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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.

Feeding

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.

Health

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

Type
Year Developed
Details
Beltsville Small White
1930s
Good for small families
Bourbon Red
1800s
Hardy, flavorful
Chocolate
Prior to 1860
Southern homesteads
Jersey Buff
1874
Small homesteads
Lilac
old breed - unknown
Good breeders
Midget White
1960s
8 -13 lbs
Narragansett
1600s
Very hardy - good for northern homesteads
Royal Palm
1920s
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

Finishing

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.

Success!
Success!

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.

    • profile image

      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!!

      Eddy.

    • profile image

      Joanne 5 years ago

      I love turkeys. I have been raising a few Bourbons and Narragansetts. I find that if I get poults from hatcheries there is a very high rate of mortality. The best way is to let a turkey hen and a bantam hen brood a batch of eggs together. The babies are always healthy and sturdy. I have a yard of mixed fowl: turkeys, chickens and guineas. They all coexist. Even though brooded & mothered by chickens, eventually the turkeys hang out with turkeys, the guineas hang out with guineas and the chickens hang out with chickens. The guineas are the most aggressive but they all more or less get along. The hardest part about turkeys is if you raise them they love you like family and it is hard to kill them - better to let other birds raise them so they don't make you feel guilty. Their eggs are excellent. I have also noticed that if the hens go broody they stop laying for awhile and then start again. As a result I am still getting eggs from one hen in November. I have had a few very sad turkey episodes. My beautiful Narragansett tom "Mingus" got sick and died; he was magnificent and a friend. But his son "Smingus" ( son of mingus) is thriving. I was able to cure a case of bumblefoot on him which was a triumph . I have also lost 2 excellent hens to predators - probably bobcats or hawks.

    • profile image

      Joe 6 years ago

      What's the best food to feed your hens,turkeys an ducks.?

    • Skeffling profile image

      Skeffling 6 years ago from Wiarton, Ontario, Canada

      Great Article Marye! Great tip on looking at the skin for the fat undeneath. We had our first Home Raised Bourbon Red turkey a few weeks ago and it was absolutely delicious, lots of fat. People have no idea what they are missing out on.

      Turkeys really aren't that complicated to raise, and are quite endearing as they follow you around! We tried them after having chickens only and they weren't much different. Waterfowl look much messier and more complicated!

    • profile image

      Tarah_ 6 years ago

      Your heritage turkeys look amazing. I love the idea of chickens and turkeys being pasture raised. It’s a much better life for them and beats the confinement method. It’s much healthier for us as well.

    • Cedar Cove Farm profile image

      Cedar Cove Farm 6 years ago from Southern Missouri

      Awesome, keep it up.

    • profile image

      lildogy.123 6 years ago

      Hi Marye I live in Queensland Australia and have purchased a pair of turkeys breed unknown 1 white and 1 white and caramel they are 9 months old I am very new to this and have put them in a pen with a bantam rooster. They all seem fairly happy unless the bantam gets too close to the female, there are predators all around here like foxes and snakes and all the like. Could you tell me what noises to listen for if something is trying to attack them. Thanks for any info you can give me.

    • profile image

      Jay Duve 6 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this great info on raising turkeys. People often find them intimidating and scary (due in part to their size) but I think they make for unusual backyard pets. Plus, you know they're often healthier than the turkeys sold at Thanksgiving in the stores.

    • Marye Audet profile image
      Author

      Marye Audet 6 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      All animals need shelter, fresh water, and food for optimum health. The will need shelter from the cold.

    • profile image

      monkey butt 6 years ago

      During a winter in SE NY state needs what kind of housing? Can they "hang around" or do they need penned up and out of the cold?

      Thanks,

      monkey butt

    • profile image

      summer 7 years ago

      Thanks so much for the info!!

    • Marye Audet profile image
      Author

      Marye Audet 7 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      Deanna, for the most part no they are not. I publish the questions so other readers can interact and answer them if they like.

    • profile image

      Deanna 7 years ago

      I am curious. I see several good question's posted from bloggers requiring and or expecting some sort of respond. And yet I dont see an answer? Are the questions being answered?

    • profile image

      Stacy may 7 years ago

      How much does it $ on average to raise the turkeys? My husband wants to start. We already have pigs and free rang chickens, but he wants to add turkey's too. We have enough land to make them free range. hollister.meppen@gmail.com

    • Chapter profile image

      Chapter 7 years ago from Indonesia

      I think it can be

    • profile image

      chip 7 years ago

      can turkey's be raised near guinea foul?

    • profile image

      Karina 7 years ago

      We have a tom and a jenny ,the chickens they hatched with are laying but not the turkeys.So when do turkeys start laying?

