If you want to bring real excitement into your backyard farm this summer, consider turkeys. They are easy, entertaining, and delicious. Before getting too excited, there are some important issues to consider. If you order from a hatchery, most require a minimum order of 10 -15 birds. So you may need to find some other backyard farmers with which to split the order. You must also begin with the end in mind realizing that you will have to dress them out or find someone to do it for you. Call your agriculture Extension Agent and see if he or she knows someone who will dress them.
While you have your Agent on the line, see if the Extension service is sponsoring 4H turkey projects that you can get your children involved in. If so, Extension may order poults for you. If you order from a hatchery, I suggest you get the largest white breed they offer. Half the fun is putting a turkey on the table at Thanksgiving that is twice as big as anything you can find in the store. Your guest’s jaws will drop when they see it. This past year, our Thanksgiving turkey dressed out at 42 pounds (our record is 48). We use the lowest rack in the oven and the biggest pan we can find.
You will want to raise at least 3-5 turkeys. Turkeys are social creatures who want the companionship of other turkeys. Let’s suppose you start with five. One dies. You name the other four “Thanksgiving”, “Christmas”, “Easter”, and “Homeless” (you will donate Homeless to the homeless shelter or a needy family in your neighborhood.)
Turkeys are great for scavenging insects in the yard. It is hilarious watching older poults chase after a moth. They will eat grass and weeds. However, you will need to supplement with commercial feed. Fence them out of the vegetable garden if they start doing too much damage. Occasionally turn them in the garden. They will clean out the bugs before they start on the plants. Keep in mind that raising turkeys is more expensive than buying them when they are a loss leader at the store for $0.69 a pound.
Turkeys are not shy. They will run to you when you walk out the door and follow you around the yard. Don’t be surprised when they brush up against you as you are gardening. Don’t be afraid either. They rarely peck.
There is nothing quite like seeing two Toms trying to out strut each other. Their appearance doubles in size as they puff out their feathers. Their heads, snoods (flap of skin that hangs over the beak), wattles (flap of skin under the chin), and caruncles (growths on the throat) turn brilliant shades of red and blue (how patriotic they look!)
They gobble occasionally but it is not annoying like rosters crowing or laying hens cackling.
The biggest problem you may have is getting too attached to them. It can be a little distressing loading them in the pickup for slaughtering. But if you keep things in perspective and give them the names I suggested earlier, these emotions will be short lived. Turkeys are one of the best ways to teach your children and to remind yourself where your meat comes from.
Click here for more information refer to the following Extension fact sheet.
Dale Maurice Johnson