We persist in learning the hard way. We keep on farming when our bees leave town, our cow refuses to get pregnant, our chickens are eaten by marauding neighborhood dogs. Somehow these trials don’t persuade us to farm conventionally even though most other beekeepers use pesticides in their hives, other farmers cull older cows, and most “free range” chickens don’t actually have any freedom.
Why not skip down another highly educational path?
Every November we buy a turkey or two from our friends at Tea Hills Farms It’s a beautiful drive and we’re glad that our purchase helps sustain their farm.
Every November we also talk about raising our own flock of turkeys, especially after paying $70 to $90 per bird for our holiday table. We have no plans to replicate Tea Hills’ business, but simply hope that, on a smaller scale, we might be able to supply ourselves and our customers with naturally raised turkeys.
A friend who has experience with raising turkeys told us (gently) that our hopes were foolhardy. She said our plans to avoid medications and artificial vitamins in the feed would leave us with no survivors. Many online tales of turkey-raising attempts repeated her woeful account.
But did we listen? Naw.
We ordered 15 turkey chicks from Spencer Feed. That was our first expense.
Then, because we don’t have the equipment to raise them indoors for the necessary six to eight weeks, we had Mark’s friends, an Amish family, care for them. These lucky birds were closely tended in the family’s kitchen. It was an unseasonably hot spring and Elmer told us that he found every excuse possible to stay out of the fowl smelling house. One bird sadly perished during that time, so our small flock was down to 14. We picked up the peeping little birds and paid Elmer. Another expense.
At home Mark and Ben welded together a turkey tractor. This is a moveable coop which they custom designed to fold up for storage between seasons. Entirely out of metal, it was modified several times over the first few weeks.
- They built it with roosts but we soon learned that the turkeys didn’t care to perch. The roosts came out.
- After the turkeys spilled copious amounts of feed Mark added hangers so that the feeder could be suspended from the top.
- Realizing some predators could kill a bird even through the heavy metal mesh, they added a movable electric fence. Yup, more expenses.
Most books about raising turkeys offer advice for conventional farmers, including warnings that turkeys must be kept “on wire,” indoors and away from (gasp) the disease-carrying dangers of grass. Our turkeys were considered pastured birds because they had constant access to grass and bugs. In fact Claire, principal turkey wrangler, moved the turkey tractor several times a day.
How much these quickly growing chicks ate surprised us. We gave them fresh organic produce from the garden every day. They have strong preferences. They love tomatoes, squash, and watermelong. They’ll consider zucchini, cucumbers and spinach. They do not care for rutabagas or broccoli. But the cost of feed is startling. Four bags of locally grown grain and seed cost nearly $50. At this stage they were already getting through those four bags in about two weeks. Another expense.
Aside from the expense, we found turkey farming to be interesting. The toms gobbled at any noisy airborne attractions: Canada geese, crows and helicopters. We found ourselves smiling at each gobble. The hens chirped and clucked in their own quiet manner while the toms were prone to show-off displays of exaggerated feather fluffing. Their heads turned iridescent blue when they were annoyed and sometimes they engaged in snood-grabbing jousts.
Our dogs were fascinated by the turkeys and visited each time they geo a chance. The turkeys didn’t seem to mind the attention.
Most days, one of our chickens moseyed up from the back to visit with the turkeys. She stayed close, pecking at grass and bugs, sometimes a few feet away and sometimes as close as a few inches. When I’d come out to bring the turkeys a treat from the garden she’d cluck at me but not leave. When the turkeys, in their zucchini-enhanced exuberance, tossed around flecks of what they were eating the little hen was right there waiting to gobble up the offerings. She hung around them for months like a friendly fowl diplomat from a nearby land.
Then in September our mistakes became evident. First one, then a second bird slowed down and died. We were terribly saddened. Turns out they grew too big too quickly and their hearts gave out. The manuals we read gave instructions about feeding non-pastured turkeys, but ours had the benefit of fresh grass and bugs (not to mention all that produce) so they got big quickly. Our little flock was down to 12 birds.
It also turned out that we started too soon. We should have bought chicks mid-summer. Our birds were Thanksgiving size about two months early.
On the plus side, our turkeys remained much healthier than their factory-farmed counterparts and never suffered from any of the predicted ill health. Well, until two of them got so big that they keeled over.
So we took the biggest of the birds, the toms, to a local USDA inspected slaughterhouse, located at Plum Creek Farm. Mark lost his glasses in their driveway, fortunately his specs were there when he went back or our turkey venture would have cost us even more. When we picked up the packaged turkeys we were surprised to find that the birds dressed out between 24 and 36 pounds. Some customers wanted them fresh right away, some wanted them frozen. Several requested the birds be cut in half because the birds were too large for normal roasting pans.
A few weeks later we took the hens to be slaughtered.
Because we failed to have them fresh in time for Thanksgiving, we didn’t charge our customers the same price we’d planned. Learning is its own reward. That and the pleasure of smiling at those gobbles.