rest will follow. When we released our turkeys from their tractor we carefully clipped their wings before letting them out to ensure no one would immediately fly over the fence. You can find instructions online for clipping wings. It’s super simple and doesn’t hurt the bird in anyway, much like trimming your fingernails. My suggestion is to have at least two people to do this, one to hold and one to cut. Turkeys are quite strong and will smack the crap out of you with their wings and feet. Be advised that this worked like a charm for the production breed but the heritage turkeys will eventually grow their flight feathers back and need it done again.
Heritage birds will also have a strong urge to roost. We have 2 lovely apple trees and one lovely pear tree that have low branches. I had hoped that any bird that wanted to roost would choose this spot as these trees are in the center of our pasture and easily visible from our house. I had no such luck as my heritage birds decided to roost on the fence. Luckily the spot they chose was close to the house, but I still didn’t think it was very safe and I was proven right when one was ripped off the fence by a predator in the night, never to be seen again. We’ve clipped the heritage birds’ wings several times now and they still manage to get up on that fence. I bought a small pen and set it right next to where they roost, hoping to persuade them to seek shelter in it. They won’t, they want to be up high roosting because that is what their instincts tell them.
Overall I’m very pro-pasture raising but would caution anyone raising heritage birds to make a schedule to clip their wings often so they never figure out they can fly over a fence.
Here is where we messed up. As I said, we raised both a production and a heritage breed at the same time. Well we bought the production breed too early and the heritage breed too late. Our production turkeys matured to prime weight around 4 months old. Since we purchased them in early April that meant we had big beautiful turkeys ready to sell in August. You know who wants to buy a turkey in August? No one. Our freezer is now stacked full of turkeys. I had to basically beg some family and friends who had expressed interest in getting a turkey from us to PLEASE PLEASE TAKE IT NOW! I’ve unloaded 3 of 9 turkeys I want to sell and am still struggling with the lack of freezer space.
Regarding our heritage turkeys, we should have bought them in February. We bought them in April and they take up to 9 months to reach prime weight. If you did the math like I did you probably realized that these birds won’t be ready until next year. Since 2 out of the 4 were taken out by predators, we resolved that we will just process them Thanksgiving weekend and see how they look. We aren’t expecting much from them.
This was and will continue to be tricky for us. We seem to have no problem identifying when meat chickens are “ready” but it’s difficult with turkeys. Their feathers seem to mask their true body size more than a chicken’s does. Also, I’ve talked to several farmers that claim their “live weight” has 0 correlation to their butchered weight. Meaning if you weighed a turkey when it’s still alive and it’s 35lbs, you can’t assume in any way what it’s butchered weight will be. You can often due this quite accurately with chickens but again we’ve never had trouble just “eye-balling” a chicken and determining when it’s ready.
We ended up selecting a medium size turkey from the batch and butchering him first. He was over 20lbs butchered! So needless to say, we decided it was time to do the rest of them. Ideally, we would have waited another 2-3 weeks due to our work schedules but we didn’t want to end up with 30lb turkeys so we penciled in “butcher day” for the following Saturday. When we butcher chickens we use an automatic chicken plucker (side note , if you are raising meat chickens this is a must-have investment). However, turkeys are too big to fit in our plucker so they all had to be plucked by hand. Hand plucking is tedious and time consuming. It took 3 of us 12+ hours to get 10 turkeys in the freezer. I’m convinced there was no faster option so my advice would be to plan on taking a long time to process your turkeys and enlist as much help as you can.
Note to self, turkeys are big and awkward to store. We have an entire 15 cubic foot freezer full of mainly turkey meat right now. We can only fit 2-3 birds per shelf so it’s a terribly inefficient way to use the freezer space. Ideally, we would have processed these birds closer to Thanksgiving and I could have persuaded more people to come pick up their bird the day we butchered them. But when you butcher in August, you get a lot of responses like “oh I want one but I don’t have the space right now, can I get it in a few months?”. What can you say to that? “No, I can’t store this turkey”, in which case they just don’t buy it. Nope, I said “sure we can” to several people and now we are stuck with a lot of wasted freezer space.
My advice is time your butchering day accordingly and maybe even have a “no hold” policy so everyone is motivated to pick up their bird sooner rather than later.
I will not claim to be any expert in the “finding buyers” field but I’m making progress. We butchered 11 production turkeys and have sold 3 so far. We plan to use one as our Thanksgiving bird and my parents plan to buy one (when they have freezer space). So now I’m down to 6 birds that need a home. I’m fairly confident I’ll sell all of these turkeys but the problem is when. Most people don’t think about buying a Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey until about a week before the day. Processing birds in the middle of summer was a colossal mistake. I’m advertising them through several different outlets but don’t expect to unload them for at least another month.
Here’s what I would have done different
What we are doing different next year
Overall, I like turkeys and am glad we decided to raise them. I hope you also decide to give turkeys a try on your homestead.