Lessons Learned Raising Homestead Turkeys

2018 was the year of the turkey at the homestead, and it occurred to me that I never shared a “lessons learned” post on the blog.  In sharing, I hope to encourage others who’re thinking of taking the plunge.  I would also submit that the winter solstice is a perfect time to ponder homestead plans for next year, so here’s our story for what it’s worth.

From the moment we ventured into homestead poultry, I knew I wanted turkeys to be a part of the plan.  I had these glorified ideas of what it’d be like to raise “Thanksgiving” and “Christmas”, but I didn’t fully understand the scope of that dream until after we had 23 homestead turkeys in body bags in the back of our SUV.

I’m glad we raised turkeys.  We’ll likely do it again.  There were some important take-aways that’ll definitely make things easier (and more profitable) in the future though.

Order of Operations

I once heard a farmer in the regenerative agriculture space say something like, “Start with pastured chickens.  That way, when you offer turkeys, it’ll be easier to get a buy-in on a $100+ bird.” But since I’d also heard folks say things like, “If you’re going to raise one animal, you might as well raise ten and sell the extras,”, I didn’t think it was unreasonable to order 25 turkey poults from Hoover’s Hatchery.

I figured I’d gift some birds, I’d put some in my freezer, and I’d sell enough to pay for the costs involved in raising the birds.  It didn’t work out that way though for two reasons.  First, I didn’t have a clear marketing plan.  I just figured I’d “wing it” and it’d all work out OK in the end.  Second, about eleven weeks into the 22-week project, our lives were forever changed when an extended family member who lived with us was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.  After her diagnosis, it was all we could do to manage the normal stuff let alone “extras” like trying to sell a bunch of turkeys that were going to be ready the week of Thanksgiving.

Our loved one passed the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and had we not been dealing with that hardship, I probably could have done a better job marketing our product, but in the end, I think it all boiled down to doing things backwards.  If I’d started with chickens, the turkeys may have sold themselves, and dramatic life changes shouldn’t have really impacted the turkey project.

Feed Management

I went into the turkey project knowing that feeding meat birds would take careful management.  In the end though, we spent a lot more money on feed then we probably should have, and we didn’t really see that investment flesh out in the final weights of the birds.  We bought almost 2000 pounds of feed over the 22 weeks that we had the turkeys.  Now, in the beginning, that feed was not only going toward 25 poults, but it was also feeding ten guineas and 10 chickens.  I don’t know how much feed those other birds ate, but it probably wasn’t more than 10% based on when we stopped feeding those birds together.

This means that 1800 or so pounds of feed yielded 372 pounds of turkey in the freezer.  We definitely used too much feed for that kind of yield, so we’ll have to plan more carefully the next time.  If that means more forage or changing the protein ratios, we can do that, but there’s definitely some work to be done there.

Stocking Density and Labor

I found a reference on small flock turkey raising that suggested a stocking density of 3 to 4 square feet of pasture pen per bird.  Since I had an 80-square-foot pen and I expected to have brooder losses, I ordered 25 birds.  As it turns out though, we’re really great at brooding birds with a new outside setup we designed, so we ended up with a tighter stocking density than I think was optimal.

Feeding and watering one pen of birds makes for less labor and equipment, but I think a balance can be found so that adding an extra pen doesn’t end up adding 100% more labor.

We also learned that hauling water is the biggest part of the labor involved in raising the turkeys, so if we can come up with a more efficient way to handle the water situation, things will be easier (and more profitable.)

Final Thoughts

Until I tasted that turkey that I roasted for Thanksgiving, I’d never had pasture-raised turkey before.  I immediately fell in love, and I wasn’t sad that I’d been “stuck” with over 300 pounds of turkey in the freezer.  We learned so much from the experience, but more than anything else, we learned that we can produce some amazing meat, the likes of which you can’t get at the store.  There’s something to be said for enjoying an animal that you raised humanely with care and respect, and in doing that, we learned that we can take even more responsibility for the food that our family enjoys.

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