The project will be both challenging and rewarding says Janice Houghton-Wallace Rearing birds for your own or others consumption is certainly a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. How you keep the turkeys and what you feed them will inevitably have an effect on the end product and it is in your interest to produce as healthy and succulent a bird as possible. If you provide a flavoursome and top quality Christmas dinner customers will return year after year.

The most economical way of buying in poults (young turkeys) is at day-old and for those who have already ventured into turkey rearing these will be growing fast by now. The optimum time to take delivery of day-olds is the beginning of July for the commercial broad-breasted intensive and traditional farm fresh turkeys. These can of course be bought in at a later date but their cost will rise as they get older. The single-breasted, older standard breeds of turkey take longer to mature and ideally need to be hatched during May or early June to be suitable table birds by Christmas.

Correct feed is vitally important Young turkeys require a higher level of protein (27-28%) in the feed than chicks so need to begin life on turkey starter crumbs. They then progress to turkey grower pellets at around 7-8 weeks. It is as well to combine the feed for a few days to allow the birds to get used to the new introduction. Some feed manufacturers have a turkey rearer pellet for poults between 5-8 weeks of age. This is very similar to grower pellets but smaller in size to allow the birds to get used to a pellet. A little chick grit added to the feed will also help the digestion, although they will not be mature enough for any wheat until around 12 - 13 weeks. When 16-17 weeks the turkeys will be put onto a finisher ration if they are to be table birds.

Plenty of fresh, clean water is essential and check regularly that the drinker is not contaminated in any way. If the turkeys are outside but housed overnight and can readily go into the house whenever they wish it is a good idea to keep the water inside. This way it is less likely to become contaminated by wild bird droppings and also, it will be in the shade and remain cooler.

Watch closely for disease symptoms With fine early autumn weather the birds will thrive outside on grass. Grazing is good for them and the exercise will certainly help them to develop fully. Turkeys raised outside do have one drawback though and that is the possibility of succumbing to Blackhead disease. Blackhead (Histomonas meleagridis) is a protozoan parasite that is ingested in the ova of Heterakis worms or as larvae in earthworms or faeces; and attacks the liver. Although chickens are fairly resistant to the condition, turkeys are very susceptible. Symptoms of birds with Blackhead are bright sulphur-yellow diarrhoea, loss of weight and appetite and depression - with dropped wings and sunken head.

The only known drug to cure the disease is Dimetridazole but the use of this was banned across Europe a few years ago. Currently turkey owners are advised to carry out good biosecurity, with strict hygiene and a regular worming routine. Wormed every six weeks the life cycle of the worm is interrupted before any damage to the liver can be done. Some turkey owners like to add just a little cider vinegar to the drinking water each day, which effectively alters the PH balance of the gut and helps to provide a less attractive place for alien survival.

Coccidiosis and Mycoplasma are two diseases that should be watched for. Signs of Coccidiosis are huddling together and weight loss but more apparent is watery diarrhoea which occasionally is blood stained or has lumps of mucus in it. The problem is caused by a parasite and treatment is available from a veterinary practice or suitably qualified agricultural merchants. There is a vaccine available for the prevention of Coccidiosis. Mycoplasma is a respiratory disease and the symptoms are sneezing, discharge from nostrils, foam in the corner of the eye and most prominently, a swollen sinus on one or both sides of the head. This can be treated with antibiotics but is difficult to eradicate if the condition has been allowed to linger. Birds with Mycoplasma should always be treated as soon as possible for if left the bird could eventually suffocate.

Birds are less likely to come to any harm if the bedding is dry, clean and regularly attended to. Dust and faeces in the bedding, or damp bedding will harbour problems and should be avoided at all cost.

Turkeys can be horrid to each other As the turkeys develop they may begin to show natural 'pecking' order instincts and possible mating preparation behaviour. This manifests itself by bullying and feather pecking, two vices that should be stopped as soon as it is realised. Once blood is drawn it seems to be an invitation for other birds to join in and a bird that is being set upon can suffer a dreadfully pecked and bloodied head and will be killed if not removed. If caught early enough the wounds can be dusted with antibiotic powder and once isolated the bird will quickly recover. Stress and overcrowding can induce this behaviour but it can also be experienced in a very small group of birds that have plenty of space available and no reason to be discontent with life.

Keeping a larger group from feather pecking, especially if continually housed will require a high standard of management. Clean bedding, sufficient light, no overcrowding, plenty of feed containers so that there is no competition for feed, likewise with drinkers and additional attractions to keep the bird occupied, such as greenstuffs hung up for them to peck at, certainly helps. Should there still be a problem you may have to resort to beak trimming. This should only be done by competent people trained in and observing a code of practice. Two important points to make clear with regard beak trimming is not to take off too much of the upper beak, it should only be the tip and never touch the lower beak.

Pluck immediately then hang When the time comes for despatching - having found someone to do the task humanely and effectively - the turkeys should be starved for 24 hours beforehand. This allows time for the bird to empty itself fully which makes the task of preparing the bird for the oven easier and cleaner. Make sure the date for despatching the bird is booked well in advance and this date is then worked towards. Once killed the bird should be plucked immediately. It is far easier and will have a cleaner end result if the feathers are removed when the body is still warm. Once cold it is extremely difficult and it is more likely that the skin will be torn.

Ideally, turkeys should 'hang' for about 10 days before evisceration, this tenderises the meat and improves the flavour. The turkeys we rear today originated from a game bird and as such should be treated in this way. The older breeds of turkey do actually have a slightly gamey taste. The birds should hang in a cool, clean room away from anything that could contaminate the carcass.

Once the birds are slaughtered there are hygiene regulations that must be adhered to. Although EU Community rules do not apply to primary production for private use there are national laws to protect public health. If you are providing a larger number of birds to be sold to people other than friends and family, you will need to notify the local authority. An Environmental Health Officer will then inspect the premises and give approval for what you intend to do.

There are also regulations regarding how the parts of the turkey, not intended for consumption - which includes the feathers - are disposed of. The EU Animal By-Products Regulation, banning the routine on-farm burial and burning of animal carcasses, which came into force on 1 May 2003, requires that any offal is disposed of through an approved route. This generally means via a renderer or knacker man. The waste generated from eviscerating turkeys cannot be placed in household dustbins destined for landfill.

Having survived all the rearing and legislation, it is certainly satisfying to be able to serve up your own turkey at Christmas. Whether you want to do it all again next year however, will be quite another matter.

For further information on regulations regarding food hygiene and waste products, the following websites are useful: