This time of year, most people only have two questions on their mind:
1) Why has the Christmas music started already?
2) Where am I going to get my Thanksgiving turkey?
Although I can’t explain away Burl Ives songs in early November, I’m more than happy to take orders for bonafide free-range turkeys. While holiday songs will soon saturate the airwaves, genuine free-range turkeys are typically rarer than hen’s teeth this time of year. So what can farmers do to provide more free-range birds, supplying a legion of customers hungry for an authentic product?
First things first. In order to sell the turkeys, we have to raise the turkeys. In that spirit, here’s a list of tips that I’ve accumulated over ten years of pastured turkey raising.
1) The first three weeks are the most critical
Turkey poults are incredibly fragile for the first three weeks… before becoming significantly more hardy. The purpose of the brooder is to imitate the warm, safe conditions beneath a mother hen. That said, mortality in the brooder can be extremely high, with producers routinely experiencing losses in excess of 25%. That kind of attrition can be very discouraging to a first time farmer.
This year we raised nearly 500 turkeys, and lost less than 20 in the brooder—a 4% death rate. We accomplished this by following 3 main rules:
1) Keep it stifling hot inside the brooder, between 95-100 degrees, with high humidity. We use an exhaust fan with both a temperature and humidity sensor on it. 2) Build your brooder draft-free. The occasional cold breeze at night seems to really affect baby chicks. 3) Check on them hourly throughout the day. Baby poults are especially prone to flip onto their backs, and suffocate themselves. Give ‘em a flip and send them on their way.
2) Get them started correctly
Don’t cut corners on feed. Turkeys need 26% protein for at least the first month, before leveling down to 21% (we then finish them on 17% for the final few weeks). Also, we use Fetrell’s Poultry Nutribalancer in all of our feed, and have virtually no leg issues. As the old saying goes, “Feed animals to MAKE money, not SAVE money.” Feed them correctly, and you will save on time and deferred expenses in the long run.
Btw, we’ve never used medicated feed (antibiotics) in any of our turkey feed, not even as poults. Part of our daily chores is raking, aerating and adding clean bedding (pine shavings) to the brooder.
3) Give ‘em grit!
It’s crucial to give turkeys constant access to granite grit from day one. Also, the size of the pebble must be increased as they grow. Once they get onto pasture (for us, we turn them loose around week 7, or after the dander has disappeared from their heads) they will go straight to gobbling up grass. They need proper amounts of grit in their gizzards to help grind that fibrous pasture into soluble nutrition, truly supplementing their diet.
4) Turkeys love to roost
Don’t try to argue with the turkeys on this one. I’ve built all manner of turkey hutches, and instead of the birds sleeping inside of them at the end of the day, they invariably prefer to roost on TOP of them. This year, we build a mobile roost on the back of an old hay wagon running gear, topped it with a modest roof, hooked up some automatic bell waterers, and we were ready to roll.
The turkeys roost up high at night, away from any predators that might breach our electric nets. At a retail price of about $75 per turkey, nothing is quite as discouraging as seeing a big pile of feathers in the morning where a turkey once was. So allow them to roost, and let them help protect themselves.
5) Give them plenty of room
With any luck, little turkeys grow into big turkeys. Keeping that in mind, it’s still easy to underestimate the amount of space you’ll need to allocate once the birds arrive on the pasture. A basic rule of thumb is 10 acres for every 200 turkeys. This gives enough grass to make a daily rotation of about a quarter acre, while ensuring the field is given ample time to recover. After all, these are pastured turkeys, right? Make sure to set aside plenty of late summer/early fall forage for your flock of hungry birds.
6) Customers like two sizes: 10-12ish, and gargantuan
Last but not least, after over a decade of raising turkeys, customer preference in my neck of the woods boils down to two categories. 95% of all requests fall into the 10-12 category (we also offer 13-14 pounders, because it’s nearly impossible to raise them so precisely). The other 5% of folks, however, want a Godzilla turkey.
As the farmer who actually raises and processes these turkeys, I know how much time and money I’ve invested in each bird. Because of this, I’d rather have them dressed and frozen at week 14, instead of extending my risk, chores and feed for another month and a half. Additionally, wrestling a 14 pound (live weight) turkey is hard enough. But try coercing a 26 pound tom upside down into a kill cone! Literally and figuratively, it’s for the birds.
