As we head into the Holiday season, some of you may be asking “I wonder if I should raise turkeys?” Here’s some food for thought to help you ruminate on the idea. That way, you’ll be ready next June to mid-July when it’s time to start growing them for next year’s Holiday Season.
Look before you leap!
I say this because I’m a leap before I look kind of person, and when the new ATTRA/NCAT “Pastured Turkey Production” publication showed up in my in-box I popped it up and began reading, thinking about what I would do to get started raising turkeys. If you’ve raised some kind of poultry in the past, and you’re accomplished at setting up and moving netting, this publication will be helpful. But as I read through, some of the topics prompted memories of my beginning experience with raising broiler chickens. So here are some additional resources and suggestions to help you look before you leap.
1) Start reading on page 11.
This is the marketing section of the new booklet and its the most important part. Before you order your turkeys and set up their brooding area, you need to know where they’re going to go when they’re grown up and whether or not you can make any money at it. This section reminds us to think about the cost of the birds (Turkey poults can cost from $7 – $15) and how much feed they’ll need (64 pounds for hens and 100 pounds for toms over a 20-week growing period). It also has some good ideas about how to find your customers and get them signed up.
But can you make money at it?
To give you a head start on figuring all the costs, check out this post from the folks at Nami Moon Farms in Wisconsin. They lay out the prices for everything from the price for poults, both heritage and Broad-Breasted white, to the electricity for brooding, cost of feed, and processing. They even tell you how much they charge per pound and how they end up with a 10.9% return on investment. You’ll have to update the prices a bit since this was written in 2013. Still, it gives you a good idea of what’s involved.
Finally, you can’t make money at all if you can’t locate customers. The Livestock Conservancy’s Turkey manual has some great tips for finding customers who want the kind of pasture-raised, healthy product you’re going to supply them, and are willing to pay for it.
2) Processing – Page 9
It’s good to have a processing plant or plan in mind before you start. Page 9 in the ATTRA/NCAT booklet covers things you should think about, like transporting your birds to your processor. If you plan on processing your own birds be sure to look into your local and state regulations. Here’s an excellent resource to get started.
3) Choose your breed.
What you choose to raise will affect your costs and your sales. The Self Sufficient Home Acre has put together another nice resource on how to raise turkeys. Here’s what they have to say about breed choice:
If you are interested in keeping a flock of turkeys to hatch their eggs and raise poults each year, order a heritage breed of turkey. Heritage breeds include (among others) the Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Black Spanish, Blue Slate, White Midget, and Narragansett turkeys. Heritage breeds are able to mate naturally and may be kept as breeding stock for future generations.
The turkeys you find in the grocery store are the Broad Breasted White turkey, which grow larger and have more breast meat than heritage breeds. Because the BB White (and BB Bronze) turkeys have so much breast meat, they can’t mate naturally. The male is unable to successfully mount the female. The turkey industry has selectively bred through artificial insemination for larger and larger birds. I have read one anecdotal account that young toms were able to mate before they grew too large. I can’t confirm this.
If you wish to raise turkeys as economically as possible and butcher the whole flock at the end of the season, the BB White may be just what you are looking for. I’ve raised BB turkeys and processed them myself several times. The largest weighed approximately 25 pounds when dressed at 4 months. They were raised on pasture with meat producer feed free choice.
She also notes that the darker the feathers on the bird, the more difficult it is to remove all trace of them during processing, so you’ll want to keep that in mind as well.
4) Brooding and On…
The first three weeks are the most critical
Turkey poults are incredibly fragile for the first three weeks… before becoming vastly more hardy. 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.
Click here to read the rest of Forrest’s tips on getting them going with the right feed, grit, roosts and room.
Check the ATTRA/NCACT booklet for information on taking them to the pasture. And for extra information, the Livestock Conservancy has a very detailed manual on brooders, feeds and feeding of pastured turkeys, and fences and other facilities.
Ready to Get Started?
As a leap before I look person, I feel like all this information might be a little daunting to a fellow leaper and potential turkey producer. You might, like me, be already thinking about the beautiful turkeys headed to the Thanksgiving platters of enthusiastic customers. And, like my own beautiful visions, that might carry you through the hard times that will crop up between ordering your poults, and taking that first delicious bite. But take it from me, a little advance planning and reading can make those hard times just a little less painful.
Thanks, Kathy, for so many excellent links and points on this value-added pasture enterprise:
We’re still learning with a breeding flock of heritage Bourbon Reds for 12 yrs. We started slow and have maxed out at 50-60 birds per year. Tales abound of those trying turkeys at this scale and suffering horrendous losses, so learn from the excellent links above and producers already doing turkeys well. Other experiences:
—Know the regs before you start. When starting our grass-based farm, we moved to a state allowing on-farm poultry processing.
—Even here, a fellow producer lost their primary contract early Nov last year due to regs, and had to scramble to sell birds and break even.
—A vibrant farmers market open in Nov allows direct sales and max profit. Find a market where customers value quality and your story, over low price. We butcher on Mon, sell fresh birds on Tues for Thurs dinner. We and our customers freeze a few for Christmas. This may be your only time at this market; reach out to market managers and see who needs more pastured turkeys to supply their customer demand.
—Our most fragile period for survival is first 6 weeks, where someone needs responsibility to check early and often. We primarily us broody hens, proven mothers. It’s amazing to see 1 lb bantys calling over 10 lb poults they are raising, when Mom finds a morsel.
—Also key to survival is Bourbon Red mothers who we’ve selected for over the years, who can successfully raise poults to maturity. Some are much better egg hatchers than growers and others vice-versa. So we put up to 30 poults with the mothers who are best raisers/growers, taking them away from the ones who after hatching can leave their little ones behind when foraging in tall grasses. Sometimes mothers work in tandem, sharing their poults and strengths.
—Even in summer heat, early morning forays through wet grass can be deadly during those first few critical weeks. Hence the imperative, as you note, of hourly check-ins. This means someone needs to be living on-farm. But proven mothers, selected over time, can reduce the labor involved. Cow-calf operators are used to selecting those animals that ‘work’ on their farm. This can be done with most breeding species, heritage turkeys included.
—We start in late May for Thanksgiving delivery, as most heritage breeds grow too slowly when begun in late June/July. But do know that just as some of our customers, a 2 lb beef roast is max they will buy, so a 6 lb heritage turkey is ideal for their needs as well. If you can identify that niche, you may be able to start later. How much you push them with corn in Oct and Nov also affects size at processing. If you raise standard breeds, know that while you may be proud of your 50 lb birds, few customers will fork out the cash for that size, so late June/July indeed best. Recall the jokes about “what to do with left over turkey”.
—Warning: when pastured turkeys start to ‘spread their wings’ and become teenagers, all hell can break loose. Such as sneaking out until after midnight, refusing to come home to bed/roost when called, trashing/scratching the family vehicles by roosting there instead, etc. I should note they also have a fascination with car keys…the list goes on of teenager hell; one to few miscreants lead and the ‘good kids’ follow.
—If you do your own processing, find someone who does it well and learn from them. Consider renting equipment and volunteering your labor with one who processes well. Your finished-bird presentation matters for repeat customers and increased sales next year.
Richard, thank you SO much for this invaluable addition to the article!!
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