Small-Flock Turkey Production

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Raising turkeys can be a satisfying educational activity as well as a source of economical, high-quality meat for your family and friends.

Small-Flock Turkey Production

Photo credit: BigStock

Turkey production is an enterprise that lends itself well to small-scale and part-time farming operations. A small flock of turkeys can be raised at a scale that fits your available labor and uses existing facilities. Turkeys can easily be started by hatching eggs or raising young poults. By producing the freshest turkey possible, you can serve customers who value a locally produced product.

English colonists introduced European-bred strains of the turkey to eastern North America in the seventeenth century. Turkeys were bred mainly for their beautifully colored plumage until about 1935, after which the breeding emphasis changed to their meat qualities.

In many European countries, roast turkey has long been a customary Christmas dish, but in the United States the bird is especially associated with Thanksgiving. Turkey production has thus tended to be seasonal, although in the United States and some other countries, turkey is available in various forms throughout the year.

The “breeds” of turkeys are all varieties that originated from the North American wild turkey. The most commonly raised commercial variety is the Broad-Breasted White. The Broad-Breasted Bronze, similar in size and conformation, is less popular because of a market preference for white feathering. However, a wide variety of breeds and colors—Bourbon Red, Black, Slate, Holland White, Narragansett, Bronze, Royal Palm, and others—can also be ordered from hatcheries. While nice to look at, most of these hobby strains do not grow as fast or as efficiently as the commercial turkey strains. They also have a lower percentage of white meat compared to the commercial strains of meat turkeys.

Marketing and Processing

Before beginning your operation, you should examine your objectives for producing turkeys; this will help ensure your success. A small number of turkeys can be raised in a relatively small area, but you will need to obey local zoning laws and ordinances to rear, process, and sell poultry.

If you plan on direct sales of turkeys from your small-flock operation, you need to consider several issues, including timing your production to match the needs of your customers, processing (if selling whole carcasses), and transporting live or processed turkeys. Local markets (including auctions and live markets) and grocers can also provide opportunities for selling your excess production. If you plan on selling processed turkeys, you may find it more convenient to have them custom processed.

State and federal laws regulate the sale of processed birds when producing under an exemption from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Limited processing of fresh turkeys (20,000 birds or fewer) for direct sale to consumers is legal if sales do not cross state lines. For information on regulations regarding home processing and other aspects of turkey flock management, contact your Penn State Extension county office or the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Production and Management

While caring for turkeys requires little daily time, you must provide regular and timely care to be successful in getting a flock to market. Some basic management practices are necessary for success. First, it is essential to obtain stock from a disease-free source. Stock should originate from hatcheries that are members of the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP). NPIP members regularly test and eliminate stocks with egg-borne diseases, including pullorum, typhoid, paratyphoid, and pleuropneumonia-like organisms (PPLO). To further reduce the threat of disease, you must raise your turkeys away from other poultry. Mycoplasma galacepticum (MG) and histamoniasis (blackhead) can be serious problems for turkeys raised among chickens or on grounds where chickens have been within the previous three to five years.

Most people start with newly hatched poults due to the added expense and time involved in raising breeders and incubating eggs. However, if you purchase fertile eggs for incubation, they must be kept in a clean environment at an ambient temperature between 55 and 65°F prior to setting. Eggs can be held for approximately seven to ten days before setting without a serious decrease in hatchability. Set only clean eggs at a temperature of 99.5 to 100°F for 28 days. Turn the eggs at least three times each day for 25 days. Eggs do not need to be turned the last three days prior to hatch. After the hatch is complete, remove the poults and hatch residue.

Poults must be kept warm (“brooded”) during the first weeks of life. Improper brooding is a leading cause of mortality in turkey flocks. Poults start more easily if brooded within 48 hours after hatching, and it is very important to prepare your brood chamber and bring it to the proper temperature at least 24 hours prior to placing the poults in the brooder. Poults need a warm, draft-free environment that is well ventilated and has adequate free-choice feed and clean water. Because poults are unable to regulate their body temperature for the first 10 days, a properly managed heat source is necessary. The most efficient heat source will depend on your housing situation. Set the room temperature at approximately 88°F and allow supplemental heat sources (lamps) to increase temperature to 95°F under the heat source. Round out all corners of the brooding area with cardboard or wire to prevent birds from piling and smothering. Poults can be scared easily by loud noises, sudden movements, or bright lights, causing them to crowd on top of one another, which can be fatal.

