Raising Turkeys for Food and Income
Raising meat turkeys is an adventure on many levels. I’ve had the pleasure of growing a turkey for Thanksgiving for years, starting back in high school. It’s one thing to raise turkeys for dinner, but when you’re trying to turn a dollar, things do get complicated. Let me share some of my experiences with raising meat turkeys so that you can start off on the right foot.
Why Raise Turkeys?
Buying a frozen turkey at the supermarket is a very simple, and very cheap avenue, to a turkey dinner. That being said, like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Just like store-bought eggs can’t compare to your eggs fresh from the coop, supermarket turkeys aren’t the same as fresh-off-the-farm birds. If you want the most tender, most flavorful, and absolute freshest bird for your festivities or dinner, then a bird raised at home is your best bet.
I spent my high school years in a regional agricultural school, and as such, I was a member of the FFA. All members of FFA need what’s called an SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experience) project. Some kids did gardening, some had horses, but I raised birds.
As a freshman in high school, I already had experience raising show poultry. I was breeding fancy show chickens and having a grand time, but there was no profit to be found. AgEd stressed the importance of running your project like a business, and my business was buried in the red. I needed a product to sell and somehow turkeys caught my attention.
Profit and Loss
Like any business, it’s important to watch how much you spend and how much you make. As long as your expenditure is lower than your gross income, things are cheery, as it was when I started in turkeys. However, things changed.
In the early 2000s, feed prices started to climb, and consequently, so did my costs. By the time I graduated college, my farm expenses were exceeding my farm income, which was an issue. Despite that, I did continue the tradition for a bit longer than I should have.
My Big Miscalculation
Sometimes you need to take a step back from things and give yourself time to reconsider. Now that I’ve had some time away from raising meat turkeys, I can identify my shortcomings. When I started, my inexperience was offset by low feed prices. The fault in the business’ foundation opened wide when those feed prices climbed.
Raising Meat Turkeys
I was a big fan of big birds. Unfortunately, my success in growing a big broad breasted turkey would be my undoing. My customers wanted a larger bird than your standard supermarket bird, but not as big as I was growing. Once I started producing 50-pound turkeys (dressed weight), I should have realized it was time to back off, but I didn’t.
Point of Diminishing Returns
If you’re raising meat turkeys correctly, your toms should be yielding a dressed weight of about 30 pounds at 4.5 months old. I was growing my birds closer to 6 months old before processing, which was a waste of feed. Most of my customers wanted a much smaller bird, preferably one that would fit in their oven. As such, I had a hard time selling my extra-large birds. Those large birds that didn’t sell constituted significant financial losses for me.
Savings in Feed
When I started growing turkeys, I began on bagged feed. As prices went up, I found my local feed mill and started buying in bulk. If you have a feed mill at your disposal, use it! Buying bulk feed represented a big cost saving over bagged feed.
As I experimented with raising meat turkeys, I also tried different feeds available through the mill. I found a product that was super high in protein, which made my birds grow fast and big. However, that massive bird was my undoing.
Be sure you’re using the right feed, and if you don’t know which is best, ask. Even though I found a high-performance feed that gave results, those results were more expensive than they needed to be. Had I used the correct feed, I would have seen good, controlled growth in my birds. My feed costs would have been lower and my dressed weights would have been easier to sell.
Feed and Water Equipment
Turkeys can eat just fine out of a chicken feeder, but regular chicken water nipples are a no-no. Turkeys require a much higher flow rate for nipple valves to work for them since they’re such a big bird. Turkeys drink a lot of water, much more than you would expect. Manually filling water dispensers will become the bane of your existence, so I highly suggest an automatic water system.
Automatic bell waterers are a simple solution to the issue, but there are high-flow turkey nipple valves on the market. If you decide to try using turkey nipples, be prepared to buy a commercial style watering system. It’s a good investment if you want to be serious about raising meat turkeys, but the cost may scare off some people.
There are a few interesting breeds out there available to you, such as the Royal Palm turkey and the Midget White. If you’re raising turkeys with chickens for fun, then by all means, try some cool heritage breeds!
If you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, you can’t go wrong with either a Bronze or White Broad Breasted turkey. These giant birds are king (and queen) of feed conversion, which is how much feed they eat, versus how much meat they produce. These birds grow fast, are available at most commercial hatcheries and are usually inexpensive compared to rarer breeds because of sales volume.
Cutting to the Chase
Rearing turkeys can be a chore, or at least it was for me. Raising turkey poults from day-old to full-grown was a challenge for me in the beginning. I had miserable mortality rates, which likely had more to do with my inexperience and lack of space than anything else.
My solution to the dilemma was simple; buy them older! If you find turkeys to be challenging to raise from a poult, or if you’d rather not brood them yourself, look for a local grower. I found a local farm that raised turkey poults to 4 weeks old, then sold them to people like me.
Buying started poults saved me a step and I had zero mortality when buying started turkeys. Did I mention that it was cost-effective too? I was surprised at how affordable it was to buy them this way.
Don’t forget that you need to process your birds! Don’t fall into the trap I see so many new bird farmers find themselves in; find and verify that there’s a local processor (slaughterhouse) that will process your birds for you, and that they’ll do it when you want them done. Be sure to find out if they are a USDA inspected processor.
I wouldn’t trade the experience of raising meat turkeys for anything. The whole experience as a kid taught me so much about growing food on the farm, marketing, business finances, and good old farming. Is it something I’d try again for the sake of turning a dollar? No, not personally. I’ve had my fill of raising meat turkeys for profit. For personal consumption? Someday I’ll do it again.
Words of Wisdom
If I didn’t scare you off, then good for you! My biggest suggestions are to buy commercial birds, preferably started poults. Be sure you have lots of barn space before you even think of raising meat turkeys. Be sure to research the equipment, both for raising and processing if that’s what you want to do. Find a processor before you even order your birds or volunteer to help a local farmer process their turkeys before you try it on your own. Find your local feed mill too, and research what feed will work best for you.