Raising Turkeys on the Homestead

Raising turkeys on the homestead is easier than most believe it is. In this article learn how to house turkeys and if raising pasture-raised turkeys is the best decision for the property. Raising turkeys for meat provides a family enough foods for months to come.

There are many factors to consider prior to raising turkeys on the homestead. With the most important question being, why do you wish to raise this large poultry breed?

Are you looking into raising turkeys for meat? Or do you simply love the idea of raising turkeys as pets? 

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Other questions to keep in mind:

  • how many turkeys do you plan to raise
  • how to house turkeys
  • housing, free-range, or is pasture-raised turkeys the goal

Zoning Laws and Ordinances

Prior to bringing livestock onto the property make sure to research the zoning laws for the county and city in which you reside.  Never make the assumption the the county and city have the same ordinances in place. 

Zoning ordinances determine the type of livestock and how many of each species can be raised within city limits. In addition to this, how to house turkeys is imperative information. The biggest mistake many make is placement of the coop. Many cities have strict guidelines on how far the coop will need to be from the property line, as well as, from the neighbor’s home.

Many states require animals and certain livestock to be licensed. For example, King County describes goats as small animals within city limits, requiring them to be licensed. Small animals are classified as dogs, cats, and goats in my county.

Not only are zoning ordinances important to understand, property owners must make sure to research the following:

  • Animal Welfare Laws
  • Public Health Laws
  • Nuisance Laws

Understanding the laws of your state, county and city will eliminate any possible issues. Not following the establishes laws can lead to fines or re-homing of the livestock.

Raising Turkeys on the Homestead

Prior to jumping into raising turkeys for meat or egg production on the homestead a decide must be made on whether to raise heritage, broad breasted turkeys, or both. The three breeds serve different purposes, one for sustainability purposes, the other for quick grow-out and meat production.

Raising Turkeys for Meat – Heritage Turkeys

There are a plethora of reasons as to why heritage breeds are ideal for raising turkeys for meat. Especially if you are living, or plan to live, a sustaining lifestyle.

Heritage breeds are able to reproduce naturally. Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, and Midget White are prone to go broody and are successful at hatching eggs. These breeds also make mother hens.

Turkey hens lay large eggs which can be consumed or used for hatching. The eggs are similar to chicken eggs in flavor. However, many find them to be as rich flavor, similar to duck eggs.

Like guinea and peafowl, heritage turkeys are seasonal layers. You can expect to receive turkey eggs around one year of age, laying between spring to early fall.

The Livestock Conservancy

Learn more about raising turkeys for meat, especially heritage breeds, by visiting The Livestock Conservancy website.  This website contains information on all heritage poultry, fowl, and livestock breeds raised on America soil.

Raising Turkeys for Meat – Broad Breasted Turkeys (BB)

Broad breasted turkeys are the variety found in supermarkets. This breed is considered a production meat breed which producing more breast and overall meat than what is found on heritage breeds. In addition to the amount of meat found on this breed, the it takes for broad breasted turkeys to reach butchering age is much less than heritage breeds.

When it comes to raising turkeys for meat the broad breasted turkeys are available in two colors, white or bronze. The white variety is favored among those who raise turkeys for meat, as well as, for commercial sales.

The reason for this is quite simple. White broad breasted turkeys dress-out much cleaner than the bronze. Making this variety of turkey much more appealing to the consumer. The bronze variety leaves behind dark pinfeathers which can easily be seen, making them unappealing to the consumer.

The bronze broad breasted turkey was established in the 18th century. Created by crossing domestic turkeys brought over from England to wild turkey of America. The breeding between the White Holland and the Broad Breasted Bronze created the white broad breasted turkey.

Broad breasted turkeys are available for purchase from many hatcheries such as, Murray McMurray Hatchery. In addition to hatcheries, poults are available for purchase at many feed stores during the spring months. Fertilized eggs are available for purchase through many reputable breeders.

Heritage verses Broad Breasted Breeds

Unlike the heritage breed, due to their weight and size, broad breasted turkeys have a very difficult time mating. Because of this many large scale farms, and even some hatcheries, rely on artificial insemination.

On the flip side, there are hatcheries which have established a good breeding program for the broad breasted turkey. These birds are capable of mating naturally and produce fertilized eggs.

For sustainability purposes, the broad breasted turkeys are not a good option for homesteaders. The main reason being the difficulties in reproduction and the inconsistent in egg production.

Keep in mind, broad breasted turkeys do not live long. Their obese weight places a strain on the heart which leads to heart issues. Not mention, the body weight puts a huge strain on the legs.

