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Raising Heritage Breed Turkeys

Updated on February 3, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

Grass Fed, Organic , Heritage Breed Turkey for Food and Profit

Many people who begin homesteading get chickens as a source of organic eggs and meat as well as pest control. Increasingly these modern homesteaders are adding other fowl, including heritage breed turkeys, to their barnyards. Not only do turkeys provide meat for the family but the financial benefits from raising turkeys are very appealing.

In some areas organic turkey is sold for an average of $7.00 a lb (2008) and it can go a bit higher during the holiday season. Although all poultry needs some supplemental feed, turkey and other free-ranging fowl will forage for a large percentage of their food themselves. This means that the net profit of a turkey is pretty substantial.

Heritage breeds are key in a small farm operation. These breeds are hardier, breed better, and produce a better quality of meat with less human intervention than is normal for commercial birds. They have been around for centuries and have developed characteristics that help them survive in a variety of conditions.

Not only that, but it is important to protect the biodiversity in livestock - raising heritage breeds is one way to do that.

A Bourbon Red Heritage Breed Turkey
A Bourbon Red Heritage Breed Turkey

Raising the Poults

Before you jump on the Internet and order poults you should do your research and decide which breed is best for you. Consider where you live, your goals for your homestead, the needs of your family, and your preferences.

Once you have decided on a breed try to find a local breeder. Getting poultry by mail works well and the companies do tend to have a larger variety than you can find locally but shipping stressful for the poults and you may lose some in transit.

Keep them Protected

You will want to have an enclosed and protected area for the poults to live for their first few weeks. You will need a heat lamp unless it is mid summer in Texas- the temperature needs to be 95-105 degrees day and night for the first several days and then you can slowly drop it by about 5 degrees a week.

Watching the poults activity is the best indication of how you need to adjust the temperature. Cold poults will huddle together - even smothering the ones unlucky enough to be on the bottom. If they are too hot they will get as far away from the light as possible and lay out panting, acting listless. Poults that are comfortable will move around peeping quietly or sleeping peacefully.


Make sure there is plenty of starter mash in the feeders, and that the poults have fresh, clean water at all times. The water should be about body temperature to guard against the turkeys getting a chill. Twice a week sprinkle grit over the mash so that the poults can digest their food properly.


Watch for pasting up, an ailment in which the droppings stick to the backside of the bird and it cannot eliminate. If this happens try to gently clean the droppings of with some mineral oil or warm water.

Moving the Poults Outside

After about four weeks the birds can go outside to an enclosed and protected area as long as the temperature stays above 70 degrees. Continue to make sure that they have fresh water at all times and feed is plentiful.

All the way through the growth process make sure that the poult has a clean living space and humane treatment.

Royal Palm Turkey
Royal Palm Turkey

The Top Heritage Breed Turkeys

Year Developed
Beltsville Small White
Good for small families
Bourbon Red
Hardy, flavorful
Prior to 1860
Southern homesteads
Jersey Buff
Small homesteads
old breed - unknown
Good breeders
Midget White
8 -13 lbs
Very hardy - good for northern homesteads
Royal Palm
Ornamental, good breeders, 10-20 lbs
Standard Bronze
before 1800
35 lbs

Differences between Free Range and Pasture Raised

By the tenth week the poult should be ready to be switched from starter mash to a good growth formula. During this time you should change the grit size to a broiler size grit and continue giving it with the mash two times a week. The turkeys will also need greens and other foods added to their diet.

Free Range

It is important to understand the difference between pasture raised or grass fed turkey and free range turkey, and this goes for all poultry. A few years ago when consumers decided they wanted animals that were treated more humanely, organic, and grown in a natural environment the market came out with a catch all phrase; " Free Range".

Consumers eagerly embraced free range poultry - imagining plump, healthy birds strutting around a pastoral farmyard straight out of Currier and Ives.

Unfortunately the reality is that a free range bird is only NOT a caged bird. It may only have four square feet of range area in a large coop but it can still be called free range.