    • profile image

      Verlon Cox 7 years ago

      Marye, I love the information that you put out to people. I raise bourbon red, bronze and blue slate. I love the fact that I raise my own animals and I KNOW what goes into their feed. I agree with you and never give them medicated feed, I do however medicate when they are ill and cull when they are terminal (I lost one bird out of around 100 last year). People who have never eaten truly free ranged and all organic chicken and turkey have no idea what they are missing. Continue the good work in your area and I will do the same in mine.

    • profile image

      carley  7 years ago

      i love turkeys and that royal palm is beutiful

    • profile image

      Denise 8 years ago

      can you tell me when turkey's start laying eggs? We have chickens and turkey's. The chickens started at about 6 mon. no turkey eggs yet and they are the same age. Six 1/2 months. Also, how many females should you have to service the males. We have ended up with 2 Tom's and 3 female. Thanks

    • profile image

      Phil McCune 8 years ago

      We have 40 heritage turkeys,age about 22-24 weeks old.We are trying to decide whether to market them live or processed. We are not sure of our best avenue, wondering if you could give us some advice and ideas. These turkeys are free range,pastured.

      Thanks

    • profile image

      Betty 8 years ago

      We have some baby poults (bronze breasted) We have 3 big turkeys. 1 hen and 2 Jake's. This is our first batch and we had heard that you can clip beeks and toenais to keep them from harming others. I have a few scrapes myself. My husband is loved like he was their Parent. So he is the one they protect and everyone else is in some level of danger. WE do not want to harm them. They are now about 4 days old.

      Thanks

      Betty

    • profile image

      malea patterson 8 years ago

      Hi...i have a small chicken farm recently we acquired two burbon red turkeys they are approximately 3 to 4 months old...one of my birds are all fluffed out and acting very strange...does not want to eat or drink anything it kinda looks like something is stuck in his throat....we have felt his neck and have stretched his throat to relieve the pressure....i dont know what to do can you please give me some advice

    • profile image

      Carrie 8 years ago

      I am working with Vocational Rehabilitation after an accicent which left me paralyzed. I have recovered to walking with limitations and pain. Voc Rehab can help me start a small business and I would like to raise turkeys. I have 80 acres in Wyoming. I have horses and other animals but lots of unutilized acres of grass and sweet clover and ample barns. Please give me information so I can begin a business plan. Thank You

    • profile image

      Rick Wilson 8 years ago

      I raise a variety of chickens and a couple of ducks, but recently picked up a spanish black tom that we all love as a pet. It seems he has broken a toe from a chain link fence top. This is aparently driving him nuts, he pecks his foot and limps. any thing i can do to help the poor thing?

    • profile image

      amber  8 years ago

      How do you keep your turkies from killing themselves? We have some young hogs fenced up well and the turkies gravitate towards them, but even if the hogs weren't there, the turkies drown themselves in the sheep waterers even though they have a multitude of safe water sources and some of them are within 5 feet of the sheep waterers. I am really frustrated. My chickens do not do this. Next year we are going to keep them penned up in their own area. I am going to have to look into a chicken tractor pen for turkies and it is a shame. My chicken defininately do not need one, healthies little birds around. Stupid turkies.

    • profile image

      jason 8 years ago

      Good day!

      Great post! it was informative.

      Im a part time turkey raiser and been doing it just for the last 2years only. i feed them commercial feeds, what can you comment or suggest regarding feeds? also you mentioned to give starter mash, is it better than giving chick booster feeds?

      i would really appreciate anyu suggestion you may give.

      thanks!

    • profile image

      Linda 8 years ago

      Marye,

      Great article! I raised to turkeys last year for the holidays. What a hit that was! This year, I'm upping my numbers, but would like to try a heritage breed. Any suggestions on the Bourbon Reds?

      Thanks!

      Linda

    • profile image

      Kfly62 9 years ago

      I have five turkeys, three of which I raised from babies in a cat carrier with a bedside lamp to warm them. They are the most entertaining creatures we have, and I highly recommend them.

      We have two males and three females - I hope to have eggs to eat or hatch in the spring. I'm looking for nest box plans. Anybody know of any? Write me at KStrazis@msn.com if you have any advice about this. What will they need this winter? I am in NC (lowest usually around 20 degrees). Thanks.

    • profile image

      t bird 9 years ago

      I have been raising turkeys for about six months and now one to two turkeys out of ten shake really bad and walk around with their tails up like they are trying to poop for about three weeks is there a proublem?

    • profile image

      megang 9 years ago

      I have reacently aquired 5 baby turkeys, they can fly and are old enough to go out, but i am afraid if i let them out they will fly away. anybody have any suggestons on how long i should keep them in or how I should let them out?

