Keeping turkeys is possible on smallholdings and if you raise them to eat, you’ll have a much more wholesome and flavourful turkey than anything you could buy at the supermarket. Even if you just want to have them wandering around on your plot to help in pest control, they are relatively easy to keep, once they’ve got past the early stages.
A male turkey is called a tom, the female a hen and a baby is a poult. The female is smaller than the male and generally less colourful. Turkeys have wingspans of 1.5-1.8 meters.
Noticeable features of turkeys are the red, fleshy stretches of skin and bulbous growths located around the head and neck region. These structures are the:
- Caruncle: fleshy bumps on the head and neck;
- Snood: the long flap of flesh that hangs over the beak;
- Wattle: the red skin that hangs from the neck.
Another prominent and noticeable feature of the turkey is its plumage. Voluminous feathers cover the breast, wings, back, body and tail of the bird. Male turkeys also have what is called a beard located in the chest area. Male turkeys also have sharp, spike-like projections on their legs called spurs.
The usual lifespan for a turkey is 10 years, and pure breed turkeys take approximately 4-5 months to grow to full size. The hen turkeys take 16 weeks to mature completely, and average 3.6 kg to 7.2 kg in weight. The tom turkey takes approximately 19 weeks to mature and weighs between 7.2 kg and 10.8 kg. Larger tom turkeys may weigh up to 18.1 kg, but take a few more weeks to mature.
For breeding purpose keep 1 tom for every 10 hens. Turkeys are highly social and become very distressed when isolated.
As with all poultry, it is preferable to keep pure-bred birds, bought from a reputable breeder.
How do you start a turkey business?
Like most agricultural businesses, turkey farming requires adequate knowledge and careful planning of how to raise turkeys, even if you do allow them to roam around free in a range.
Do some research in your area. Approach catering companies, event organisers, butchers and supermarkets to find out if they will buy from you. You can also contact some agricultural agents who would be able to sell your produce on your behalf. Are you close enough to your markets to make it a viable business venture?
Draw up a budget considering expenses such as buying breeding birds, labour, fencing, construction of housing if necessary, feed, transport costs, storage and medical expenses. Do your research on how much people will be prepared to pay per kilo, so you can get some idea of the possible profit. Also find out how they would expect the birds to be presented ~ does that mean you will need to slaughter and dress them on your plot? If there is a poultry abattoir in your area, will they do turkeys and what do they charge?
Determine what breed of turkey best suits your smallholding. There are different breeds of turkey and each of them has their own particular advantages. There are some turkeys that are more heat tolerant than other, whereas there are turkeys that produce more eggs, are more fertile and hatch easier than other turkeys.
SA Poultry clubs list the following breeds as being available locally: American Mammoth Bronze, Beltsville White, Blue Turkey, Bourbon Red Turkey, British White, Buff Turkey, Royal Palm, Narragansett, Norfolk Black, Slate and White Holland. As you can see, turkey breed names normally refer to their plumage.
Answer the following questions:
- Is the temperature in your area right for your breed of turkey?
- Do you have the right facilities or do you need to construct?
- Is there a source of potable water nearby?
- Can you run a free-range operation, is there sufficient plant material or do you have to plant more?
- Were there previous turkeys or animal epidemics near the area?
It is suggested that an acre of fenced land is sufficient for around 200 to 250 adult free-range turkeys. However, turkeys do require housing at night to protect them from predators. Despite their size, turkeys are not as hardy as some other poultry breeds and will appreciate shelter, away from extreme weather.
Planning your turkey housing
In terms of municipal by-laws, turkeys fall under poultry legislation. Most municipalities state that one must have 0,5m² for each mature turkey accommodated in the poultry house.
Plan your turkey house so that you can keep it dry and clean and ensure sufficient flow of fresh air inside the house, as ventilation is very important.
Turkeys have the instinct to perch at night, so some stout poles placed in the housing, about 1m off the ground would be useful for the adult birds. However, little poults will try to perch on whatever is higher than them but perching too early, especially on a narrow pole can dent the breast bone, so try to put this off for as long as possible. A bale of straw in the house will keep little poults very happy for a long time, jumping up and perching on it at night. When almost adult (five to six months old), they can be introduced to a purpose built perch.
What to feed your turkeys
You will need to provide feeding troughs and water dispensers. Turkeys are susceptible to the deadly blackhead disease. Visiting wild birds might be carriers, so it is best to keep the feed and water containers indoors if possible.
If you intend to keep them free-range you will need to be able to rotate them from different camps. Perhaps you will allow them some time in a lucerne field, to provide a variety of forage. Don’t leave them there for too long though, as lucerne sometimes makes the meat bitter. The best forages are full of legumes and have a good mix.
By allowing your turkeys to forage they will eat as much as 25% less of the commercial feed than if you didn’t allow them to forage. When you look at the rising cost of feed, it is a win-win situation. Just make sure that if they are out in pasture they also have some shade to get out of the mid-day sun.
If you pasture your turkeys these fields will need to rest over the winter, as well as using additional fields for rotation to minimize disease and damage to the pasture. During the season you may also need to reseed to keep your pastures in top condition.
Even if you do pasture them they will still need additional concentrates. Turkeys require more protein in their regular feed than chickens. For proper growth and better production, poults need about 28% protein in their feed and adult birds need about 20% protein.
Locally you are not likely to find special turkey feed, so you will have to feed general poultry grower pellets, which have a high protein content and then move on to layer pellets. You can also feed anything you have that is spare from the vegetable garden. It is not recommended to feed broiler mash, as the feed is medicated.
Turkeys are very efficient at converting feed to mass.
When keeping turkeys be mindful that they also need a constant supply of grit. Like chickens, they need the grit to help breakdown the food in their gizzard. Poults, even from 2 days old should be given grit as part of their diet.
To get them started correctly, don’t cut corners on feed. Turkeys need 26% protein for at least the first month, before levelling down to 21%.
Along with quality feeding, ensure availability of sufficient clean and fresh water. A hundred adult turkeys will need about 65 litres of water daily. Automatic poultry waterers and feeders are a good option. Clean the feeder and waterer on a regular basis.
In terms of raising turkeys, the first three weeks are the most critical. Poults are incredibly fragile for the first three weeks and they must be kept in a brooder. The purpose of the brooder is to imitate the warm, safe conditions beneath a mother hen. It must be very hot and humid. They need regular checks, as poults are especially prone to flip onto their backs, and suffocate themselves.
Disease and other health problems are also common in turkeys like other poultry. Don’t raise turkeys and chickens together, as chickens are carriers of diseases that might be fatal for turkeys.
To read more on poultry, click here.