I’ve wanted to raise turkeys for the last couple years, but I decided to wait until we had a barn. There are just too many predators around our farm and I need a way to lock them up at night. Obviously, they are too big to go in and out of the hen house. Then this guy fell into our laps. He actually belonged to a friend who decided to get rid of her animals and move into an apartment in town. When we got him, he was roughly the size of our chicks and could still easily go in and out of the hen house. Let’s just say he grew quickly.
He actually had a pretty good temperament compared to some other tom turkeys I’ve met. As he got bigger, we let him run around the property during the day. He was too tall for the runs on the chicken tractors, so he really couldn’t stay in there comfortably. As night, hubby would catch him and put him inside one of our unused hen houses. In the morning, he’d carry him back to the tractors to hang out. He finally just got too big and heavy for hubby to do this every night and morning. Tom was a broad-breasted white turkey. They are ready to butcher as early as 5 months and only have a life expectancy of 18 months. They grow so quickly that their hearts eventually just give out. We didn’t feed him anything crazy to make him grow fast. It’s just genetics.
He was about 6 months old when we finally butchered him. This was our first time butchering a turkey. We estimate he was about 30-35 pounds when he was alive. He was 23 pounds after we processed him. We use a large stock pot used to deep fry a turkey to scald our birds after they’re bled out. He barely fit inside the stock pot. Then the birds are placed in a cooler of ice water to shock them. This makes it easier to pluck the feathers. Hubby swears he’s not processing any more chickens until after he’s made an automatic plucker. You don’t realize how many feathers a chicken or turkey has until you’re trying to pull out soaking wet feathers by hand.
How was the meat? Due to his size, he had to cook about an hour longer than the turkeys I normally buy from the grocery store. I usually buy a 15-18 lb bird, thaw it and brine it. It typically takes 2 – 2 1/2 hours to roast. At 23 lbs, Tom took about 3 1/2 hours. That meant that the outer layer of the breast was a little dry. However, the inner layer (everything below the tenderloin) was moist and tender. The dark meat was all fairly juicy. What amazed us about Tom was how muscular he was. I’m not kidding, this turkey had butt cheeks. His wings were bigger and more muscled than most chicken legs. My husband took one of the legs to work and ate off of it for 3 days. Our family of 3 had enough turkey meat to feed us comfortably for almost 2 weeks. That was eating turkey for about one meal a day. Suffice to say, we’re now a little tired of eating turkey. Why so much meat? Commercial turkeys are raised in massive barns with 100s of their closest friends and butchered as young as possible. They don’t go outside and they don’t get very much room to move around. It’s great if you want a nice tender breast, but it means the legs and wings don’t get much of a chance to develop because they’re barely used. It’s not a very good life for the turkey and you get short-changed on some delicious dark meat. However, I will say that Tom had some pretty thick tendons on him because of his life of freedom, but that was easily separated from the rest of the meat. I’d rather eat a humanely raised, body-building bird with tendons, than a sickly, tender one who never saw the light of day.
Overall, raising them isn’t difficult. We’re considering building some kind of enclosure for our goats and chickens that would include a run and “stall” for turkeys. It would certainly be easier to herd turkeys into a stall at night than picking them up and putting them in a hen house. When I get more turkeys, I want to get something more closely related to a wild turkey (a heritage breed) that can breed naturally. The problem with broad-breasted turkeys is that they have to be artificially inseminated. AI in horses and cows, I could probably handle. At least there, I understand the mechanics involved. Something about AI in turkeys just seems too complicated and unnatural to me. Heritage breeds are becoming more readily available and I’ve heard their meat has more flavor. It’s an experiment I’m looking forward to.