Raising a Holiday Turkey

You could always buy one at the supermarket of course, but raising a holiday Turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas will yield tastier meat.

| October/November 1998

With the holiday season approaching, everyone from the modern-day homesteader to the everyday consumer is thinking about that quintessential holiday bird, the turkey. This big goofy-looking avian is still the oven favorite for those two big events, Thanksgiving and Christmas, that come along less than a month apart.

You can, of course, go down the road to your nearest chain supermarket and buy a bird, ready for roasting. But hear me out: once you know the truth about that supermarket turkey, you may not want to feed one to your dog, let alone your family. What's the alternative? A free-range bird you raise yourself.

Raising Your Own Bird

This article is for the beginner who would like to raise a holiday turkey for a superb holiday feast, and maybe a few more to give away, sell, or barter. I suggest you start with at least two or three birds — not more than a dozen. Turkeys like company; a lone young bird will not be happy, and it's not unusual to lose one, especially when they're little. Also, several young birds will stimulate a mild competition at the feeder, prompting each to eat, and thus grow, more. On our place, a semirural five acres in southwest New Mexico, we have raised six to ten birds the last few years, resulting in some great turkey dinners and a good profit from the extra birds. The usual practice on a small acreage is to buy several young birds, called poults, in late May or June, raise them for about five months, then dress them out before Thanksgiving or Christmas.

You can begin with poults that are just hatched or with so-called "started" birds that have feathered out and are three to four weeks old. The just-hatched birds will need special care for the first few weeks and will require a brooder.

There are books that give detailed instructions on how to build brooders, or you can buy them from feed stores or poultry supply catalogs. A chicken brooder will work fine for young turkeys, but fewer will fit in each brooder. For just a few birds, the simplest brooder can be fashioned by hanging a heat or infrared lamp from the ceiling of the barn, shed, or cellar where your birds are confined. For the first week, the standing temperature, measured about two inches off the floor, should be maintained at 90°F to 95°F. The temperature should be lowered about 50°F each week thereafter until the birds are feathered out at about four weeks, at which time, assuming it's summer, you can dispense with the brooder and your birds can start to spend some time outside. You lower the temperature by raising the lamp a few inches each week, checking periodically with a good thermometer to make sure the temperature is in the right range. The young turkeys will tell you a lot about whether or not your temperature is right. If they're all crammed into the center directly under the light, it's too cold. If they're all out on the edge avoiding the light, it's too hot. If they're scattered about under the light, moving about and feeding, they like your homemade brooder just fine.

Day-old poults may be so infantile and so distracted by being shipped from the hatchery to you that they need help finding and learning how to use the feed and water. For this reason, avoid day-old poults. The usual sequence is for a goodly number of poults to be shipped from the hatchery to a local feed store or similar retail outlet, whence they are sold in smaller quantities to someone like you. This makes good sense. From the feed store, buy a few poults that are at least several days old. The weaklings will have been weeded out and the poults should already be eating well. Or do as I do and buy the three- to four-week-old started birds mentioned earlier. They cost a little more — about $4 apiece as opposed to $2 apiece for day-old poults — but with started birds you avoid the hassle of having to worry about a brooder and you avoid the sensitivities inherent in very young birds.

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