Raising Turkeys: Everything You Need to Know

by Oliver Guess | LAST UPDATED August 18, 2021

Raising turkeys
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When it comes to farm birds, the first animal that most people think of is very rarely the turkey. There are quite a lot of reasons for this since raising turkeys isn’t the same as raising chickens and there are quite a lot of differences between the two birds.

This means that even seasoned chicken farmers might need to adjust some habits and learn a few new things before they can tackle this particular poultry. But, before they decide to even take that leap into raising their own turkeys, the first question that they need to answer is if they’re even worth the effort.

Raising Turkeys graphic

That question is the exact reason why we’re writing this article since we’ll go through all of the things you need to know about turkeys. We’ll run through the differences between them and the standard chicken, as well as some of the benefits that they have over other birds and why they’re worth raising.

Turkey Eggs

The primary reason why chickens are such a popular farm bird choice is that they can double as a plentiful meat source and an egg factory. However, the chicken is hardly the only bird that can lay eggs, and as you might have guessed, the turkey also falls in this category of potential egg farm candidates.

Turkey eggs are actually bigger than chicken eggs and have about twice the nutritional and caloric value because of it. However, there is an undeniable reason as to why you don’t really see a lot of turkey eggs in the shop, while the chicken eggs dominate the market. More accurately, there are two major reasons: fertility cycles and resources.

When it comes to fertility cycles, any breed of chicken can lay about three times as many eggs as any of the more fertile turkey breeds. This makes the turkeys unfavorable as egg layers since they won’t be able to produce enough eggs to cover the price of the resources they drain.

Speaking of resources, since turkeys are much larger than most chicken breeds, they also require a lot more space and chicken feed. In order to cover the resources that were expended in order to accommodate the turkey farm, the eggs will need to be sold at three times the price of a chicken egg.

Since this isn’t a very viable business option, the result is that turkeys are very rarely kept for their egg-laying capabilities

Reasons to Raise Turkeys

A cute turkey

There are essentially only two reasons why anyone keeps and raises turkeys: to use them for their meat or to sell them as game birds.

Selling turkeys as game birds is very rarely done by beginners in the field. It’s only natural that you develop an attachment to the birds you raise, and while you may use them for their meat, you can make sure that they have a quick and painless death.

However, if you do decide to sell your turkeys as game birds, and you actually find interested buyers, you can usually get around 3-4 times as much for a live bird as you would for a dead one.

As for the second option, turkeys are famed for their delicious meat, so the fact that most of them are raised for this very reason shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Actually selling a turkey is rarely worth it since you get about as much per pound as you would for a chicken, so eating them yourself is usually the preferred option.

When it comes to how long you should wait before you slaughter a turkey, it can be anywhere between 5 months and 9 weeks. Chickens start laying eggs around the 4-month mark, so that’s around the time when they reach their peak in size. Due to their egg-laying capabilities and their small size, it’s not ideal to slaughter chickens any sooner than 6 months after their birth.

Turkeys on the other hand are bigger than chickens by the 2-month mark, so they can be used for their meat a lot sooner. However, if you’d like to get eggs out of the ordeal, you’ll need to wait for at least 7 months and perform artificial insemination in order to replenish your numbers.

They’re Easy to Raise

There are a few difficulties when it comes to raising turkeys, and we’ll cover them all in more detail further down in the article, but in general, turkeys are easier to raise than chickens in some aspects.

Adult turkeys are much calmer than adult chickens. While turkeys are usually content with simply walking around the yard and minding their own business, chickens are either attacking each other or kicking up dust and clawing at the wire mesh.

It’s also very telling that most farmers decide to split young turkeys and young chickens as soon as they hatch. In most cases, this is because the more aggressive chicks tend to bully the more docile baby turkeys. It seems a bit strange to use a term like “bully” to describe the behavior of baby chicks, but there’s really no other word that describes their behavior quite as accurately.

Since turkeys aren’t as mischievous, they’re also easier to look after in terms of how often you need to clean out the yard and their pen.

The Downsides

Turkey pen

Up until now, the match between the turkeys and the chickens has been a bit of a mixed bag, with both sides scoring a few points in their favor, as well as against. However, there are a few things that you need to know about turkeys that aren’t exactly ideal.

The Pen

It’s well known that turkeys are about twice as large as most chicken breeds, but that unfortunately also means that they require twice as much room. If you’re a homesteader that has a place out in the country and a lot of free room for your turkey flock, then you shouldn’t have an issue.

