Raising Turkeys on the Homestead

The best time to begin raising turkeys on the homestead is late May or early June. Learn about what types of turkeys to raise, when a turkey is ready for butchering and how to roast one once the holidays arrive.

The Backyard Homestead edited by Carleen Madigan, Storey Publishing

With just a quarter acre of land, you can feed a family of four with fresh, organic food year-round. “The Backyard Homestead” gives you all the information you need to grow and preserve a variety of vegetables and fruits; raise poultry for eggs and meat; and raise cows, sheep and goats for meat and milk.

Cover Courtesy Storey Publishing

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Enjoy fresher, organic, better-tasting food all the time. With help from The Backyard Homestead (Storey Publishing, 2009), you can grow the vegetables and fruits your family loves; keep bees; raise chickens, goats or even a cow. Also learn how to cook, preserve and pickle the fruits of your labor. Late spring or the start of summer is the best time to start raising turkeys for Thanksgiving. Learn the process of raising turkeys from poult to dinner table in this excerpt from chapter 5, “Poultry for Eggs and Meat.” 

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The Backyard Homestead.

With a gobble-gobble here and a gobble-gobble there, the turkey has pecked its way across the United States for hundreds of years to become an American icon.

Traditionally, small farmers raised turkeys both for meat production and for pest control (gobblers are avid eaters of insects like the tobacco hookworm and the tomato hornworm). By 1970, the production of turkeys had dramatically changed from small-scale farm production to large-scale confinement production on an industrial-type farm.

Today, industrial farms produce almost all of the 280 million turkeys required in the United States and Canada to meet the demand for holiday birds and turkey products ranging from turkey bacon to soup. Over 99 percent of the breeding stock, which is essentially held by just three multinational companies, is tied to merely a few strains of Broad Breasted White turkeys that can no longer breed naturally.

This movement toward industrial turkey production has left many of the old heritage turkeys, such as the Standard Bronze, the Bourbon Red, and the Narragansett, in trouble. In 1997, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) considered turkeys to be among the most critically endangered domestic animals and the most vulnerable to extinction.

Since that time, many of the heritage varieties have begun to make a comeback, thanks largely to interest from Slow Food USA, which has encouraged small-scale growers to increase the numbers of these endangered birds. The irony is that by creating a market for rare breeds, these growers have been able to keep heritage turkeys from becoming extinct.

Turkey Varieties

Visit the Image Gallery for an illustration of each type of turkey breed. 

By choosing to raise your own turkey for the holidays, you can ensure that your family is eating a quality bird that was raised well and slaughtered humanely. By choosing to raise a heritage variety, you can play a part in continuing the market demand for endangered birds to be kept in production.

Following are four of the breeds that can be purchased from hatcheries and raised in the backyard.

Standard Bronze. The Standard (or heritage) Bronze was developed in the United States in the 1700s. As colonists began establishing settlements along the eastern seaboard, the turkeys they brought with them from England crossbred with the eastern wild turkey, yielding a cross that was larger and healthier than the birds from Europe.

The color of the cross was close to that of its wild forebears (an iridescent reddish brown with flecks of green that glint coppery in the sun), but the moniker Bronze wasn’t applied until the 1830s, when a strain developed in the Point Judith area of Rhode Island was dubbed the Point Judith Bronze.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, breeders began selecting for a larger breast and legs, ultimately ending up with the Broad Breasted Bronze. The Broad Breasted quickly dominated the marketplace, and by the 1940s the Standard Bronze was losing its position of prominence in the turkey world.

The Broad Breasted Bronze was the first variety to be bred up to a point where its large breast and small legs precluded it from mating naturally, thus requiring human intervention. All Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys are the result of artificial insemination.

The Broad Breasted Bronze had a short stint (20 years or so) as the main commercial turkey in North America, only to be replaced by the Broad Breasted White. However, the Bronze maintained some popularity with barnyard and backyard producers. Unfortunately, over the ensuing years the Standard Bronze, which was capable of mating naturally, almost disappeared. Today it is making a comeback. Like the Bourbon Red, it has been adopted by Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste program.

Bourbon Red. The Bourbon Red is an older American variety developed in Pennsylvania and Kentucky from crosses of Buff, Bronze, and White Holland turkeys in the late 1800s. It is a large bird with primarily rich chestnut-red plumage laced in black and highlighted by some white on the wings and tails.