Feed cost is also a factor associated with raising broad breasted turkeys. Unlike heritage breeds broad breasted turkeys do not forage well. This breed would rather consume large amounts of feed instead of free-ranging.

On a side note, when raising turkeys for meat both varieties do quite well on pasture. Feed rationing plays a huge factor when it comes pasture-raised turkeys.

Feed Options

In addition to the proper protein level and amount of feed allocated our heritage gang is raised in a free-range setting. Whereas our quick growth broad breasted are pasture-raised turkeys until it is time to butcher.

Turkey poults (chicks) need a high protein feed to thrive. A high protein of 28% is offered the first 8 weeks of life. We do not offer medicated feed on our homestead. Instead we opt to boost the immune system and prevent coccidiosis naturally in the brooder.

Between 9 to 24 weeks of age we offer the poults a fermented whole grain grower feed. The whole grain feed offered contains 20.5% protein, though 18% to 20.5% is efficient. In addition to the protein level, the poults reap the benefits of consuming a fermented feed.

From 24 weeks on offer the same type of feed given to chickens and ducks. A mature bird consumes almost 7 to 9 pounds of feed weekly. Pasture-raised turkeys or free-ranged ones will consume less feed. However, birds which consume fermented feed in combination with free-ranging consume even less feed.

Additional Supplements

In addition to offering a high quality feed, provide the following supplements to ensure your turkeys remain healthy.

Offer granite grit to assist with the digestion of feed. Free-ranged or pasture-raised turkeys consume small pebbles as a form of grit. However, brooding poults will need to be provided chick grit for the first 12 weeks. Standard size grit is offered after 12 weeks of age.

Grit is essential for helping the gizzard break down whole grains, table scraps, vegetation and other supplements. For example, BOSS (black oiled sunflower seeds) or scratch grains.

Offer supplements such as, herbs and fresh garlic daily to boost the immune system. Provide raw apple cider vinegar in the waterer a few times a week helps to maintain good digestive health, especially if fermented feed is not offered.

Butchering Schedule

There is no magic number for the best time to butcher mature turkeys. However, here are tips to help with the decision making process:

  • butcher on the nicest day possible for your comfort
  • select a day which work best with your schedule
  • has the turkey reached adequate weight

Broad Breasted

Broad breasted turkeys are generally butchered between 16 to 22 weeks. The final weight of the bird will vary. Hens dress out between 14 to 18 pounds, whereas, toms dress out between 22 to 30 pounds.

Broad breasted turkeys over 22 weeks run the risk of having heart issues. Leg support is also an issue due to the bird’s weight. And in truth, it’s not feasible to continue feeding broad breasted turkeys over 22 weeks.

Heritage Turkeys

The growth rate of a heritage breed is much slower than the broad breasted turkey. When used for meat production heritage turkeys are butchered between 24-30 weeks.

The dress weight after butchering varies between toms and hens. Depending on the breed, toms weigh in between 18-20 pounds, whereas, hens weigh in between 12-14 pounds.

There is a distinct difference in the flavor of the meat between the two breeds.  Many swear that the heritage turkeys have more flavor than broad breasted turkeys.

It is not uncommon to brine broad breasted turkeys to add flavor to the meat. However, because heritage turkey breeds contain more dark meat there is no need to brine the birds prior to consuming.

Hatching

To hatch turkey eggs you’ll need fertilized eggs. Realistically you’ll want eggs from your flock, however, fertilized eggs from heritage breeds can be purchased from breeders across the country. There are hatcheries that sell fertilized eggs upon request.

Individuals seeking to collect fertilized eggs must first know how to house turkeys. Meaning, how to properly set-up nesting boxes within a coop.

Turkey hens are known to lay eggs in the same nest. Over a period of time, once enough eggs are laid, the desire to become broody kicks in.

Remember, turkeys are seasonal layers. Fertilized turkey eggs are valued in order to keep the breed’s linage going. Those who live a sustainable life rely on hatching eggs to raise enough meat for the year.

The other option is to sell fertilized eggs to individuals who seek to raise turkeys on the homestead.

A quick tip, turkey hens can be indecisive when it comes to hatching eggs. Incubating eggs is a method many choose to make to ensure new turkeys are added to the property.

raising turkeys on the homestead
Heritage Blue Slate poult

Incubating Fertilized Eggs

Incubating fertilized turkey eggs is the surest route to increase the flock size.

Each day, for the next 7 to 10 days, collect the cleanest, closest to standard size and shape eggs as possible. Store the collected eggs, pointy side down in a container such as an egg carton until the desired amount has been collected. Fertilized eggs store best between 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is best to not use eggs which are older than 10 days, fertility drops the longer an egg is not incubated.