Here’s a bit of salesmanship: instead of one 24 pounder, suggest two 12 pounders. Many customers don’t realize that most modern ovens can’t even accommodate the massive girth of a twenty-something pound turkey. You might just be saving your customer from major disappointment by the time they realize their mistake.
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So to all you free-range turkey farmers out there (or aspiring turkey farmers), Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s to a season of healthy turkeys, perfect pastures, and happy customers. Save a slab of dark meat for me, and please pass the cranberry sauce.
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Wow! I wished we were able to get food here in Australia as cheaply as you guys get it over there. I’d pay $84 for a 12lb pastured turkey without a problem as over the same pastured turkey will costs me $144 which makes a turkey dinner very expensive!!
Great article on raising turkeys though. Do you use the same alley based rotation system for turkeys as you do for chickens or do you have larger paddocks that you rotate them through? How long do you leave a paddock before allowing the turkeys back onto it?
Thanks for the positive feedback. We use alleys while the turkeys are small to protect them from arial predators, then once they get to about 8 lbs live weight go to a paddock system. At that weight, the hawks seem to leave them alone, and it certainly makes the chores easier.
If at possible, we never go over the same used paddock, though 30 days should probably be plenty of time if need be.
What does it mean to have “virtually no leg issues”?
Leg issues are usually evinced by permanent stiffness, making the limb act quite wooden. Its more or less crippling. I’ve been told this is a riboflavin deficiency. The good news is it’s easily avoided with proper nutrition!
I wanted to thank you first of all for your awesomely written book, Gaining Ground. I enjoyed it so much and learned even more. I put in several late nights reading!
Thank you for this great article on pastured turkeys. As a small farmer in Ontario, Canada, I am limited to only being allowed to raise 50 turkeys per year. I think because of that, we don’t get a lot of other small farmers writing articles or anything about raising pastured turkeys. Your turkey tips will be a big help to me for when I raise my next batch in the spring!
Six Pines Farm
Thanks Lisa! Glad to be of help, and certainly wish you could raise more than 50 turkeys… Although some days, that honestly feels like plenty!
Forrest, are we still able to order a turkey from you? I’m late, I know! We are close, in Winchester, and have enjoyed your products. Met your mom one evening when we came out to buy some meat and pasta.
I heard a radio program this morning which said heritage turkeys are black, blue, and anything other than white. Which breed do you raise?
Almost finished with your book! Thank you for addressing so many of my exact concerns! I have 3 acres, with one and a half forestted. Can I keep chickens and goats here?
Absolutely! A dozen chickens and 1 or 2 goats on three acres seems like a good start. And thanks for reading the book! 🙂
Do you raise heritage breeds? If so, at what age do you butcher and what’s their average dressed weight? Thanks!
I own a 20 acre farm in India and would like to raise turkeys. Can anyone help me find a buyer?
Our first year raising Midget Whites, and I question regarding snow, cold and shelter; Do they need a roof over at night, and do they need a windbreak at night? Difficult because they fly well, and I have a feeling they would simply roost on the roof instead of under. Also, creating a windbreak six to ten feet up is a bit daunting. We get our first snowstorm on Tuesday, and so far they have done fine in a stable 28 to 32 degrees that have held for two weeks straight – What do you think?
Roosts and shelters will always pay themselves back with predator protection and fewer calories burned, from my experience. If properly constructed, it’s a nice long term investment, too.
I agree, and when I kept chickens those parameters were easy to research, but with heritage turkeys, the two books I have show open air roosts, of very tall construction. Turkeys are naturally suspicious of any sided protections, and can fly very high. At least the type I keep (Midget Whites), can clear a house in flight, and have an instinct to always roost on the highest area, so they find the 15 foot ridge line on top of the chicken house, and the eight foot top of fences without a top (welded wire just bends over slightly as they sit on it), so I built them a twenty foot long roost, made of two by fours, and they use it, but it doesn’t protect them from snow, or wind. I’m curious as to your construction? I realize an old three sided barn would work because of the size, but that isn’t economically viable for a couple of dozen turkeys. I have seen drawing of roost with tarps surrounding but that’s a never ending job of tarp replacement in my area, plus with heavy winds – loose tarps would start a turkey stampede.