Backyard Poultry

Raising Turkeys: What Do Turkeys Eat and Other Fun Facts

Starting a Flock : Considering Chickens

Flock Management : Layer Nutrition

Patrick Biggs, Ph.D.

Nutritionist, Companion Animal Technical Solutions

Turkeys can be a fun addition to a backyard flock if you’re looking to raise birds for meat and eggs. These birds grow quickly and thrive best on a high-protein diet, such as Purina® Flock Raiser®. Free range turkeys also need a spacious outdoor space and predator-proof fenced area for nighttime protection.
 
If you have chickens, you already know the basics of raising poultry. Are you looking to take your backyard flock to the next level by adding in a couple turkeys?
 
Turkeys can make a fun backyard addition to provide your family with unique companionship, great life lessons and nutritious meat and eggs. But they can take a bit more TLC than backyard chickens, especially from the start. Once you start them strong, you’ll likely notice fun, friendly personalities and exceptionally quick growth.
 
Here are a few considerations for how to raise turkeys:

Quick facts about raising turkeysWhat do turkeys eat? Tips for feeding turkeys

The road to a mature tom (male turkey) or hen (female turkey) begins with a baby turkey, or turkey poult. Temperature and brooder set-up for raising poults is similar to baby chicks. One big difference is that turkeys need to be warmer during the first week to 10 days. Poults can’t regulate their body temperature very well during this period, so set your brooder at 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week. Drop the temperature by five degrees each week until the birds are 6 weeks old.  Always let the birds tell you whether they are too hot or too cold and adjust the temperature accordingly.
 
Turkey poults require more protein in their starter-grower feed than baby chicks. Be sure young birds also know where feed and water are located. It is always best to make sure they don’t run out of water. If your poults go without water, slowly reintroduce water so they don’t over indulge. Once they have rehydrated, give them free access to water again.
 
Once poults are 6 weeks old, they can be transitioned from brooder to coop. Poults grow quickly after leaving the brooder, often becoming dominant birds in a mixed flock.
 
Adult turkeys thrive in spacious outdoor areas as a group of at least three to six birds. Some backyard flock raisers also choose to keep a free-range turkey flock, with a predator-proof fenced area for nighttime protection.
 
Because of their size, turkeys will need slightly more space than other poultry counterparts. Coop space recommendations per turkey depend on age:
  • 0-8 weeks: 2-2.5 square feet
  • 8-16 weeks: 3-4 square feet
  • 16-20 weeks: 5-8 square feet
  • 20 weeks to market weight: 6-10 square feet
You will also need a considerable amount of outdoor space for raising a free-range turkey flock. It is recommended to have one-half acre for every 12 adult birds.

Choosing turkey breeds 

Both toms and hens can be raised for meat, with the main difference being bird size. One of your first choices will be whether to raise traditional or heritage turkey breeds.
 
Traditional turkey breeds are known for fast growth and high production. Broad Breasted White or Bronze turkeys can grow between 30 pounds (females) and 50 pounds (males) in just five months. Both breeds are raised commercially.
 
Heritage turkeys are gaining in popularity. These turkeys are defined by their historical origins and tend to be smaller in size. Breeds like the Royal Palm, Bourbon Red turkey or Narragansett turkey provide backyard flocks with a pop of color and beautiful plumage.
 
For a turkey to be considered a heritage breed, it must meet three criteria as outlined by The Livestock Conservancy1:
  1. Toms and hens must mate naturally to preserve the genetic family tree.
  2. The heritage turkey should have a long, productive lifespan in the outdoors. Heritage hens are generally productive for 5-7 years and toms for 3-5 years.
  3. Heritage turkeys should have a slower growth rate to develop a strong skeleton before building muscle mass. It usually takes seven months for them to reach their mature weight of 15 to 25 pounds.

What do turkeys eat?

Since turkeys have different growth and nutrition requirements than chickens, it can be helpful to raise them separately, especially in the beginning. Turkeys need a high protein diet when they are young as they grow and gain muscle quickly. To support this growth, feed a complete feed with 30 percent protein, such as Purina® Game Bird + Turkey Startena® until the birds are 8 weeks old.
 
At 8 weeks of age, switch to Purina® Flock Raiser® until they reach market weight. Flock Raiser® is lower in protein at 20 percent but has more caloric energy to maintain body size and continue growth.
 
Since most turkeys are raised as meat birds, many people wonder, “Do turkeys lay eggs?” The short answer is yes! Turkey eggs are known to be just as nutritious as chicken eggs with a strong shell and larger yolk. Hens lay an average of two eggs per week compared to the daily egg of a chicken.
 
If you are raising hens for eggs, calcium becomes the key nutrient they need to stay healthy while laying. If females can be fed separately, feed them Purina® Game Bird Layena® or Purina® Layena® beginning at 30 weeks of age until the end of laying season to help deliver turkey eggs with strong shells. Once laying season has ended, switch females back to Purina® Flock Raiser® when not laying. Toms should remain on Purina® Flock Raiser® during egg laying season.
 
Raising turkeys and chickens together can be a delicate topic. Some enthusiasts integrate the two species well while others have noted disease issues. Be sure to research comingling in advance and always follow a bird integration plan.
 
Ready to start your turkey adventure? Check in with your local Purina® retailer for tips on buying turkey poults and picking up the feed they’ll need.  
 

1 “Definition of a heritage turkey” The Livestock Conservancy. https://livestockconservancy.org/index.php/resources/internal/heritage-turkey. 3 November 2017.