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Raising backyard turkeys

Turkeys arrive through the postal service from the hatchery.
Turkeys arrive through the postal service from the hatchery.
Julia Inslee

Turkeys are the natural successors to the backyard chicken trend. Turkeys tend to be more personable and curious than chickens and make very interesting lawn ornaments. They add a little pizazz to the backyard. They act as boisterous, friendly greeters and nosey neighbors. They enjoy being in a group and seem to move as one mind, rarely straying from their flock. And with a little food, they will follow their human leader anywhere. Besides providing interesting companions, raising turkeys has the added benefit of producing a healthy and humane source of meat.

Turkeys come in various colors and sizes, as well as a variety of prices. Broad Breasted Whites are at the lower end of the price range, while breeds such as Royal Palms and Standard Bronze are more expensive. Like chickens, turkeys are available from a hatchery through the mail. Some feed stores offer turkeys, but they are more widely obtained directly from a hatchery. (One such local hatchery is Hoffman Hatchery in Gratz, PA.) However, turkeys are only available from April through July. The fowl arrive as day old poults in a peeping box. As babies, they need a warm area and a heat lamp, as well as turkey starter crumbles and water. Young turkeys are very vulnerable in their first week or two and require attention to their diet, comfort, and safety. Once they are past that first stage, they are pretty hardy birds.

Fairly quickly, the poults can be seen starting to strut and show off their young feathers. They begin to chirp, rather than peep. And once the turkeys’ feathers come in, they no longer need a heat lamp. After a month or so, the turkeys can spend time outside in the fresh air and sunlight in either an enclosed “chicken tractor” structure, a fenced area (Turkeys can jump/fly pretty high so need a tall fence to keep them contained.), or wandering freely (They don’t stray too far from their food source.). However, it is most important that the birds are locked up at night to avoid any predators, so even if they are free to roam during the day, they must have a safe place to roost at night. Turkeys also have voracious appetites. They are fabulous foragers and enjoy roaming around pecking at insects and gobbling down grasses and weeds. However, they still need grain.

Turkeys grow rapidly, and, before too long, you’ve got three foot tall birds with foot long wings and powerful legs. Once they mature, the turkeys, especially the males, can put on quite a show, puffing up their feathers and elongating their wattle. They strut around, tail feathers in full flair, while throwing in the odd gobble for added effect. Mature turkeys average in size from around 12 to 33 lbs, depending on breed. It takes about 5 months for the turkeys to grow to their market weight, which, when bought in June/July, puts the turkeys right on track for the Thanksgiving harvest.