According to the National Turkey Federation, about 88% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, with more than 46 million of the birds eaten on that date alone. A growing number of people who want to eat more white meat have turned to turkey as well. Turkey has become more mainstream as a year-round protein in Americans’ diets – and more farmers are beginning their own profitable flocks.

Food Animal Concerns Trust recently hosted “Getting Started with Turkey,” a panel of turkey farmers discussing best practices for beginning a flock. Panelists included Shae Pesek and Anna Hankins of Over the Moon Farm & Flowers; Whitney and Isaiah Allen with Rocky Run Farm; Ben Grimes of Dawnbreaker Farm; and Samantha Gasson of Bull City Farm.

Hankins raises Broad Breasted Whites, getting them on the farm by July so they’re ready for the Thanksgiving season. “We have our birds rotating on 10 acres,” she said.

The Allens also raise the breed, with 2023 representing the first year the duo raised birds year-round.

“We’ll continue to do it,” Whitney said. “We have some in the brooder now. And we’ll do more in the summer.” The couple has 20 acres with turkeys rotating on four to five acres of pasture.

For Grimes, the timing varies from year to year. As for offering fresh birds to his customers, “it’s madness in my production style. I like them finished and in the freezer by late October or early November. I may do late September or October this year, which puts me in May or June” to start them, he said.

This year, he finished 600 turkeys on about four acres over the course of three months on pasture.

Gasson likes raising heritage breeds like Black Spanish – plus “customers were asking for them.” She charges more for her heritage birds, which covers the cost of raising them a month longer than the standard Broad Breasted Whites.

Gasson raises three batches of 200 birds annually on 20 acres, selling frozen whole birds for Thanksgiving and cuts year-round. The birds rotate through two-acre pastures.

Management Styles

Grimes keeps his birds in the brooder for about four weeks and doesn’t use any shelters except the trees in his pastures. Electric netting keeps the flock together, although he also uses poultry crates when the turkeys are small.

He moves the feeders and troughs from paddock to paddock, and the birds appear eager to follow to new pastures.

“Turkeys are really big and they go through a lot of food and water and they’re bullies to one another,” Grimes said. “You have to have a lot of space for shade and water. Turkeys manage differently than other birds.”

Whitney said her farm’s flock has doubled in size annually. The farm also raises sheep and cattle, so it’s beneficial to have the birds follow the sheep to decrease the parasite load in the pastures. The Allens use portable electric net fencing to move the turkeys. They’re housed in hoop coops with cattle panels and tarps and have access to a roosting structure.

“When they get large, we use trough feeders,” Isaiah said. “I’ll use 55-gallon food grade barrels that I’ve cut holes in the bottom and a tray.”

Occasionally, a turkey will roost on a fence line, but Isaiah said the birds typically get large enough that they can’t make it to the top of the fence.

“I make sure my turkeys have a space to roost at ground level,” Gasson said. “They only get a little bit off the ground.”

She moves their housing, fencing and feeders to keep the flock on fresh pastures. Gasson tries to get poults on pasture as soon as possible “for air quality – and [that means] we have very little mortality.”

Hankins likes pasturing her birds for the variety it brings to her flock’s diet, although like the rest of the panelists, her birds receive rations as well.

Grimes plants persimmon, crabapples and more for his turkeys’ enjoyment. “They’re trees that are all turkey-sized,” he quipped.

Because turkeys have a high fat requirement, “feeding them the right ration is important,” Gasson said. “They get a lot from their pasture but that’s not enough. I want to make money so I have to be very deliberate as to what I put into my turkeys.”

Launching a turkey operation

The Allens purchase a non-GMO, whole grain feed milled locally. They also ferment their feed weekly to help the turkeys stay hydrated and provide a natural probiotic. They hydrate the feed and let it sit for a day, using a cement mixer to stir it.

Disease management is a big part of raising turkeys. Blackhead is a leading turkey ailment that can devastate flocks. It killed 85% of Grimes’s turkeys in 2018.

“It goes through the waste. Mine started dying at four weeks and it was absolutely horrific,” he said. He employs strict biosecurity measures at his farm, as it affects its financial stability.


Each of the panelist farms processes their turkeys differently.

Hankins uses a USDA processor. The birds return to the farm frozen in about 16 to 18 weeks. About 80% of the birds remain whole; 20% are processed for cuts.

Gasson processes her turkeys on-farm with smaller birds for cuts and sausage and the larger ones for whole birds. She likes having cuts available so customers have an opportunity to taste her turkeys all year and then invest in their Thanksgiving bird by November.

Grimes processes on-farm but doesn’t recommend it. He does so because he has no other options. The expense and time invested in building the infrastructure is large, and he struggles to find labor.

He sells the birds in three-pound size ranges in advance, which helps him fund the operation. He raises an extra 150 turkeys so he can sell some after Thanksgiving and cut up some to sell as pieces and as ground meat.

“It allows me to capture every single sale,” Grimes said. “If a new wholesaler approaches and wants 50 turkeys, I can say yes … I can sell them throughout the year.”

Grimes said one of the advantages to processing on-farm is that turkeys are “a pain to transport. You’ll bruise legs and wings and they’ll bruise you.” He rotationally grazes them so that they end up near where they’re processed on the farm.

Grimes recommended buying a large plucker rather than buying equipment so small that it will need replacing as the farm scales up in size.

The panelists agreed that a walk-in freezer is ideal, as operating numerous chest and stand-alone freezers is inefficient and difficult to organize.

Gasson rented a freezer on a trailer for the two months of her busy season to help organize her frozen birds.

Among the various headaches of raising turkeys, cash flow was named as tops among the panelists. Grimes said that having customers pre-pay the entire cost – not just a down payment – helps his farm maintain cash flow and prevents issues of customers thinking that their $35 down payment was the entire cost of the bird. He offers customers a 10% discount for prepaying.

He manages the entire transaction online and provides multiple pick-up spots for customers’ convenience.

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant