Of all homestead poultry projects, raising backyard turkeys seems to appeal to the least number of people. Turkeys are amazingly stupid — from the newly hatched poults who can starve to death while trampling in their feed because they haven’t learned where to find it, to the hens who lay their eggs standing up. (Some breeders use special rubber mats in the nests to help cushion the drop.) Turkeys are easily frightened – an acquaintance of mine who raised turkeys commercially went wild every Fourth of July because the fireworks in a nearby village invariably sent thousands of birds piling up in corners where they would suffocate unless he waded in and un-piled them. Airplanes going overhead had the same effect, and they didn’t care much for thunder, either. Turkeys are also much more susceptible to disease than other poultry are, especially if raised around chickens.
But if home-raised, golden-brown, juicy heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving (with rich dressing and thick gravy) appeals to you, go ahead and raise turkeys at home.
The turkey is a true American bird, although the turkey breeds available today bear little resemblance to the native specimens hunted by the Indians and Pilgrims. As is the case with all other domestic livestock, selective breeding has produced “new” stock designed to meet specific needs. Much of the early selective breeding of turkeys was done in Europe, strangely enough, to produce a bird with shorter legs and plumper breasts, resulting in more meat per bird. Later the white breeds became popular (white poultry of any kind is easier to dress) and still later, smaller turkey breeds were developed, which helped promote the turkey as an “everyday” meat.
The Bronze turkey, which school children still color at Thanksgiving, has largely been replaced by the less spectacular White Holland and the smaller Beltsville White. There are a number of other turkey breeds, but since these three are of some commercial importance they’re probably the ones that will be easiest to find.
Six to twelve birds should be sufficient for most families who want to start raising backyard turkeys. You’ll start with poults (the turkey equivalent of a chick), probably ordered from ads in the farm magazines.
Brooding equipment for raising backyard turkeys is much the same as that used for chickens. However, if you use any chicken equipment for your turkeys, be sure to disinfect it by cleaning it thoroughly with hot, soapy water and a stiff brush. Disinfect any brooding equipment for turkeys with one ounce of lye to one gallon of water or with any good commercial disinfectant.
Most homestead poults are started in early summer when warm weather has pretty well settled in. In such cases, brooding facilities in a battery should be provided for about 10 days. If no battery is available, a box about 20” by 24” by 15” high with a 100-watt light bulb inside will work.
One of the first chores you’ll have in learning how to raise turkey poults is teaching them to eat. One way to get them to eat is to sprinkle chick scratch on top of the ground turkey starter mash. The coarser scratch—usually a combination of cracked corn, wheat, oats or other grains depending on local availability—seems to attract the birds’ attention more readily than just the mash, and they’re more inclined to peck at it. As they learn to eat, the scratch is eliminated.
After the brooding period, the young turkeys go to their sunporch. In spite of the common belief that turkeys cannot be raised in the same place with chickens, it is possible. When raising backyard turkeys, the secret is to keep the turkeys in cages raised off the ground, on sunporches.
One of our neighbors customarily raises 6 to 12 turkeys a year right next to the hen house, in a pen about 5 feet wide, 12 feet long and about 2 feet high. The entire sunporch is raised about 3 feet off the ground. About half of the pen is roofed over to protect the birds from rain and direct sunlight, and roosts are provided. Each bird requires about 5 square feet of space.
Floors can be made of 1-1/2 inch mesh made of heavy gauge wire. Supports made of wire attached to turnbuckles can be kept taut and will prevent the floor from sagging. Another type of floor can be made of 1-1/2 inch square strips of lumber spaced 1-1/2 inches apart. In fact, if you have more old lumber than wire or money laying around, as most of us homesteaders do, the sides as well as the floor can be constructed of wood by making these of vertical lath spaced one inch apart.
Watering and Feeding
You can use regular poultry fountains for a source of drinking water when raising backyard turkeys. (Again, don’t forget the thorough cleaning and disinfecting if the fountain has previously been used for chickens.) The fountain will have to be placed inside the pen and removed for filling and cleaning.
A simpler method for providing water for a few birds is to cut a hole in the side of the pen large enough for any pan you might have, and fence it in with heavy gauge wire spaced three inches apart at the bottom. The wires are brought together at the top and fastened to the side of the pen so the arrangement looks like half a bird cage. This way, the pan can be filled and cleaned from the outside.
