I had not planned to end up with 13 turkeys this year. My intention was to raise 3 for ourselves, sell any extra as babies, and then butcher 3 in the fall for our own use, leaving 3 to carry over into next year. So I incubated a batch of eggs in April and thought I was good to go. The girls, Gracie-mae and Peggy-sue, had other ideas. They kept starting nest and brooding, and brooding, and brooding. I did sell a few, and we lost a few to predation, but we ended up with 13 mostly grown turkeys by the time Thanksgiving rolled around.
So on Monday night (when everyone was calm in the coop and easy to catch) we dispatched 8 turkeys. Five toms and three hens. The largest weighed in at 24 lbs (ahem…that would be Charlie – yes, Charlie has gone to turkey heaven, where there are lots and lots of hens to display to. One of his offspring, now named Angus, was allowed to live on and propagate the line). Second largest was a Bourbon Red tom who hatched on May 7th (and so was 29 weeks old). He weighed in at 22 lbs. The lightest, a hen, was just under 9 lbs (with a hatch date in late June).
We hung the birds outside in an old chain link dog kennel overnight (it was in the low 30’s) and then butchered on Tuesday morning. We were able to borrow a plucker from a friend, which had a steep learning curve. We purchased a turkey frier, not to fry them in, but to use as a scalder (filled with water) in order to loosen the feathers before plucking. It worked, for the most part. There were a few overscalded birds who’s skin tore when plucked. There was one who just wouldn’t release its feathers and required a lot of hand plucking. We lost about 30% between hanging weight and carcass weight, which is pretty typical.
We kept Charlie and the most beat up light weight bird for ourselves, and the rest went to friends who had asked us about birds. We figured Charlie would be rather tough, given that he was 18 months old, so we ground the meat for ground turkey and sausage. We saved all of the gizzards and hearts and livers, and made a batch of giblet sausage using this recipe, substituting the turkey for duck. We ended up with 6 lbs of sausage! We’re really enjoying it and will put most of it in casings this weekend. Thankfully, we purchased a half pig from a friend earlier this fall, and so had some pork fat on hand. We also made quarts of turkey stock from the necks and left over bones and unused bits.
Here’s a bit about what we’ve learned about raising these heritage birds, now that we’ve gone full circle.
We raised Bourbon Reds and Slates, and we think our slate hen also mated with a wild turkey in the area, as half of her offspring looked like wild turkeys (and we have wild turkeys visit the yard all the time). Heritage birds can mate naturally, live a long time, and they grow slowly. Our birds were raised on conventional feed (while I would love to provide organic feed, it is cost prohibitive). But they were allowed to free range on pasture during the day, and enjoyed a diverse diet of vegetation, insects, extra garden produce and weed seeds. They ran and flew and hung out in a flock with their siblings and parents. They roosted up high in a protected building at night. In short, they led a quality turkey life. This, plus the older age when butchered, gives the meat superior flavor and nutrition (higher in Omega 3’s) compared to conventionally grown birds.
Heritage birds, by the time they are ready to harvest, have eaten more than twice as much feed as a typical commercial bird. They take about 28 weeks (an additional 3 months (!) compared to commercial varieties) to reach a mature size. In short, they are much more expensive to raise.
By comparison, commercial Broad Breasted White (BBW) turkeys can do none of these things – they have been bred – using artificial insemination no less – for fast growth and huge breast meat. By the time they reach harvest age, at 14-18 weeks, they can barely walk. They are generally raised indoors in large buildings, with very little space to move round. They are given a special diet designed to encourage fast growth. Once butchered, most are injected with a salt solution to ensure juiciness and increase the carcass weight with water. In short, there’s not a whole lot natural about them. The vast majority of all turkeys sold in the United States are raised by just four major companies.
Heritage birds are smaller than a BBW, even when full grown, and have more dark meat and less white meat than a conventional bird. The texture of the meat is also different, as these birds were allowed to exercise. In short, they are not your store bought salt-solution-injected birds, and take a bit of special handling to cook.
We brined our small bird (7 lbs) overnight. Then we smoked her for three hours before cooking her in a 325 degree oven for 1 3/4 hours (the general rule is 15 minutes per pound of bird at this temperature). We pulled the bird out and tented it with foil to rest when the breast temperature reached 160. You’ll get an additional 5 degrees of temperature rise during the rest. The meat, which I was really worried about, since we were sharing it with some friends, turned out fabulous.
So, in short, it’s been a successful experiment, though not a money maker. While I’m glad to see most of the crew gone, as they were eating me out of house and home, we really enjoyed having them around, and seeing Gracie raise her brood in the back yard amongst the flower beds, and watching to see who turned out to be male (which took a LONG time to determine). We kept 4 hens (one of each variation – we kept the experienced mama’s, so Gracie and Peggy are still with us, along with one slate/bourbon cross and what we think is one slate/wild cross.) We also kept Angus, who is a pure Bourbon Red tom. One of the slate/wild cross hens was wandering around the yard Tuesday, calling and calling, clearly looking for her brood mates, and I briefly felt bad. But then I went inside and had an excellent turkey sandwich. These birds had a wonderful life, and one bad day. I’m looking forward to raising more of them next year and selling them as live birds when they are young, now that I can tell buyers what to expect.
Here’s a video of two of the slate cross toms (one light, one dark), taken a few days ago. The male bourbon reds and one of the slate females are the ones making all the noise off camera.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2013, where we have SO much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, not the least of which is you, my dear readers.