How Much Does the Turkey Matter?

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, that question may be on many people’s minds. Kim Severson, writing in today’s NY Times about a dispute with other food writers (and the ensuing cook-off she won hands down), comes down solidly on the side of “After the Bird, Everything Else Is Secondary.”

From turkey comes stock, the flavor-giving fluid that pumps through the entire meal. Good gravy depends on good stock. So does stuffing (more on our stuffing fight in a moment). Delicious turkey does not come from a 29-cent-a-pound supermarket bird with cottony, bland breast meat. They are, as my favorite turkey breeder says, the Red Delicious apples of turkeys.

A bird that has been bred to reproduce naturally and thrive in the open develops tastier meat. I’ve eaten dozens of both, and I will swear to that basic truth on my favorite turkey platter.

There is a catch. Growing a great turkey takes time and serving one costs money. But if you can afford it, it’s the way to go.

The turkeys from Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., spend their days on pasture and get organic feed. Much attention has been paid to their husbandry. They are certified by the Humane Farm Animal Care program. True, they start at
$125. But frankly, no expense was too great in proving Moskin wrong.

It’s hard to think of a more fitting tribute to heritage breed turkeys, or a better explanation for why we continue to raise them — even though the baby poults cost twice as much and reach a finished weight of less than half of what their broad breasted supermarket cousins can get to.

The piece goes on to give some excellent tips for cooking a heritage turkey. If you plan to get one, this article would be a good “clip and save.” But hopefully you’ve already reserved yourself a turkey; most small producers sell out far in advance of Thanksgiving. And hopefully you’ll be able to pay less than the $125 that Severson had to come up with.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, for a whole host of reasons. To say that I’m looking forward to feasting on one of our Blue Slate tom turkeys later this month would be a gross understatement.

Starting Small

In a recent post, I advised aspiring farmers/homesteaders to “start small” in their plans for livestock. For us, that meant we should have tried dairy goats before graduating to a cow. Smaller livestock are easier to work with, easier to contain, cost less to feed, and are often more efficient at transforming that feed into meat or milk.

We got one thing right: we bought a Jersey cow, and not a Holstein. You’d have to have an extremely large family to consume the volume of milk a Holstein produces. For nearly any small farm, a Jersey is plenty — and much easier to manage.

A story in today’s LA Times highlights a number of farmers who have chosen smaller, heritage breeds of cattle.

They bought minicows — compact cattle with stocky bodies, smaller frames and relatively tiny appetites.

Their miniature Herefords consume about half that of a full-sized cow yet produce 50% to 75% of the rib-eyes and fillets, according to researchers and budget-conscious farmers.

“We get more sirloin and less soup bone,” Ali said. “People used to look at them and laugh. Now, they want to own them.”

In the last few years, ranchers across the country have been snapping up mini Hereford and Angus calves that fit in a person’s lap. Farmers who raise mini-Jerseys brag how each animal provides 2 to 3 gallons of milk a day, though they complain about having to crouch down on their knees to reach the udders.

“Granny always said I prayed for my milk,” said Tim O’Donnell, 53, who milks his 15 miniature Jerseys twice a day on his farm in Altamont, Ill.

Minicows are not genetically engineered to be tiny, and they’re not dwarfs. Instead, they are drawn from original breeds brought to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800s that were smaller than today’s bovine giants, said Ron Lemenager, professor of animal science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

The Petersens’ mini-Herefords, with their white faces and rounded auburn-hued bodies, weigh in at a dainty 500 to 700 pounds, compared with 1,300 pounds or more for their heftier brethren.

Big cows emerged as a product of the 1950s and ’60s, when farmers were focused on getting more meat and didn’t fret as much about the efficient use of animal feed or grasslands.

“Feed prices were relatively cheap, and grazing lands were accessible,” Lemenager said. “The plan was to get more meat per animal. But it went way too far. The animals got too big and eat so much.”

Today, there’s little room for inefficiency on a modern farm, and that has led some farmers to consider minicows.

You should, too. Go read the whole thing.

The overall lesson in here for aspiring homesteaders: don’t think you need to get the “industry standard” of whatever livestock is out there. I’d add, in a vein similar to that of the article, that Giant White turkeys might make sense for Butterball, but are lousy homestead animals. Heritage breed turkeys are usually much more practical.

