Homegrown turkey for the holidays

(Ivory Harlow photo)

The holidays may be months away, but growing a big and beautiful bird to adorn your holiday table starts in summer.

Breed selection

The most common turkey breeds for meat production are broad-breasted white and broad-breasted bronze. Broad-breasted toms grow to about 30 lbs. and hens 15 lbs., Broad-breasted birds are harvested at 14-18 weeks of age and produce an abundance of juicy, white breast meat.

Heritage breeds, such as Black Spanish, Bourbon Red and others, are increasingly popular for backyard flocks. They take 4-6 weeks longer to reach harvest weight. Read more information on heritage breeds from The Livestock Conservancy.

Hatching eggs or purchasing poults

Purchase fertilized eggs or poults from a reputable hatchery. If you plan to hatch your own, add 28 days incubation period to your production schedule. Purchased poults are typically less than 1 week old when shipped.

Anticipate some losses to your flock when calculating order quantity. My experience has been turkeys have a higher death rate than chickens. My farm’s average death rate for turkey poults is 10 percent, and less than 5 percent for chicks.

Raising turkey

Brooding. Poults live in a dry and warm brooder box for the first 6 weeks of life. Provide birds with fresh food and water daily. Starter feed has higher levels of protein and nutrients to encourage development.

Growing. Move birds to permanent housing after 6 weeks. Housing should shelter young turkeys from adverse weather conditions and protect them from predators. Although broad-breasted turkeys do not roost, standard size turkeys enjoy a roost to perch.

Grower and finishing feeds support young turkeys’ nutritional needs. You can purchase vitamin supplements and grit, or provide your birds with access to the great outdoors where they will ingest extra vitamins and grit naturally.

Free ranging turkeys is a great strategy to reduce feed costs. Heritage breeds are excellent foragers. Turkeys also enjoy fresh food scraps and garden waste.

Harvesting turkey

Turkey for personal consumption can be slaughtered and processed on your farm, as long as local ordinances allow.

Turkey for sale is regulated by federal and state government. Regulations dictate meat for sale must be processed in an inspected and approved facility. There are small farm exemptions for meat sold direct to consumers. Information regarding laws and exemptions available from Extension.

Cooking homegrown turkey

Free range turkeys live more active lives, developing more muscle and less fat, than store-bought birds. Heritage birds have denser and more dark meat than their broad-breasted counterparts. Farmstead turkeys are typically raised without chemicals and processed without additives. The taste and texture of homegrown turkey are similar to wild turkey, and benefits from extra TLC in the kitchen:

  • Brine bird and/or pre-season to ignite tenderizing and improve texture.
  • Oil-rubbing bird before roasting maintains moisture.
  • Baste frequently throughout cook time.

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