Brooder guards (corrugated cardboard) can be used for the first week or two to help keep the poults near heat, feed, and water sources. The brooder guards should be large enough to allow the poults approximately 10 to 12 inches from the guard to the edge of the heat source. These brooder guards may be removed after two to two and a half weeks. Observe the birds carefully to see if they are too hot (positioned far away from the heat source) or too cold (huddled together). If they are comfortable, poults will spread uniformly under and around the edge of the heat source and away from the brooder guard. After the first 10 days you should gradually decrease the room temperature each day (5°F per week) until it reaches 70°F. Keep the lights dim during the poults’ first week; afterward, 12 to 14 hours of light is sufficient. Excessive light intensity or bright spots in the turkey house can cause piling or picking (cannibalism) in young turkeys.

Keeping the litter dry pays big dividends in the health of a growing turkey. Cover the brooding area with at least 3 to 5 inches of fresh bedding material. A good bedding material is clean, dry, absorbent, and relatively free from dust. Commonly used bedding materials include pine shavings, chopped straw, peat moss, and various other commercial options. Do not cover litter with slick-surfaced materials (such as newspaper), as these can cause serious leg injuries to poults. Since litter absorbs moisture and insulates the birds from the cold floor, it is important to remove any areas that become wet and to add more litter as needed.

Poults are usually kept in the brooder (at a density of one poult per square foot) for the first five to six weeks. Then they are moved to a finishing barn or outside to a finishing area. While finishing, from eight weeks of age to market age turkeys will need 3 to 5 square feet of confined housing space per bird, depending on the weight to which they will be grown. In confined housing, ventilation becomes increasingly important as the turkeys get larger and hot weather approaches. As they get larger, turkeys need more air circulation (0.5 cubic feet per minute [cfm] per pound of body weight at a minimum) to help dissipate heat. Air speeds of 400 cfm on their heads can help cool the birds in high-heat situations. Proper ventilation also aids in litter management in confinement housing.

Feeding and Watering

Feed and water should always be available to the growing turkeys. Initially, some poults will have trouble finding the feed, resulting in death loss from “starve outs.” It may be necessary to dip poults’ beaks into the water and feed to start them drinking and eating. Some producers put marbles or aluminum foil balls in drinkers and feeders for the first two weeks to attract the turkey poults and start them on feed and water. Adequate feeder and drinker space is needed to ensure all birds in the flock have an opportunity to eat and drink. See Table 1 for feeder and drinker spacing recommendations.

Table 1. Recommended minimum density, feeder, and drinker space for turkeys

Age Density (poults/ square foot) Feeder Space (linear inches/poult) Drinker Space (linear inches/poult)
0 to 6 weeks 1 to 1.5 1 0.5
6 to 14 weeks 2 to 3 3 1.0
Over 14 weeks 3 to 4 3 1.5
Range pens 250 birds/acre 3 1.5

All commercial turkey varieties produce meat efficiently. Hens commonly reach a live weight of 18 to 20 pounds at 14 weeks of age, and toms weigh 24 to 36 pounds at 17 weeks. Table 2 shows the expected average weights for common breeds of tom and hen turkeys at various ages.

Table 2. Growth rate of White, Bronze, and Black tom and hen turkeys

Age (weeks) White Toms White Hens Bronze Toms Bronze Hens Black Toms Black Hens
10 12.7 10.9 14.0 12.1 10.8 8.7
11 16.2 13.2 16.6 14.1 12.6 10.0
12 19.5 15.4 19.2 16.1 14.5 11.3
13 22.8 18.2 21.9 18.0 16.5 12.5
14 25.2 20.6 24.6 19.9 18.4 13.7
15 28.3 22.3 27.4 21.8 20.3 14.8
16 32.5 25.6 30.1 23.5 22.1 15.9
17 36.0 27.7 32.7 25.2 23.9 16.9
18 39.4 29.3 35.3 26.7 25.6 17.7
19 41.5 30.9 37.9 28.1 27.2 18.5
20 44.3 32.3 40.3 29.4 28.7 19.3
21 46.8 33.8 42.6 30.6 30.7 19.9
22 48.1 35.2 44.8 31.6 31.3 20.4
23 50.5 36.5 46.8 32.5 32.4 20.9
24 52.5 37.7 48.5 33.3 33.3 21.3

Growth rates will vary due to feed, space allowed, and various external factors.
Source: Valley of the Moon Turkeys

Commercially breed turkeys are fast-growing, efficient converters of feedstuffs to high-quality meat. Providing nutritionally balanced, multiphased (starter, grower, and finisher) diets will improve turkey performance. Providing a pelleted diet will further improve growth efficiency. Talk with your local feed supplier prior to the arrival of your poults to ensure you have a reliable source of high-quality turkey feed throughout the growing process. Poults should be given turkey crumbles containing 28 percent protein for the first three to four weeks of life. This gets the birds off to a good start while their feed intake is relatively low. After that, a turkey growing ration (either crumbles or pellets) containing 26 percent protein is recommended for poults for the next two weeks. Grit should be available before turkeys are allowed to range or fed whole or cracked grains.

