Turkey

Turkeys

On the homestead Turkeys generally have one use and that is for meat. They are very similar to larger chickens in many ways.

Choosing a breed

There are 3 main types of turkeys and these are wild turkeys, heritage turkeys and commercial turkeys. Someone looking to raise Turkeys has their pick of these three types since all are readily available from hatcheries and private breeders. Wild turkeys take the longest to mature and have the least amount of meat, most of which is dark meat and found in the legs. They have very little breast meat even though they are the only ones that can actually fly as an adult.

Heritage Turkeys are next in line.Some heritage breeds, like the Narragansett date all the way back to the 1600s. While others, like the Midget Whites, were only developed in the 1950s. The definition of heritage in this case, is birds that can reproduce naturally and which produce consistent offspring. These birds have quite a bit of dark meat but also a good amount of flavorful light meat. Breeds within this group supposedly differ in meat distribution and size. Different people will tell you different things about heritage breeds. I’ve raised both Narragansett and Midget White and have found that both were similar in size with Narragansett being slightly taller although not very much larger. I settled upon the Narragansetts to keep as breeders soley based on that fact that they are much nicer to look at and I think that is may be  main deciding factor when it comes to choosing a breed within the heritage group of turkeys.

Now if you are really just looking for meat and you want it fast, the commercial breeds are your best option. The Broad Breast White (BBW) and Broad Breasted Bronze (BBB) are the fastest growing turkey breeds and they also grow the largest. These Turkeys mature around 4 to 5 months of age, as opposed to the wild and heritage breed which take 8 to 10 months to be ready for butcher. So one could start these off as day old poults in mid to late summer and still have a massice turkey ready for Thanksgiving. However, like the Cornish Crosses, the quick growth comes at a cost. The accelerated weight gain puts a strain on the young bones and joints and can cause deformities in the legs before the turkey is mature enough to butcher. And although these are pure breeds, they are not ideal for the homesteader who wants to be entirely self-sufficient because they they are too large to breed naturally at maturity. Every single turkey you see in the supermarket, was bred through Artificial Insemination. So one has some decisions to make when choosing a type of turkey some of which may be more ethical than others but I’ll save talking about ethics for elsewhere on this site.

Feeding:

Feeding turkeys is similary to feeding chickens except that turkeys require a higher percentage of protein in their diet. I feed a 20% protein and they do well on that. Actually  I feed this to my entire flock and they all do well on it. Turkeys will eat just about any scraps a chicken will but they will graze on grass more than  a chicken will. They will just eat entire blades of grass at a time. So it good to allow them to forage and allow your grass to stay a bit longer so they don’t peck your lawn into oblivion. Like most people, I do believe that a grass-fed anything is healthier and more flavorful than an animal fed only grain so it’s good to allow them an area where they can free-range.

Shelter:

As with all other poultry, Turkeys need shelter at night and to get out of bad weather. Turkeys are probably the hardest to train to go into a coop at night so it is best to start early. Also once their flight feathers grow to an adequate size they will begin to fly about and roost on things you really don’t want them to like your car or your house or 30 feet up in a tree. They will mostly try to roost in high branches of trees at night and the anyone starting with turkeys, it may seem like they are safe from predators up there but I and many others have lost turkeys roosting in trees. Owls and raccoons can take a turkey out of a tree in 2 seconds and it’ll have it’s meal for the night while you sleeping soundly in bed. So it’s very important to get those turkeys into some covered shelter at night. One things I learned a little too late, if you clip the flight feathers on just one of their wings they won’t be able to fly up very far but still far enough to fly up on a roost 2 or 3 feet off the ground. If you clip their wings, diligently herd your turkeys into the coop around dusk they will be herding themselves in there in about a weeks time, maybe two. Kind of long considering it takes new ducks or chickens only about 2 or 3 days to figure out where their bed is but it’s worth it in the end, especially if it’s your breeding pair.

Breeding

If you are looking for a turkey for Thanksgiving then you should plan ahead. Turkeys take much longer to grow than any other breed of poultry. In fact the main reason we have turkeys at Thanksgiving, and around the year-end holidays, is because that’s when they were ready in the old days before commercial breeds and factory farms, that would be the only time they would be available unless someone went out hunting for them. Turkeys naturally breed and hatch poults in the spring. They do not breed any other time of the year unless they have artificial lights. If you want to raise wild or heritage breeds, plan getting or hatching day olds in Early March or April since they will need at least 7 or 8 months to grow to a good size for the table.