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Why Turkeys are Probably Not the Way to Go

turkeys in your prepping

As I mentioned in some previous pieces, we have raised turkeys for about 5 years.  We’ve enjoyed them to some extent, but we have decided they are not a species we would recommend for preparedness.

A Little History

Turkeys are considered to be indigenous to North America.  They were found in wild flocks by explorers  hundreds of years ago and exported to Europe and other areas.  They were bred in captivity here and abroad to create the various breeds we know now.

Like chickens, there are now “heritage” breeds and a few that are genetically fiddled with for commercial production.  You have probably only eaten the latter variety unless you’ve raised the birds yourself.

Heritage breed turkeys are relatively close to their wild cousins.  They usually still have instincts to feed themselves and roost in safe places at night if they have been raised free-range.  They can fly short distances and mate naturally.  They are a taste treat.

The commercial standard is a broad-breasted turkey.  These are birds that grow at a quicker rate and produce roughly twice the breast meat of traditional birds.  As a result, they are very awkward and cannot evade predators well or mate naturally.

Our Experiences

We have raised Royal Palms and Bourbon Reds over the years.  I enjoyed the Royal Palms much more.  They were somewhat personable and they trilled song-like notes when I approached.  The Bourbon Reds grew out to be larger and are much better camouflaged from predators, though.

Recently, we’ve been trying to evaluate what we do to be sure it’s worth our time, investment, and effort.  Sadly for them, turkeys did not make the cut.  Here are the reasons why.

Noise

Operational security should always be in our minds as we consider what we do and how we do it.  Out here in the country now, in times of comparative plenty, the sounds of livestock do not draw particular attention.  That could change.

Turkeys are probably too noisy for good OPSEC, the males being far worse than females.  The Bourbon Red toms were quite raucous.  We named our final tom Last Word because he always  gobbled obnoxiously at full volume while we tried to talk to each other to coordinate feeding tasks.  And when we walked away, there was always one more gobble to top it off.

We originally hoped that all that blustering would call in wild ones that we could harvest, but the wild flocks that circle through our area seemed to pay them no attention.  At times, one lone hen that somehow had no flock would venture a bit closer, but that was it.

Cost-effectiveness

You can purchase turkeys as day-old poults from several hatcheries-  we got our Bourbon Reds that way.  They cost from about $6.50 to over $10 apiece, with a minimum number required to ship them.  They eat A LOT and they need a high protein feed so they are not cheap to raise to adulthood.

wild turkeyAnother aspect of the cost per bird is how much you are out for any losses.  When those 2 dogs sport killed most of our flock by tearing open 3 of our coops, we lost hundreds of dollars in a matter of minutes.

If the goal was to raise turkeys to put in the freezer or canner, an argument could be made for that possibly (if you have a lot of free garden waste, etc. to defray feed costs and your equipment is multipurpose).  We have been holding over at least one breeding trio year round so we could hatch more eggs the following spring.  With their huge appetites, that is a lot of food going into birds that produce few eggs and are essentially free-loaders all winter.

From a preparedness standpoint, raising a flock just for the freezer is probably not the best use of money and resources.  Other meat sources (like rabbits) would probably be more cost-effective and, without breeding stock, you will have no renewable source the following year.

Hardiness

Turkey eggs do not have a terribly high hatch rate.  Beyond that, the poults are not particularly hardy.  They will succumb to less than ideal conditions faster than chickens.  We had only 2 poults make it to a even a few months old this year.   One appeared to be killed by a predator.  The other seemed to die of fright- it had no apparent injuries, but was dead on the floor of the coop nearby.   I hear even wild turkeys rarely get their full brood to adulthood.

Space

We contain most of our birds in movable coops often referred to as “chicken tractors.”  Turkeys are much larger in stature than chickens and need a lot more square footage to prevent crowding.  We typically run 10 chickens to a tractor, but can only house 3 turkeys in the same space.

Processing

Chickens and small fowl are pretty easy to “process” and make use of quickly.  A full-grown chicken would feed us at least one full meal, with a few leftovers for the next day’s lunch.  A full-grown turkey is another matter.

They are so much larger than chickens (depending on breed) that they can take a little more effort to process.  I won’t get into specifics for those of you who are squeamish about such things, but Last Word especially took some planning and work to put down because his neck was so big.  We could not use the same set-up we typically use for chickens.

If refrigeration is an issue, a turkey could be a problem since it is a feast for a big gathering and then some.  Given the age of ours, our last 3 turkeys went directly into soup, but even then, that made 28 quarts.  I logged some time in front of the stove!

