Let’s Talk Turkey – Pasture-Raised Turkeys That Is

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

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Turkey – Pasture-Raised Turkeys That Is

  1. 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.

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