Amy Sliffe of Blue Whistler Farm and founder of Homestead Mamas lives with her husband, Josh, and their two little boys in Harrisonville, MO, where they are currently bringing back to life a 100 year old farmhouse on 5 acres. Her passion for farming and desire to provide nutrient-dense food for her family sparked the idea of bringing together a community of like-minded women.
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Raising Turkeys on the homestead can seem daunting when compared to chickens and ducks, but I promise you it is worth it! I have raised Broad Breasted White and Bronze Broad Breasted Orlopp turkeys in the brooder from day old poults to harvest, and also now my dad and I have had a pretty successful year with a breeding trio of barnyard heritage breed turkeys on his homestead. There are positives and negatives to both of these ways of raising turkeys on the homestead, so I think I will honestly just do both for the foreseeable future, as I see a benefit to both allowing the mama hens to hatch out her own babies, and also raising some from brooder to harvest each season. So let’s get into raising turkeys on the homestead!
Let’s start in the brooder, as a lot of people have issues with turkeys in the brooder. They are not the brightest little birds, and really need some “hand holding” to figure out life’s greatest secrets… like how to eat food! When I was raising turkeys on scale back when Blue Whistler Farm was in production, I always had a ratio of at least 5 chicks to 1 turkey poult in the brooder. The chicks seem to teach the poults how to live, and also provide a bit more fluff for cuddling, as they do like it slightly warmer than chicks. I highly recommend adding at least a 3 to 1 ratio of chicks to poults in the brooder, as it really can save you a headache! I learned this tip from the amazing book Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin, which I really can’t recommend enough if you wanna raise poultry on your homestead. The poults (and chicks!) need 24/7 access to heat, grit, oyster shells, and water, as well as free choice electrolyte and probiotic water. We gave them enough food during the day to just about run out by bedtime. After the first week or so they have free choice feed 24/7!
While raising BBWs, I started them on a 22% feed, and kept them on 20% once on pasture. This worked well for my birds. I also gave them fresh greens quite often as well, and was amazed at how much grass they could gobble up (pun totally intended!) for being babies still ! They need a draft free space, and will be strutting around just days after their arrival. Have I mentioned they are the most entertaining birds on the homestead? I sure think so!
Once they are out of the brooder, they turkeys are pretty tough, and can handle themselves much better than broilers in harsh weather! Give them a good shelter, and use Premier 1 Netting to keep them safe from predation (because they cannot fly, they can’t roost very high, and so aren’t safe enough to allow to free range unless they are cooped up at night) move them often to a new plot of grass, and watch them grow! At the end of the 16 weeks, you will have birds ranging from 16lbs to 25lbs (if you got straight run poults!) for the freezer! Raising BBWs is a totally different experience than going the heritage breed route, but it’s very fun, and a great way to experience turkeys without any commitment!
This spring when we moved back to MO, we were excited when we noticed my dads young Royal Palm turkey hens show us they were about to go into heat! They would fly or run over to us as soon as they’d see us, and follow us everywhere we’d go, and lay down right at our feet. Young hens start doing this in early spring, as soon as the days become noticeably longer. Our two hens didn’t yet have a boyfriend, but they were making it very obvious that they were about to start laying, and were seemingly excited to go broody and sit for the 28 days to hatch out their own babies. Once we realized what was going on, we were very happy to start the search for a boyfriend for them!
We looked on Craigslist, and found a young Nargansett Tom near by for sale! We brought him home, and about a week later, our little turkey hens stopped following us around, and soon thereafter got down to business with their new beau, if ya know what I mean!
If you’ve ever seen turkeys mate, you know how terribly awkward it is. The Tom just stands on top of the poor little hen for minutes at a time, and then finally, when you are about to go save her because she’s gasping for air, he does the magic trick, then hobbles off, and starts strutting around her like a king! The little ladies would soon go missing, and we’d later find them sitting on huge clutches of eggs usually hidden in tall grass.
We would check on the hens daily, but soon realized that eggs under the hens were diminishing due to opossums. Once we figured this out, we decided to simply move a chicken tractor (we prefer a Suschovich style tractor) to wherever the mama was sitting, lift it over her, add in some feed and water, and then she would be completely protected from the outside world. We’d open it every few days during the day so she could go hang out at the watering hole for the much needed dose of chicken chat that all “broody mamas” need on occasion. This method worked great for us, and after we started doing this, we stopped losing eggs immediately!
Once the poults would hatch we noticed that when we would let a mama and her many babies (often times 10-14 poults!) out to free range during the day while they were still to young to “flutter” around the farmstead, it was difficult for her to get back to her safe tractor before dusk and get them all in. Turkeys are such good foragers that this doesn’t work out well in their favor when they have itty bitties in tow. It was just too much for the hens to handle to get them all in before the sun went down. So a handful of times through out the summer, they would just bed down somewhere in the field. The next day when they would come around, they’d have 1-2 less poults than they had the night before. It really was heartbreaking, as the mamas would be calling for their babies for a couple days after they went missing.
Though we lost some to predation, the hens just kept going broody, 3-4 times each in their first season, and hatched out quite a few turkey poults, and did all the work of raising them. Turkey poults are quite expensive compared to chicks, so this is a perk of having heritage turkeys on the homestead!
We just harvested 3 toms for the holidays, and kept 4 hens to grow our flock, and we also gave a couple away! Our first season of raising heritage breed turkeys on the homestead was a true success, even though we had a lot of hard lessons learned.
The jakes that we harvested were born in mid May, and free ranged, and primarily foraging for their own food around the farmstead, and ended up dressing out to around 13lbs each!
Heritage turkeys really have been a fun addition here on my parents homestead, and I’m so excited to add them to our new homestead as well. I have a feeling I will still raise a few broad breasted whites next year for the holidays, but I do know now that having two hens and a tom of heritage breeds proved to be a very rewarding and sustainable way to raise our own turkey meat without much input at all!