Raising turkeys on the homestead may be something you’ve tossed around for quite awhile, but for some reason you haven’t been able to commit to bringing them to the property. Turkeys aren’t small like chickens and they aren’t independent as ducks, but there’s something about having them on the homestead that seems homesteady, and I’m here to tell you that they have been a great addition for us.
There’s many things to consider prior to bringing in turkeys, but the main thing to think about is why do you want to add them to your property. Are you looking to become self-sustaining and raise them for meat purposes or do you simply love the idea of having a pet turkey? Once you distinguish why you’d like to raise them, then you are able to decide on how many to bring to the homestead.
Prior to bringing livestock onto your property make sure to research the zoning laws for the county you reside in. Never make the mistake in thinking that each county, or city, has the same laws. Zoning laws will also provide information on the livestock type permitted in the county, and how many of each animal is allowed. The zoning code will also provide the required distances between dwellings, other building, and property lines, which can help if you should have a disgruntle neighbor.
Make sure to make the distinction between “small animals” dogs, cats, birds, poultry, and “large animals” cows, goats, sheep, and pigs. Not only are zoning laws important to know, make sure to research Animal Welfare Laws, Public Health Laws, and Nuisance Laws. Understanding and knowing the laws in your state, county and city will eliminate any possible issues causing major fines or the animals to be rehomed.
Heritage Breed or Broad Breasted
There are a plethora of reasons why selecting a heritage breed for your homestead is beneficial, especially if you’re living, or plan to live, a self-sustaining lifestyle.
Heritage breeds are able to reproduce naturally, laying large eggs which can either be used for hatching or eating. Turkey eggs are similar to chicken eggs in flavor, but many find them to be richer in flavor, much like duck eggs. Like guniea and peafowl, heritage turkeys are seasonal layers and will begin laying during their second spring of life. Turkey hens have been known to set their eggs, but if you’re wishing continue your line, or have a nice meal planned for the holiday season, have the incubator ready, hens can sometimes be absent minded and refused to go broody.
The growth rate of a heritage breed is much slower than the broad breasted turkey, and will generally be butchered between 24-28 weeks. The dress weight after butchering will depend on the breed being raised and sex of the bird, toms can weigh in between 18-20 pound and hens at 12-14 pounds.
There is a distinct difference in meat flavor between a heritage and a broad breasted turkey. Many will vouch that the heritage breed is full in flavor compared to a broad breasted turkey which has been stated to have very little flavor. Unlike the broad breasted variety, heritage breeds do not need to be brined or injected with brine in order to achieve flavor.
We raise Narragansett and Blue Slate, both heritage breeds, on our homestead, mainly for meat purpose, but also for breeding purpose. You can find a list and the history of the heritage breeds available in the US by visiting The Livestock Conservancy ‘s website. The website contains information on all heritage livestock available in America and the level of endangerment for each variety.
Broad Breasted Turkeys (BB)
Broad breasted turkeys are often the variety you’d find at the supermarket during the holiday season, and are designated as a meat bird and produce more breast meat than a heritage breed. This particular breed can be purchased from various hatcheries or picked-up at your local feed store during chick season. You will find that broad breasted turkeys are available in a white or brown/bronze variety, with the white being favored for commercial sales.
A white broad breasted turkey came from the paring of White Holland and the Broad Breasted Bronze, again favored by the commercial industry for how clean the carcass looked after processing. The Brown/Bronze variety was established in the 18th century by crossing the domestic turkeys brought over from England to a wild turkey from America.
Unlike the heritage breed, broad breasted turkeys are unable to mate naturally due to their size and must be artificially inseminated. For self-sustaining purposes, the BB are not a good option for homesteaders. BB do not often lay eggs, and the older they get the more health issues they sustain because of their size.
Feed cost is a factor when selecting broad breasted turkeys based on how much they will consume during a growing season.
Poults (chicks) should be fed a high protein ration with around 28% protein and feed will need to be available at all times. Due to how fast BBs grow, the feed can be switched to a grower feed which consists of 18-20% protein at around 12-14 weeks. Though a percentage of their diet can be supplemented by free ranging or garden/food scraps, individuals who raise broad breasted do so because of how quickly they can be butchered for the table. For this reason, many will provide a high protein diet consisting of 28% protein until butchering day.
Broad breasted turkeys are generally butchered between 14 to 22 weeks, with hens dressing out at 14 to 17 pounds and toms around 22 to 25 pounds. Selecting the right day to butcher is important when raising BB turkeys, if they are allowed to live past 22 weeks you may have a difficult time fitting them into the oven because of their size.
