Production Guide

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Turkeys provide a source of lean meat often served at holiday meals. Compared with other pasture-raised poultry, turkeys typically weigh more, take longer to grow, cost more to produce and carry a higher market price to reflect the added costs. Producers, therefore, should gauge market demand before choosing a flock size.

In some cases, commercial turkey producers choose to raise their birds outdoors. Such a pasture-based system shares similarities with the environment where wild turkeys — ancestors to today’s commercial turkey breeds — live and grow. This publication introduces basic factors involved in pasture-based turkey production.


For pasture-raised turkeys, site selection includes indoor and outdoor considerations. Inside, producers must hold young poults in a disinfected, secure, well-lit brooder positioned in a well-ventilated, draft-free space. Ideally, poults will begin brooding within 48 hours post-hatching. The brooder provides supplementary heat for poults, which can’t regulate their temperature well; protects birds from predators; and sets up poults for a healthy start. Producers must closely manage the brooder’s temperature. Start at a temperature that ranges from 90°F to 95°F. Then, reduce it by one degree per day. Brooder guards may help to position poults near the heat.

In the brooder, each poult requires 1 sq. ft. to 1.5 sq. ft. of space. The brooder should have a round interior to prevent birds from piling into corners, and bedding used should be clean, absorbent and provide a solid walking surface. Examples include wood shavings or corn cobs. Producers may cover the brooder with wire mesh to keep poults safe from predators.

Regarding outdoor space, one acre typically supports 100 turkeys at the maximum. Areas without standing water or mud are best, and farms should avoid stocking turkeys in the same pasture for more than year before resting the area for two years.

When raising turkeys on pasture, farms may still incorporate housing and fencing into their production system. As one option, producers may opt for mobile coops, which are structures that enclose a small number of birds using a tarp or tin roof and wire sides. Alternatively, they may construct a centralized, fixed coop and surround it with paddocks that allow birds to forage. Without paddocks, birds have free range. Structures may include perches for roosting. Producers benefit from rotating turkeys to different paddocks or moving mobile coops — more often as birds mature — to distribute manure and offer fresh forage and insects to the flock.


During brooding, poults do well with a crumbled feed, and they need cool, clean water. Starter feeds should have a high protein content — 28% protein until birds are eight weeks old. Note, young poults may need to help with finding water and feed after being introduced to a brooder.

As they age, poults can move to pasture. To acquaint young poults with forage, producers may add grass clippings to the brooder. Operations that buy poults may begin offering limited pasture access when the birds are six weeks old. If predator pressure is a concern, though, then release poults to pasture when they are older — 10 weeks to 12 weeks old.

As natural foragers, turkeys seek out insects, seeds and plants. Commonly consumed insects include beetles, grasshoppers and leafhoppers. Turkeys consume more plant matter as they mature. They will eat plant matter such as alfalfa, clover, orchard grass, acorns and wild fruits. Good-quality pastures should blend legumes with other diverse forage species.

To grow well and more quickly, pastured turkeys need supplemental feed. Over time, the protein requirement will decline, but rations must also deliver needed vitamins, trace minerals and probiotics. Turkeys must also have clean water — preferably cool water when the temperature is warm — and they benefit from eating grit, which helps to break down food.

Animal Selection and Care  

Before selecting a breed, research its final carcass characteristics and how well it tolerates your climate and converts feed into weight gain. Conventional growers often raise Broad-Breasted White turkeys, which adapt to pasture. Although they are smaller and require more time to grow, heritage breeds are popular in some markets. Known for their flavor and high proportion of dark meat, heritage breeds include Black, Bourbon Red, Bronze, Narragansett and Slate.

Producers may hatch poults from eggs or buy them from a breeder or hatchery. For 28 days, eggs require an incubation temperature that ranges from 99.5°F to 100°F. During the first 25 days, turn eggs three times daily. If purchasing poults instead, then select disease-free birds.

Mortality rates can be high. To keep losses low, prioritize animal care and protection from preditors. Follow biosecurity practices, such as avoiding cross-contamination between farms and discouraging interaction between turkeys and other birds, to minimize disease. Other animal care steps include clipping wings as needed to stop birds from flying and watching for feather picking, which may suggest a nutritional deficiency or overstocking.


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