But that doesn’t mean smaller is always better. White Leghorn chickens are very small, and are highly efficient at transforming feed into eggs, which makes them perfect for packing into concentration camp egg factories — but we tried letting a few run around our farm and we hated their temperament (and there was almost zero carcass left for chicken soup when we butchered them). Likewise, our friends who raise hogs have much preferred heritage breed pigs to the breeds raised in confinement in Iowa, even though the body sizes are similar. And if you’re going to be raising an animal which is already smaller by nature (i.e. goat versus cow), there is no need to keep going smaller. Pygmy goats, for instance, are cute and make nice pets, but I wouldn’t rely on them for my family’s meat or milk supply (unless we were trying to do stealth farming in an urban environment).

Paging Jeff Culbreath: Would you like to post a comment regarding the merits (and drawbacks) of Dexter Cattle? I didn’t see the breed mentioned in the LA Times story.

Turkey Season

Our turkey poults will be arriving in about a week and a half. In the meantime, the wild turkeys in our area have really been out and about. Nearly every morning, we see them strutting around in the neighboring field (35 acres, behind our fenced pasture), their tail feathers fanned majestically.

This afternoon, for the first time, a couple of big toms flew into our pasture — but then they couldn’t find a way out. One was on the sheep side of the pasture and the other was on the goat side; the two of them strutted confusedly up and down the dividing fence, stopping now and then to press themselves into it, not seeming to understand why they couldn’t go through it and be together. (Even in the wild, it appears that turkeys are pretty dim-witted.)

Anyway, this had been going on for the better part of an hour before ten-year-old Homeschooled Farm Girl happened to look out and notice it. She came running to find me, and announced, “Daddy, there’s a wild turkey on our property! Too bad you can’t hunt it.”

“I know,” I replied, “but it’s not hunting season.”

HFG thought for a moment, and then asked, “Why don’t we chase it into the barn, and then keep it there until turkey season?”

Smart girl. But, as I explained to her, that’s not exactly legal. Or sporting.

And the best way to get delicious turkey is to raise it yourself. Which we will be doing, starting in less than two weeks.

Turkeys Hard At Work

I had a couple of posts about turkeys back in the spring, and apologize for not providing some updates since.

Regular readers recall that we’re raising Bourbon Red turkeys again this year; they are a wonderful heritage breed, and we’ve had good luck with them in the past. In getting a garden established on our new property, we decided to incorporate “poultry tractors” into the design from the very beginning. We had a neighbor use his tractor to bust the sod in several four-foot rows across a sunny section of our front yard. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer planted several of these beds this year, and we reserved the remaining rows for our turkeys.

We have 22 mature turkeys now, divided between two portable pens. As described in a post earlier this year, each pen is four feet wide, eight feet long, and two feet high; the eight-foot sections are covered in plywood, and the four-foot sides are enclosed with chicken wire. Every day or two, we’ve been moving each pen eight feet farther down its own garden bed. In the photograph below, the pens are moving toward the camera. Note the height of the weeds in the portion they haven’t gotten to yet, and the complete devastation in the portion behind each pen.

This system has three excellent benefits: the turkeys destroy the weeds, the turkeys get excellent supplemental greens in their diet, and the turkeys provide an excellent layer of fertilizer that can be worked into the garden bed for next year’s planting. Next year, we will rotate the pens to the garden beds that were planted this year, and plant our vegetables on the beds the turkeys have been working this year.

Here are the turkeys in one pen, with the lid removed, just before the pen is to be slid down to the next eight-foot patch of weeds. Clearly, they’re wondering what’s taking me so long.

As for me, I can hardly wait for Thanksgiving.

Smarter Than You Think

Many farm animals have a reputation for stupidity. What has surprised us are the ways this stupidity is expressed — and the ways some other animals have proven themselves to be downright smart.

Turkeys, for example (at least the domesticated variety), deservedly have a reputation for being dumb. The common example given is that, during a rainstorm, turkeys will look up at the raindrops and then drown. I have never personally seen this happen, nor have I spoken with anyone who has seen it happen. That could be because most turkeys are raised indoors, and therefore never come in contact with rain. However, even when we had free-ranging turkeys, they always had enough sense to seek shelter when it rained. None of them would stand around getting wet, and I certainly never saw one looking up at the raindrops.

Okay, so they don’t drown in the rain. But are they stupid in some other way? You betcha. When raising young poultry, the crumbled feed goes in a feeder…and that feeder goes in their pen. But as the birds grow, they need more than what will fit in the original feeder. When I find myself filling the feeder too frequently, I switch to a larger one. Want to guess what has happened with every single batch of young turkeys we’ve raised? They do not recognize the feed as feed when it is in a different kind of feeder — even though the feed is clearly visible and is exactly the same feed. One batch of turkeys actually fled in fear when I inserted the new feeder, and cowered in a far corner for hours. This morning, when I switched to a larger feeder, the reaction wasn’t quite as extreme — but still, none of the turkey poults would even approach the new pan.