If your main goal is to produce meat for the table, I would recommend that you maintain a small meat breed flock of chickens along with some broody-prone banty hens to hatch the eggs for you each spring.  This would be separate from your egg layers.  Good egg layers are streamlined and not very meaty.  Meaty birds do not produce as many eggs.  Again, I would look for quieter, less flighty (nervous) breeds.

Right now, in many parts of the country, there is a plentiful supply of wild turkeys available for hunting.  In some of our homeschool study, we’ve read about traps the early settlers and Native Americans made to catch them and we’ve filed that info away in our brains.

Another topic for a future post is the possibility of raising ducks or geese on the homestead.  They were species we added to our farm to try out this year.  I’ll give my thoughts on them in the future.

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14 Comments on “Why Turkeys are Probably Not the Way to Go”

  1. Tawnya Says:

    I have to agree with you totally on this post. We also have raised a few turkeys out of many poults aquired or bought. We did find the first few tries that most were dying for no apparent reason by the juvinile stage, usually within a month, after we had moved them from a cage or hutch off the ground, to a run or pen on the ground. The might do good a few weeks, then start to decline. Apparently according to a local vet here, the turkeys (80% approx) will aquire blackhead or Histomoniasis within 6-16 weeks if they are allowed on pasture that chickens have run on (most of my yard). Chickens are pretty much immune, so you do not notice it with them, but it kills turkeys between 6-16 weeks. That was why we were losing them. We have since raised a few in cages longer than 16 weeks, but it is not a desirable practice IMO, or economical, as they are relying soley on feed, as they are not grazing. I will stick with my chickens.

    Reply

    • Laura Says:

      Tawnya,

      Thanks for bringing up the illnesses. I should have mentioned Blackhead myself. I know that is a common problem. Originally, I was very cautious about our chickens and turkeys mingling. Over time, it became inevitable that they would be on the same ground, even if not at the same time. By the end, we were running them side by side in the tractors without incident. I don’t know if it’s not as prevalent where we live or we’ve just been fortunate not to have any infected chickens yet. I even wondered if our breeders passed immunity to their offspring through the fertile eggs.

      Our turkeys never seemed to become ill for a few days and then die. Most often, it was poor hatch or predator related. Once a hawk swooped down and grabbed our only hatchling out of the yard. Grrrr…. Other times, we would just find one dead that had been perfectly fine the day before.

      I agree with your assessment and I appreciate you sharing your experience. From all I’ve read, a turkey’s health is just more fragile than a chicken’s despite the more robust size. They are interesting and historic birds. I’m glad there are people dedicated to raising them. They just don’t meet our needs for preparedness.

      Reply

  2. eileen Says:

    We have raised turkeys along with chickens for many years, and have had quite different results. We do not collect and incubate the eggs because the darn hens can produce way too many eggs, instead we let the hens hatch and brood the poults, which becomes a group effort. Our losses are less than 10%, due mainly to hawks and things lurking in the woods beyond the fence line which the poults are determined to breech. We have Wilds, Bourbon Reds, and crossbreeds, the breeding stock is selected by temperment, and really do make great pets. That said, as they age their fertility drops, or more like plummets.
    The hardiness of turkey eggs is incredible. Our hens sometimes brood by day, and roost at night until you swear she has ruined the hatch, then she will set on the eggs for about two or three weeks and the hatch is great. However turkey eggs take 28 days in an incubator, with regulated temperature and humidity.
    Blackhead will remain on your property, carried by earthworms. We have avoided it by keeping a closed flock of uninfected but eclectic chickens. Like the turkeys, the chicken hens hatch and raise the next generation.
    I do agree that turkeys are not ideal candidates for survival prepping. There probably is not a more efficient and useful prepping critter than chickens. Except for maybe the dog needed to protect them.

    Reply

    • Laura Says:

      Eileen, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you’ve had more productive results. Our Bourbon Red hens never did go broody, though I know they should have had the inclination. We always gave our eggs to a hen to hatch.

      Our Royal Palm hens courted our largest rooster shamelessly and even though he wasn’t interested in a cross-species romance, they insisted on trying to set their infertile eggs under bushes at every turn. I was very disappointed when they were killed by dogs. I had hoped to still get a tom and get a flock going. If we tried turkeys again, I think I would go with Royal Palms.

