Turkey Talk

“I am going to raise my own Thanksgiving turkey someday!” Has this thought crossed your mind? With Thanksgiving just a few days away, we thought the time was right to give you a brief overview about raising turkeys and some of the key differences between commercial and heritage breeds.

Let’s review some quick turkey terminology first.

At the grocery store

Commercially raised turkeys are primarily white and bronze breeds. These turkeys typically dress (or finish) at 40+ pounds for a Tom and nearly 20 pounds for a hen. Tom turkey meat is traditionally used for deli meats, turkey bacon, or ground turkey while almost all whole birds on your thanksgiving table are female hens. They are a mix of both dark and white meat, and it is their large white breast meat that make them a popular choice for the commercial turkey business. These breeds of turkeys also are common for 4-H show projects. As a backyard flock, however, they are not ideal, unless you have a strict harvest date in mind. Bred for fast production of breast meat, these breeds are unable to mate naturally, so, in a commercial setting are bred using artificial insemination.

Heritage breeds for your backyard

Heritage breed turkeys are often a logical choice for the backyard poultry enthusiast. These birds dress at around 15 pounds, and include almost all dark meat. Breeds within the Heritage family include Black Spanish, Blue Slate, Red Bourbon, Royal Palm and Narragansetts. Heritage turkeys serve as an advantage due to their longer life-span and ability to breed naturally. If you’re looking for a smaller option of Heritage turkey, a great breed would be the Midget White turkey. These dress at around 8-13 pounds and are known for their friendly temperament.

If you’re interested in starting your own turkey flock, doing your research is vital. Turkeys require slightly more attention than your typical backyard chicken, so making sure your facility is ready to take on turkeys is key.

Some of the unique turkey-keeping aspects include:

  • Location: Choose a spot that has never had chickens grown on it – some diseases like Blackhead won’t impact chickens but will kill turkeys.
  • Feed: Young turkeys need an extremely high protein content feed. Without enough protein, turkeys have been known to eat eachother. Country Feeds Gamebird feed is a great choice. Don’t worry about limit feeding as turkeys can have access feed 24 hours a day.
  • Poults: Baby turkeys grow quickly, but, like chicks, cannot regulate body temperature well. Even though they may look like adult birds, don’t introduce young turkeys to outdoors until after 10 weeks of age
  • Space: Turkeys are much bigger than chickens, so allow an appropriate amount of space for them to grow without being crowed.

If you are raising for the purpose of harvesting the turkeys, it’s important to get your timing right. You will want to be purchasing poults in April/May for butchering at Thanksgiving time. Don’t forget to book your butchering far in advance, as facilities book up fast on these services.

Turkeys can be a fun and rewarding project with proper preparation and care.

So go forth and gobble!

 

Raising Thanksgiving Dinner

No meal is as traditional as Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens all evolved and were domesticated in the Old World and were brought to North America, but not the turkey.  It was domesticated during prehistory in Central and South America.  Spanish explorers quickly learned to enjoy delicious turkey meat and shipped live birds back to Europe, where they quickly spread through the continent and beyond.

Turkey is a popular commercial meat in the United States. The average American eats just over 16 pounds of turkey per year, but very few people raise turkeys in their backyard.

If you do decide to raise turkeys with your chickens, realize they are very different and most experienced poultry growers recommend housing them separately.  For example turkeys are susceptible to diseases that chickens carry, but that chickens themselves are resistant to. Turkeys also require more space and a large yard or open area is recommended.

Many chicken breeds, such as Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Orpingtons are true dual purpose birds that lay abundant eggs and get meaty enough to make tasty chicken stew.   This is not the case with turkeys. They are strictly meat birds with an average hen turkey laying only around 80 to 100 eggs per year, compared to 200 to 250 or more for many chicken breeds.   

There are many distinct turkey breeds ranging from the wild birds roaming woodlands to the white, broad-breasted types used for commercial production.  There are many beautiful ornamental or heritage breeds to choose from, with feather colors ranging from buff to gray to the bronze hues of wild birds.

Anyone interested in raising a few turkeys for delicious roasting should stick with heritage breeds or ornamental varieties.   Heritage breeds grow more slowly but can mate naturally and are better foragers.  Plan on feeding them for 4-6 months before they will be ready for the table. Each turkey will require four to five pounds of feed per week.

Start your turkeys on a high protein diet (like Country Feeds Gamebird Starter)  in June or July, protect them from predators and the weather, feed them well, and expect to have large and tasty turkeys for your Thanksgiving dinner. Their meat is simply delicious.