With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, it felt appropriate to spotlight the main course, turkey! Overall, the U.S. produced 242.5 million turkeys in 2017, with a yearly average consumption of 5.38 billion pounds. Minnesota is the top contender when it comes to turkey production, producing an average of 42 million birds each year. While Florida might not be the mecca for turkey production, Suwannee County did rank 1st in the state for poultry production (chickens) according to a 2017 census of agriculture by the USDA. Florida is, however, home to two of only five subspecies of wild turkeys native to North America.

The Osceola (Florida) Turkey — As the name suggests, this wild turkey is only found in Florida and is considered one of the most sought-after game species in the state. This turkey is not to be confused with the other wild turkey subspecies, the Eastern wild turkey. The Osceola turkey is only found in the Florida peninsula and is slightly smaller than the Eastern turkey (which can be found in the Florida panhandle and 38 other states). The Osceola also has some differences in physical characteristics from the Eastern, such as dark-brown feather tips, shorter beard-lengths, and is black winged with white bands. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Suwannee County just misses the cut off for the habitat of the Osceola turkey, although the Eastern and hybrids (Eastern and Osceola crossed) can be found.

The History of Turkey — Ancestors of the turkey can be dated in North America 1.8 to 5 million years ago. Turkeys were around long before European settlement, found in forested areas across the Eastern U.S., but by the 19th century wild turkey populations saw devastating decreases due to hunting and habitat loss. However, Florida did not face a decline in turkey numbers at this time, since the state was not preferred for development. Florida’s undeveloped forested areas and swamps made great habitats for wild turkeys. In recent years, Florida’s population and development has grown rapidly, resulting in overall habitat loss and turkey population decline. Efforts to improve habitat conservation are vital, as a report by FWC estimated a loss of 2.1 million acres of turkey habitat in Florida by 2060.

Nowadays we are fortunate that we don’t have to worry about hunting down our turkeys to serve at Thanksgiving dinner. The U.S. produces enough turkey to supply itself and extra for export. Turkey has also become popular as a wholesome component of an everyday diet, including bacon, burger and lunch meat products. Modern production methods help producers raise more turkeys with fewer resources. There are two general sectors in turkey production; breeders and market birds. They are typically raised in either conventional/enclosed housing or in pole barns that have open sides.

With the increased trend in locally sourced food products, there is opportunity in backyard turkey rearing as a niche market. There is also customer appeal for free-ranged raised meats, with those consumers willing to pay premiums for these types of products. Turkeys could be raised up for the holiday season or marketed all year long, with different heritage breeds to choose from. As always, it is important to do your research and make sure turkeys are right for you and your operation. If you have any questions contact Courtney Darling at the UF/IFAS Extension Office in Suwannee County, an Equal Opportunity Institution, by calling 386-362- 2771.

Courtney Darling is the Livestock, Forages and Natural Resources Extension Agent at the UF/IFAS Suwannee County Extension Office.

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