For your next poultry-keeping project, try raising heritage turkeys. Slower to grow but more self-sufficient, heritage turkey breeds add entertainment to the homestead.
“Why would you want to raise turkeys? They’re so stupid!” Sigh. We got pretty tired of hearing that one whenever we mentioned that we were going to start raising turkeys. Oh, and how I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked, “Is it true that turkeys are so stupid that they’ll look up during a rainstorm and drown?”
Of course, being the kind of person who has to see everything for herself (and not believing everything I read on the internet), this made me even more interested in turkeys. About a year after getting our first chickens, we bought some day-old turkeys: 10 Midget Whites and 15 Narragansetts.
According to what we read, the Narragansetts would get quite a bit larger than the Midget Whites. We figured most of our turkeys would be slaughtered for family and friends around the holiday season, and we wanted to be able to offer them a choice of sizes. Interestingly, we learned later that year, from our chef friend Gabriel, that small turkeys are the best. “If you want twenty pounds of turkey,” he advised, “get two 10-pounders.”
Since buying those first turkeys in the spring of 2008, we’ve come a long way. We knew very little then about raising turkeys, in part because we found few sources of useful information. In fact, although more resources are available now than just a few years ago, my main reference continues to be a book first published in 1929 called Turkey Production.
While studying Turkey Production, at first I was confused by the absence of terms like “heritage” and “organic.” Eventually, I realized it was because the faster-growing hybrid turkeys common today had not yet been developed for commercial production. Turkey operations were organic, and all the turkeys were purebred — what we now commonly refer to as “heritage breeds.” It was very interesting to read all this when I had almost no practical knowledge or experience with turkeys; we were, after all, only in our first year of raising chickens.
In the 1940s, the development of the Broad Breasted turkey was proceeding rapidly. Somewhere along the line, breeders decided to select not only for faster maturity, but also for ever-increasing amounts of breast meat. I’ve seen a few adult Broad Breasted turkeys, and it was a pathetic sight. I remember one tom that could barely walk; he was so front-heavy with breast meat that he literally tipped forward when he walked. Another astounding fact we learned was that Broad Breasted turkeys, by virtue of their great size (Giant White tom turkeys can reach 45 pounds or more) and huge breasts, cannot mate naturally — they must be artificially inseminated.
All in all, we concluded that, although Broad Breasted turkeys are cheaper to buy as day-olds, heritage turkeys, which cost about twice the price, were the right choice for us.
One feature we like about heritage turkeys is their ability — and inclination — to forage. Like our other birds, turkeys tend to head straight for the feeders when we let them out in the morning. After a quick breakfast of organic grain mash, they disperse for a leisurely day of foraging on pasture. I’ve noticed that turkeys, compared with our chickens and ducks, are especially fond of clover. They also love apples. We love them for cleaning up the windfall apples, which in turn helps keep the deer out of the yard.
We believe that purebred animals, capable of reproducing true to type, are simply more sustainable than hybrids. Purebreds usually mature more slowly, increasing the cost of raising them. However, if we were buying new turkeys every year instead of breeding them, I bet the numbers would even out before long.
In any case, since we aren’t trying to make a living raising and selling cheap turkeys, our main consideration does not involve fast growth or enormous quantities of breast meat. The relatively few turkeys we do sell each year, however, are super-premium and organically raised. Our customers love to come to the farm, where they see our birds free-ranging; it is obvious to visitors that we really do care about the birds’ quality of life, not just about how much money we might make selling them.
I mentioned that we raised two kinds of turkeys that first year. It really didn’t occur to us at first that having two breeds would be an issue. I suppose we didn’t really know then if we were going to continue raising turkeys beyond that one year; most often, when we tried something new, it was with the understanding that we would see what happened. I still think this is a good approach, for small operations like ours: start small, add new things a little at a time over a period of time, and you’ll figure out what works for you in your particular situation.
With turkeys, we didn’t know what kind of predator issues we might encounter. Even small turkeys like Midget Whites are good-sized birds. We speculated that a bald eagle might be able to take down a Midget White hen; this was partly based on our assumption that, as our birds were enclosed at night, the only daytime predators we had to worry about were hawks and eagles. Actually, the few turkeys we’ve lost to predators have mostly been killed by cougars. We found one young tom dead in an enclosed roost area and suspect it was killed by a raccoon. The only young turkeys we lost were a few 4-week-olds killed by a weasel that got into their coop at night.
Aside from predator issues, we discovered other differences between chickens and turkeys as we went along. Again, the lack of available resources forced us to learn from experience. We’ve talked to a number of people who have picked up a couple of baby turkeys at the local feed store and simply raised them with their chickens. This is not necessarily wrong, but it is important to keep in mind some basic differences between turkeys and chickens.
