Thanksgiving turkeys: To buy or to raise?

Ever thought about raising your own Thanksgiving turkey? Here are some considerations on taking the plunge and raising turkeys or sourcing them from local producers for your Thanksgiving meal.

If you are like me, you look forward to sitting down to a lavish meal on Thanksgiving Day, complete with a big, juicy Thanksgiving turkey. Have you ever stopped to think about where that turkey came from? The grocery store? Local meat market?

Sourcing locally grown food and comparing if it is better to grow yourself, if you are able, or purchase from a local farmer is a hard life skill to develop. Thinking about the time, resources and potential profit from raising extra birds you can sell locally versus the ease and convenience of obtaining a bird from another local grower may prove to stretch your critical thinking skills and help you think about your food in a whole new way.

Raising your own turkey

There are many things to consider if you are going to raise your own Thanksgiving turkey, starting with breed selection. There are many choices in varieties. Commercial varieties such as Broad-Breasted Bronze and Broad-Breasted Whites are selected because of their high breast meat yield, fast growth and high feed efficiency. Commercial-type varieties are have been bred specifically to address consumer preferences and for their production efficiency.

Heritage varieties, such as Standard Bronze, Beltlsville Small White and the Burbon Red, to name a few, retain the characteristics of turkey varieties bred long ago in Europe and during the early history of the United States. Heritage turkey varieties are adapted well for a small flock management system. They are more disease-resistant and are good foragers. They also naturally raise their young, however mothering abilities do vary between varieties.

Turkeys have an incubation, or the number of days it takes for the turkey egg to hatch, time of 28 days. Poults must be brooded within 48 hours after hatching. Brooding is simply providing a warm, draft-free environment that is well-ventilated and has free-choice feed and water. Poults are unable to regulate their own body temperature within the first 10 days of their life. Brooders provide the perfect environment for them to begin to grow and develop for the first five to six weeks.

Turkeys are then moved to a finishing barn where they will be housed until they reach their desired market weight. Turkeys require 3 to 5 square feet per animal when in a confined housing environment. Ventilation is very important in housing to prevent respiratory illnesses. Providing adequate feed and water at all times will encourage the turkeys to eat and therefore grow.

Processing your birds for home consumption can be done at home or by a custom processor. In Michigan, if you plan on selling the turkey, please refer to Michigan State University Extension’s MDARD Licenses Poultry Processors page for a list of Michigan poultry processors.

Before you decide to raise your own Thanksgiving turkeys, make sure to check the zoning laws in your area to determine if you can.

Purchasing a locally raised turkey

If you find you do not want to grow your own turkey but want a “farm fresh” turkey, there are likely local farmers who have turkeys for sale. You can simply Google “local turkey farms” or use resources like Local Harvest to help you find a local turkey producer. You can also plan ahead and take advantage of local fair auctions where youth involved in 4-H or FFA programs sell their project birds. Either way, buying locally raised birds is rewarding and gives back to your community.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Visit the Michigan 4-H Animal Science page to learn more about Michigan 4-H animal science programs.

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