As the birds age, you should continue to reduce crude protein levels while still feeding a complete, balanced diet. You can purchase these rations with lower protein levels, or you can include concentrates with cracked grains (about 10 percent protein), such as corn and oats, along with the growing ration to increase energy and reduce protein intake. For example, one part grain to three parts of a 22 percent protein growing ration will provide a 19 percent protein mixture, which is satisfactory for turkeys from 10 to 12 weeks old. For birds from 12 weeks of age to market, mix equal parts of grain and the growing ration to provide 16 percent protein. Feeding whole corn when finishing turkeys may improve the finish, tenderness, and flavor of the processed bird. However, experimenting with custom feed mixing will likely result in an unbalanced diet, ultimately reducing efficiency and profit margins. This decision should reflect the goals of your operation.

The protein level should not drop below 16 percent in finishing rations. Once again, a complete diet may be purchased and would require no additional mixing. If you are mixing grain and growing rations, it is important to monitor your feed and grain mixing quality and protein levels in the ration. Some starter feeds contain drugs to control diseases; use of these feeds must be discontinued for a specified length of time before the turkeys are slaughtered. This information, known as a withdrawal period, will be provided on the feed tag. Feed manufacturers also provide finishing rations without drugs, which are commonly provided during the withdrawal period.

Health Programs

Good sanitation and elimination of other birds and animals that may carry disease organisms are critical for maintaining a healthy flock. Keeping the pen and range areas dry is also important. Vaccines are available for several turkey diseases, but they may not be necessary for a small flock unless previous disease problems existed on your premises or nearby farms. Other disease problems can be controlled using medicated feeds. However, clean stock, clean premises, and good management are the best lines of defense.

Some death loss is normal in turkey production and should be expected, especially during the first two weeks. If you have management issues, contact your state Extension service for assistance. If your flock becomes sick, an accurate diagnosis and recommended treatment should be obtained as quickly as possible. State laboratories usually offer low-cost or free diagnostic services. Take birds with representative symptoms or fresh, dead birds to the laboratory for evaluation. Along with the birds, you will need to provide a description of the course of the current problem and a complete flock history, including age, feeding program, vaccinations, and any drugs used.

Environmental Impacts

In the normal course of operations, farmers handle pesticides and other chemicals, may have manure to collect and spread, and use equipment to prepare fields and harvest crops. Any of these routine on-farm activities can be a potential source of surface water or groundwater pollution. Because of this possibility, you must understand the regulations to follow concerning the proper handling and application of chemicals and the disposal and transport of waste. Depending on the watershed where your farm is located, there may be additional environmental regulations regarding erosion control, pesticide leaching, and nutrient runoff. Contact your soil and water conservation district, extension office, zoning board, state departments of agriculture and environmental protection, and local governing authorities to determine what regulations may pertain to your operation.

Risk Management

You should carefully consider how to manage risk on your farm. First, you should insure your facilities and equipment. This may be accomplished by consulting your insurance agent or broker. It is especially important to have adequate levels of property, vehicle, and liability insurance. You will also need workers’ compensation insurance if you have any employees. You may also want to consider your needs for life and health insurance and if you need coverage for business interruption or employee dishonesty. For more on agricultural business insurance, see “ Agricultural Alternatives: Agricultural Business Insurance .”

Second, check to see if there are multiperil crop insurance programs available for your crop or livestock enterprises. There are crop insurance programs designed to help farmers manage both yield risk and revenue shortfalls. However, individual crop insurance coverage is not available for all crops. If individual coverage is not available for what you grow, you may be able to use the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) program to insure the revenue of your entire farm operation. Information from your Schedule F tax records (or a “Substitute Schedule F for WFRP Purposes” if you do not file a Schedule F) from the past five consecutive years is used to calculate the WFRP policy’s approved revenue guarantee. Operations that have expanded over time may be allowed to increase the approved revenue amount based on an indexing procedure. Depending on the number of commodities grown, you have the choice of coverage of 50 to 85 percent of your approved revenue. Coverage and premium costs depend on the level of diversification in your operation; the maximum level of insured revenue is $8.5 million (based on maximum adjusted gross revenues of $17 million and the 50 percent coverage level). WFRP also provides replant coverage if it not already covered under an underlying individual crop policy. More information on WFRP can be found online.

