Turkeys first came to our southern Ohio Locust Grove Farm in 1991. After a year of living without animals I proclaimed, “Fences or not, I am going to get some livestock.” My wife, Linda, said to do what I wanted, but to count her out as she was busy.
One month later, my baby chicks arrived – and I knew as soon as she looked at those tiny baby birds that I was out of the chicken picture. I then ordered some day-old turkey poults and began my life with these beautiful, friendly birds of various colors.
After I first tasted the flavorful, homegrown roast turkey, I knew I would never return to bland commercial birds again.
Raising friendly, handsome turkeys for family use is both fun and worthwhile. If you raise them to eat, you’ll enjoy a much more flavorful turkey than supermarket turkeys.
Heritage poultry specialist Glenn Drowns of Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus, Iowa, explains the Traditional Bronze and White Holland varieties are great for small flocks under 20, and that Narragansetts and Bourbon Reds are beautiful, medium-size birds suited for foraging and pest control. I recommend the white-and-black Royal Palm for those desiring a smaller turkey.
Frank Reese, a turkey aficionado and breeder from Good Shepherd Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, suggests the Standard Bronze and White Hollands for meat production. He says that his Sadie Lloyd strain of Bourbon Reds is an excellent all-around choice – there’s no need to worry that the chicks won’t be looked after, as they mother extremely well. According to Reese, other good “setters” include the Black Spanish and small strains of the Narragansett.
If you are looking to raise turkeys to sell, my favorite is a medium-size strain of the Broad Breasted Bronze. This variety only became available several years ago from private breeders. This fast-growing modern bird has the abundance of breast meat that U.S. consumers think is ideal. A Broad Breasted Bronze traditionally has two to four times the amount of breast meat that a wild turkey does.
A Bronze reaches an approximate dressed weight of 16 to 25 pounds in around 24 weeks. A heritage bird could take up to two years to reach this weight, and some never will. This time period is significant because turkeys don’t add fat until the 22nd week. Fat is where most of the flavor is, so a good layer under the skin helps to self-baste the bird as it cooks.
The easiest way to get started with turkeys is to buy day-old turkeys (called poults) in the spring. Before they arrive, set up a brooder. At Locust Grove Farm, we brood our poults in a children’s plastic wading pool. We line it with approximately 1 inch of wood shavings and hang a couple infrared heat lamps to keep the birds warm. Warmth and dryness are of the utmost importance to baby birds.
The round pool design helps to keep the birds from piling on top of each other in a corner. The floor level temperaturefor the first week should be 90 to 100 degrees; after the first week, raise the lamps to reduce the temperature by 5 degrees weekly.
One feeder and waterer will suffice for every 25 birds. We start our turkeys on Purina Game Bird Starter, containing 30 percent protein. After a week, remove the pool and offer the birds a larger area to roam; for the next three weeks, an 8-by-8 space will work well. Your birds will begin perching on top of the waterer or on window sills: They’re signaling that they’re ready to roost. You’ll then want to mount a 1- or 2-inch round branch 1 foot off the floor.
Birds 6 weeks and older can start to go outside for a while each day when temperatures reach 75 degrees. When rainy and cold, keep them inside. By eight weeks, your birds can go on pasture. If you allow your birds free access to the outdoors, they might not want to come in at night until you make them.
Another plan is to create a movable roost and have your turkeys live outside on range, in a large, fenced pen. Range is a short-grass pasture (4- to 6-inches long), and turkeys do fine on any range; I prefer the mixture of Kentucky bluegrass and medium red clover. If possible, select a site without trees. Turkeys will fly into trees, and when the trees are inside your pen, manure will build up under them.
Treat your large, intelligent birds as humanely as possible. Provide enough space, places to dust bathe and roosts to fly up to at night. A dozen turkeys can be supported nicely in a yard or fenced pen of one-eighth acre (75 feet by 75 feet). Use woven-wire field fence, such as 1047-12-11, to keep predators away from your birds. If you don’t want a permanent fence, partially drive in some metal T-posts or use electric poultry netting.
Keep your birds on fresh range all the time by weekly moving the portable roost to clean ground. You can also relocate the feeder and waterer daily to prevent the surrounding area from becoming trampled or too heavily manured. Mow to keep the grass 4- to 6-inches long.
Save chore time by connecting a 4-foot-long automatic waterer to your homestead water supply. You could install a 5- to 8-gallon poultry fountain instead, but you’d have to carry 2 gallons of water daily for every twelve mature turkeys. A range feeder will hold about 100 pounds of feed and it takes 3.25 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of live turkey weight. Your feed consumption will rise as your birds grow and reach maturity.
Turkeys love to be in the company of people. Visit your turkeys at least twice a day, as an old farm book I have says that turkeys can die from loneliness. Be careful as they may follow you into the house for company.
As fall approaches, if you haven’t already, decide if your turkeys are pets or dinner. Luckily, by raising heritage breeds, you can have your turkey and eat it, too. If you wish for a perpetual breeding flock of heritage birds, harvest some of the toms, maintaining a ratio of one tom to 10 hens. Either offer your extras for sale or slaughter them.
In the spring, your birds can mate to expand the flock – and you can sell turkey poults or trios (a tom and two hens). Encourage others to join a growing network of turkey lovers who are protecting the biological diversity of this interesting, useful bird – and the flavor and purity of holiday dinners.
To learn more about the benefits of guineas, read "Go Ahead, Get Guineas!" at Mother Earth News.