Turkey Raising, Part 1 Primer

Technical advances in turkey genetics, production, and processing have created a turkey which produces a pound of meat, using a smaller amount of feed, in less time than most other domestic meat-producing animals.

All commercial turkeys produced today are the white broad breasted turkey breed. This breed was first used for commercial turkey production in the late 1950’s. By the late 1960’s the majority of the industry used this turkey breed.

The cost of raising a turkey is affected by many factors, including buildings, equipment, labor, feed costs, and interest on loans. Feed costs amount to almost two thirds of the cost of raising a turkey. Geographic location, degree of automation, and size of the farm all contribute to differences in the costs of raising turkeys.

Fast-maturing white-feathered hybrid strains are today produced in vast numbers under intensive conditions. By 10 weeks, under ideal conditions with a well-balanced ration, a turkey in a modern white hybrid turkey flock would average 6 kg in weight, with a feed conservation ratio of about 2:1.

Improvements in genetics, feed, and management practices have made domesticated turkeys more efficient at converting feed to protein than turkeys found in the wild. About 2.8 pounds of feed are required for every pound of weight gain.

Domesticated turkeys are also bred to have more breast meat, meatier thighs, and white feathers. White feathers are preferred so that, when plucked, they leave no unsightly pigment spots under the skin. Greater efficiencies have lowered costs to consumers, making turkey an excellent food value.


The small backyard producer should select breeders from well-grown 7-month-old birds. These birds should be mated immediately so that the first eggs produced will be fertile. The preferred mating ratio is 1 tom to 10 hens.

During a 25-week laying cycle a breeder hen normally lays 88-93 eggs. At the end of this cycle, the hen is “spent” and will usually be slaughtered. Some breeders find it economically feasible to molt the hen (give her a resting period) for another production cycle. It takes 90 days to molt a hen. The hen’s second laying cycle will produce a slightly lower number of eggs (75-80).

A breeder tom turkey can father as many as 1500 poults during a hen’s 6-month laying cycle. It may be worthwhile to help maintain fertility by using two consecutive batches of toms during the season. Remove and replace all toms at the same time to guard against the odd birds being ostracised.

Fit all hens with canvas saddles to protect their backs. Also, as a further precaution, clip the tom’s toenails.

Broody hens should be removed regularly and placed in broody coops suspended above the ground. Provide broody hens with feed, water and overhead protection.

As with most heavy birds in the southern hemisphere, it is difficult to get fertile eggs hatched in time to produce birds ready for the Christmas market. This can be alleviated to some extent by housing the hens in brown houses from 18 weeks of age. These houses are darkened from the outside sunlight, and provide 6 to 8 hours of light per day. This continues until the hens are 24 weeks of age, when the light is increased to 18 hours. Production of eggs will start 4 weeks later, reaching 50% production within 6 weeks. The toms are not darkened, but receive sufficient light 6 to 8 weeks before mating to increase their total daylight hours to 14.

Breeding birds must be in good condition before mating and should be checked for internal and external parasites.


To avoid breakage of eggs provide a single nest 0.5 m wide by 0.5 m deep for every 5 hens.

A community nest 0.6 m wide by 2 m long, suitable for 15 hens, may be used as an alternative to single nests; however, there is usually a higher incidence of egg breakages in community nests.

Nests should be in a protected area and be provided with a floor covering of rice hulls, coarse sand, shavings or straw. Constant vigilance is required to ensure that the nests do not become a harbour for external parasites. The nests may be elevated from ground level but must be easily accessible to the hens by being fitted with a ramp and ledge. It is, however, usual for nests to be placed at ground level.


Collect eggs three times daily and store for no longer than 7 days in a room that provides a temperature of 10°C and a relative humidity of 85%.

Turkey eggs hatch in 28 days. In forced-draught incubators, eggs should be maintained at 37.7°C during incubation, reduced to 37°C at hatching. The relative humidity at setting should be 55%, rising to 70% at pipping. These are equivalent to wet bulb readings of 30°C and 33°C.

Turn eggs at least three times daily, until the 26th day, through an angle of 45°. Larger incubators are fitted with automatic turning devices.


Poults are notoriously difficult to start drinking and feeding as day-olds. Small heaped amounts of feed should be evenly spaced over the floor in the brooding area. One small round feeder (25 kg capacity) is adequate for every 25 poults.

Drinking water is even more important for day-old poults. The producer should introduce poults to water by dipping their beaks in the water immediately they are placed on the floor. Each small automatic water font is suitable for 50 poults.

Attract the poults to water and feed by hanging bright 100 watt spotlights over these areas 1 m above litter level. Poults can be further encouraged to eat by placing feed in small silver-coloured aluminium trays, and to drink by putting coloured marbles in the waterers.

The temperature for day-old poults should be around 35° C, as day-old poults need plenty of heat. This temperature should be reduced 1° C every 3 days until a temperature of 21°C is reached.

Temperatures are to be used only as a guide because the best way to adjust the temperature for the comfort of the poults is to observe their behaviour. If they crowd near the heat source and chirp loudly, the temperature is too low. If they move well away from the heat source and start panting, they are too hot. Ideally they should be fairly quiet and spaced evenly under and around the heat source (see the diagram at right).

Poults are best brooded in small groups of preferably up to 250, separated by 50 cm high brooder surrounds.

Beak trimming at 10 days of age will prevent cannibalism.

sources: norbest.com, agric.nsw.gov.au, elgu2.ncc.gov.ph

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