Raising and Marketing Pastured Turkeys

by Cris Carusi

This summer, Charuth Loth and I raised and marketed pastured turkeys. We maintained a coccidiosis-free flock without antibiotics (although we had to treat a few birds for other problems), and we raised a quality product that our customers enjoyed. But we made a few mistakes that cost us quite a few turkeys, not to mention profits. I am writing this story to share those successes and mistakes with any of you who might want to raise turkeys, so that you can learn from our experience.

Charuth, her husband Kevin, and their sons Graydon (age 5) and Walker (age 3), raise organic specialty vegetables and alfalfa hay on a small farm just southwest of Lincoln. Charuth wanted to add turkeys to their farming system to improve their soil fertility and help control insect pests. Turkeys are aggressive graziers, they gobble up grasshoppers (no pun intended), and their manure is rich in nutrients. So it made sense to add turkeys to their farm.

Last spring, Charuth approached me about joining her in this turkey venture. She had some experience with turkey production. But she needed some help with the cost of feed, poults, and equipment, not to mention the additional labor required by a bigger flock.

This project appealed to me because I wanted to gain some hands-on experience with farming. I agreed to provide 50% of the capital investment and 50% of the labor, in exchange for half of the profits. I took charge of the marketing, Charuth took on the day-to-day chores, and we shared the big chores like moving the critters to fresh pasture and processing the birds. As it turned out, this was not an even split in labor. The daily chores took longer than we estimated, and the marketing was relatively easy.

We set out to raise our turkeys organically, and we ordered certified organic feed and supplement for them in May. We ordered the poults at the same time, and asked the supplier not to give them any antibiotics. The postman delivered 120 poults to the farm on the last Friday in June. Half of them were bronze, and half of them were broad-breasted white birds.

We started the poults out in a grain storage room Ė about 36 square feet Ė off of Kevin and Charuthís barn. Before the poults arrived, we scrubbed the room with bleach water and covered the floor with a deep layer of wood chips. At about 4 weeks, we split the birds into two grain rooms.

Turkey poults are notorious for sleeping in piles and smothering each other. To prevent the birds from accumulating between the exposed studs, we covered the walls with 3í cardboard panels. We used these panels to round out the corners in the room, so that the birds wouldnít pile up in the corners. We provided two heat lamps, feeders, and waterers. We used red bulbs in the heat lamps, as we read somewhere that white light can inspire violence in turkey poults.

Despite our efforts to prevent death by smothering, nearly 1/4 of our poults were suffocated or injured as a result of faulty management on our part. Our first mistake was providing only two heat lamps. Next year, we will have one lamp for at least every 20 poults. Our second mistake was the 3í tall cardboard panels on the walls. Soon the poults were able to fly over the panels, and we lost about 15 birds in a massive pile-up behind one panel. Another 15 birds were permanently crippled in this pile-up, and most of them didnít make it to adulthood.

We had almost no diarrheal disease in our flock, despite the fact that we were told that it is nearly impossible to raise turkeys organically because of their susceptibility to coccidiosis and blackhead. From day one, we put acidophilus in their water. A turkey book from the 1930s advised feeding raw milk to prevent diarrhea, and we figured that acidophilus would have the same effect. Only one poult developed diarrhea, and we isolated him and fed him antibiotics.

We had trouble with vitamin deficiencies in our flock, however. At about 4 weeks of age, a few of the turkeys began to stagger and topple over like drunks. Their legs began to grow crooked. We isolated these birds, and fed them antibiotics and vitamins. I finally found a turkey book that pinpointed the problem as a vitamin deficiency. By this time, we had about 12 sick birds and more were showing early symptoms. We supplemented their water with liquid vitamins, and the problem vanished.

We relinquished our organic certification when we fed vitamins to the turkeys. We tried treating them with certified organic sunflower seeds and fresh greens from Charuthís organic garden, both of which are good sources of vitamin A and E. At five weeks, however, this strategy didnít work.

At 7 weeks, we put the birds out on pasture. By this time, we were down to about 80 birds. We decided not to build portable pens for the birds. Instead, we used portable electric sheep fence which Charuth already had for her goats.

We trained our turkeys to respect the fence by providing an inner fence of chicken wire for two weeks. When we removed the chicken wire fence, the turkeys honored the boundaries provided by the electric fence. The few birds that did test their boundaries stood right outside the fence and hollered until we put them back with the flock.

We raised the birds on alfalfa pasture, which took care of their vitamin deficiency almost immediately. We gave them a large paddock and moved them once a week, which probably wasnít often enough. We were both too busy to move them more often, and the electric fence was more time consuming than moveable pens. However, the turkeys were free to run and fly.

We built a hoop house shelter for the birds out of PVC pipe, rebar stakes, and shade cloth. It was a pain to move, and the birds liked to roost on top of it rather than inside of it. At night, this made them susceptible to predatory birds.

We lost about 16 more birds during the 12 weeks that they were out on pasture. Many of these casualties were crippled by the vitamin deficiency, and they couldnít walk once they weighed 5 or 6 pounds.

We had some trouble with an owl who decided that our smaller 14-week old birds looked like a tasty snack. We tried a noisemaker to keep the owl at bay, but this didnít help for long. Finally, Kevin built us a makeshift turkey house out of palets and scrap wood. Kevin and Charuth herded the turkeys into this shelter at night, solving the owl problem. Next year, we want a turkey house on skids that can be moved with a tractor.

We butchered the turkeys at 19 weeks. We didnít have the equipment to do this ourselves, but with only 64 birds left we wanted to minimize our processing costs. We found a processor in Snyder who let us help with the butchering and gave us a discount for our labor. Our birds averaged 13-14 pounds after processing.

Compared to raising the birds, marketing was easy. Kevin and Charuth sell their vegetables at the Omaha and Lincoln farmersí markets, and their customers were very excited about our turkeys. We sold our birds for $2.25 a pound. We had all of our birds sold before they went to the processor.

On the order form, we asked our customers if they preferred broad-breasted white or bronze birds, and we warned them that the bronze birds might have a "peppery" look because of ink stains from their dark pinfeathers. About half of our customers wanted to try the bronze birds, and we had no complaints about their appearance.

Needless to say, we didnít make any money off of this project because of our high death losses. But we earned enough to cover our production costs. We learned how to raise pastured turkeys without having to pay tuition!

About halfway through the project, Charuth and I were convinced that we were finished with the turkey business. But, after seeing how happy our customers were when they picked up their birds, and after hearing their compliments about the quality of our product, we think we might try it again.

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