Setting up the Incubator

Twenty-four hours prior to incubation day start the incubator. This will ensure the temperature and humidity levels are holding properly. Also, this is a great time to make sure the automatic egg turner is functioning properly, if the incubator comes with one.

Turkey eggs incubate for 28 days. The humidity level within the incubator will need to be kept between 30% to 40%. A humidity gauge will help to ensure the correct humidity levels are maintained.

The temperature within the incubator will need to be maintained as followed:

  • forced air incubator – 99.5 degree Fahrenheit
  • still air incubator 100.5 to 101.5 degree Fahrenheit

To see how the eggs are progressing, candle eggs between the 5th or 7th day of incubation. Remove and discard any unfertilized eggs.

Locking Down the Incubator

On the 26th day of incubation the incubator will need to be locked down. Follow the next steps to prepare for hatching:

  • place a non-slip shelf liner or towel inside the bottom of the incubator
  • remove eggs from automatic rotating tool, lay eggs gently onto the non-slip pad or towel
  • increase the humidity level up to 60% to 70%, depending on the type of incubator, a wet sponge placed within the incubator will help increase and maintain the correct humidity level

Prior to moving the poults from the incubator to the brooder make sure they are completely dried first. Allowing them to remain in the incubator for 24 hours after hatching will guarantee they have fully dried.

Brooding Poults

Poults can be tricky to keep alive the first few days of life, especially if you are the sergeant mother. A good turkey hen will teach her young poults everything they need to know to survive, without her you will need to be the mother hen.

Setting up a turkey poult brooder is much similar to setting up a chick brooder. Learn the tips and trick we use in setting up a brooder in the article below.

Newly hatched poults tend to have very little intelligence. Because of this turkey poults have been known to starve themselves or die from being to cold due to straying from the heat source.

For these reasons it is best to monitor them often and not offer a large brooder the first week of life. Meaning, a medium size Rubbermaid container is efficient.

“Starving out” is a common issue with turkey poults, and many will starve themselves as they sit in front of the feeder.  Poults rely on being taught to survive.

If a mother hen is not available to teach new hatched poults to survive, there are other methods which can be used.

  • You become mother hen. The first few days guide them to feed and water multiple times a day, minimize the space in the brooder to ensure they remain close to the heat source.
  • Add a chicken chick to the brooder, one which has never touched the earth’s ground. Disease can spread quickly in the brooder, it’s best to be safe when incorporating poultry. This method works well if you are purchasing poults and chicks from a hatchery or feed store.
raising turkeys on the homestead
Upon arrival our poults are kept corralled in a medium size dog kennel until they show they are able to eat, drink and find heat independently

Pasture-Raised Turkeys

Pasture-raised turkeys make for an excellent meat bird. However, raising heritage breeds on pasture also make for a tasty bird.

Even pasture-raised turkeys need housing. How to house turkeys properly is key in keeping them safe from predators, out of bad weather, and a shaded spot away from the sun.

In truth, turkeys prefer to be out in the elements regardless of the weather. For this reason a movable lean-to or coop with doors is ideal for pasture-raised turkeys.

Turkeys like to roost high, construct a roosting bar as possible, if not you may find them roosting on top of the coop or lean-to. A single roosting bar minimizes the any potential fighting or injuries.

The use of electric fencing is necessary for keep predators away from pasture-raised turkeys. How much fencing needed will vary based on the amount of turkeys and size of the movable coop.

A guard goose also helps to minimize attacks from birds of prey. Allowing a goose to live with pasture-raised turkeys makes it a lead member of the gang. Protecting the group as a rooster would protect his flock.

How to House Turkeys

Due to the potential risk of turkeys contracting Blackhead disease many choose to house turkeys separate from chickens and other poultry. However, space restraints for small acre homesteads and farms prevent this from occurring.

On our homestead our poultry and waterfowl to not only free-range together, but also eat together. You can often find a turkey or two roosting in the chicken coop or ducks bedding down in the turkey coop.

Turkey Coop

How to house turkeys requires a few basic necessities. A minimum of 6 to 8 square feet per bird is needed to create an uncrowded coop. However, 10 square feet per bird allows room for addition of turkeys.

As suggested above, build one long, high roosting bar to prevent squabbling over the best roosting spot.

Make nesting boxes large enough to accommodate the size of your turkey hens. More times than not, turkey hens prefer to lay their eggs in a nest on the ground. They have been know to use higher nesting boxes if the boxes are large enough.

Utilize the same type of bedding you’d use in a chicken or duck coop.

Turkey Run

A run must constructed for those who will not be free-ranging or pasture-raising their gang of turkeys. For best practices, and good bio-security measures, construct two separate runs.

