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!