In order to hatch turkey eggs you’ll need fertilized eggs, and the only way to achieve this is through artificial insemination with broad breasted breeds or by raising heritage breeds for natural reproduction.
Heritage breeds have been known to continually lay in the same nest until their hormones kick in, transforming her into a broody hen. The short laying period leads many homesteaders to not wait for a turkey hens to become broody, but instead will incubate the eggs themselves or sell fertilized eggs to others interested in raising turkeys.
When you’ve made the decision to incubate eggs you’ll want to collect eggs daily, selecting the cleanest eggs possible. It’s best to store eggs between 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit until the desired amount has been harvested. In order to increase the hatch rate, fertilized eggs have the highest fertility rate between 7 to 10 days, but fertility drops each day the eggs are allowed to sit after this period of time.
To ensure that your incubator is running properly, begin running it 24 hours prior to adding the fertilized eggs. Make sure to check the humidity level and the automatic egg turner if your incubator is equipped with one.
Turkey eggs will incubate for 28 days between 99.5 degrees F in forced air or 100.5 to 101.5 degrees F in a still air incubator, and the humidity level should be between 30-40%. To see how your eggs are progressing, candling eggs can occur on the 5th or 6th day of incubation.
On the 25th day of incubation the incubator will need to be locked down. The eggs will no longer need to be rotated, and should gently be laid on their side until they hatch. In order to keep the membrane soft many will increase the humidity level to 60-70%, by placing a wet sponge placed inside incubator will help to increase the humidity level.
Brooding poults can be tricky and getting them off to a good start is important. Preparing the brooder 24 hours prior to hatch day will ensure that it’s ready for the newly hatched chicks. If you’ve hatched the poults make sure they are completed dried prior removing them from the incubator to the brooder box.
Brooder Temperature and Housing Needs
The temperature in the brooder maintained between 95-98 degrees and adjusted weekly by 5 degrees until the brooder temperature matches the outdoor temperature. Heating a brooder can be achieved by using a heat lamp which is safely secured or with a Brinsea EcoGlow Chick Brooder. If a heat lamp is being used, make sure there is a location in the brooder where poults are able to get away from the lamp if they should become too warm.
The floor of a brooder should consists of a non-slippery surface, and pine shavings work excellent for absorbing waste.
Turkey poults have been known to starve themselves or die from being away from the heat lamp too long. For these reasons it’s best to not give them much room in the brooder and monitor them often for the first week of life. We use a traveling dog kennel in order to keep our turkey poults corralled close to feed, water and heat. Once you see that they are eating, drinking and relying on the heat source provided consider it safe move them to a larger brooder.
“Starving out” is a common issue with turkey poults, and many will starve themselves as they sit in front of the feeder. Turkey poults rely on their mothers to teach them how to eat and drink, but if you’ve hatched or brought in poults you assume the role as the mother and must teach them how.
There are two basic methods which turkey keepers use to assure the poults are eating and drinking; both methods require being taught.
Turkey poults will often follow a ‘mature’ source to food and water, which is why chicken chicks are ideal teachers. Selecting a chicken chick which is free of disease and has never touch the earth’s ground is very important, diseases can easily be spread between the chicken chick and poult.
The second method used in teaching poults how to eat and drink is pretty simple, you become the teacher. For the first few days you will need to gently dip their beaks into the waterer and feed container until they become accustomed to doing it themselves. This method will need to be repeated every few hours throughout the day, and one never knows how long it will take for a poult to catch on.
Turkey poults, regardless if they are a heritage or broad breasted breed, need a high protein feed in order to thrive. We offer our poults gamebird medicated starter crumble which contains 28% protein for the first 8 weeks of life in order to combat coccidiosis. Between 8 – 12 weeks the protein level can drop to 20% crumble, while receiving the benefits of supervised free range time. Because we raise heritage breeds, and their growth rate is slower than a broad breasted breed we provide the same feed as the rest of our poultry, layer pellet feed.
While being brooded, granite grit will need to be provided in order to assist in the digestion of feed ~ provide chick grit for poults they are 12 weeks, then switching to standard size grit until they are ready to move from the brooder. Turkeys who are allowed to free range are able to substitute grit by ingesting small pebbles.
A mature heritage turkey can consume almost 7-9 pounds of feed weekly. This amount can be reduced to half by allowing them to forage and consume leafy greens on a daily basis.
