This year we decided that aside from our chickens and ducks we would try to raise some turkeys for our holiday table. Turkeys are not any harder to raise than chickens are and although they do require some special considerations it can be well worth your time to raise a few turkeys and enjoy the pure pleasure and satisfaction of eating a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving.
There is more than one reason to raise turkeys, not only can raising your own turkeys give you a source of healthy meat for your holiday table but they can be a good side line business for those with the space to do so. Even a couple of turkeys can pay for themselves by providing a small income as well as extra meat for your family. Fresh, healthy, none factory raised turkey commands a premium price, so if you can find a buyer for it, you can pick your price. You can also raise turkeys and sell the poults, which can sell for $10 in some places.
The Basics About Turkeys
Before you rush out and buy your turkeys there are a few things that you need to know about them, that will enhance your ability to take care of them.
- There are a few differences between wild turkeys and their domestic cousins, while in some area you can keep wild turkeys; they can fly so you will have to provide them with a covered run. Domestic turkeys cannot fly so a secure area to keep them safe from predators is all that you need.
- Domestic turkey is available in a few different breeds and colors but is most commonly white. They are also bigger than the wild turkey, since they are bred for meat. Domestic turkeys have up to 2 to 4 times the breast meat that wild turkeys have. Heritage turkeys are smaller, take longer to raise, but many people prefer their meat, and you can raise them yourself if you would like.
Your first step after deciding to get turkeys is to decide what your overall plans are and what type of turkeys you want. For some getting turkeys is only about getting a few turkeys to raise for meat like we have done this year, I have considered getting a couple of turkeys to raise my own turkeys, but the white turkeys we have are not a good option for that, so If I decide to do that it will not be until next year.
*The breed of turkey you choose will have a lot to do with what they are best suited for. Be sure to take the time to research your breeds carefully and choose the breed that will best suit your needs.
If you plan to raise turkeys or want to keep them as pets, there are many wonderful breeds to choose from. Heritage breed turkeys are you best choice for this, as the white turkeys that are offered for slaughter tend to make poor layers and parents. There are several heritage turkey breeds that are fun to raise and can even offer a considerable profit is done properly. The Narragansett, Buff and Slate are good all-around birds that provide meat, eggs and are great for pest control around your farm.
If instead you only want to raise a few turkeys for the freezer the more commonly available white turkey is fast growing, hardy and makes a great meat bird.
Caring for your Poults
The most critical time for your Turkeys is their first few weeks, they need meticulous care and careful monitoring to ensure the disease, the cold or predators do not take a toll on your flock. Poults like any other bird you raise need the proper heat, food and water, bedding and a draft free place to grow.
Turkey care in the first few critical weeks is much the same as caring for chicks; they need warmth and lots of it. You should keep their brooder at 95 – 100 degrees for the first week then drop it by 5 degrees each week until they have all of their adult feathers. Many people fuss over this requirement a lot, worried that there will too much or not enough heat, but in reality it is a lot easier than most think.
Simple put a heat lamp in with your poults but be sure to give them enough room to decide whether they want to be under the heat lamp or want to move away from it. Provided there is enough heat they will regulate their warmth on their own. If you see the Poults huddling together under the light, then they are not warm enough and you will need to provide them with more warmth, lower the heat lamp or add some alternative heat.
Turkeys should be spread out and moving around comfortable if they are warm enough. If you find your poults spread out and as far against the walls of the enclosure as possible trying to get away from the heat lamp then they are too warm. Using a thermometer is a good idea, to monitor how far up to move the light when it is time, but do not rely on it, for your turkeys comfort, let them be your ultimate guide.
Once your Young turkeys have feathers be sure to keep a light on them at night just in case. This will ensure that they will not get cold, they may not need the light but let them decide. As above always make sure that they have enough room to move away from the heat if it is too much.
It will not do any good to keep your poults warm with a heat lamp if you do not have a warm, draft free enclosure for them. A good thick layer of bedding is essential, to ensure that the cold does not emanate from the floor beneath them. Pine wood shavings are a good bedding and are widely available and inexpensive. You should put up a draft shield around your enclosure to ensure that your poults always stay warm, drafts can kill your baby turkeys! You may need to change bedding frequently, to keep it dry and clean, turkeys, even babies tend to be pretty messy. Finally make sure that where you raise your turkeys is not where Chicken have been, if you must raise them in the same place be sure to disinfect it thoroughly before putting your poults in there. Chickens carry diseases that can kill turkeys especially young ones.
If you do not have an enclosure, a kiddy swimming pool make a good place to raise turkey poults, or you can fashion a area with cardboard boxes that will keep the draft off of them and keep them warm.
Food and Water
Water should always be lukewarm, never give them cold water, because it can kill them. When you first bring poults home add a vitamin and electrolyte solution, most feed stores carry them. This can help them to get over the shock of transport and get them off to a good start.
Turkeys feed requirements are a bit different than chickens, this does not mean you cannot use the grower that that is sold in the feed store, but it is important to make sure that the feed you give your poults containers 28% protein for the first 6-8 weeks. After than you can switch them to a diet of 18% protein.
Like chickens, turkeys will need grit, so be sure to offer them chick grit when they are about 3 weeks old by sprinkling it in with their food. As your poults grow you can offer them greens from your garden, they love them and they are good for them. It is also a great way to make friends with your birds too especially if you are not planning to slaughter them.
If you plan to let your hens lay it is also important that they have access to grit and calcium, to help with egg production.
It is important to keep in mind that turkeys are very social animals, they love to be around people and can become very friendly if you take the time to make them so. In fact a friendly turkey is just as likely to following you around like a dog if you give them half a chance. Keep healthy treats on hand, this is the best way to tame your turkeys and ensure they will not wander.
Some of the heritage turkeys can fly and will even roost in trees, if that is a problem for you, keep in mind you will want to have a covered enclosure for them. Turkeys are susceptible to the cold; make sure that you have a warm, dry secure place for them during bad weather.
The diseases that turkeys are susceptible to is a much bigger topic than the scope of this article and for another day, at this point, keep in mind that turkeys are susceptible to many diseases, so disease prevention is critical. Keeping them is a separate enclosure from other birds is important and good hygiene is a must, if you keep your birds in a healthy environment you are likely to have little or no trouble with them. The same can be said for parasites and other pests. Of course making sure that your turkey coop is predator proof goes without saying. There are many animals including dogs that would love to make a meal out of your turkeys.
If you Plan to Butcher Your Turkeys
If you plan to use your turkeys for meat, you will want to keep them on a food that is meant for that purpose. Feed stores all have grower, finisher foods that are meant to offer the proper amount of protein for your turkeys to bring them to full growth.
It is important to note that the type of bird you buy will dictate when it is time to butcher. If you purchase the white turkeys in the late spring – early summer they will need to grow for 16 – 20 weeks, which makes them perfect for butchering right before Thanksgiving. Heritage turkeys need 6 – 8 months so plan accordingly. Also Heritage turkeys are smaller, 10 to 12 pounds on average. A white turkey can easily reach 20 to 25 pounds and be too big for the roaster if you are not careful so keep a watch on them, if they are growing fast you may have to adjust when you butcher.
The butchering process is a post for another blog, let’s just suffice to say that Turkeys are butchered the same way chickens are, and there are plenty of blogs that cover the process for both types of birds that I am not going to repeat it here. Butchering is something that can easily be done at home, we do ours and even our 12 year old helps, but you can also take your birds to have them processed off your homestead if you do not feel like you want to do it yourself. You will still be getting hormone, antibiotic free turkey that will be fresh and the best turkey you have ever eaten for thanksgiving!