I know this article is being posted after Thanksgiving and Christmas…but that is intentional. My reasoning is that I would like to put the idea of raising a turkey into your head now when you will have plenty of time to consider it, order some, and raise them for next year’s meals.
By no means am I a turkey expert. And what I tell you may fly in the face of conventional turkey raising wisdom but I would like to tell you how it has worked for us and then you can study the practice and choose your own way. Of course my family has raised poultry, and many other types of other livestock, for years but until this year we had never raised turkeys. There were a number of reasons but the two major ones were that turkey isn’t my family’s favorite meat and supposedly turkeys are very difficult to raise.
Yet as we moved more and more towards the goal of raising as much of our food as we could we realized that the first issue, turkey isn’t our favorite meat, might be because of the WAY turkey is commercially raised. I mean, any one that raises their own chickens, beef, lamb etc knows that the flavor of the meat is by far superior to its store bought equivalent. It is so obvious of a difference that there are some chicken recipes we will no longer make unless we have a flavor filled home raised bird to put into it. And of course even if you have never raised your own meat animals yet, everyone knows that home grown tomatoes taste better than store bought….so why not turkey meat?
And I have to admit that for a number of years I considered trying to raise one or two but it remained nothing more than a tickle in the back of my brain. This is because even when eating the “local” Thanksgiving (or Christmas) meal we would often eat something like prime rib or whole roasted chicken or even ham..
This year though I decided it had been a number of years since we had had turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas and maybe we needed to try one or two. I didn’t want to start out with an expensive batch from the hatchery (15 birds minimum to ship at about 8 dollars a piece on average depending on breed and shipping) since I had heard they were horribly difficult to raise. Even Gene Logsdon whose books I just love says don’t even bother trying to raise turkeys. Just don’t.
So all summer, after my mind had been made up, we would try and remember to watch craigslist to find people selling turkey poults. Eventually we moved past the point of having about 28 weeks from the birth of the birds to having one ready for Thanksgiving and eventually even Christmas. Most of the heritage breed birds need about 28 weeks. Some a bit less and of course you can go longer but that is the general time frame everyone gives for having about an 14 to 20 pounder. The biggest problem we ran into trying to buy locally was that the birds were sold almost from the moment the ad hit the list. “Sorry….their all gone” was the response to my many many emails.
Finally though, about 8 weeks before Thanksgiving, we found some. The gentleman was up on one of the local mountains and had some left ranging in age from 6 weeks to 12 weeks. I wanted the twelve week birds, slightly more expensive at 15 a piece, because of the fact that one would be close enough to ready for us by Christmas but…..they sold before I got there. Bummer. So instead I took home 4 six week old birds at the whopping price of eight dollars a piece.
The weather was still very warm so we didn’t have to worry about brooding them in a special cage or lamps or any of that. Just making sure that until they fully feathered they didn’t get soaked in the pouring rain without a place to shelter. Basically these guys were past the baby baby stage—supposedly the hardest part— but they did still need a bit of extra care and some higher protein feed than our chickens. This is because of the fact that turkeys grow quite fast at this stage .
So, for about the next 8 weeks (approximately) I fed them, and my chickens who were with them, a 22 percent protein feed. There was no way to separately feed the two species and so I didn’t really worry about it. I did however offer the feed in the evening, just enough so that there was little or none left the next morning. This kept the chickens foraging instead of filling up on the high protein feed meant more for the turkeys. The turkeys were also quick to catch onto moving out to the pasture every morning with the chickens—eventually foraging farther than the chickens which was good. Our chickens were a bit..well.. chicken about moving all the way across the pasture. They felt safer I think with the bigger birds and started going farther their selves which was good.
We have since switched, at about the beginning of December I would say, to a 16 percent ration with cracked corn as a treat now that they are older. Over all the turkeys did great and the chickens didn’t turn into walking blobs. And one last thing we noticed when feeding the turkeys: even though we usually feed whole corn for a treat, and you would think the turkeys being slightly larger than the chickens would be able to eat it, they could not. At first they had trouble swallowing it so we changed to cracked corn instead of whole. Now they can…but not for many many weeks after we got them.
As far as housing the birds we moved them straight in with our chickens almost from the get go. I understand having them with chickens is a total no no since they can get a disease called blackhead, but our birds are happy and healthy to this day. We did this because we didn’t have another place to house them separately. It was with the chickens or with no turkeys at all. I also figured this would tell me if raising turkeys was going to be difficult or even possible for us since we will probably never have a separate area available just for turkeys. If they immediately fell ill and died…well then they were too hard. If they didn’t then lucky us. We could of course do them in rotational cages like we do pastured poultry ….yet we may never do that with them so we wanted to see if they could fit in with the other birds in an easy manner. I also don’t know if sanitary conditions or access to pasture helps to keep this dreaded blackhead from developing, but at this point all four of our birds are still fine. As mentioned they have the same access to pasture as the chickens and get along fine with the birds. One of our roosters does try and woo one of the hens (we lucked out and got two males and two females) but he doesn’t really do much more than chase her. She’s quite a bit faster than he is and bigger now too. As a matter of fact I saw her chasing him this morning and pecking him so maybe she’s had enough. Enough is enough sometimes.
And no, we haven’t yet eaten them since only one of the males looked even kind of sort of big enough by Christmas. We just decided to wait a bit longer. Maybe it may work out that we have an Easter turkey instead of lamb Though at the posting of this article one male is looking quite large enough so maybe soon…….
Overall we have thoroughly enjoyed raising turkeys. We did have to clip their wings since they worked from flying into the trees to flying up to the top of the chicken coop but other than that they are a dream to care for so far. They are actually quite smart, not at all like I was led to believe, and very friendly. They talk and chat to each other and us all the time, easily come to us, and often follow us around in the pasture or along the fence lines. I am sure we could have tamed them enough to pet and pick them up but we will be eating them and try not to attach too much to the animals we will eat. We swear we have even seen them “playing”. Not sure but it looked like it. One of the funniest things about the turkeys is any odd noise (even one made by us) will cause them to gobble. Gobble gobble gobble. I can loudly say Blah blah blah and they will gobble. So funny! Kids totally get a kick out of it. Sometimes we even get a feather show to go with all the gobbling. Of course they refused to do a tail show while I took pictures for this article —but really they do. Promise.
So..my take? Turkeys are not nearly as hard as I had heard. Yes, I still need to brood them straight from the day old stage, but the man I purchased mine from said it was as easy to him as brooding his chicks. And he lived on an acre right in a subdivision type neighborhood. And now that we know they are not stupid or too dumb to come in out of the rain we are looking forward to more turkeys in the future. They are actually attractive, interesting, interactive with humans, calmer than most chickens and more than smart enough to put themselves up when it’s cold, rainy, snows or gets dark. Overall? I like them. And I hope that my hens will help me out this next year and either hatch some poults for me or at least offer up a number of fertilized eggs for me to try and incubate. Even if that doesn’t happen though, we will be more than open to spending the money to buy them from a hatchery if we can not find more locally.
So if you’ve been wondering about whether turkeys would work out for you– try some. I think you may like them a lot. Their only downfall I can see so far is that they would never lay enough eggs for our breakfast burritos!