Feeders for your turkeys can be regular chicken feeders that will fit inside the pen, or a simply constructed wooden trough that can be filled from outside. Obviously, the feed should be protected from rain. Two inches of feeding space per bird is recommended.
It takes about four pounds of feed to grow a pound of turkey. For the home flock, so little feed will be used that it will hardly pay to mix the meat scraps, minerals, and other ingredients needed for a balanced ration. It will be more economical to buy prepared feed. Pellets for feeding turkeys are available from several companies, but read the label carefully as many of these feeds are medicated.
Corn tops the list of grains fed to turkeys for fattening. Oats can also be fed, especially if cannibalism or feather picking is a problem, since the high fiber content of this grain is generally recognized as one means of reducing feather picking (in chickens as well as in turkeys.) Other grains, notably sunflower seeds, are also good for turkeys.
In addition, you will want to use liberal amounts of green feed. In fact, if possible, turkeys can be raised on range with a great saving in feed. If you have ranging chickens or don’t have ground free from contact with chickens, it is best to leave the turkeys on the sunporch and bring the greens to them. Among the best greens that can be grown on the small place for turkeys, or chickens for that matter, is Swiss chard, and it will continue to grow until hard frost.
Rape and alfalfa, as well as lettuce, cabbage, and most any other garden greens, all provide good food for turkeys. As much as 25 percent of the ration can be greens, which can enable you to compete price-wise with the commercial grower.
The turkey pen is another place to make good use of excess milk from your goat herd. Whole goat milk, skim milk, or whey should be used to moisten mash. Be careful not to provide too much mash and clean up promptly, as anything leftover will ferment in the feeders, attracting flies and becoming generally unsanitary.
Turkeys grow most rapidly during about the first 24 weeks. If feed prices are high, it becomes less profitable to hold them much beyond this age when keeping turkeys for meat. Turkeys require “finishing” before slaughtering, especially if they have had a lot of greens in their ration. Corn is the most common finishing grain, but turkeys won’t eat corn before cool weather sets in in the fall, so finishing before then can be difficult.
Domestic turkey breeds are notoriously disease-prone, particularly to Blackhead. This is an organism hosted by the small roundworm of the chicken. Keeping the two birds separate, even to the point of never walking from the henhouse to the turkey yard, will go a long way toward controlling this disease. Leave a pair of overshoes at the turkey yard to wear when working with them, and only when working with them. The sunporch will eliminate this nuisance.
Birds affected with Blackhead will be droopy and the droppings will yellow. An autopsy of a turkey that has died from Blackhead will show a liver that has yellowish or whitish areas. One of the remedies used by commercial growers is phenothiazine. However, taking steps to prevent the disease when you’re raising backyard turkeys, such as having a raised sunporch, is a more acceptable control measure for organic homesteaders.
Coccidiosis, while not as prevalent among turkeys as it is among chickens, is another problem you should be on the alert for. The usual symptom is blood in the droppings, as well as a general unthrifty appearance. Since wet litter is one of the predisposing factors, keeping the litter of young poults dry by frequent cleaning and by using heat (the light bulb) in damp weather, and by using sunporches off the ground for older birds, will help control this problem.
Pullorum is no longer the problem it used to be in both chickens and turkeys due to the rigid inspection programs carried out now at most hatcheries. It’s good insurance to buy from a reputable hatchery where birds are U.S. Pullorum Clean.
Paratyphoid is less easily controlled, since carriers cannot be removed from the breeding flock as with Pullorum. Birds infected with this disease usually develop a greenish diarrhea. Losses of 50 percent and more can occur. There is no effective control.
Crop bound is another turkey problem, usually brought on by eating litter or green feed that is too coarse, such as cabbage. A heavy, pendulous crop results. The bird is still edible and should be slaughtered even if not fully mature.
For control of these and other disease problems that might strike your turkey flock, check with your county agent. As with any other bird or animal, the best insurance is to start with good stock, provide ample room and proper nutrition, plenty of clean water, and maintain strict sanitation practices.
Excerpted from The Homesteader’s Handbook to Raising Small Livestock, by Jerome D. Belanger.
Originally published in 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.