Raising Turkeys

Make your next poultry-keeping project raising turkeys.

  • Many heritage breeds grow more slowly than hybrids, but are also more self-sufficient.
    Photo by Getty Images/Nkarol
  • A young chick takes a break on its mother’s back.
    Photo by Victoria Redhed Miller
  • Turkey fledglings take cover under the wing of a Cochin bantam hen.
    Photo by Victoria Redhed Miller
  • Heritage turkey breeds often tend to be good foragers.
    Photo by Victoria Redhed Miller
  • Royal Palm turkeys are good for pest control on small homesteads.
    Photo by The Livestock Conservancy
  • Black Spanish turkeys were originally bred for meat production.
    Photo by The Livestock Conservancy
  • A pair of Jersey Buff toms wander the barnyard.
    Photo by The Livestock Conservancy
  • Young chicks are oftentimes very vocal.
    Photo by Gett Images/Serg_Velusceac

“Why would you want to raise turkeys? They’re so stupid!” Sigh. We got pretty tired of hearing that one whenever we mentioned that we were going to start raising turkeys. Oh, and how I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked, “Is it true that turkeys are so stupid that they’ll look up during a rainstorm and drown?”

Of course, being the kind of person who has to see everything for herself (and not believing everything I read on the internet), this made me even more interested in turkeys. About a year after getting our first chickens, we bought some day-old turkeys: 10 Midget Whites and 15 Narragansetts.

According to what we read, the Narragansetts would get quite a bit larger than the Midget Whites. We figured most of our turkeys would be slaughtered for family and friends around the holiday season, and we wanted to be able to offer them a choice of sizes. Interestingly, we learned later that year, from our chef friend Gabriel, that small turkeys are the best. “If you want twenty pounds of turkey,” he advised, “get two 10-pounders.”

Since buying those first turkeys in the spring of 2008, we’ve come a long way. We knew very little then about raising turkeys, in part because we found few sources of useful information. In fact, although more resources are available now than just a few years ago, my main reference continues to be a book first published in 1929 called Turkey Production.

In studying Turkey Production, at first I was confused by the absence of terms like “heritage” and “organic.” Eventually I realized it was because the faster-growing hybrid turkeys common today had not yet been developed for commercial production. Turkey operations were organic, and all the turkeys were purebred — what we now commonly refer to as “heritage breeds.” It was very interesting to read all this when I had almost no practical knowledge or experience with turkeys; we were, after all, only in our first year of raising chickens.

In the 1940s, development of the Broad Breasted turkey was proceeding rapidly. Somewhere along the line, breeders decided to select not only for faster maturity, but also for ever-increasing amounts of breast meat. I’ve seen a few adult Broad Breasted turkeys, and it was a pathetic sight. I remember one tom that could barely walk; he was so front-heavy with breast meat that he literally tipped forward when he walked. Another astounding fact we learned was that Broad Breasted turkeys, by virtue of their great size (Giant White tom turkeys can reach 45 pounds or more) and huge breasts, cannot mate naturally — they must be artificially inseminated.

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