Finally, the USDA Farm Service Agency has a program called the Noninsured Assistance Program (NAP) that is designed to provide a minimal level of yield risk protection for producers of commercial agricultural products that do not have multiperil crop insurance coverage. NAP is designed to reduce financial losses when natural disasters cause catastrophic reduction in production. A basic level of coverage (50 percent of expected production at 55 percent of the average market price) is available for a fee of $325 per crop per county (fees are capped at $825 per producer per county, but they are not to exceed a total of $1,950 for producers growing crops in multiple counties). Higher levels of protection at the 50, 55, 60, and 65 percent levels at 100 percent of the average market price are available for additional premium. NAP coverage is available through your local USDA Farm Service Agency office. The application fee for this program may be waived for eligible limited-resource farmers.

Sample Budgets

Included in this publication are two cost of production budgets: one for tom turkeys and one for hen turkeys. The budgets assume the production of one 500-bird flock per year of broad-breasted, white turkeys, with the hens being sold at 14 weeks of age (or approximately 20 pounds) and the toms being sold at 17 weeks of age (or approximately 36 pounds). These sample budgets should help ensure that all costs and receipts are included in your calculations. Costs and returns are often difficult to estimate in budget preparation because they are numerous and variable. Therefore, you should think of these budgets as an approximation and make appropriate adjustments using the “your estimate” column to reflect your specific production situation. These budgets are developed for 500 birds; however, your scale of production should be based on your market considerations. More information on the use of crop budgets can be found in ” Agricultural Alternatives: Budgeting for Agricultural Decision Making .”

You can make changes to the interactive PDF budget files for this publication by inputting your own prices and quantities in the green outlined cells for any item. The cells outlined in red automatically calculate your revised totals based on the changes you made to the cells outlined in green. You will need to click on and add your own estimated price and quantity information to all of the green outlined cells to complete your customized budget. When you are done, you can print the budget using the green Print Form button at the bottom of the form. You can use the red Clear Form button to clear all the information from your budget when you are finished.

Sample Budget Worksheets

Initial Resource Requirements – Toms

Land
1 acre for production – minimum of 5 acres for manure disposal

Labor
Average of 1.6 hours per day per 500 birds
Slaughter and packaging: $2,700 to $3,000

Capital:
$10,000 to $14,000 for a 40-foot by 100-foot building (10-year expected life) or existing structure

Initial Resource Requirements – Hens

Land
1 acre for production – minimum of 5 acres for manure disposal

Labor
Average of 1.6 hours per day per 500 birds
Slaughter and packaging: $2,800 to $3,000

Capital:
$10,000 to $14,000 for a 40-foot by 100-foot building (10-year expected life) or existing structure

For More Information

Bland, D. C. Turkeys: A Guide to Management. Marlborough, Wiltshire, U.K.: The Crowood Press, 2013.

Harper, J. K., S. Cornelisse, L. F. Kime, and J. Hyde. ” Budgeting for Agricultural Decision Making .” Agricultural Alternatives series. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2019.

Kime, L. F., J. A. Adamik, J. K. Harper, and C. Dice. ” Agricultural Business Insurance .” Agricultural Alternatives series. University Park: Penn State Extension, 2019.

Mahaney, M., and J. Chambers. How to Raise Turkeys Successfully: How to Raise Turkeys, Book 1. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Marsden, S. J., M. Holmes, et al. Turkey Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Raising Turkeys. Norton Creek Classics. Blodgett, OR: Norton Creek Press, 2016.

Schrider, D. Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys: Breeds, Care, Marketing. 3rd ed. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2013.

Online Resources

Penn State Extension Poultry and Chicken Farming Resources

Producer and Marketing Associations

Authors

Prepared by R. Michael Hulet, associate professor of poultry science, Phillip J. Clauer, associate teaching professor of poultry science; John Boney, assistant professor of poultry science; Jayson Jayson K. Harper, professor of agricultural economics, and Lynn F. Kime, senior extension associate.

This publication was developed by the Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project at Penn State with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Extension Service.

This fact sheet, including its text, graphics, and images (“Content”), is for educational purposes only; it is not intended to be a substitute for veterinary medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine or other licensed or certified veterinary medical professional with any questions you may have regarding a veterinary medical condition or symptom.