The Bourbon Red has remained popular with small producers, thanks to excellent utility traits, such as good foraging capability, a relatively heavy breast, light-colored pin feathers for a clean carcass, and richly flavored meat. In fact, the Bourbon has the most breeding birds of any nonindustrial heritage breed, with over 1,500 documented in the 2003 American Livestock Breeds Conservancy census — about double the number from the 1997 census. Part of the Bourbon’s rebounding success can be attributed to Slow Food USA, which has placed the Bourbon (as well as the Buff, Standard Bronze, and Narragansett) varieties in its Ark of Taste program (visit Slow Food USA).

Narragansett. Like the Bronze, the Narragansett, named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, developed in the 1700s from crosses of domestic turkeys brought from Europe with eastern wild turkeys. (In fact, some speculate that it may have been an intermediate between wild turkeys and the Bronze.) Its coloring is similar in pattern to that of the Bronze, but where the Bronze has a coppery tinge on the exposed portion of its feathers, the Narragansett has a steely gray color.

The Narragansett breed was especially popular in New England during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it also commanded respect in the Mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest. But by the early 1950s its numbers had plummeted, in spite of the fact that it was known for good meat quality, broodiness, and a calm disposition.

In fact, when the ALBC completed its 1997 census, the organization had found only six breeding birds. By 2003 the Narragansett, with the help of its position in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste program, had rebounded to 368 breeding birds — the most impressive increase in breeding numbers for any birds checked in the six-year census.

Broad Breasted White. Also called the Large White, this variety has been developed over the past half century specifically for intensive, industrial production. Unfortunately, it is sometimes shown under the name White Holland, though the White Holland is a heritage bird that can still breed naturally.

Broad Breasted Whites were developed from White Holland and some white sports of the Broad Breasted Bronze. They have been selected for decades for efficiently producing the most meat at the least cost, and they are quite remarkable in that ability. The result, however, is a loss of the birds’ capacity to mate naturally, so artificial insemination is required to produce fertile eggs.

Broad Breasted Whites generally are not kept beyond one year of age because they have leg problems and are prone to suffering from heart problems such as plaque buildup. Most birds are butchered as soon as they reach marketable weight, between 14 and 18 weeks of age. The one exception is small groups of breeding toms that are milked for sperm used in artificial insemination.

Raising Turkeys on the Homestead

Turkeys are not difficult to raise, but they do require special care to get them off to a good start. Sometimes they are a little slow in learning to eat and drink. Turkeys should be isolated from chickens and other poultry to prevent many diseases. It is important that turkey poults (young turkeys) be kept warm and dry during the first few weeks after hatching; this time is called the brooding period. If you start with good stock and provide good feed, housing, and husbandry, you can raise turkeys successfully.

However, before launching into production, even on a small scale, be aware of the costs. Day-old turkey poults are quite expensive (as hatchlings go), and they consume a considerable amount of feed; thus, the cost of producing full-grown market turkeys is comparatively high.

Before starting a flock, check local laws and ordinances. Zoning regulations in some areas prohibit keeping poultry of any kind. If you live close to neighbors, keep in mind that noise, odor, and possibly fly problems are associated with raising turkeys.

Place your order for poults well in advance of the delivery date, so you can be sure to get the stock you want. The best time to start the small turkey flock is in late May or early June. Starting poults at that time enables you to grow them to the desired market weights just prior to the traditional holiday season, when the demand for turkey is strongest. It also avoids starting poults during the coldest season of the year, which can make brooding (growing young poults) much more difficult.

With good management, you should be able to raise to maturity 85 to 90 percent of the turkeys you start. With the high costs of poults and feed, mortality can become expensive, especially when the birds are lost during the latter part of the growing periods. The following management techniques can help:

• Keep young poults isolated from older turkeys, chickens, and other poultry. Ideally, no other birds should be on the same farm where turkeys are raised.

• Take care to avoid tracking disease organisms from other birds to the turkeys.

• Follow a good control program for mice and rats. These rodents carry disease and are capable of consuming large quantities of feed. Rats can kill young poults, too.

• Watch consumption on a daily basis. One of the first symptoms of a disease problem is a reduction in feed and water consumption.

When to Butcher a Turkey

Turkeys should be finished and ready for processing at 12 to 24 weeks of age for old heritage varieties (which take longer to grow to a marketable size) and 12 to 18 weeks for newer, heavier varieties. Hens are usually processed at younger ages than toms. Turkey broilers or fryer-roasters are usually animals of the same strain used to produce heavier carcasses but are processed at younger ages, such as 8 to 10 weeks old. The precise age for finishing and processing depends on the turkey variety and strain and the feeding program, among other factors.