First, turkeys need much more protein in their diet than chickens do in order to grow well. We’re fortunate that our feed supplier offers three different turkey mash formulas: 28 percent and 24 percent protein starter rations and a 21 percent grower mash. I say we’re fortunate because, depending on your location, turkey feed can be challenging to find. An acceptable substitute is a game bird feed; it can vary in protein content but usually has enough protein (25 percent or more) to support good growth in turkeys. However, an actual turkey ration is preferable as it is specifically formulated for their nutritional needs. Turkeys are, after all, much larger than most game birds.
Being large, turkeys will eventually need more coop space per bird than chickens. They also need larger, stronger roosts. The first turkey house I built was 6-foot-by-6-foot inside, with a walk-in door at the side and another door at the front. The roosts we use for Midget White turkeys are cedar 2-by-4s mounted with the wide (3 1/2 inches) side facing up. Believe me, even small turkeys have large feet! Our oldest tom, who is 9 years old, weighs over 20 pounds; other heritage breeds can grow to over 30 pounds. In our turkey house, we’ve found that a 6-foot 2-by-4 can easily support three or four adult Midget White turkeys. If the roosts are any longer, they will probably need to be supported in the middle, especially if you raise one of the larger heritage turkey breeds.
Incidentally, some claim that Broad Breasted turkeys do not need roosts. Presumably this is because by the time they’re big enough to want to roost, they’re too heavy to get up on one. Turkeys do love to roost, though. I suggest you provide low roosts for Broad Breasted turkeys, so they can roost if they want to but avoid injuring themselves on higher roosts. Even if they are too heavy to fly up onto a roost, their instinct is to roost, so they may attempt this. It’s better to be prepared than to risk your birds injuring themselves by trying to roost on something that isn’t strong enough to support their weight.
Although turkeys, especially the smaller heritage types, are very good fliers, their roosts should not be placed too high up. Our turkey coop has three roosts. The first is barely 15 inches from the floor, the third and highest about 24 inches. As turkeys get bigger, they can be susceptible to leg injuries if they come down too quickly from a height, so make sure the roosts go gradually from lower to higher. This enables them to hop easily and safely from roost to roost.
Turkeys are very curious and sociable birds. They seem to want to be around people and are inquisitive about what we’re up to. If we’re in the house, they will walk around the house, looking in every window until they discover where we are. They love to hop up on lawn chairs or whatever is handy and then sit staring at us through a window. If it wasn’t so darn funny, it might be a just a little bit creepy.
As I mentioned, turkeys do love to fly up and roost on things. Like on the roof of our woodshed, or on our cars. When we have overnight guests, we often spread an old moving blanket over the hood of their car to prevent the turkeys from scratching the paint. We’ve often been asked why we don’t simply clip their wings so they can’t fly. We debated this and decided that they were safer being able to fly.
Midget Whites are very good fliers, and we feel that it’s preferable for them to have the option of flying into a tree when they are trying to avoid a predator. My sister, who raised a few heritage turkeys last year, told me that clipping their wings didn’t prevent them from flying high enough to get over a fence or roost on the roof of a shed. If you are going to clip wings on any poultry, you also have to remember to do it every year, since they regrow new feathers after their annual molt in the fall.
Toward the end of our first year of raising turkeys, we decided we really wanted to keep going with it. We figured out, rather late, that if we were going to breed turkeys, it would be much easier with only one breed. Since all our birds free-range during the day and share pasture space, obviously we would end up with some mixed-breed turkeys if we didn’t separate them during the breeding season.
We opted to stick with the Midget Whites for several reasons. Being smaller birds, coop and brooding space was easier to deal with. Naturally, they eat less than larger turkeys, and they are excellent foragers. Also, we found that the Narragansett toms in particular tended to often fight among themselves, something the Midget Whites rarely do. Finally, to our surprise, many of our customers, although they were initially skeptical about the small size of our turkeys, found that they actually had plenty of meat to go around. Plus, whether roasted or smoked, they are truly, truly delicious.
Turkeys, as we’ve come to know and appreciate, are not just like large chickens. They have their own personalities, and I think they’re a good deal friendlier than most chickens I’ve met. Although we have sometimes felt ambivalent about continuing to raise turkeys, overall, it’s been a genuinely enjoyable experience.
Major differences between turkeys and chickens
• Turkeys don’t lay eggs year-round. The laying season of heritage turkeys is generally between March and June or July. There are exceptions to every rule, though; one year, a Midget White hen hatched a clutch of eggs here on New Year’s Day!
• Turkeys incubate their eggs for 28 days, compared to 21 days for chickens.
• Turkeys are more sociable than chickens and prefer to hang out in groups.
• Heritage turkeys can reach a good slaughter size in 6 months. However, we prefer to raise them to 7 or even 8 months, as we think the quality of the meat is better.
• Given a choice, turkeys will roost outdoors at night, usually up in a tree. Our chickens all go into their coops on their own every night. The turkeys hang around outside, waiting for us to escort them to their coop. This is not because they’re too stupid to know where to go, it is simply their routine.
Victoria Redhed Miller is a writer, photographer, and off-grid homesteader who raises heritage poultry in the foothills of Washington state’s Olympic Mountains. This article has been excerpted from her book, Pure Poultry.