Pasture Raised

Grass or pasture fed poultry is poultry that is allowed to be housed on living grasses. Sometimes the birds are free ranging in a large pen that is electrified to keep out predators, or in large, movable, bottomless cages called chicken tractors. Either method allows the birds to eat a natural diet of living grasses and plants, bugs, and even mice and snakes.

The grass fed poultry will need to get supplemental grain and mash daily for optimum health. For the best profits you want to raise the highest quality birds around.

pastured turkey
pastured turkey
Normal Confinement Method of Raising Poultry
Normal Confinement Method of Raising Poultry


To completely finish a turkey takes about 24-28 weeks, or until the bird reaches approximately 18 lbs or more, depending on the breed. For the very best quality meat the scratch grains should be at least 70% corn by week 20.

You will know that the turkey is ready for butchering when the pinfeathers have disappeared and there is a fine layer of fat covering the body. You will not be able to see the purplish color of the muscle under the skin but the skin will be pale yellow or white underneath.

Continue to allow the bird to be on fresh grass pasture throughout the finishing process until the last 18 hours. During the last 18 hours before butchering the bird should be separated, and given plenty of fresh clean water but no food.


How to Sell the Turkey

You can take the turkey to the butcher and have it killed and cleaned, and have your customer pick it up there in neat freezer bags, or you can sell the turkey live for less money and allow the customer to decide what to do about the butchering.

In most areas it is not legal to butcher the animal yourself for sales purposes because of health regulations so check carefully with your local government.

Growing Your Business

As people try your birds and are rendered speechless by the tender, amazingly tasty meat that you have produced you can expect your business to grow by leaps and bounds. Word of mouth is still an excellent way to advertise.

The Internet is a great place to sell livestock or promote your homestead's products as well because it is everywhere, all the time. The website for our farm cost us less than $100.00 a year but has more than made up for that cost in the sales we make.

Plan carefully and do your research and you will have organic turkey for your table and plenty left to profit from.


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    • profile image

      whowas 5 years ago

      That's a brilliant and inspiring hub. We only have a small plot so we tend to have to be creative with the way we manage it - both for food production and wildlife. So far we have only kept a small flock of large fowl (chickens) which serve us well for eggs and meat but recently we started thinking of expanding (there's a small plot behind ours that is up for sale) and we thought of geese. However, the turkey sounds like it could be a real contender. Definitely worth exploring.

      Oh and well done for pointing out the difference between free range and grass fed. Not everyone is aware of the distinction.

      Great hub, thanks!

    • profile image

      Aaron 5 years ago

      I have white meat turkeys- had no problem as chicks, they are now 3 months old and I have had to put 2 down. I noticed both of them were walking like they were weak or drunk. No other symptoms. I was wondering if they were not getting enough nutrition because the meat variety grow so fast. I have them on 18% chick starter, non medicated, cracked corn, and they free range around 5 of my 10 acres. I have not given them any grit- as I live in Florida, and the feed store folks stated because of the sand and natural grit on the ground i don't need it. They are housed with my RIR chickens, but have been for over 2 months. I have brought no new birds home.

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      El Pavero 5 years ago

      I have ordered 50 mixed Heritage breeding stock poults. They will only be 3 days old when I get them. This is my first attempt at raising turkeys and I hope to keep up with their needs as they grow. I can start them on a sun-porch, but while they grow, I'm concerned if they will stay warm enough at night, because I live at elevation 7600 ft. I use only limited solar power,and can only allow them to wander around in a large pen on sandy ground. I can feed them storebought food and get purina wild bird starter at first. I'm wondering if the sand is okay for the poult sized gullit. Will a small mesh fencing be okay for a brooding or roosting coop on the floor to allow poop to go through? In May it can still get down to 40 at night. On shipped poults, it is good to dip their beaks in water so they start eating right away. I hope they are healthy enough to put them into a unheated coop within 6 weeks. If I skirt the coop will they survive?

    • profile image

      Ken Bullard 5 years ago

      I was looking to see how you could tell the derference of a male & female.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      So very very interesting and will benefit many who read.

      Great hub!!


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