Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!
by Khaiti French of L.T.D. Farm
Sadly, the first thing many people hear about raising turkeys is just how stupid they are. “Don’t let them out in the rain, they’ll stare up into it and drown…” Our experience with turkeys has been completely the opposite. While most poultry species aren’t exactly bright, we find that turkeys are lovely, personable, and most important for the self sufficient homesteader – extremely efficient converters of grain and forage into delicious meat. In 5 months, a turkey can grow from a few ounces to 20-30+ lbs.
Why raise turkeys? Aside from their beautiful sing-song calls? These massive birds provide bountiful amounts of delicious meat. Turkey is not just a once a year feast for Thanksgiving! Ground turkey makes excellent turkey-burgers, sausage links and patties, roasted turkey meat can go into casseroles, soups, sandwiches anytime of year. Jumbo turkey legs and BBQ wings on the grill, alongside kebabs and summer veggies? These meals sound good to you? Turkey is also a very marketable product for side-income. Selling a few extra turkeys can cover your turkey raising costs, so your own turkey meat supply is paid for! Raising birds humanely, when they can forage and live a good life means you have a special product for people looking for this as well.
On our farm, we raise two groups of turkeys each year, for summer and fall harvests. We get a small group of poults ASAP in the spring. Hatcheries usually require a minimum of 8 poults per order – but you could find a friend to split an order with. Check with your local feed store and see if they are ordering chicks. This way you can avoid the shipping costs you incur when ordering through the mail. These birds we get in March are harvested in July at about 2o lbs. Summer turkeys are lean and don’t have the same large amount of fat as the Thanksgiving birds finished during the cooler fall. That’s another marketing point to remember. People like lean meats.
Around late May or early June, we order a bigger group of 25-50 turkey babies for the Thanksgiving crowd. This special holiday brings us many customers, who actually want to know how the turkey harvesting happens, and they come to the farm to be a part of it. This means we get help on harvest dates, and even the newest to harvesting poultry can help pluck the birds. As farmers, it is so rewarding to put people in touch with the animals they eat, it brings a more full scale appreciation on all angles. Make nice flyers advertising your special Turkeys and put them up at local & natural food stores.
Brooding the poults carefully for the first weeks of their tender lives is most important. Being prepared helps a lot, have everything ready before their arrival date. High protein 24-28% gamebird starter feed is essential to supply their protein requirements, and look for a non-medicated feed which for us is preferred. You may want to order this from your feed store when you order your poults, to make sure it’s there when you get the babies. You’ll also need a very tall-sided brooding box set up in a cozy room in your house (we use the bathroom!) I wouldn’t recommend brooding them in an outbuilding at this tiny stage, unless you’re sure no predators can get in there. Turkey babies LOVE to jump and fly out of their brooder box even at two days old! You can use window screens or chicken wire on top to keep them in.
Turkey babies don’t need a lot of space in the brooder the first week, keep them nice and cozy at 85-90 degrees (don’t guess – use a thermometer) the first several days, then you can begin to lift the heat lamp up a few inches each day. Have the heat lamp focused on one side of the box, so if it does get too hot the babies can move away from the heat as needed. If you see them all piled away from the lamp, or panting with wings away from their bodies, it is too hot in there! Provide water in one of those screw on dishes that fit on a quart jar, refill as soon as it is close to empty. Dehydrated babies die very quickly. With ten babies, they’ll go through two jars’ worth of water a day for the first week or so. Change the jar to a clean one every couple days, as bacteria builds up in the warm environment. There’s a weird backwash thing with those gravity watering devices, so food ends up inside the jar. You may want to fashion a cone top to sit in top of the jar, as soon the turkey babies want to perch on top, and crap down the sides of the jar. And from this height, they’ll keep trying to fly out of the box too. Change the bedding every few days.
When you bring your new babies home, dip each baby’s beak into the water and see that they swallow when you let them go, otherwise re-dip their beak. This is important to do so they learn to drink, and where to get the water. The first day, you want to line the floor of their box with paper towels (so they have something to grip) and sprinkle feed all over it, so they see food everywhere and learn to eat. Turkeys aren’t stupid, but babies need some training to survive. One thing we learned is that if you teach the babies early about greens, they will be much better foragers as growing teenagers. Simply snip little bits of lettuce, weeds, greens, grass into their box. You can do this as soon as they are eating their feed well, we start introducing greens at two days of age! Once they get it, they will lunge at lettuce bits held in your fingers, tugging on it like puppies. You can bring them small insects too – their instincts are so strong. Be prepared for some laughs as they run to a corner with their bug, trying to hide it from the others and cram it down their throat at the same time!
