Small-scale turkey farming is an excellent income source for homesteaders. They have interesting personalities and are suitable for homesteads with children. Because they can companion graze with chickens, there is no need to build extra runs, and you do not need much extra space. The extra work that comes with turkeys happens during the downtime in the season and they are incredibly easy to market.
Another benefit of raising heritage turkeys on the homestead is you can choose the length of the project. You can choose to purchase turkey poults every year, making this a short-term annual project or you can keep a tom and a few hens and let them hatch out poults for you. If you want layers, you MUST keep a heritage breed.
Heritage turkey breeds are the only choice for you if you want to keep a flock of turkeys and hatch their eggs out each year. Heritage breeds are able to mate naturally whereas the turkeys you buy at the supermarket, Broad-breasted White Turkeys, have so much breast meat they are unable to mate naturally.
If you want to breed heritage turkeys, keep one tom for every ten hens. Turkey mating occurs in spring. It takes 28-31 days for the fertilized eggs to hatch and 6-7 months for the poults to reach maturity. Turkey poults cost $10 a bird so if you have the time and space for a few extra birds on your homestead, it makes economic sense to hatch out your own.
Blue slate turkeys, bourbon red turkeys, Narragansett turkeys, and black Spanish turkeys are excellent heritage breeds. Young toms reach 23 pounds and the young hens reach 14 pounds. The Royal Palm Turkey is a smaller heritage breed, with young toms reaching a weight of 16 pounds and the young hens reaching 10 pounds.
Spend some time in the winter, before your growing season gets busy, researching the breed of turkey that is best for you and your farm. Put some feelers out in your area, and contact your best customers, in order to have an idea of the number of turkeys you will be able to sell. Continue creating a customer list by advertising at farmers markets, Facebook and other social media platforms, and word of mouth.
Turkey poults are extremely sensitive at the beginning of their life. That is why you need to have a clean, secure brooder ready before you receive your poults. Build your brooder in early spring before you become busy with spring and summer homesteading chores.
Order your poults in June. Make sure you are ordering from a reputable hatchery and inquire about any guarantees when you order. Thoroughly check over your poults when they arrive and immediately place them in their brooder.
In addition to being secure and clean, make sure the brooder is warm. Attach a 250-watt clamp-style lamp in order to keep their nest around 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week. Gradually lower the temperature each week until they no longer need an extra heat source and are out on pasture, around week seven.
Check on your poults hourly throughout the day for the first week or two. Baby poults are prone to flipping onto their backs and suffocating. Check for drafts as well, and continue to check the temperature. Aerate and clean the bedding daily. They need adequate feed and fresh water at all times.
While they are in their brooder, create a turkey run on pasture. A mobile poultry tractor works great because it allows the birds to receive adequate, fresh pasture and can be moved frequently, allowing your land to rest. The coop should have at least 3 square feet per bird and it should be tall enough that the birds can stand upright. Provide areas for turkeys to roost.
Once the turkeys are strong enough to leave the brooder, they are easily integrated with chickens. As long as there is plenty of space, and the feed can be separated, chickens and turkeys will thrive on pasture together.
Start your poults on a high-protein feed and be certain they have fresh water at all times. The starter feed should be fed for eight weeks. From 8-16 weeks, you can decrease the protein to 20%. Their finishing diet (16 weeks to slaughter) should contain at least 16% protein. Protein sources can include fish meal, soybean meal, or peanut meal. Provide your turkeys with grit as well.
Over the course of 20 weeks, toms on a commercial diet will eat 100 pounds of feed each, and hens will consume approximately 64 pounds of feed. Providing access to good-quality forage will decrease the amount of purchased feed while allowing your birds to benefit from exercise and natural sunlight which promotes good health, as well as tastier, more nutritious meat.
September is the time to contact everyone who expressed interest in purchasing a holiday turkey. Remind them of their interest, quote your prices and ask if they will be purchasing a turkey for Thanksgiving. Tell them you will call again in November to arrange a pick-up or drop-off date.
Some people who expressed interest earlier will decide not to purchase a turkey from you. You should know how many turkeys you need to sell after contacting your customer base. Ramp up your advertising in order to sell all the turkeys you have raised.
It can be difficult to know how to price your turkeys. You will not be able to compete in price with the turkeys sold in supermarkets, nor do you want to. Commercial poultry farms are gargantuan in size and the turkeys are crammed in as tight as possible. Birds bred for weight and large, white breasts cannot mate naturally. They are medicated in an effort to prevent the diseases that sunlight and exercise prevent naturally.
The minimum amount you should charge for a pastured heritage turkey is $4 per pound, and it is not uncommon to create a set price of up to $75 per bird. Research prices in your area.
Pastured turkeys are ready to harvest and process at 20-24 weeks. If you are selling to neighbors and local individuals, you can process the turkeys yourself. If you are selling to restaurants or other retail outlets it is best (legally and financially) to let a local processor do it for you.
If you are selling your turkeys as “fresh, never frozen”, the week of Thanksgiving is going to be a busy one. Get your harvesting and processing area ready Sunday night so you can get right to work Monday. Keep your processed turkeys as cold as possible without freezing and deliver fresh turkeys on Tuesday. An alternative to processing all of your turkeys in one day is to give customers the choice of receiving a frozen turkey. Frozen turkeys can be done in batches before the fresh turkeys need to be harvested and delivered.
Mount a turkey-sized killing cone to the side of a building. Have two or more sharp knives ready, along with a cull bucket and a water hose. Set up a processing table close to the scalding area. You need a pot large enough to in which to dunk and swirl the birds, and a heat source that can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, have a large cooler filled with ice next to the processing table.
To harvest each turkey, hold it upside down and carry it to the killing cone. Pull the head through the bottom of the cone and slit the jugular vein and carotid artery. To do this, cut just behind the tendon where the beak and tongue attach.
Holding the feet, dunk and swirl the turkey in your pot of 140-degree water. In just a few seconds, the feathers will remove easily. Pull out of the water and pluck.
Rinse the bird. Remove the feet and head. Eviscerate, taking care to not cut into the intestines. Cut the muscle tissue around the neck, then bend and break through the bone to remove the neck.
Once the bird is processed, rinse with cool, running water inside and out. Place the bird in the cooler filled with cold water, making sure the turkey is completely submerged. Chill for one hour before patting dry and packaging.
There are other ways to make money from your turkey farm after you have sold the bird to grace a holiday table. First, if you are hatching turkey eggs, hatch out extra and sell the poults. Remember, these sell for $10 a bird – much more than day-old chicks. Second, after processing, collect and dry the feathers. You can sell them to local crafters or incorporate them into your own crafts. Finally, turkey manure is an excellent compost, either alone or mixed in the compost you have. Bag it up and sell it to your local gardening club.
Turkeys are an easy way to make holiday cash on your homestead. Give it a try this year with a small flock. If you enjoy it, and you make money with it, you can grow your operation.