      Reply

  3. Steve Says:

    While it is true that Turkeys are more fragile during their first two weeks of life, I have found that Turkey poults two weeks old and up are much stronger flyers than chickens so they are much more apt to evade predators at an early age. I tried Standard Bronze and Bourbon Reds. I lost half of my Bourbons to sickness but I only lost a few of my Standard Bronze. I later found that most of my poults died from pasting up during the first week of their life. Apparently Turkeys are more prone to pasting up than chickens so you will need to clean their buts of dry poop that blocks their ability to excrete their waste.
    The Standard Bronze are much larger than Bourbons and their colors are almost exactly like wild turkeys (good for evading predators). This year I’m going to try free ranging about 75 poults after they are six weeks old. I will introduce free ranging gradually so the turkeys know that there is always food, water, and sheltered roosting in my 20 foot long / 12 foot wide / and over 8 foot high garage tent.
    Standard Bronze Turkeys are incredible flyers (probably about as good as wild turkeys) because I could not keep up with clipping their wings to keep them from flying over our fence. I finally gave up clipping their right wings. Turkeys are superior free ranging fowl because they can fly to escape predators and their colors blend in well with their surroundings than most chickens. Turkeys are also more hardy than chickens because they are indigenous to North America. Chickens came from the tropics. I am hoping that my free ranged turkeys will stay fairly close to my guardian dog who watches over our goats in a large fenced in area. I will feed the turkeys well every night to keep them coming back into the tent. Our Pyrenese Guarding Dog keeps watch over all of our poultry (never attacks them) outside of the barns at night so I have never lost any livestock to coyotes, wolves, fox, or cougars. Turkeys are noisy so that may attract people to your site.
    If you want a quiet fowl then try Muscovy Ducks. We have a neighbor who has them. They taste great, are very broody (great mothers), very quiet, dont need water to swim in, can fly to escape predators, and they are great at free ranging.

    Reply

  4. Steve Says:

    Turkeys in our area have lots of wild clover, field grasses, bugs and apple trees to feed off of. Their are many wild turkeys and grouse in our area. We grow our own sunflower seed, corn, and squash to help feed them. We also give them all of the apples that fall to the ground. So raising turkeys can be cost effective even though they eat allot!

    Reply

  5. David Rice Says:

    “When those 2 dogs sport killed most of our flock by tearing open 3 of our coops, we lost hundreds of dollars in a matter of minutes.” Can you please tell me why dogs kill turkeys and chickens without provocation? My dogs never showed any inclination to attacking other animals. Thank you.

    Reply

  6. Hilary Says:

    I currently have three 8 week old Bourbon Bronze crosses. Their entire short life I have kept them with some 8 Rhode Island Reds that are a week older. They were kept indoor under a heat lamp until they were 6 weeks old and then I moved them out side to a large indoor chicken coop. This past weekend was the first time they have seen actual sunlight when I let them into the run for the first time. Of course, mostly that was because I live in the midwest and we had almost 2 feet of snow and dipping temperatures. I have kept them on chick starter feed until last week and then I mixed it 50/50 with layer feed. I will keep reducing the amount of starter feed until it is down to straight layer feed. So far, I have seen no signs of illness or weakness. I have raised them exactly as I would chickens. Once they are on straight feed, I will separate the chickens out and put them in our hen house. I will leave one silky with the turkeys tho, because she has been playing surrogate mom to the turkeys and will just end up flying over to them every day. I have never had any issues with turkeys dying in the past because of anything other than predators and honestly I lose more chickens to predators than I do turkeys. I also have 6 cobalt blue guineas that are completely free range and they were honestly harder to raise than any other fowl we own.

    Reply

  7. Caroline Kogan Says:

    This is my first year raising turkeys, and I disagree w/you on a variety of points. Our turkeys are really quiet, first of all! We have Royal Palm females, and a Naragansette male. He only gobbles maybe 20x a day, and usually in response to an unfamiliar noise (esp sirens). Our girls were excellent mothers, and co-sat on 24 eggs. We had 20 babies hatch, and none of them died! I keep hearing how “fragile” the babies are. But our moms are doing a wonderful job and we haven’t lost any yet (they are 16days old currently). Also, with the moms raising them on the nest, we have very little costs (no electricity for the brooder lamp, incubator, etc). They moms are excellent at teaching them to forage. In fact, when we let the adults free range during the day, they get much of their diet from the woods, which really helps defray feed costs. So I disagree with a lot of the points in your article, from what my limited experiences have been so far.

    Reply

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