Thinking of raising up a turkey for Thanksgiving or any other holiday or for any day really? Here are a few bits of advice and knowledge I've picked up in my experiences with turkeys.
Just a few short years ago the choices for the average person to have a fresh turkey were as follows: supermarket meat case or local commercial turkey grower.
Our options have thankfully expanded a bit in the last few years. More and more farmers' markets are popping up with smaller local growers offering fresh turkeys, even grown to order! And more and more backyarders are growing their own turkeys as well.
Price can be a big factor in turkey selection. A turkey at a farmers' market might garner upwards of $6 per pound. Fresh turkeys in a supermarket case, “fresh” being a relative term here, can be around the $2-3 per pound range. With many supermarkets advertising low cost per pound frozen birds at just 59 cents per pound and even some freebies thrown in there, how could a fresh turkey compete?
Let’s face it, when accompanied by hundreds of calories on the typical holiday meal plate, the turkey isn’t quite as center stage as our reverent tradition holds. Historically, the turkey was only a portion of the festive meal anyway, with other meats such as fish, chicken pies and beef roasts also gracing the table. In our minds I guess, a cheap turkey allows us to have more on the table. Bland, stringy, pumped with filler juices and water added—you get what you pay for.
Raising a turkey of your own won’t be cheap: We backyarders can in no way compete with the conglomerate turkey farm at 59¢ per pound. A homegrown bird will more likely be in the $1.75-2.50 per pound range, but will have unsurpassed flavor and quality of meat.
A decade ago a backyard grower would be hard pressed to find a turkey poult available other than the Broad Breasted White. Again, thankfully, there are at a least a few other options with more availability of heritage breed turkeys.
Castaway trampoline with wire sides and plastic roofing. Our first attempt at holding in flighty Narragansetts. Losses took its toll on our flock of heritage turkeys since, with only a trio remaining, they have been moved into permanent quarters.
The topic of raising your own feast begins with commercial breed vs. heritage breed. I have raised both. I’ve eaten both. Both are delicious. Both have their own quirks on raising. Backyard growers would do well to research both.
Some facts about both “kinds” of turkeys is that there isn’t a whole lot of information out there on the raising of just one or two birds. Most information I have gleaned is from large commercial operations. Good for us though, most poultry are very easy to raise.
Be advised that hatcheries tend to sell out quite fast of the heritage breeds. Both commercial and heritage birds are sold in minimum quantities. Here in New Hampshire, state law requires feed stores and other poultry sources to sell turkeys in minimum lots of 12. That’s a lot of turkey. If you are thinking of raising only a few consider going in on a lot with a group of like-minded turkey raisers.
Heritage breeds normally take much longer to raise. You’ve heard that before I’m sure. But you can raise a heritage turkey from spring to fall. It won’t be huge. Not like the BB Whites. Most likely 15-18 pounds for a tom purchased as a poult in May or June. But don’t worry, the meat is much denser and tends to feed more on less pounds per person. The flavor is more turkey, but not gamey in any way. The meat on the breast is a bit darker as you’ve heard. But NOT like the dark meat on the leg. Breast meat is more of a creamy color than the stark white of a supermarket bird. The dark meat on a heritage bird is very dark indeed, but is all the more flavorful. There tends to be more leg meat than breast on heritage breeds in general. I found the leg meat to be meatier and not stringy like the supermarket kind.
Young Narragansett sits atop a large dog crate. Those turkeys never did go inside even in the snow and rain!
A heritage bird of larger size can certainly be obtained, but you’ve got to grow that bird usually into the next year. Which is OK, because they are beautiful birds. It’s often more difficult to cull that beauty for a meal, so a heritage bird may squeak by another year of growth. Heritage birds don’t eat as voraciously as the commercial breeds. You’ll still spend money on feed over the long run though. I haven’t calculated the difference between the two, but it certainly seems that they eat less than their commercial counterparts.
