Turkeys:    hatching to despatching - the basics for rearing your own Christmas dinner.
Eggs | Poults | Housing | Feeding | Diseases | Despatch | Links


We have used this section to give an overview of the common issues and information needed to identify whether raising your own turkey for christmas is actually for you. 
As time permits we will add more detailed sections on individual topics such as housing, breeding and feeding.


Why
Over recent years the practice of growing your own Christmas vegetables has extended to include the turkey.  More than ever people want to understand the provenance of their food and where animals are concerned whether it was ethically reared, organically fed or how many miles it travelled before gracing their table.  So imagine the satisfaction of sitting around the Christmas table with a clear conscience know knowing the turkey before you was well fed, considerately reared, humanely despatched and travelled no further than from your own backyard. 

But let's not overlook the fact that raising turkeys can be a rewarding 'hands on' experience for the whole family working together and learning about live animals and the food chain.  Also, and not an insignificant consideration given the cost of a traditionally reared bird over recent years, rearing a small group of turkeys can make good economic sense.

ObtainingTurkeys
Eggs
With eggs currently being sold at about £2.50 each the prospect of incubating your own turkeys is very tempting.  However, there are a number of key issues that need to be considered such your experience in incubating eggs, the cost of an incubator if this is a first time venture, and obtaining viable eggs for incubation.   Turkey eggs arriving through the post are a popular option but even where fertility is high within the parent group the hatchability of posted eggs is significantly diminished.  For no fault of your own the incubation process can be fraught with disaster and as a first time venture it is probably best to go for turkey poults.

However, if you go down the egg route do try to pick them up yourself as it presents an opportunity to see the parent birds, which is vital when buying any livestock, and ensures a more managed and effective incubation process with increased hatchings. For those risking postal eggs it is essential to let them stand for 24 hours before they go into the incubator and failure to do this is the most common cause for low hatch rates.
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Poults
The most cost effective way of obtaining turkey poults are as day olds and the timing for purchase will be dictated by the type of turkey you intend rearing and the table weight you want to achieve.  There are many factors that influence turkey growth, but as a general rule the single breasted traditional breeds need to have been hatched during May - June to ensure they meet their optimum weights.  The more commercial 'broad breasted' and 'farm fresh' turkeys that most people are familiar with are usually obtained at the beginning of July as they need less growing time.

However, long gone are the days when the Christmas turkey became a bit of a marathon with the housewife challenged to disguise the leftovers in ever more adventurous and tempting ways.  Our experience is that most turkeys are consumed at one sitting which dictates a smaller turkey that needs a shorter growing time.

The answer to the obvious question of what size turkey best suits your particular needs is simple.  Work out how many people are going to be sat around your Christmas table and tell your supplier who will advise on the most appropriate breed and age of your poult.

The price of day old turkey poults varies tremendously but traditional day olds are typically costing £12.00 which is usually incremented by £0.50 pence for every additional week. 

It is essential to remember that turkeys are social animals and should not be reared alone.  We recommend wherever possible turkeys are reared in small groups as it is generally more economical and benefits the birds.  There is a trend at the moment whereby a person will raise a number of turkeys which results in one for the pot, another for the freezer and the remainder for friends and family.

Certainly the more turkeys one has the less likely it is you will become attached, and the easier it will be to follow the project through to its logical conclusion.
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Housing
Even though traditional varieties of turkey are very hardy and prefer to be out in all weathers they will require appropriate housing.  For 4 turkeys a shed around 8ft x 6ft would be ample, and for those intending to rear 6-8 then 12ft x 8ft shed would be adequate. 

The turkey accommodation must be dry, with plenty of shavings on the floor, offer easy access to feed and water, and be well ventilated but not draughty.  Turkeys like to roost and a well placed bale of straw makes an ideal perch for younger birds.  Older birds will appreciate a stout pole about 2ft from the ground, but any higher than this can encourage bumble foot when they jump down which could mean a vet bill or in extreme cases the loss of your bird.

Also, given that in our experience turkeys seem to be fox magnets, you will need to consider 'fox proofing' both their housing and outdoor area.  Although not great fliers turkeys can easily tackle a 6ft fence and, particularly for those located on a hill as we are, younger birds can glide some distance. However, the occasional break for freedom which is driven by their inquisitive nature can be easily curtailed by the careful cutting of the key flight feathers from one wing which unbalances them.