The decision to raise your turkey gang naturally through a holistic approach requires building their immune system through various items such as raw apple cider vinegar, fresh garlic, a variety of herbs, even through the use of Colloidal Silver and a few essential oils. Even with a strong immune system disease can strike, and the need for modern medicine is often required to save a bird or the entire flock.
HOUSING: Pasture & Coop
Turkeys prefer to be out in the elements regardless of the weather. Wrangling a turkey into a pasture coop is difficult, at times impossible, though the need to keep them safe from predators is important. For this very reason a lean-to or shelter/coop with doors is ideal for pasture raising. The lean-to should contain roosting bars, either built similar to a ladder or one bar roost to eliminate fighting for the highest roosting spot. Since turkeys like to roost high, build the roosting bar as high as possible, if not you may find them roosting on top of the structure.
Fencing will be needed to keep predators out, and since turkeys are good flyers the fence will need to be built as high as possible if you want to keep them in. If you chose to use poultry fencing, consider clipping their wings to keep them in the enclosed area.
Avian netting placed over the enclosure can prevent avian predator attacks, while keeping turkeys in.
Coop & Run
Due to the possibility of turkeys contracting Blackhead disease from chickens, the best practice for turkey husbandry is to house them separately from other poultry. However, due to space restraints for many homesteaders and small scale farmers, turkeys are often housed and allowed to free range with other poultry, including chicken.
On our homestead we do integrate our turkeys with the rest of our flocks. Integration generally occurs around 12 weeks by placing the turkey poults in a grow-out brooder where the other poultry can see them.
When constructing a coop for turkeys, plan for a minimum of 6 square feet per bird, we suggest building it larger than the minimum requirements in preparation of adding additional turkeys the following years. We suggest building a large run to keep turkeys in, 10 square feet per bird will give them ample room to move around without causing issues.
If your plan is to raise turkeys and allow the hens to lay, make sure nesting boxes are readily available. Turkey hens will lay on the floor of a coop, but have been know to use a nesting box that will fit them.
Blackhead Disease (Histomoniasis)
Blackhead Disease generally affects young turkeys, but can destroy an entire gang regardless of age. Turkey and game birds are more susceptible to the disease, while chicken have a higher resistance to it. The disease causes damage to the liver and ceca, and untreated birds usually die.
Infected turkey will exhibit the following symptoms: increase in thirst, decrease in appetite, loss of weight, become lethargic, weak, depressed, will produce yellowish-brown, watery, or foamy droppings. They can often be found standing alone and their feather will be ruffled as if they were cold.
Histomoniasis, or Blackhead disease, is caused by a parasite (a protazoan carried by cecal worms) that can infect poultry. The eggs left behind by an infected cecal worm can live in the soil for up to 3 years, allowing for earthworms to then consume the eggs making them a secondary carrier.
Chicken have a higher tolerance to Blackhead disease, and often do not show signs of being infected. The cycle begins by a chicken eating an infected secondary carrier, dropping waste, starting the cycle over again. The best turkey husbandry states that turkeys should not have interaction with chicken, wild birds or game birds.
In a homesteader’s mind, the chances of a young turkey poult contracting Blackhead disease by consuming an infected earthworm is just as easy as contracting it by an infected chicken. The odds are stacked either way, so many homesteaders will often take the chance and mix their flocks.
There currently is no a drug available to treat Histomoniasis, it became unavailable in 2005. To learn more on Blackhead disease you can read this excellent article by The Poultry Site. There are preventative actions that can be taken in order to minimize the possibility of turkeys contracting Blackhead disease:
- Pasture rotation every season
- House and free range all poultry separately
- Provide ground cayenne pepper daily mixed with feed as a holistic approach
- Acidified Copper Sulfate (1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water every few months) has been suggested by Murray McMurray Hatchery as a strong preventative item
If your turkey(s) should exhibit any signs of Blackhead disease immediately isolate the infected birds. You then have two options:
- Cull the bird and perform a necropsy looking specifically at the liver and ceca organs
- Try the holistic approach by providing high amounts of cayenne pepper
- For our homestead we’d provide 2 teaspoons of Colloidal Silver per quart of water daily until symptoms improve
Turkeys are turkeys, either you love them or you don’t, and luckily we’ve had good experiences in raising them. Read here to discover the humorous side of raising turkeys.
A few other fun facts about this amazing bird ~
- They can see in color and have great vision
- Though they don’t have outer external ears they have excellent hearing
- Turkeys have a poor sense of smell, but an excellent sense of taste
- Domestic turkeys cannot fly, but they have the ability to roost high in trees.
- Only toms gobble, while turkey hens yelp.