Heritage turkeys are more spunky than the BB Whites for sure. They figure any way out of their pen, up, under, through, between… You’ll be amazed as well as aggravated by their attempts at escape. Be vigilant and they will settle down as they grow bigger than the holes they attempt to squeeze through! Heritage breeds are less prodigious in the poo category. They do forage although a high protein grain mix is required to pack on the pounds.
Heritage birds dress out about the same as the commercial kind. But they will have more feathers and will leave some darker pinfeathers behind on the carcass after processing. Small or hard to get feathers can be plucked off individually before roasting and the tiniest will cook off in the oven. I’ve cooked them the same way as the supermarket kind, being careful not to over cook. (I like to pull my roast at 160° degrees.)
The commercial side will find you deciding between Broad Breasted White and Broad Breasted Bronze. Here again, you’ll need to do your research. I found the meat to be exactly the same between the two. I did like how the BB Bronze grew out, as they looked more like a “real” turkey clucking around the yard. I did not like how they processed. I have been a supermarket bird gal for too many years and just don’t care for the black pinfeathers in the skin. My personal choice here only, folks.
Better pen area for our 11 Broad Breasted White flock. They quickly trampled all the grass. This group was pretty smart and headed for the security of the metal shed in the background in early evening. They even had enough sense to get in out of the rain. I do not believe turkeys are as stupid as everyone makes them out to be, perhaps more childlike and inquisitive but not stupid. If there is something in their pen area that can be broken or destroyed in anyway—they’ll do it.
Our choice after trial and error is the BB White, abundant at feed stores in July and August. A July tom will yield 30+ pounds by November. We opt for a later start in the beginning weeks of August, which yield smaller birds overall, with toms averaging 20-22 pounds. The BB Whites are voracious eaters. Just like their commercial cousins the Cornish X meat bird, they eat and they poo. Lots and lots of feed. Lots and lots of poo. The BB whites are much lazier than the heritage breeds, while they will eat grass, they prefer the trough. You have to range them strategically in order to have enough green grass for them because they poo so much, they soil their soil much too quickly. It’s best to raise them on commercial grain. They drink enormous amounts of water so make sure you can supply it even when the fall weather turns cold enough to make turn it into ice!
BB White poults will find curious ways to escape as well, but since they grow at such a rate, they quickly get too big for those shenanigans. They won’t fly up and out like the heritage breeds will. Keeping them in lower open pens is easier than the covered pens needed for the heritage varieties. Of course, you can free range both. But be prepared for losses. BB Whites are slow easy targets for predators and heritage breeds will wander away to become a wild turkey.
You should be prepared for losses, though, in both categories. Turkey poults, while easy to raise, are a bit more finicky than raising chicks. They seem not to like the heat lamps as much as chicks and prefer to be outside rather in a coop in general. Day olds are extremely fragile, it seems to me; more so than chicks.
Broad Breasted White turkey hen, from day-old poults acquired the first week of August. Hens from this group weighed in at 13-15 pounds by Thanksgiving, toms ranged from 18-22 pounds. Add 10 pounds for an additional month if acquired in July.
Both varieties of turkeys have personality. Which can often be a determinant to the home processor! I was just on the verge of falling for my BB Whites about a week before D-Day. I was careful to appreciate their humor without getting overly attached. Turkeys seem very loyal and will follow you around like a little puppy—beware!
I don’t let myself get attached to the turkeys we intend to process, but darn, I’ve fallen in love with my Narragansetts. I was forewarned of this very thing happening by a dear friend. We’ve decided to keep them as breeders—for now.
Processing turkey is much the same as for chickens although the size can make hefting up into the scalder, plucker and onto tables quite tiring. A group of friends gathered at our place to process 22 turkeys this year. I was fine and dandy with all of it, until the very last bird at 37.5 pounds. I thought I was going to drop from exhaustion after that monster.
As with meat chickens, meat turkeys are worth giving it a try at least. The meat is naturally moist and flavorful, and then there is that satisfaction of knowing what went into the entire ordeal.