Have you ever thought about how to raise turkeys for your family holiday dinners? It’s a great way to provide lean, economical, and delicious meat for your family. Also, compared to other small homestead livestock, turkey has a much higher dressed weight of about 75% of body weight. This means that you get more meat and less wasted weight when processing.
If you’ve raised chickens on your homestead before, turkeys won’t be very different. If you’ve never raised any homestead livestock before, not to worry, you’ll pick it up very quickly. Before you order your poults and get started, follow these simple steps to learn how to raise turkeys.
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What Turkey Breed Should I Get?
To help decide what type of turkey you should get, think about your goals for this flock. Are they just for your family consumption? Are you looking to secure your family's food supply? Or will this be one of the sources of income for your homestead?
Do you plan on raising another flock next year and breeding the birds yourself, or will you just buy all new poults again? Some breeds won’t naturally reproduce, so be careful which ones you choose.
Heritage Breeds vs. Commercial Breeds
The different types of turkeys that we often refer to as “breeds” are all actually variations of the original common turkey of North America.
As mass farming increased and farmers improved at selective breeding, different types of turkeys began getting their own “breed names” even though they’re still just a regular old turkey. This eventually led to a difference between heritage breeds, and commercial breeds. With that being said, there are some significant differences between the two categories.
Some of the most common heritage breeds include the Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Narragansett, and Black Spanish. Commercially grown breeds include the Broad-breasted White, Broad-Breasted Bronze, Standard Bronze, and White Holland.
As you might expect, these turkeys have been selectively bred to have massive breasts and can weigh as much as 30 - 40 pounds. In comparison, heritage breeds tend to range anywhere from 15 - 25 pounds (although some may grow larger).
Heritage breeds won’t grow to the same size as the oversized commercial ones, but they can naturally reproduce, something to keep in mind if you plan on raising another flock next year. Due to the unnaturally large size of the commercial breeds, they can’t naturally reproduce.
If you want to try breeding commercial turkeys, you will need to use an artificial insemination process, which honestly just isn’t worth it. If you want commercial turkeys, just buy new poults every spring. It might not be as economical, but it will save you quite a bit of a hassle.
When learning how to raise turkeys, you want your first time to be as smooth as possible. To make it easier, make sure that any supplier you buy poults from has a National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) certification. This will help you be sure of the health, breed, and disease-free status of your poults.
How To Raise Turkeys (Poults)
To start raising turkeys at home, you will need a brooder box for your poults. If you don’t have one, you can build one or buy one online. l
You will need about 1 square foot of space in the brooder for each bird up until they reach eight weeks old. Use wood shavings as bedding, and make sure you have turkey specific starter feed for them, don’t use a chicken feed.
The two species require different supplements to help fight off certain diseases (like coccidiosis) in the early stages of brooding, so make sure you have the proper type. Ideally, you want a starter with a 28% protein base. As a general rule of thumb, 100 pounds of turkey starter feed will be enough for 10 poults over a 6 week period.
Dip each poult's beak in the brooders' water dish as soon as you get them home. This will help familiarize them with the water dish location, in case they have trouble finding it in their first few days. If they still have trouble finding the water, place some colored glass marbles in the bottom of the water dish. The poults will try and peck the submerged marbles but get water instead.
Ensure the brooder box has enough air circulation to keep the bedding dry and the poults ventilated. Keep your heat lamp at least 18 inches above the birds to avoid burning them as they grow. For the first week of raising your poults, keep the brooder box temperature at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Drop the temperature by 5 degrees Fahrenheit every week after that until the birds develop full feathers (usually takes 6 - 8 weeks).
As with chickens, if you have a few poults aggressively pecking weaker birds and bullying them, use a red heat bulb to prevent their pecking.
Starter Feed vs. Growing Feed
When your poults reach about 6 weeks of age you need to change their type of feed from a starter to a grower ration. Turkey's “growing” feed has a slightly lower protein base of 26% and contains preventative medication for blackhead disease, a common issue with turkeys.
If you have chickens on the same property, you must keep them completely separate. If you use any equipment or supplies for your chickens and turkeys, make sure you sanitize it thoroughly between uses. Chicken manure can carry blackhead disease and infect your turkeys.
As your turkeys grow and get closer to your intended harvesting weight, they should be switched to a “finishing ration” for the final 3 - 4 weeks. To get a better understanding of the ratios of feeds needed at different stages, check out Penn State’s guide.
Do Turkeys Need a Coop?
Once your poults have grown their full feathers (usually 6 - 7 weeks), they will be ready to move outside. As with any outdoor livestock shelter, protection from the elements and predators has to be your top priority.
A moveable pasture coop, regular standing coop, shed, barn or other similar structure will do just fine. At this age, each bird needs at least 6 square feet of indoor space, so take this into account when designing your coop. If you want them to have a bit of outdoor free-range area, use inexpensive wire fencing to create a turkey run. They will need about 20 square feet per bird of outdoor space.
Free-range shelter options or turkey runs sounds like a great option. However, it increases the chance of losing livestock to predators or disease.
Building your own coop will give you an opportunity to use up some extra building supplies you most likely have laying around your homestead. Customize the coop to your own flock's needs. If you need some general guidelines on building coops or how to raise turkeys, the University of Maine’s Extension has a few good pointers.
When are Turkeys Ready to Harvest?
Depending on the breed of turkeys you’ve chosen, they will have different growing periods. The growing periods for Toms will range between 16 - 22 weeks. Hens range between 16 - 18 weeks. It really depends on each bird's size, and their intake of feed compared to how much weight they gain.
Use the same principle as with rabbits, chickens, or other backyard livestock. Once the turkeys reach a point where they are eating a few pounds of feed a day but barely growing anymore, it’s time to start harvesting them.
Penn State has a handy chart showing the breakdown of a turkey's feed intake, live weight, and age by week. Even though their data is based on large White turkeys (commercial), it can still be used to help inform your decision on when to begin processing your birds.
Check back soon for part two about how to process, butcher, and store your turkeys.
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