On the other hand, if you don’t have all that much room, but still want to be able to raise free-range turkeys, then you’ll need to build a structure to house them in. While chickens can usually be housed in pens that are about as big as the average dog house, turkeys need a bit more room.

By a bit more room, we actually mean that it might be ideal if you have a barn on your property where you can house them. If you don’t have that large of a flock, then you can simply build a shed somewhere on your homestead and house them there.

One last thing that we should mention is that despite their appearance, turkeys are actually pretty good fliers. This means that if you don’t want to always keep them inside of their pen, you’re going to need to clip their wings as soon as possible.

The Feed

Chickens are usually fed a lot of high-protein feed in order to help them grow sooner, but due to their size, turkeys actually require higher protein feed than the standard chicken. 

Depending on the brand and the requirements, there might not even be a noticeable price difference between the turkey and the chicken feed. However, on top of the larger protein requirement, turkeys also require more pounds of feed in general.

We’d personally recommend going for Manna Pro game bird feed, but pretty much any brand will do as long as they contain more than 20% protein and have all of the recommended vitamins and nutrients for your birds.

As for the sort of food that you should provide just after they hatch, we’d recommend going for the standard chicken grower feed by the same brand. Young turkeys don’t have more requirements than chicks during their first week, but they develop in size, and their appetite increases at around the 3-week mark. That’s pretty much when you should switch to the higher protein feed.

As we mentioned before, the price of the feed isn’t really an issue, but the quantity that you’ll have to buy will gradually increase as the turkeys grow.

Turkey Breeds

If we didn’t scare you off with all of the negatives that come with raising turkeys, and you’re determined to try your hand at this, then the first place to start is the turkey breed. Different turkeys have specific characteristics, but most of them are raised for the same purpose: their meat. 

Some of the more popular turkey breeds are the broad-breasted turkeys. The broad-breasted white is a pretty small breed of turkey that doesn’t take up a lot of space and doesn’t eat much but produces quite a lot of meat despite its size. The broad-breasted bronze on the other hand is much larger but also has a lot more meat on its bones.

Narragansett is another pretty popular breed, and while the turkey hens can usually reach a  weight of about 18 pounds, the tom turkeys of the breed can usually come to around 30 pounds. On the other side of the scale, you have bourbon reds that are a bit rarer as breeds go and while the female turkeys can reach 14 pounds, the male turkeys usually top off at around 23 pounds.

There are a lot of other breeds like the royal palm, the white holland, the black Spanish, and so on. However, aside from their general weight, most of these breeds have a bit more specific climate needs, so you’re better off sticking to the breeds that we mentioned earlier.

Additionally, if you’re looking for the ideal turkey for your specific climate, we’d recommend researching heritage breeds. Essentially, heritage turkeys are birds that have been bred for very specific conditions, so each state pretty much has its own breed.

On a final note, we’d also suggest steering clear of using old turkeys or wild turkeys as breeders since they could carry a number of dangerous diseases like the blackhead virus that could kill your turkey poults.

Building a Brooder

If you have any experience in chicken farming you should already know how to build a brooder for your turkeys. If you don’t have any experience in this field, there are only a few basic things that you need in order to make a brooder for your birds.

The first thing you’ll need is a plastic container about the size of a tub or a children’s pool and set it up somewhere nice and dry where there’s no draft. You can also skip the container and just use plastic sheets to cover a few square feet of space, but if you’re going for that route, make sure that you cover the ground in plastic as well.

Then, you should cover the ground in straw or something like pine shavings and place the eggs on it. After you’ve done that, you’re going to turn on the heat lamp that you’ve installed over the container. Ideally, the bulb should be able to generate temperatures of around 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit.

The last step is putting in some feeders and waterers that the baby turkeys can use after they hatch. You can either make a small container that’d serve as the hatchery and transfer the hatched turkeys into a larger roosting container or you can simply do it all in one large container.

Conclusion

That’s pretty much all you need to know in order to get started with raising turkeys. The process isn’t all that complicated, and while turkeys are problematic in certain aspects, turkey meat is regarded as almost a delicacy, so it can be worth it. As an added plus, you won’t need to wait all year round for Thanksgiving.

Oliver Guess
Oliver is an off-grid living enthusiast currently residing in the mountains of New Mexico. His interests in sustainability originally lead him down the path of an off the grid lifestyle. When he's not tinkering with his broken solar panels, Oliver enjoys searching out hot springs, whittling and cooking.

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