    • rickybamboo profile image

      rickybamboo 9 years ago

      i have 4 turkeys i got as day olds and now they are 3 weeks old...i've only given them grower mash since the beginning and haven't fed them any starter mash. will this be a problem? will they need longer to grow or are they missing something in the grower? they are all happy and healthy and growing nicely. i keep them on grass in the day and under lights at night. also- does anyone know when would be a good idea to introduce them to my hens? ultimately they will be sharing the same pen and range, but seperate coops.

      thanks for any info.

      ricky

    • profile image

      hopie717 9 years ago

      I have a new hobby farm and am trying to hatch turkeys we have 3 black spanish. My problem is when my chicks start getting their pin feathers they stick straight out and they only live 7-10 days. If you have any ideas what would be causing this I would appreciate the advice. I have tried everything that I can think of.. Thank You Hope

    • profile image

      macola5739 9 years ago

      We have been raising chickens for a year. We just added Dexter cows and White Palm Turkeys. I appreciate your article. I was having a hard time with my turkeys. I think I know the problem. They are two weeks old and don't have any grit. I may try it really fine and mashed. We went from 15 down to 10. They are completely seperate from chickens and temp has been right. I think It may be the grit thing. Other wise they seem fine. Thanks for the info. I have guineas comming soon too. Any advice?

    • Marye Audet profile image
      Author

      Marye Audet 9 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      spraddle legs can be handled by removing the chicks asap from the incubator and placing them in an area that has a non slippery surface. We keep our new chicks in a dog crate type thing under a red heatlamp. We keep newspaper on the floor of the crate. This helps them walk easier. You can read more information here:

      http://www.poultryhelp.com/spraddle.html

    • palpup profile image

      palpup 9 years ago from Tampa, Fla

      I've incubated several bantam chicks and decided to try my hand with turkeys. My eggs did hatch, but I don't recommend this process for beginners as it seems to very difficult to actually raise the just hatched chicks. Mine both developed "spraddle legs" even though I was careful to bed them properly and needless to say, I lost both of them. I admire what you've been able to accomplish and wish I'd been able to do the same.

    • flread45 profile image

      Frank 9 years ago from Montana

      Looks like he is ready for the oven..

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 9 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      what beautiful birds...I want one for a pet. In my younger days we tried to raise turkey's in California in a big backyard. they did well but then later they got broken legs, and seemed very dumb, running into eachother. We had four. We actually never ate one though. just couldn't kill them for food. I admire your doing so so nicely. Are they good for a pet tho? G-Ma :o) hugs

    • kerryg profile image

      kerryg 9 years ago from USA

      Great lens! My father buys organic, pastured turkey almost every Thanksgiving now, and the meat is incredible.

    • Marye Audet profile image
      Author

      Marye Audet 9 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      generally speaking they should continue to be raised the way they are used to as long as they are thriving. Idon't medicate my animals...and don't recommend it. Good luck!

    • profile image

      newturkeyer 9 years ago

      I am getting two young turkeys today...variety unknown, raised on grass, orchard, outside, etc. by a local farmer. Can I let them continue to eat what they would like, and to go out during the day, do they need any "drugs" in their water, and I will take any advice. Except that I do not have funds to purchase any books. Thank You, newturkeyer

    • Marye Audet profile image
      Author

      Marye Audet 9 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      mark..try Ideal.. I have had excellent luck with their poultry.

      https://secuservices.com/ideal/newideal/Products.a...

    • profile image

      mark brunson 9 years ago

      i live in a farmhouse that was the birthplace of my mom. i raise rhode island chickens and i am very interested in purchasing heritage turkey poults to raise. id like to purchase at least 20 could you help me . thanks,

      mark brunson

    • Marye Audet profile image
      Author

      Marye Audet 10 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      Sorry, Ray. We are only a homesteading family! However you can find poults through your country extension agent or online at places like ideal.com and murray macmurray

    • profile image

      Ray Stevenson 10 years ago

      I read your article on turkeys and would love to purchase some poults from your company please emial me information on buying maybe eggs or the poults . Thanks very much or call me with inofrmation at 318 8407013

    • cgull8m profile image

      cgull8m 10 years ago from North Carolina

      Great Hube Marye, I plan to have a poultry farm, initially it will be a closed version, but later I prefer to have them in free range. Turkeys also seem a great idea, I will book mark this for future reference. Thanks for the great hub.

    • cgull8m profile image

      cgull8m 10 years ago from North Carolina

      Great Hube Marye, I plan to have a poultry farm, initially it will be a closed version, but later I prefer to have them in free range. Turkeys also seem a great idea, I will book mark this for future reference. Thanks for the great hub.