If you’re curious about raising turkeys on the homestead, here’s what we’ve learned over the last few years of having free-range heritage turkeys. Turkeys are curious, fun, and very inquisitive, and we can’t imagine not having them!
Raising Turkeys on the Homestead
I heard horror stories about raising turkeys from my dad and father-in-law, so when I came home one day and found a turkey on our homestead, I was a little skeptical.
They have not so fond memories of turkeys on their farms when they were growing up, claiming they were attacked by turkeys and recounting horror stories of having to search for turkey eggs. This has not been our experience, but we are raising them primarily for amusement. People also raise turkeys for eggs, meat, or to breed and sell.
Raising Turkeys – How are they different from chickens?
This is our first year raising turkey poults, but we have had an adult free range turkey, Tarzan, on our homestead for several years. We enjoy keeping a mixed flock of birds and are excited to share what we’ve learned so far about turkeys versus chickens. If you’re already familiar with raising chickens, turkeys are similar, but there are a few differences you will want to be aware of.
Tarzan came to us after his original owner was busted by his city for having backyard birds in an area where they are not allowed. He needed to re-home his birds and brought them all to us. Originally, he thought he would pick the turkey up around Thanksgiving and eat him, but that did not come to pass.
Instead, this turkey started roosting in the trees, my kids named him Tarzan, and he became a permanent fixture. We only had the one turkey and he hung out with our chickens until the next year when a similar situation happened and we ended up with a peacock named James.
Tarzan and James became fast bird friends, following each other all over the place and playing games like ring-around-the-rosy and catch. Since adding the turkey poults this spring, Tarzan has become even funnier, thought his relationship with James has suffered. He struts all the time for the little turkeys and is very regal and majestic looking.
This year, we started several turkeys from poults and even had an injured turkey in the house with us for a while. That experience taught us much more about raising turkeys. Here’s what we’ve learned.
First, a little background on our turkey flock. Our turkey flock consists primarily of the heritage Bronze turkey breed. We have five young turkeys, and the patriarch, King Tarzan. They are very beautiful breed of turkey and often raised for meat. Bronze turkeys are broad breasted turkeys and they are very large!
We prefer heritage turkey breeds because they better foragers, better mothers, they can mate naturally so they don’t need artificial insemination, and have longer longevity compared to commercial turkeys. The broad breasted bronzes that we raise are also just plain gorgeous!
Other heritage turkey breeds include Bourbon Reds, Royal Palm, White Holland, Slate, Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White. You can read more about the different breeds at the Livestock Conservancy website.
Turkey poults are actually more fragile than chicks. They are started in a similar brooder to chicks but are very sensitive to heat and light fluctuations. The first three days are critical for turkey poults and they’ll definitely need heat lamps and a lot of supervision initially.
Baby turkeys also need more encouragement to drink water than chicks. We found that adding a few colored marbles to the waterer helped make sure the turkeys got enough to drink. They are very curious about the marbles and pecking at them helped them drink more.
One big difference between turkeys and chickens is that turkeys get much bigger. That means they also need more space if you plan to keep them in a coop / run. They don’t scratch around as much as chickens and many people who keep turkeys think they keep their houses cleaner as a result.
That said, our turkeys prefer to roost outside. They like to roost high up, and as they get bigger, they may need help reaching their roost. Tarzan has roosted in trees or on high fences and he only sleeps in the coop if we lock him inside during brutally cold weather. Otherwise, he prefers a lean-to roost with wind protection during normally cold Iowa winters, or an open roost on a fence post during the summer.
Do Turkeys Lay Eggs?
Yes, they do! While chickens start laying around five months of age, turkeys are a little slower, taking from seven months up to a year to reach maturity. Chickens lay an egg almost every day, but turkeys only lay two to three eggs a week.
You can eat turkey eggs if you want – all egg types are actually edible. They are bigger than chicken eggs and are usually a creamy white color with speckles and tougher shell. Turkey eggs have a higher protein content than chicken eggs and many people who eat them think they have richer taste. Our female turkeys have not started laying, so I haven’t personally tried one yet.
What do Turkeys Eat?
Turkeys are supposed to eat a high protein food and game bird feed is the preferred turkey food. If you are raising turkeys for meat, it is important to feed them the proper protein content, but we honestly feed our turkeys the same food we feed the chickens. They are good free-rangers and foragers, and they supplement their diet naturally.
In all, we have found turkeys to be a very fun addition to our homestead. They are curious, talkative, and almost dog-like. If you’re on the fence about raising turkeys, I highly recommend giving it a try!