The holiday season is upon us, and that means lots of family time and great food. With the exception of the seasonal desserts, turkey is one of the main foods everyone enjoys this time of year. Having turkey is actually a highlight at our Thanksgiving dinner because my wife and children raise meat turkeys each year just for these occasions.
As a family, we started raising turkeys a few years ago. Now, it’s an annual enterprise on our farm. Knowing we raised the bird is rewarding. Besides, a homegrown bird for the Thanksgiving feast tastes so good! Plus, we don’t just have it for the holidays: Turkey is a versatile meat that can be eaten any time of the year.
So let’s talk a little “turkey” this month. Have you ever thought about raising meat turkeys? I know many people who raise their own turkeys. While raising turkeys does not require a lot of time, they do require daily care.
Getting started: What type of turkey to consider?
Before you start raising turkeys, it is important to identify your goal. This will dictate the best breed and management system for your flock. Are you raising turkeys for your own consumption, or for sale?
Once you have determined your goals, you need to pick the type of turkey and housing. The types of turkeys often referred to as “breeds” are actually varieties of a single breed of turkey. The most popular varieties for small-flock production are the commercial varieties Broad Breasted Bronze (also called Bronze) and Broad-Breasted White (also called Large White). The Broad Breasted Bronze has plumage resembling that of a wild turkey. The Broad Breasted White is selected for its white feathers and fast growth. The most common variety grown commercially is the Large White. Hens commonly reach a live weight of 15 lb. at 14 weeks of age, and toms (males) weigh about 28 to 30 lb. at 17 to 18 weeks. Smaller weights can be achieved by raising the turkeys for a shorter period of time.
Many people like to raise heritage breeds as well. The American Poultry Association (APA) recognizes eight varieties of turkeys, all considered heritage varieties. They are the Standard Bronze, Beltsville Small White, White Holland, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Slate, Black, and Royal Palm. Also, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) recognizes the Jersey Giant and White Midget. In addition, some hatcheries carry other varieties, including the Crimson Dawn, Calico, and Red Phoenix.
Heritage variety turkeys must meet certain criteria. For example, to be considered a heritage variety, a bird must be able to mate naturally. Most of today’s commercial turkeys are too big to breed naturally and must be bred through artificial insemination. Also, a heritage turkey must have a long, productive lifespan outdoors and a slow growth rate.
Most heritage turkey varieties are well adapted to a small flock management system. Typically, they are more disease-resistant than commercial varieties and are good foragers. In addition, they mate naturally and can raise their young, although mothering abilities vary among varieties. When marketing heritage varieties, small flock producers must keep in mind that their slower growth rate increases the production costs, especially the total amount of feed consumed. Also, these turkeys produce less breast meat. Typically, 70 percent of the meat produced by a Broad-Breasted White turkey is breast meat, whereas heritage breeds produce about a 50-50 ratio of white meat to dark meat.
Starting your birds
While caring for turkeys requires little daily time, you must provide regular and timely care to be successful in getting a flock to market. Determining how many poults to order will be based on your needs available space. Poults one to six weeks of age will require a minimum of one square foot of floor space each. From 6 to 12 weeks of age, they need 2 square feet of floor space each. From 12 weeks to harvesting age, they will need 3 to 5 square feet of floor space.
Certain basic management practices are also necessary for success. First, it is essential to obtain stock from a known, disease-free source. Stock should originate from hatcheries that are members of the National Turkey Improvement Plan. Members regularly test and eliminate stocks with egg-borne diseases, including pullorum, typhoid, paratyphoid, and pleuropneumonia-like organisms (or PPLO). To further reduce the threat of disease, raise turkeys away from other poultry. Mycoplasma galacepticum (or MG) and Histomoniasis (or blackhead) can be serious problems for turkeys raised among chickens or on grounds where chickens have existed within the previous three years.
Turkeys can be started easily by either hatching eggs or raising young poults. Our family prefers starting with young poults. Poults start more easily if brooded within 48 hours after hatching.
It is very important to prepare your brood chamber properly. Poults need a warm, draft-free environment that is well ventilated and has free choice of feed and water. Since poults are unable to regulate their body temperature for the first 10 days, a properly managed heat source is necessary. The most efficient heat source will depend on your particular housing situation. Set the room temperature at approximately 88°F with a temperature of around 95°F under the heat source.
