Turkeys can be a profitable sideline for a homesteader, particularly if he can grow the green feed on which the birds thrive, and if he can sell them at retail. If not, turkeys still make good eating, and a homesteader can raise a few to dress for table use for the family.
Stand warned, however, that these birds are difficult to raise. Turkeys are highly prone to disease and they are unintelligent. When young, they often starve to death without discovering their feed is right next to them. Mature hens are no smarter. They lay their eggs standing up, killing their unhatched young. The least scare sends turkeys piling into corners where they often suffocate.
Some of the most popular breeds are the White Holland, Bronze, Bourbon Red, and Narragansett. The new, smaller Beltsville turkeys, developed by the Department of Agriculture Research Center at Beltsville, Maryland, are gaining in popularity and find a good market throughout the year. Always buy quality stock from a reputable hatchery or breeder.
For retail production, start with newly hatched turkeys or “poults.” A pen approximately 20 by 20 feet in a barn or poultry house will handle 100 to 150 poults until they are put on range at ten weeks of age. A raised wire porch the same size is necessary to keep the poults off the ground and reduce the danger of the highly infectious, fatal blackhead disease.
A good-sized electric brooder and hoppers for water and feed are other needs. Sand and shavings are usually used for litter in the poultry house. After they are two weeks old, the poults can go outside on the porch in good weather.
Turkey Care and Feeding
Grains are fed in addition to starter mash after the birds are two months old. Good commercial feeds for starting are available. Grain rations can be homemade if grains are raised on the homestead, or you can use a commercially made preparation. If the birds’ entire lives are spent on wire, they should have fresh green feed, such as rapeseed, oats or ladino clover, brought to them. Alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage, and other greens, less expensive than commercial pellets, can form as much as 25 percent of the ration. This can enable homesteaders to compete in price with commercial growers.
Turkeys on range will eat great quantities of forage, as well as pick up waste grain, weed seed and insects. An acre of good range generally supports 100 birds until they are six months old and ready to be slaughtered. Oats and rapeseed make fine pasture for turkeys. For permanent pastures, a good mixture is red, ladino and alsike clover with timothy and Kentucky bluegrass. During the last five weeks before slaughter, the birds need plenty of whole corn to fatten them.
An acre of good range can support about 100turkeys, provided their diet is supplemented with whole corn, commercial feed, and milk or water.
Excess milk from goats or cows can also be used in turkey feed. The liquid is used to moisten the mash. Feeders can be located inside the pen or outside in wooden troughs. Two inches of feeding space per bird is suggested.
Turkeys need water. This can be supplied by having fountains inside the pen or by attaching a water pan to the outside of the pen, allowing it to be more easily filled and cleaned.
Turkeys are susceptible to many diseases. The most serious one is black-head which is hosted by a worm common to chickens. Symptoms are droopiness and yellow droppings. Cage cleanliness and separation of turkeys from chickens help combat the disease. Turkeys housed on a raised sun porch are resistant to the disease. Turkey manure is an excellent fertilizer, so clean up and compost the droppings weekly.