To assess whether a bird is in prime condition and ready to be processed, see if it is free of pinfeathers. The bird is ready when the feathers are easy to remove. Pinfeathers are immature feathers that do not protrude or may have just pierced the skin.

You must also check the degree of fat covering.

When you’ve determined that a turkey is ready for slaughter, seek the advice of an experienced mentor who can demonstrate the butchering process for you. It’s important to end an animal’s life as quickly and humanely as possible, and slaughtering is a process that shouldn’t be tried without some previous instruction.

Evaluating Degree of Fat Covering 

1. Pull a few feathers from the thinly feathered area of the breast, at a point about halfway between the front end of the breastbone and the base of the wing.

2. Take a fold of skin between the thumb and forefinger of each hand.

3. Examine for thickness and coloration. On a prime turkey, the skin fold is white or yellowish white and quite thick. Well-fattened birds have thick, cream-colored skin, while underfattened birds have thin skin that is semitransparent and tends to be reddish.

How to Roast a Turkey

Start by rinsing the turkey and patting it dry. If you’re stuffing the turkey, stuff it loosely. Alternatively, salt the cavity and put in a few pieces of celery, carrot, onion, and parsley for flavor. Tie down the legs, or tuck them in the skin flap. The neck skin can be skewered to the back and the wing tips folded back under, in toward the body.

Place the turkey, breast up, on a rack in a shallow pan. Brush the carcass with butter or olive oil. Roast in an oven set at 325°F (163°C), basting every half hour or so. When a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 180°F (82°C), the bird is done. If the turkey has been stuffed, the stuffing needs to reach a temperature of 160°F (71°C). With large birds, it may be difficult to reach this temperature, so if the bird weighs 24 pounds or more, you should probably cook the stuffing separately.

Approximate Roasting Time for Stuffed* Turkey in Preheated 325°F Oven 

Ready-to-Cook Weight: Approximate Cooking Time

8–12 pounds: 3–3 1/2 hours

12–14 pounds: 3 1/2–4 hours

14–18 pounds: 4–4 1/4 hours

18–20 pounds: 4 1/4–4 3/4 hours

20–24 pounds: 4 3/4–5 1/4 hours

How to Carve a Turkey

Visit the Image Gallery for an illustration of each step on how to carve a turkey. 

Allow 15 to 30 minutes between roasting and carving. This gives the juices time to be absorbed.

1. Remove the drumstick and thigh. To remove drumstick and thigh, press the leg away from the body. The joint connecting the leg to the hip often snaps free or may be severed easily with the point of a knife. Cut dark meat completely from the body by following the body contour carefully with the knife.

2. Slice the dark meat. Place the drumstick and thigh on a cutting surface and cut through the connecting joint. Both pieces may be individually sliced. Tilt the drumstick to a convenient angle, slicing toward the table.

3. Slice the thigh. To slice the thigh meat, hold it firmly on a cutting surface with a fork. Cut even slices parallel to the bone.

4. Remove the breast meat. Slice off half of the breast at a time by cutting along the keel bone and rib cage with a sharp knife.

5. Slice the breast. Place the halved breast on a cutting surface and slice evenly against the grain of the meat. Repeat with the second half of the breast when additional slices are needed.

Wild Turkey

We think of the bird gracing the holiday dinner table as an American original, yet in an odd twist, the birds that the Pilgrims feasted on at Thanksgiving were actually brought from Europe. Spanish explorers returning from the New World in the late 1400s and early 1500s brought turkeys back with them. In fact, by 1511 Spain’s King Ferdinand ordered that every ship returning to Spain should bring back ten turkeys (five toms and five hens). These turkeys were domesticated and spread throughout the continent surprisingly quickly. Later, as colonists crossed the Atlantic in the other direction, the domestic turkey returned with them and recrossed with eastern wild turkeys.

Turkeys did not fare well in the years after Europeans came to the Americas, because they could be lured to piles of corn and other feed placed in fields, making them easy pickings for hunters. Their numbers declined until the 1930s and ’40s, when, scientists estimate, there were only about 30,000 left in the wild in the United States and none in Canada. Hunters and wildlife agencies banded together to restore turkey habitat and limit baited hunting sites, and now there are again millions of turkeys throughout most of their traditional range.

Raising Turkeys on the Homestead excerpted from The Backyard Homestead edited by Carleen Madigan, illustrations © Elayne Sears. Used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: The Backyard Homestead.