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Turkeys- Back to a family tradition

Posted 4/4/2014 3:27pm by Monique Russ.



We’ve raised turkeys for ourselves for several years now, but last year was the first year we raised them to sell at markets. Raising a few turkeys for your own family each year is significantly different and more challenging than raising 50, and for several reasons we’ve decided not to raise them this year.

Last year we started out with 75 heritage turkey poults (baby turkeys) last spring, and by the time slaughtering rolled around we only had 41 left. That’s an incredible death loss! Why did so many die? Well, first of all turkeys are not very smart and in fact some are just down right dumb. We lost a couple in the brooder which is fairly common, but the biggest losses were sustained after the poults were several weeks old.

Young chickens and turkeys are known to smother one another - it's what farmers call "piling," and it can cause substantial losses. Young birds will sometimes literally pile on top of one another when they’re cold, startled, or become afraid of something. In the process they pin and press each other against a wall or the floor and the poor birds on the bottom of the pile are unable to escape and they literally suffocate to death. We lost quite a few to piling, and I can’t tell you how sad it is to find dead birds that were senselessly smothered to death.

Our poults are raised in a 12x12 heated stall in our barn, and when they are old enough to withstand the weather we turn them loose on pasture. They free range and have the freedom to do whatever they want and go anywhere they want whenever they want. We don’t confine them or restrict their access to any one part of the farm – we’ve never had to. Of all the land they have to range on some of them just happened to find their way into an old water trough that had a few inches of rain water in it. (Keep in mind this water trough was behind another fence and was not easily accessible.) Approximately 10 of them wound up in there and were unable to get out and they died. So, in one day we lost 10 birds. 10 birds! Over the course of the next several months we lost a few more to some neighborhood dogs (our 2nd biggest predator problem) and a couple flew away. Down from 75 birds to 41.

Did you know that 50 turkeys consume as much grass as one cow does? Well neither did we! They ate so much grass it reduced our pasture to nothing, and we had to make a giant aviary and keep them confined in it for a few weeks to allow the pasture to recover. With the wet August & September we had the pasture recovered very well, so they were able to go back to foraging in no time. By the time November came around they had decimated the pasture again only this time it didn’t have time to recover before the cold weather set in. That caused a bit of a problem for our winter meat birds because they weren’t able to consume as much grass as they normally would have because the turkeys ate so much of it.

Raising turkeys the way we do isn't cheap and last year we took a big financial loss. For a small start-up farm business trying to be sustainable that’s a big problem. Our turkeys were fed our custom made non-GMO feed which was not cost effective, and even though they stuffed themselves silly with grass, blackberries, bugs, and the like, they still ate a huge amount of grain. Last year, not knowing what our true costs were going to be, we charged what some of the other small farms charged; $7.50/lb. Big mistake! Most other farms are raising the Broad Breasted White commercial breed – not the old heritage breeds we raised. These commercial turkey breeds are just like the super fast growing Cornish Cross chickens; bred to develop and mature as fast as possible and provide copious amounts of bland tasting meat. Heritage turkeys take about 30 weeks to mature whereas the Broad Breasted turkey only takes an average of 16 weeks. That’s quite a gap when estimating feed costs!

Another problem is heritage turkeys don’t get real big. In fact they don’t even come close to the weights of grocery store birds, but having raised turkeys for several years now we thought we could safely estimate our overall average would be around 15 lbs. Toms would get 17-20 lbs and hens would be 10-12. After all, our Bourbon Red toms have averaged 17lbs and up in previous years. Nope. No, our birds only averaged 9.44 lbs. Holy cow batman! Another surprise we encountered. We thought they ate a lot of grain, but they ate even more grass. Grass, even good grass, doesn’t put enough weight on turkeys for them to be ready in time for Thanksgiving.

Another big motivator for not raising turkeys was the stress. You’re probably thinking ‘what stress’? Boatloads of it! People have a lot of expectations about their Thanksgiving turkeys and there’s a lot of pressure to produce the perfect bird. They want a specific size, shape, color, etc! We told people when they placed their order that we couldn’t guarantee weights, but we’d try to get them matched up with a turkey close to their desired weight range. Most everyone wanted a 15 lb bird. Guess how many birds we got over 10 lbs? 12! Most of our turkeys ended up being hens which weighed 7-8 lbs – not the 10-12 lbs as we expected. So, out of 41 birds only 12, all Toms, were larger than 10lbs. We only had one bird weigh 15lbs.

We alerted everyone in mid-October that our birds were going to be smaller than expected, and we offered everyone a refund that wanted it. Most people took it in stride and knew to expect smaller birds, and some bought a second turkey to make up for the smaller than anticipated size. Others weren’t so understanding, and some became irate and belligerent. I’m not ashamed to admit that the day after slaughter I had a mini-breakdown because we were shocked at the weights. I knew these birds were going to be small, but this small? How could I get everyone the size they wanted when only a handful of large bird requests could be fulfilled? How would you feel if you ruined someone’s Thanksgiving because they had all these special guests coming and only a tiny bird to feed them with? The stress was AWFUL! The end of the world didn’t come, and we survived pickup day with most everyone being grateful and thankful for their turkey, but those few nasty people ruined the experience for us.

So, for now, our farm won’t be producing turkeys - we will only be raising them for ourselves. It negatively impacts our small plot of land, it’s not profitable, and the stress was ridiculous. There aren’t many small farms in the Puget Sound area that raise turkeys, and there’s even fewer raising heritage breeds. Most of the farms I’ve talked to have said they stopped raising them because the financial loss was negatively impacting their overall farm profits. I can’t stress enough how important it is for small farms to raised heritage breeds to save them from extinction, but until the true costs can be recaptured more and more farms will switch to the commercial breeds or stop raising them altogether. Hopefully, we’ll be able to move to a bigger farm in the next couple of years and begin raising heritage turkeys again, but until then if I hear of a farm raising heritage turkeys I’ll be sure to post their info on our Facebook page.


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