Contrast this behavior to that of our sheep, another animal with a reputation for brainlessness. I can’t speak for commercial meat breeds, but our Icelandics are pretty sharp. As our pasture isn’t yet tightly fenced, I can only let them out to graze when I can keep an eye on them. This morning, I decided to let them graze in the high grass while I mowed another section; that other section we’ve been keeping relatively low, and have been bagging the clippings to feed to the sheep. The gate opened, and all the sheep stampeded down the hill to the rich, long-grass section of the pasture. Meanwhile, I went to work with the lawn mower.

I filled the bag, stopped the mower to empty it, and then went back to work. A moment later, Dot, the flock’s leader ewe, realized that I must have emptied the clippings into a feeder in their paddock by the barn (that’s what I always do, and she’s quite observant). Dot broke from the flock, ran up the hill, and began feasting on clippings. Can’t blame her: it’s a whole lot easier than working the pasture. As I continued mowing, and began filling a wheelbarrow with batches of clippings, the rest of the flock became aware of Dot’s absence. One of them called to her with a “Baaaaah.” Dot called back with her own “Baaaaah.” The ewe ran up the hill and joined Dot at in the paddock…and it didn’t take long for the rest of the flock to catch on. Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog ran alongside to ensure they didn’t bolt for the hay field, but the flock didn’t need any help to find the paddock.

Fortunately, I’d been working quickly, and now had nearly the whole wheelbarrow filled. I dumped the full load into their two big feeders, and the flock swarmed to eat. But something interesting then happened: the lambs, getting crowded by the adults, ran back out through the still-open gate and went to work on the long grass at the edge of the pasture. I waited and watched them for several minutes, just making close observations of each animal and making sure none of them was looking sickly or lethargic.

This photo captures the scene: feasting lambs in the foreground, feasting adults in the distance…and Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog in the middle, having the time of his life being a part of making it happen.

Turkeys Take Two

We still have four turkeys alive from our original batch; they’ve been moved out to a pasture pen in Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s garden. My folks were in town last week, and my father helped me build the pen (we had to leave our old pens behind in Illinois).

The pen is 4′ wide and 8′ long, and is designed to run up and down MYF’s garden beds that are not in use this year. The turkeys will keep the weeds down and drop fertilizer, all the while getting nice supplemental green stuff in their diet. The pen, which is made of 2×4 studs and plywood, cost a total of $55; it could’ve been a lot less if we’d had scrap lumber available.

Meanwhile, back in the brooder in the barn, the twenty new little turkey poults are settling in well. We got the call from the post office this morning at 7:30am, and Homeschooled Farm Boy drove in to town with me to get them. He had a grand time holding the box of peeping poults on his lap as we drove home, and helping me unload them into the brooder.

These little guys look like they had a much smoother trip than the previous batch did, and they’re much more active in getting around for feed and water. Hopefully we’ll end up with lots of nice big turkeys this Thanksgiving.

Turkey Disaster

As detailed in a recent post, we’ve been raising turkeys this year. What I haven’t yet shared is that the birds have been a disaster.

Out of the 14 that arrived alive in the shipment, we’re now down to three. Yes, three.

Turkeys famously spend their first days and weeks, “sitting around thinking of ways to die,” and ours were no exception. I’d come out every morning, and there’d be a few more dead ones. Mostly, though, that was my fault: the first night they were here, I didn’t have the heat lamp low enough. They shivered all night, and even those that survived were so weakened that they dropped dead within a few more days (despite my fixing the heat lamp the second morning). Soon, we were down to four survivors.

Those four were looking pretty good. Then, I came out this morning, someone had left the door to the brooder room open. And one of the four turkey poults was…gone. Nowhere to be found. The other three were huddled up, which was uncharacteristic. Not sure what happened; it’s possible that the missing one flew out of the brooder (they’re feathered now, and capable of it), or if a hungry barn cat jumped in looking for a meal. Either way, looks like I’m going to be putting a mesh cover over the top of the brooder tub tonight.

As these heritage turkeys are an important gift that I offer clients at the end of the year, I can’t get by on just three. I’ve already ordered an additional 20, these from McMurray Hatchery, which is the best in the business. Not taking any chances this time, and not scrimping on price; the window of availability is closing, and I’ve simply got to have turkeys.

They arrive next week, and hopefully we’ll have better success with that batch.

UPDATE: Later in the day, Homeschooled Farm Girl was playing in the barn and heard a chirping sound. She began looking around, and found Turkey #4! We put him back in with the others, and covered the brooder tub with chicken wire. No escapees since.