When I was a kid we raised every kind of farm animal you could imagine. My dad was always partial to the turkeys and he had lots of them. I hated them because the tom turkeys didn’t like my little prairie dresses blowing in the breeze and would attack me as if I were a threatening tom. Those meanies didn’t keep me from making friends with the hens tho and every year I’d pick a favorite to dote on.
Turkey Breeds for the Backyard Farm
We raised mostly domesticated standard Bronze turkeys, but my dad also bought some that were a mix between those and wild turkeys. They didn’t get quite as big as the domesticated kind so they didn’t dress out as heavy in the end, but they were faster and they could fly so they weren’t as easy targets for the bobcats in our area. They were also hardier and healthier birds.
As I just mentioned, they could fly. This seems like a good thing when it comes to getting away from predators. But, it can also be a huge pain in the butt when they decide they want to roost in trees instead of the coop, or that they get an extra fabulous birds-eye-view from the peek of the metal roof on your mobile home or the top of your family car. Talk about getting a startle when a 30lb bird lands on your roof with a THUD and he and his pals walk the length of the house.
And, if you think chickens and ducks are messy, you haven’t seen turkeys. Poop. Everywhere.
Within a few years we’d given up on half-wild turkeys and decided to keep our heavier domesticated turkeys in a run, keeping them safe and containing the mess. When they were young and still light enough to fly, we’d clip the turkey’s wings. This has to be done every 3-6 weeks until the birds are too heavy to fly.
If I had it to do again, I’d raise a heritage turkey breed like the Narragansett or Red Bourbon.
So, here are some common turkey breeds you can choose from!
Standard Bronze: These are the turkeys you see in pictures around Thanksgiving. They are probably the most popular breed and will dress out anywhere from 12-28lb. Talk about a nice dinner!
Midget White: The white turkeys are bred specifically for their smaller size. If you buy a turkey in the grocery store, it’s likely you’re getting one of these fast-growing birds. People like them because their skin is light and looks pretty when it’s roasted and they’re a perfect size for a small family dinner.
Bourbon Red: A medium sized red, black and white turkey, this is a heritage breed and it’s beautiful and colorful!
Eastern Wild: These small turkeys are hardier than their domestic counterparts, but are not legal in all states. Check your local DNR before ordering this breed.
You can order all of these breeds from Hoover Hatchery. They’ll come in the mail in a cardboard box with holes in it and the post master will call you to come pick them up at the post office. Picking up chicks was always one of my favorite post office runs… second only to picking up bees. :)
Getting Started with Turkey Chicks
You can order turkey chicks from mail order hatcheries, or you can pick them up at your local farm store. Baby turkeys are a lot more fragile than baby chickens, so you will notice they are much pricier and you’ll want to start with a couple extras.
Feeding Baby Turkeys
Unlike chickens, turkey chicks can not be fed regular chick scratch. You absolutely must by un-medicated chick food that is marked safe for turkeys. If the weather is still cool when you get your chicks you will need a heat lap to keep them warm. You’ll also need to provide fresh water. Turkeys aren’t the smartest birds and ours could never figure out where the water was and would get all dehydrated and some even died right next to fresh clean water. We figured out that if we put a few shiny quarters in the water they’d get curious and peck and the shiny coins and learn where the water was. Don’t worry, a baby turkey can’t choke on a quarter.
As the turkeys grow you can feed them whole grains such as corn, oats and wheat, and you can also give them poultry pellets so long as they are un-medicated.
Keeping Turkeys Safe
Turkeys aren’t real smart and when they’re too heavy to fly they make easy targets for predators. Granted a hawk or fox may not run off with a full-grown turkey, but you’ll still need to worry about stray dogs, coyotes, and bobcats. Turkeys need a lot of space, so keeping them in a run can be pricey. As ours got big we often moved them into the pens with the goats and sheep. They were great at helping to control worms, flies and other pests and they were safe there with our working dogs on the lookout.
Pick up a copy of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys to learn even more about raising your own turkeys! You’ll be surprised at how much better a farm raised turkey tastes and how much you enjoy watching these beautiful birds strut around your barnyard.
When Are Turkeys Ready for Harvest?
Around 20 weeks is when a turkey is full grown, but still young enough to be soft and tender. You can of course let them live longer and get a little bigger, but we always opted to raise them in the spring and harvest in the early fall just as the weather was getting cool.
More Resources for Raising Turkeys
An Introduction to Raising Turkeys – Untrained Housewife
Getting Started Raising Turkeys – Untrained Housewife
Raising Turkeys with Chickens in the Backyard – Untrained Housewife
Turkeys and Ducks, living together, happily ever after – Timber Creek Farm
Turkeys and Ducks. The rest of the story. – Timber Creek Farm
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