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Rural Living for November 26, 2009

Raising turkeys

by Carol Dunn

    If you want to raise turkeys for meat, choose a breed specifically developed for that purpose, either broad-breasted white or broad-breasted bronze.  They grow fast and will be ready for butchering in five to six months.  Because meat breeds get large, they develop physical problems as they get older and don’t make good pets.  Heritage breeds can also be used for meat.  They grow slower, breed naturally, are far more intelligent and agile than the meat breeds, and they make good pets.  

    Broad-breasted white turkeys will be the largest, with toms reaching 45 pounds (hens 28) live weight at butchering.  Broad-breasted bronze will be 25 pounds (hens 18).  Blue Slate, Standard Bronze, White Holland, Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Black and Chocolate varieties all mature at around 30 pounds (hens 15-18).  The ornamental Royal Palm will weigh about a third less.  Dressed weight is about 70% of live weight.

    If you want to raise turkeys from poults, be sure they come from a certified pullorum-free poultry producer.  Poults cost $5-$10 each, depending on the rarity of the breed, plus shipping and handling.  Typical poult mortality is about ten percent.  They are fragile and tricky to care for until the age of eight weeks.  Do not raise poults and chicks together.  Chickens are carriers for blackhead, a devastating disease which kills most of the turkeys which contract it.  Some producers advise not even raising both on the same farm.  After eight weeks, turkeys will be feathered out enough to enjoy the outdoors.  Contrary to old wives’ tales, turkeys will not drown in the rain.  They are likely to huddle together on the ground in the rain, so they may need to be coaxed into the shelter of their pen.  

    A turkey pen should be large enough so each adult has 100 square feet of space.  Install laying boxes in a darker corner if you want to collect and use turkey eggs.  They are more viscous than chicken eggs, so they are ideal for baking.    

    Meat turkeys require a high protein game bird ration.  Their feed regimen is: “starter” until 8 weeks of age; “grower” from 8 to 14 weeks; and “finisher” from 14 to 20 weeks.  The average adult turkey will eat one pound of feed per day.  In the pen or out, always have clean water available for the flock.  Turkeys want to roost off the ground, and the higher the better.  When they are allowed free range, be sure to herd them back to their pen before sunset.  Once they learn to fly up into trees to roost, the habit is hard to break.

    Unless they can fly well, turkeys on free range are easy targets for dogs, coyotes and other predators.  But they are great for pest control and will forage beetles, ticks, flies, and grasshoppers.  If the flock has more than one tom, there will be mating disputes in the spring, with some bloodletting, but a hierarchy is eventually established.  The toms will strut and display often if hens are around, and they gobble when they sense any danger nearby. 

    Whether for pets or for meat, raising these grand birds can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.