Joel Salatin finds turkeys to be both pasture friendly and profitable

By Allan Nation

SWOOPE, Virginia: Graziers looking for a pasture friendly poultry species should take a look at turkeys according to pioneer poultry grazier, Joel Salatin.

“Turkeys are far more efficient converters of pasture to meat than chickens,” Joel said.

“Turkeys can get up to 45 to 50% of their diet from young, leguminous pasture versus only 25 to 30% for chickens.”

“Turkeys are very mobile and this makes them good foragers. They are bred to walk and don’t get tired.”

Joel said turkeys in his area of Virginia were once walked 30 miles to market.

In pre World War Two Virginia, free-range turkeys were used to control tobacco hornworms and virtually every tobacco farmer kept a flock of turkeys for insect control.

In the West, flocks of turkeys were kept to control grasshoppers.

Turkeys can still provide this useful insect control function if given half a chance.

Joel said turkeys can be herded similar to sheep and taken to vineyards or orchards where they can be day-ranged to help keep harmful insects under control.

“Turkeys really like people and will follow you. This is good when you want to take them somewhere but bad when you want to go back to the house as they will follow you home.”


To prevent ground predators and to hold them on an area of pasture, Joel uses Premier electrified poultry netting.

His “Gobbledy-Go” is a Winkler canvas hoop house on skids with an adjacent 1/4 acre of pasture fenced with Premier electrified poultry netting. He said this structure is moved to fresh pasture every one to two days and could contain as many as 1000 turkeys although his current stocking is lower.

Like other poultry, the turkeys need short immature grass no higher around three inches tall to utilize it as feed. As a result, they are best integrated in with cattle and/or sheep.

To debug his table grapes, he lets a small group of the turkeys out of the enclosure and they follow him to the vineyard. He then walks down the rows of grapes hitting them lightly with his hand.

This knocks the bugs loose where they are quickly consumed by the turkeys. He then takes the turkeys back to the fenced enclosure.

“Turkeys are just like cattle in that they are more easily herded if you have a couple of mature hens that know the routine.”

Unlike chickens, he said the turkeys do not scratch holes in the pasture which can create pasture weed problems. Also, if run at very low stocking rates, turkeys can get 100% of their diet from the pasture and the bugs it contains.

“I figure you could run 200 turkeys on 100 acres of pasture and not have to feed them anything.”

He said such a no-feed system would lend itself well to the Heritage turkey breeds.

“Heritage breeds grow half as fast, have a smaller body, are more expensive to buy and harder to clean due to their dark feathers. But, they would do well as a totally bug-fed animal.”

He said some sort of feed cost advantage is necessary with the slower growing breeds to offset their higher body maintenance costs.

He said that turkeys over 10-weeks-old face very little aerial predation and most ground predation occurs at night.

“The beauty of the Heritage breeds is that they can fly upwards as much as 30 feet to escape ground predators. Unfortunately, this also makes them very hard to fence.”

He said this makes the Heritage breeds difficult to raise outdoors on a small acreage farm as they are soon on your neighbor’s farm as well.

“On a very large acreage, I think you could develop a rolling roost on a trailer that would work well with heritage turkeys. It would look sort of like a laundry drying rack with multiple horizontal roost poles.”

He said commercial white turkeys which don’t fly are easy to keep in with the 40-inch-high electrified poultry netting.

Joel said that in a recent Washington D.C. chefs’ tasting his commercial breed, pasture-raised turkeys’ flavor and eating quality were ranked as good as, and in most cases better tasting, than the Heritage breeds.


Older turkeys are very tolerant of both hot weather and cold and snow. However, as durable as turkeys are later in life they are extremely fragile before six weeks of age.

“The brooders for young turkeys has to be fastidiously clean, they have to be kept in smaller groups and they have to have a much higher in protein diet than young chickens.”

He said young turkeys had to be started at a 28% protein level. After six weeks this can be lowered to 20% and eventually they can be fed normal 18% protein broiler ration.

Roasted soybeans form Joel’s base poultry ration. The protein level is varied by adding and subtracting fish meal.

He said in nature young turkeys are raised on the edge of the forest where there are many high-protein bugs for them to forage on.

Young turkeys also need a hotter brooder temperature than a chick and are very susceptible to temperature drops.

“Currently, it is our lack of turkey brooders which is holding back our production.”

Production in 2004 was 700 turkeys a year and he plans to keep increasing this due to their low labor needs.

“Once they get to 10 weeks of age, there is very little time difference in managing 1000 of them compared to 100.”

He said a pasture raised turkey tastes dramatically better than one raised in confinement and he has no problem getting between $30 and $40 a piece for them.

He said the optimum size is a dressed weight of 15 pounds. This larger size makes the processing cost per bird much lower than a chicken’s. He does three turns of turkeys a year and markets them from mid-July to Thanksgiving.

“Keep in mind that holiday foods are much less price sensitive than everyday foods. Chickens are everyday food. Turkeys are something special.”

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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