Depending on the weather, you can move them to a shelter or an outbuilding when they are 2-3 weeks old. We use those giant cardboard watermelon bins from the grocery store as a large corral for the second stage of raising the turkeys. There is a heat lamp for them still if it is very chilly, otherwise they are tough little birds with plenty of feathers and each other to keep warm. If possible, make a place for them to start exploring the outdoors, but make sure they are cozy and sheltered as the temperatures fall in the evenings. They don’t have the same instinct to roost in their coop at night like chickens do, so some care has to be given to ensure their safety and comfort. Tuck them in before nightfall. If you have a large farm space, you can experiment with just letting them out to roam during the day. Use a fenced pen if you have wandering dogs. Keep an eye on them, they will tend to stay around home base, but may wander due to their curious nature and herd mentality. If they see you, they will most likely run to you, and follow you around, so be careful of leading them to your garden area!
This is generally how it goes until they reach 3 months. Before dusk, we tuck them in to their area, make sure they still have their higher protein feed and some assorted grains to fill up on before sleeping, after a day of browsing and foraging greens. Their rapid growth requires more than just grass and weeds to be healthy and strong. At 3 months old, the turkeys are much more full sized, so you can worry less about feeding them high protein feeds. As larger birds, they have more ability to fly over fences, but they can’t fly for any length of time, like their wild relatives can. At night, they usually prefer to roost, and they like plank fences for this. If you have them in a roosting on a fence at night, try laying some hay beneath their roost so their excellent and plentiful manure is laid out nicely for you to collect for the garden.
At 5-6 months of age, most of your turkeys are full grown and will only be packing on more fat. Your toms will be between 30-40 lbs, and the hens 20-25 lbs. It’s harvesting time. We schedule this date right after the babies arrive, and before we sell any birds. Part of what we require from our turkey customers is participation in the harvesting. When they give us a deposit on one of our turkeys, the customer gets the date well ahead of time. We are not set up to have a bunch of butchered huge turkeys hanging around, nor do we want to be delivering all those birds. Having our customers come help also means they take their bird home with them. Our butchering set up is simple- a clean table top, a very sharp strong knife, some feed bags with the corner cut off, and then something to hang the bird on for dry plucking. Turkeys are very easy to dry pluck, if you do it immediately after they die. Can you imagine a scalder big enough to hold a huge turkey anyway? The day before harvesting, try to keep the turkeys off any feed, to keep the evisceration cleaner.
We aim for a very humane and respectful death for our birds. This is how we do it: The person who will do the kill has the feed bag with the corner cut off for the turkeys head to come out of. The “holder” corrals the bird and walks them over to the harvesting area. Turkeys are so mellow, this is not a problem in our experience. If you don’t freak out, they stay relatively calm. The person with the feed bag carefully puts it over the turkey’s head and feeds the head through the opening. The holder gently brings the turkey down to the ground, so they are sitting in a natural position, and the holder’s legs are straddling the back of the turkey. Some turkeys get a little riled up, and so we find it best to let them have a minute if so. Fear and stress mean adrenaline in your meat. It is worth it to be calm, keep in mind this bird is giving up it’s life for you to eat. Be grateful and give the bird it’s moments to calm down. Hold the turkey’s head in in one hand, and with the other, with a sharp knife, cut the neck and the jugular veins, going from one side to the other in a swift motion. Keep hold of the head and tell the turkey how grateful you are as it dies. As their spirit leaves, the wing muscles will move with amazing strength – hence the feed bag to hold the energy in. The holder should be prepared for this power so they don’t get bucked off. If they keep their knees firmly placed on the ground, they should be fine. Once the turkey has died, we use stout wire and tie it to one leg, and then hang the bird at a comfortable height for plucking. A semi-low strong branch on a tree works well. Eviscerating turkeys is the same as other poultry, except easier since they are so large. Their gizzards peel out easily and are delicious when roasted with the whole bird, or finely minced and used gravy. The heart and liver are the only other things we save besides the feet. Turkey feet can be dipped in scalding water and peeled, then added to bones for stock, supplying lots of excellent glucosamine and chondriton.
We raise the conventional broad breasted turkeys. Mostly because the heritage breeds of turkey poults are 2 times as expensive. Despite the nostalgic heritage concept, we didn’t feel the flavor was any better or different from our free ranged, well cared for broad breasted birds. Heritage turkeys also have a lower meat to bone ratio. The benefit to heritage birds should be that they can grow, breed and raise their own offspring without much input from the farmer. We tried keeping a pair of Bourbon Reds for a year, but the hen never sat on her eggs. We incubated them and had one poult hatch out, who died after a week. Our experience was not so good, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try again. Our current idea is to develop our own hybrid – we’ll be keeping 2 broad breasted hens and getting a heritage tom turkey for them. The Broad Breasted toms as too top heavy to naturally mate or mount a hen, but we’re thinking the other way around should work. However these hens most likely have most of their natural brooding ability bred out of them, so we’ll plan on incubating their eggs. Why bother with all this work? Poults are expensive to buy – our Broad Breasted poults run around $4 a piece. The heritage poults are $8-9 each. And a self sufficient homesteader wants to supply their own needs as much as possible.
You should give turkeys a try. They are an absolute joy, hilarious to watch, and so easy to please. And free ranged, real turkey is one of the most tasty meats imaginable.