Wood shavings are the best litter for turkeys. Do not use sawdust because poults may eat it and have digestive problems. The purpose of the litter is to absorb moisture and insulate poults from the cold floor. Any wet litter should be removed and replaced with fresh litter. It is not recommended to use newspapers or other slick materials on top of the litter since the paper will become slippery and cause leg problems. Round all corners of the brooding area with cardboard or wire to prevent birds from smothering. Poults can be scared easily by loud noises, sudden movements, or bright lights, causing them to crowd on top of one another, which can be fatal.
A brooder guard (see Figure 1 [NEED ORIENTATION) is suggested and is usually used for the first week or two to help keep the poults near heat, feed, and water sources. It may be necessary to dip poults’ beaks into the water and feed to start them drinking and eating. Observe the birds carefully to see if they are too hot (grouped far away from the heat source) or too cold (huddled together). Comfortable poults will spread uniformly under and around the edge of the brooder. Gradually decrease the room temperature each day (about 5°F per week) until it reaches 70°F. Keep the lights dim during the poults first week. Later, 12 to 14 hours of light is sufficient. Excessive light intensity or light spots in the turkey house can cause piling or cannibalism in young poults.
If you want to hatch fertile eggs successfully, keep them in a clean environment at an ambient temperature between 55°F and 65°F prior to setting for the incubation period to be successful. Eggs can be about seven to ten days old before setting without a serious decrease in hatchablility. Set only clean eggs at a temperature of 99.5° to 100°F for 28 days. Turn the eggs at least three times each day for 25 days. Eggs do not need to be turned the last three days prior to hatching. After the hatch is complete, remove the poults and hatch residue.
Management is the key to maintaining the health of your flock. Good sanitation and eliminating other birds and animals that may carry disease organisms are important for maintaining a healthy flock. Keeping the pen and range areas dry also helps. Vaccines, available for several turkey diseases, are not necessary for a small flock unless previous disease problems existed on your premises or on nearby farms. Other disease problems can be controlled through the use of medicated feeds, if necessary. However, clean stock, clean premises, and good management are the best lines of defense. Always consult your local veterinarian. Another source of advice on many day-to-day problems can come from a good feed or hatchery manager.
Figure 1. Typical layout for brooding area. Created by Gregory Martin, Pennsylvania State University
Feed and water
Feed and water should be available to the growing turkeys at all times. Some young turkeys have trouble finding the feed and water, resulting in death from “starve out.” To ensure that your poults find the feed and water, it is best to spend some time with them for the first day or so. Dipping their beaks in the water helps to teach them where the water is located. Use a small one-gallon chick waterer. Open dishes or pans are not recommended because poults may fall in, become chilled, and die. In a couple university publications I read where utilizing bright-colored marbles may help to attract the poults to the water. The bottom half of an egg carton makes a good starting feeder for the first few days. Adequate feeder and waterer space ensures that all the poults in the flock have an opportunity to eat and drink.
Commercial varieties of turkeys are fast-growing and require a high-protein diet. Turkey starter diets typically contain 28 percent protein in crumble form. It is generally recommended that you use turkey starter diets for the first four weeks. A turkey grower diet typically contains 26 percent protein.
Feeds containing less protein can be fed after poults are six weeks old. Complete growing rations with lower protein levels are the easiest to manage as your birds continue to grow. The protein level should not drop below 16 percent. During the finishing phase, one suggestion is to feed free-choice whole corn which can improve the finish, tenderness, and flavor of the processed bird.
Note: Chicken starter and grower diets are too low in protein, and turkeys fed these diets will have reduced growth performance.
As the turkeys grow, they get taller and their necks get longer. Remember to adjust the feeder’s height to match the birds’ current height. The edge of the feeder trough should be at the level of a turkey’s back. This will keep the feed and water clean after the first week. It is also important to not fill the feeders too full, or feed will be wasted.
A small number of turkeys can be raised in a relatively small area. As with all livestock enterprises you need to adhere to the local zoning laws and ordinances in order to raise, process, and sell turkeys. Whether the turkeys are for home consumption or for sale, you must make plans for processing, whether that is through home processing or custom processing.
For information on regulations regarding home processing and other aspects of turkey flock management, contact your county extension office or your state Department of Agriculture.
For more detailed production information regarding raising turkeys, contact your local extension office.
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