Do take security seriously as the last thing you want is for your Christmas dinner to be snaffled by a fox a dew days before the big event.
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Feeding
Clearly you will be looking to produce a healthy succulent turkey for your table and what you feed your bird will significantly effect the outcome.  There are a number of feed merchants providing a range of feeds for turkeys and you need to investigate what is available in your area and suits your requirements.  Whatever feed you provide for your turkeys access to pasture where they can pick and scratch naturally will be invaluable for their health and significantly improve flavour.  Below we have listed the key stages you need to consider.

  • When picking up your turkey poults ask your supplier what he is currently feeding them on and try to replicate this as they don't appreciate sudden changes in feed.
  • From Hatching to 7 weeks: Young turkeys require a high protein starter crumb and one with at least 25% protein would be appropriate. 
  • From 7 weeks to 16 weeks: Turkey grower pellets are provided and for the first few days it is advisable to introduce this combined with the turkey crumb they are familiar with. A little chick grit added at this time will help your turkey with its digestion.
  • From 12 weeks: Your turkeys should now be able to cope with wheat in their diet.
  • From 16 weeks: Turkeys destined for the table are put onto finisher pellets.
  • Fresh clean water is absolutely essential at all times and this includes being available within the housing where birds are locked up overnight.
  • Those turkeys with access to grass will prosper on it and the exercise will do them good
  • In the autumn windfall fruits are an ideal supplement.  Also, a handful of corn at night has a dual purpose as it sees your turkeys through the night and helps you manage them more easily when putting them away.

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Diseases
When keeping any livestock one always has to be vigilant for any disease or ailment they can be picked up, and turkeys along with other poultry have their fair share.  Many people keep chickens these days and where turkeys are being reared on ground that chickens have previously used they may succumb to Blackhead a disease which is usually fatal.

The symptoms of birds with Blackhead are bright sulphur-yellow diarrhoea, loss of appetite, loss of weight and a sullen disposition - classically seen as a bird withdrawn from the group with dropped wings and its head sunken down on its shoulders.  Unless you are absolutely confident that your ground has been chicken free we strongly recommend regular worming every six weeks to avoid Blackhead.  Alternatively, rotating a little cider or crushed garlic into the drinking water will alter the balance within the turkey gut nd make it a less appealing environment for the disease carrier to enter.

Remember, prevention is always better than cure.  Your turkeys will come to less harm if dust, faeces and damp bedding are avoided by regular cleaning, and feeders and drinkers replenished and washed daily.

For information on ailments and diseases a good poultry publication or access to the internet will give you the basics, and should anything crop up good vet will get most things sorted.
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Despatch
All to soon the time will arrive to plan the slaughter of your turkey for Christmas and for the small producer there are a couple of options.

For turkey keepers with small numbers of birds this part of the project is often handed over to someone who has the appropriate skills and licences.  However, if it is your intention to use a third party to undertake the slaughter and dressing of your turkey do check that there is someone local prepared to do this before you buy your birds, and remember to book their services well in advance as it is likely to be the busiest time of year for them. 

The key for those undertaking the slaughter and preparation of their own turkey is planning and understanding exactly what you are doing.  No person should engage in the slaughter of their turkey unless they have the knowledge and skill necessary to perform the tasks humanely and efficiently and in accordance with European regulations.  Remember as the owner of the turkey, and even though you are killing it for your own consumption, you are responsible for its welfare throughout the slaughter process.

It is essential to starve the turkey for 24hours before slaughter as this enables the bird to empty itself and makes evisceration and prepping for the oven a much easier and cleaner task. We still provide water right up to the end and to remove this seems harsh in our opinion.

Plucking should be undertaken whilst the bird is still warm as this makes the task much easier and cleaner.  Cold plucking often results in a torn skin.

Traditional turkeys take longer to mature and if they have been free ranging will have developed their muscle significantly more than the commercial birds.  It is essential therefore that once plucked the turkeys hang prior to evisceration for about ten days in a cool clean room.  This is an essential part of the process that helps tenderise the meat and enables the flavour to develop. 

The EU Animal By-Products Regulations dictate how the parts of the turkey not intended for consumption can be disposed of and details can be found on the DEFRA website

All that's left now is to enjoy your turkey on Christmas day, reflect on the process, and start planning for next years dinner, a goose maybe……..
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Recommended Links

DEFRAhttp://www.defra.gov.uk

HeritageTurkeys: Tel:08456 121233, Web: www.HeritageTurkeys.co.uk

Humane Slaughter Association:  Tel: 01582 831919,  Web: www.hsa.org.uk

TurkeyClub:  Tel: 01988 600763,   Web:  www.turkeyclub.org.uk

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