Two turkey runs will allow the group to utilize a different run each year. The vacant run then has the opportunity to recover from the damage of housing turkeys.

A vacant run has to time to:

  • grow new grass
  • allow the waste to absorb into the ground
  • permits parasites such as coccidiosis to die off

Turkeys are large birds, build a run which accommodates 10 to 15 square feet per bird.

What is Blackhead Disease

The disease is caused by the protozoa Histomonas meleagridis, tiny, single-celled organisms that are spread to the bird by the roundworm Heterakis gallinarum.

www.fda.gov

Okay, so what does this mean? Poultry become infected when they consume infected earthworms or the waste of an infected bird that is contaminated with the protozoa parasite. It has also been stated that directed bird-to-bird contact can spread the disease.

Once poultry consumes earthworms or droppings contaminated with the protozoa parasite, the disease spreads rapidly within the bird’s body.

  • The protozoa multiply in an infected bird’s cecum, a part of the digestive tract
  • They move to the bird’s intestines where the roundworm lives
  • The roundworm eats the protozoa
  • The roundworm’s eggs become infected with the protozoa
  • The bird then sheds the protozoa-infected roundworm/cecal eggs in its droppings
  • The earthworm then consume the soil contaminated with the protozoa, hence, infecting itself.
  • Poultry consume infected earthworm, the cycle continues

Chicken have a higher resistance to contracting Blackhead disease than turkeys. Turkeys which contract the disease are less likely to recover. For this very reason culling diseased birds is the best course of action.

However, culling infected birds is a step in eradicating the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, it does not fix the problem.

Round and cecal worms (within the poultry’s body) becomes infected by the protozoa. The eggs are then shed eggs through the waste. The eggs from the cecal worms can live in the soil up to 4.5 years. In that time earthworms (the secondary carrier) consumes the eggs, hence, becoming infected.

Let’s recap. The cycle begins by a chicken, turkey, or other poultry, bird, or fowl consume an infected secondary carrier or waste from an infected bird. The infected birds then drops waste, causing the cycle to begin again.

Blackhead Disease Symptoms (Histomoniasis)

Blackhead Disease generally affects younger 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 which leads to death.

Infected turkey exhibit the following symptoms:

  • increase in thirst
  • decrease in appetite
  • loss of weight
  • lethargic
  • weak and depressed looking
  • unkept feathers
  • produces yellowish/brown, watery, or foamy droppings

Major tell-tail signs that a bird is infected:

  • standoffish from the group
  • appearing lost and disoriented
  • the feathers are fluffed up and the head is sunk close to the body

There currently is no a drug available to treat Histomoniasis. Due to its inability to treat the poultry disease, the drug which was once offered became unavailable in 2005. 

Best Practices for Preventing Histomoniasis

To learn more on Blackhead disease you can read this excellent article by The Poultry Site.  There are preventative actions which can be taken to minimize the possibility of turkeys contracting Blackhead disease:

  • Pasture rotation every season
  • House and free range poultry species separately

The following traditional and holistic preventative plans have been passed down through the generations:

  • Provide high amounts ground cayenne pepper daily mixed with feed as a holistic approach
  • Acidified Copper Sulfate (1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water every few months) 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. Burn the carcass to ensure the parasites do not re-enter the soil.
  • Try the following holistic approach as treatment:
    • provide high amounts of cayenne pepper daily to the feed
    • provide 2 cups of Colloidal Silver to 2 cups of water daily

Please note, holistic remedies are not a guarantee that infected birds will be cured.

Raising a Mixed Flock

The best practice is to not mix species. Turkeys should be house with turkeys, chickens with chicken, water fowl with like water fowl. However, that is not always practical. Especially for homesteaders with small acreage.

Let me speak candidly for a moment, and please make the best decision for your homestead. We do not house our poultry and fowl species separately. In fact, they are housed together, free-range together, and fed together. Our pasture-raised turkeys have been housed with our Red Ranger meat birds.

Because we free-range our flocks the likelihood of our turkeys contracting Blackhead disease from another bird is just as probable as them contracting it by consuming an infected earthworm.

The odds are stacked either way, many homesteaders will take the chance and mix their flocks. We do.

Fun Facts

Turkeys are turkeys, either you love them or you don’t, and luckily we’ve had good experiences in raising them. Discover the humorous truth about raising turkeys from the perspective of myself and other homesteaders.

A few other fun facts about this amazing bird:

  • they see in color and have great vision
  • they do not have outer external ears, however, they do have excellent hearing
  • turkeys have a poor sense of smell, but an excellent sense of taste
  • toms gobble, whereas, turkey hens bark (similar to a seal bark)
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