Raising Turkeys - fun and food
I've been raising turkeys off and on now for several years, so let me shed some light on the process and the outcome. As the title of this page would suggest, turkeys can be fun and a source of food. I've enjoyed both benefits from having turkeys around my homestead.
My interest in turkeys is mainly for entertainment. They are a rather curious and ignorant bird, but I enjoy their temperament and appearance. There is nothing quite so magnificent as a bronze turkey with all of his feathers on show.
The two types of turkeys I've raised are the traditional Bronze and most likely candidate for Thanksgiving dinner, the Giant White. The Bronze turkeys look much like a wild turkey and they have beautiful coloring on their feathers. The Giant White turkeys are a bird well suited for meals as they can weight as much as 50 pounds.
Turkeys are large flightless birds that have a tremendous curiosity about the world around them. They are easy to handle, slow moving, and generally non-aggressive. These characteristics make raising turkeys something that's easy to do.
They're not just a larger version of a chicken. Their behavior is quite different so they have different requirements in terms of care and protection. They are less hardy than chickens, so don't expect to keep them several years. It's almost as if they know that their mission on earth is one season long - or perhaps that's what we've bred into them.
That's not to say that you can't have a pet turkey for years. You can, but don't be surprised if the turkey you pick for a companion decides to "check out" on his or her own unexpectedly. When I'm raising turkeys, I try to take a look at my flock once a day just to make certain that one hasn't keeled over unexpectedly.
If left to free range, turkeys feel comfortable ranging far and wide. Venturing away from their home turf can mean distances of a quarter of a mile or more.
When it comes to bedding down for the night, our fine feathered friends find a comfortable spot and squat. They'll climb up onto stuff if it's accessible, but they don't perch like other birds. I think it's mainly because they're too heavy and incapable of flight. Think of "the fat man" in the circus. You'll find him on a chair or stool, but not on the trapeze.
When raising turkeys, remember, they'll get along with chickens, but they're a very different animal altogether.
One reason for raising turkeys is to enjoy the "gobble" sound that they make. It's a little like to screaming and howling coyote - there is no mistake what animal is making the sound.
Female turkeys make a cute little sound that's a cross between a yip, a cry and a whistle. It's the only sound I've ever heard them make. It's relatively quiet, so it doesn't carry far at all.
The males make up for the taciturn nature of the females by performing their "gobble" repeatedly throughout the day. Sometimes it's something that they just need to do, but most of the time it's in response to things they hear. If you speak, imitate a "gobble" sound, or simply make a strange noise, the males will often respond with their "gobble" sound.
Hunters locate turkeys in the wild by making various sounds, including the sounds of a crow, so it seems natural that the domestic turkeys respond to a range of sounds that we make around the homestead.
One day Ellen and I were trying to communicate with one another from the house to the shop, a distance of perhaps 200 feet. Every time she would holler out something, the male turkeys would gobble and block out everything except the first couple of syllables. When I would holler back for her to repeat what she said, the turkeys would gobble again and interfere with her hearing me.
We went back and forth like this for a while until I finally walked back to the house only to find out that 90% of our shouting was associated with each of us trying to tell the other that we couldn't understand what was being said. Their tendency to be vocal can be a frustrating part of raising turkeys, but most of the time it's a joy to hear.
Despite the occasional inconvenience, turkeys can be quite entertaining with their calls. With windows open in the house during the summer, the turkeys make their "gobble" sound in response to clinking glasses, laughter and other normal sounds that make their way out to our turkeys in the yard.
And, of course, raising turkeys requires that you become adept at imitating their sound. If for no other reason, simply to hear them call back to you.
If you're like me, you'll want to at least try a turkey egg to see what they taste like. They are different in flavor and texture from chicken eggs, but nothing radical in nature, just a slight shift to more firmness and stronger flavor. If you use turkey eggs for scrambled eggs, you'll probably never know the difference.
Turkeys lay eggs much less frequently than chickens, and their eggs are considerably larger. They also tend to be speckled and more elongated with a sharper point on one end. I'm not at all averse to eating turkeys eggs, but they just aren't the type of bird that you would want to raise for eggs.
Chickens are much better producers of eggs, and the eggs are a finer quality for eating.
Unless you're looking for a pet, raising turkeys is largely done for meat production. They're not a fast producer of meat, but they do produce a lot of it, and as we all know, turkey does not taste like chicken.
Large turkeys when butchered can completely fill a 5 gallon bucket with meat. When you think about this, just imagine thighs, legs, wings and breasts, but no portions of the back. That's a lot of meat. It's an impressive round up of food from a single bird, but it takes many months and lots of food to get there.
With respect to "feed to meat" conversion, turkeys aren't going to impress you. They eat up a lot of feed for what you get out of them at the end of the season when you'll probably want to butcher them for a holiday meal.
I'm always amazed at how little turkeys sell for in the grocery store, knowing how limited they are in terms of return on investment of feed. The keys of course to raising turkeys for meat are bulk feed, raising thousands at once, and butchering them young before the feed to meat return on investment starts to drop off.
Many of these keys to meat production aren't available for the average hobbyist or homesteader, so alternatives such as growing food for your flock can make better economic sense.
One of the nice things about raising turkeys is that they don't scratch at the ground like chickens. A chicken will tear up your garden quickly, while a turkey is happy to simply tear at the plants instead of of digging them out of the ground.
That means you'll have a chance of growing self-replenishing feed for your turkeys with less room than you might otherwise be able to with chickens. If you're growing greens of some sort, the turkey will likely strip off some of the vegetation and move on to other sources of food, thus allowing recovery and replenishment of the food you're growing.
Of course if you're raising turkeys in a confined space, they'll denude the ground effectively as their large appetites lead them to consume quite a bit of food. If you free range them, they tend to keep moving as they graze, so the grass, weeds, fruits and vegetables you grow have a chance to replenish themselves naturally.
Turkeys are among the most curios of all animals. They will come up to take a look at what you're doing, even if it involves relatively loud and dangerous activities like pounding in a stake with a sledge hammer. They simply want to know what is going on, and they seem to be oblivious to any danger associated with your activities. They'll even stick their head down at the stake to see what all the activity and sound is about.
This type of behavior makes turkeys appear to be rather stupid, but at the same time it makes them a comfortable animal to be around. If you sit still in a chair, they will often come right up to you to see what you're doing and examine your clothing.
They will also peck at buttons, zippers, rings and bracelets, so don't be surprised when it happens. It's all part of their natural curiosity.
The extra weight of turkeys make them walkers instead of runners, so they're easy to catch if needs be. That means it's easy for you and easy for predators. Their only defense is flapping their large wings. This behavior can thwart smaller predators like raccoons and such, but will have no effect on larger predators like fox and coyote.
The more docile of your flock will easily become a meal to smaller predators as they'll simply stand or sit in one place while being attacked. Therefore, it's necessary to provide adequate protection when raising turkeys so you won't lose any to predators that decide they look like easy meals.
Done with Raising Turkeys, back to Small Animals