Raising turkeys on the homestead is an easy way to provide meat for your family. Smart homesteaders raise a variety of poultry and animals on their farms. If you’ve already started growing your own food, you’ve likely already started raising chickens.
If, by any chance, you haven’t raised chickens, be sure to check out my post on raising chickens. Turkeys are just a baby step past chickens!
On our homestead, we usually get turkey poults (baby turkeys) when we get chicks in the spring. About the time the chicks are ready to lay eggs, the turkeys are ready to butcher. Turkeys and chickens coexist pretty well together, so it makes it really easy!
Are turkeys hard to raise?
Turkeys are one of the easiest animals I’ve found to raise on the homestead. They are friendly, and easy to care for. Turkeys are more resistant to disease than chickens, and cleaner and less stinky than ducks. They can be fed nearly the same feed as chickens or ducks, especially if you feed Flock Raiser feed.
Choosing which breed of turkey to raise
There are a few different breeds of domestic turkeys that you can raise. Broad Breasted turkeys are the ones you typically find at your local feed store or hatchery. They grow fast and have lots of meat on their chest (hence the name, broad breasted!). Typically they are not able to reproduce, and their life span is naturally shorter. Broad Breasted usually come in white (most common), bronze, and black.
Heritage breed turkeys are closer to their wild relatives. They grow slower, but they are also able to reproduce on their own. There are quite a few heritage breeds, including Royal Palm, Blue Slate, Bourbon Red, Black Spanish, and Midget White. If you don’t mind a longer grow-out time, and would like to keep some as part of a sustainable flock, heritage turkeys are the way to go.
Raising baby turkeys
After you purchase your turkey poults (babies), you will need to keep them in a brooder, similar to a chick brooder. You can make one out of a big box, or kiddie pool, or you can buy one. Pine shavings are ideal for bedding in the brooder. When it gets used up, you can toss these in your compost pile. A warm garage is probably the best place to keep your brooder, as the bedding puts off lots of dust and can get stinky fast.
Heat requirements are nearly the same as with baby chickens. A good quality heat lamp is essential for your little birds, and a thermometer is very helpful. Turkey poults need it to be 95 degrees for their first week of life, then reduced by 5 degrees each week thereafter. After approximately 6 weeks, or when they are fully feathered, they can go outside.
As with any baby animal, turkey poults need constant access to clean, fresh water. Raising the waterer above the shavings like you do with chicks is ideal, but turkeys don’t scratch and mess up their water as much as chicks do.
Turkey poults need high-protein chick starter or game bird starter for their first 8 weeks. The protein level of the feed should be between 24% and 28%. From 8 to 16 weeks, you can switch to game bird feed, with between 20% and 24% protein. Layer feed can also be used, but the higher the protein, the better. Flock Raiser is the best all-purpose commercial bird feed to give if you have a variety of birds to care for.
Turkeys, like any poultry, need grit to digest their food. Since they don’t have teeth, grit is kept in their crops to help grind up the food so it more easily passes to the stomach. If your turkeys free-range, they will most likely get their own grit in the form of small pieces of gravel and sand. But it’s still a good idea to provide grit free-choice.
After they are fully feathered and outgrow their brooder, turkeys need to go outside. You will need to decide where you want to keep your turkeys. There are a few different viable options.
Raising turkeys with chickens
If you have chickens, you can absolutely raise turkeys right alongside your chickens. Turkeys are basically just big ole chickens! They need more coop, run, and roost space than chickens, but they prefer to roost up higher. Each turkey will need about 6 square feet in their coop. Turkeys also don’t need to have quite the amount of protection that chickens do. They seem to do better with more of an open-sided shelter with a sturdy roost bar about 3 feet off the ground.
Raising turkeys on pasture
Turkeys can also be very successfully raised on pasture. Raising turkeys on pasture allows you to feed less commercial feed. They will get a good amount of the nutrition they need by simply foraging on the pasture. Of course, if you want big healthy birds, you will need to give them some feed, but the amount will be much less than if they were in a small run.
The key to pasture raising turkeys is having enough room to rotate their pasture area. Turkeys have the ability to eat down a small area of pasture to nearly nothing in a short amount of time. They will need to be moved about once a week (depending on the number of turkeys and the amount of pasture space) in order to not fully destroy the area. At least a 4 foot tall fence should be used, and an electric wire strand is helpful for both keeping the turkeys in and predators out.
You can also successfully free-range turkeys. We had pretty good success with free-ranging ours last year. If you have a large enough space and don’t have a large predator load, it might work for you as well. Turkeys seem to grow faster and are more efficient on feed when given the choice to eat whatever bugs and plants pleases them.
Free-ranging does have its disadvantages, though. There always seems to be turkey poop where you don’t want it! And of course there is a higher chance of being taken by predators, or being hit by cars. We did lose one turkey last year by being hit by a passing car, but our other 2 grew to be over 20 pounds each.
How long does it take to raise a turkey?
The length of time that it takes to raise a turkey to butcher age, depends on the type of turkey that you decide to get. It also depends on how big you want your birds to be.
Quick-growing birds like the Broad Breasted will be ready in as little as 16-22 weeks, if you want a roughly 15 pound bird for the table. Heritage breeds will take up to about 30 weeks for the same size carcass.
If you have a big family, or are raising them for sale, to get a Broad Breasted turkey to 20 pounds will take probably 40 or more weeks.
Butchering your turkeys
When it comes to butchering time, it is best to do so on a cooler day. The meat will have less chance of spoilage if you can keep it as cool as possible. I have found the easiest way to cull the turkey is by laying his neck across a stump and using an axe to remove the head as quickly as possible. A little warning, they WILL flop around like a chicken with its head cut off!
Next, you need to gut the turkey and remove all of the feathers. Gutting a turkey is the same process as gutting any bird, and since I’m not an expert in this matter, I’ll not dive into this in this post. Side note: white feathered birds are easier to pluck into a clean appearance, since darker feathers often leave dark spots in the skin.
Once the plucking is done, you need to get the bird fully cooled. It is best to leave the cleaned bird in a fridge for about 24 hours to rest. This allows rigor mortis to set in and then lets the muscles relax fully again. This rest period is crucial to having a tender bird for the table. After the rest period, you can either put the turkey in the freezer, or cook it.
I hope I have given you some direction and inspiration to raise your own turkeys. I have thoroughly enjoyed my turkeys, and I plan on raising some every year. Turkeys are easy keepers that produce lots of tender, juicy meat for your family. And if you need beginner guides for raising other animals, be sure to check out my posts on raising chickens, raising ducks, meat rabbits, and meat chickens. Do you have any tips you’d like to add? Please share in the comments!