Early in August of this year, I wrote about my new adventure as a turkey farmer. The first few days were spent watching the tiny birds adapt to their environment under brooder lights. I learned a lot… you can read about some of the things I learned in those first weeks HERE.
Days and weeks turned into months—the turkeys were growing quickly, and soon they were ready to be sent out during the day to investigate the great world. They went to live on my friend Kathleen’s farm, with a coop of their own and a huge fenced pasture to explore. You can read more about this adventure HERE.
Now. These birds were purchased and raised with the Thanksgiving market in mind. If you believe that every one of these turkeys is living peacefully at Kathleen’s farm, that’s fine. But you should stop reading this post immediately.
I’m going to tell you the “rest of the story”.
Back in the pasture in September and October the birds grew. And grew. And grew. As they grew (and grew), they ate. And ate. And ate. We were feeding them organic turkey starter—22% protein. They did have access to the pasture, and to gleanings from our organic gardens, but their favorite times of day were feeding times. There was a turkey stampede to the feeders when the lids to the bins holding the feed were lifted. We learned that hanging feeders weren’t a good idea—as the feeders swung with the force of the turkeys pecking at the pellets, smaller turkeys were sometimes knocked right off their feet. Large dog dishes with non-skid bottoms, filled with feed and set in place all at once, solved the problem. Less feed was spilled and wasted, as well.
We learned how to figure amounts of feed, too, to be sure we didn’t run out on a weekend, or before the delivery truck came to the local feed store. There are very few places here that carry organic turkey feed. We discovered, too, that there are only a few mills that make the feed and deliver to this area. Finally, when this project was nearly completed, we were put in touch with a trucker willing to make deliveries direct from the mill in southern Pennsylvania to a store less than an hour away. A tip from another turkey grower (met at the counter at the feed mill) helped us through one of the “almost out of feed” spells: organic chicken layer feed can be mixed with the organic turkey feed, in a pinch. It was a matter of figuring out protein amounts, rate of growth, scoops of feed per bird per day…who knew there would be so much math involved?
As time for processing drew near, we continued to feed starter feed (rather than switch to maintenance rations), as we wanted the birds to add weight and have a bit of fat under their skin. Believe it or not, we received a lot of good, practical advice from the man who would eventually do the processing. One thing he told us early in the spring was to plan ahead for size—if poults were purchased in late June, November processed weight would be about 50 pounds; late July poults usually process somewhere between 25 and 30 pounds. (Remember this.)
Just as there are few feed stores that carry organic turkey feed here in the southern tier counties of western New York State, there are few certified poultry processors. Eventually, we may feel we can process our own birds, but for this first time we did not do that—instead, we took the advice of several other poultry farmers—and called the fellow they all recommended. This fellow lives north of us, about an hour’s drive. From the time we first were thinking of purchasing poults, until they were processed, this fellow patiently answered our questions, returned our phone calls, and understood that we wanted our birds treated humanely in as stress-free way as possible.
In early October, we were locked into our processing date: November 20th. Our processor explained that he and his crew handle thousands of turkeys in the weeks before Thanksgiving. They are able to keep specific shipments separate by an elaborate system of color codes and cues, and try to handle about the same number of turkeys each day. Our time slot was second in the day—just behind a truckload of 100 birds coming in at 6 AM. Our birds had to be at the plant between 7 and 9 AM.
When we moved the half grown turkeys from our garage to the farm, we were able to pick them up and put them in the back of our covered pickup. After two more months of full rations and good eating, these birds were BIG. Big as in over 3 feet tall, with strong legs, sharp beaks, powerful wings—and heavy. (Remember how much their processed weight might be?) We asked the processor the best way to transport them and he told us, “Some people put them in bags, or the back of their truck, or just borrow their brother in law’s horse trailer.”
We thought about this—our birds had been raised as stress-free as possible; stuffing them in a bag wouldn’t be stress-free (for the birds or for us!). My brother in law was going to be using his horse trailer (I asked). So, my husband built a nifty transport shed, out of odds and ends, on the back of his 12 foot trailer. The walls were a little over four feet high, with ventilation gaps at the top. The roof was metal. A door at the back could be barred and fastened further with the addition of a couple of well-placed screws. A bale of straw was strewn on the floor, and we were ready to roll. The coop at the farm was at the end of a long driveway, so we could back right up to the coop after dark on the 19th, hand out birds one at a time, lock up and head out to the processor early in the morning.
No problem, right? Well, let’s think a little bit more on that. We live in Western New York. South of Buffalo. The processor is NORTH of us. Did you happen to read about the SEVEN FEET OF SNOW that came to Buffalo right around the 20th of November?
The first glitch occurred when we backed the trailer into the long driveway at the farm on the evening of the 19th. We could only go partway down the drive, or risk getting the heavy trailer stuck. With typical ingenuity, Kathleen loaded a large dog crate into her big wheel barrow, and her husband pushed this through the snow (only about 8 inches deep where we were) to the coop. The turkeys were loaded into the crate, two at a time, pushed up the slope to the trailer, where they were unloaded into the shed on the trailer. Eight trips. Two birds at a time. Heavy birds. My job was to hold the flash light and laugh.
All sixteen birds were loaded and seemed happy with the new coop. They didn’t care that snow was falling outside, and the temperature was hovering around 15.
I didn’t take that last trip with the birds. Kathleen and my husband headed north at 5 AM, for the 40-mile trip to the processors. At 7 AM, they let me know they had taken a wrong turn in the snow storm, and were backing into a cornfield to turn around because the road was drifted shut. At 7:30 AM, they let me know that the roads were closing, but they had arrived.
The snow continued, the birds were processed and the trailer with the shed was parked in the back field for pick up after the storm. By noon, the adventurers loaded coolers filled with our turkeys (now in a state of undress), put the truck into four-wheel drive and drove south out of the storm.
Remember the predictions for weight? The smallest bird weighed in at 22.5 pounds, there were five that weighed at least 33 pounds-the largest was 33.5. Kathleen and I each took a 31 pound bird for our family feasts, and the rest all had invitations to dinners throughout the countryside. (All but one, so if you’d like turkey for the next holiday—let me know, he’s in my freezer.) However you cook a turkey, by the way—whether wrapped in foil, eased into a bag, tented with parchment paper—remember these things:
1. Find a pan that will hold your bird before 4 AM on the morning you plan to cook.
2. See if the bird in the pan fits in your oven. (Also before 4 AM….
3. Use a good meat thermometer, and roast to an internal temperature of 165. Let the cooked bird sit at least half an hour before carving
4. Keep track of how many people say, “best turkey ever!”
Will we raise turkeys again next year? Just refer back to number 4 above. What do you think?