No meal is as traditional as Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens all evolved and were domesticated in the Old World and were brought to North America, but not the turkey. It was domesticated during prehistory in Central and South America. Spanish explorers quickly learned to enjoy delicious turkey meat and shipped live birds back to Europe, where they quickly spread through the continent and beyond.
Turkey is a popular commercial meat in the United States. The average American eats just over 16 pounds of turkey per year, but very few people raise turkeys in their backyard.
If you do decide to raise turkeys with your chickens, realize they are very different and most experienced poultry growers recommend housing them separately. For example turkeys are susceptible to diseases that chickens carry, but that chickens themselves are resistant to. Turkeys also require more space and a large yard or open area is recommended.
Many chicken breeds, such as Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Orpingtons are true dual purpose birds that lay abundant eggs and get meaty enough to make tasty chicken stew. This is not the case with turkeys. They are strictly meat birds with an average hen turkey laying only around 80 to 100 eggs per year, compared to 200 to 250 or more for many chicken breeds.
There are many distinct turkey breeds ranging from the wild birds roaming woodlands to the white, broad-breasted types used for commercial production. There are many beautiful ornamental or heritage breeds to choose from, with feather colors ranging from buff to gray to the bronze hues of wild birds.
Anyone interested in raising a few turkeys for delicious roasting should stick with heritage breeds or ornamental varieties. Heritage breeds grow more slowly but can mate naturally and are better foragers. Plan on feeding them for 4-6 months before they will be ready for the table. Each turkey will require four to five pounds of feed per week.
Start your turkeys on a high protein diet (like Country Feeds Gamebird Starter) in June or July, protect them from predators and the weather, feed them well, and expect to have large and tasty turkeys for your Thanksgiving dinner. Their meat is simply delicious.