Turkey’s rich history is well deserved, considering how majestic they are. As they began to be produced in an industrialized system, someone mistook cautious curiosity for stupidity and labeled them as dumb, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s too bad the quest to produce cheap food in this country has tarnished the reputation of this bird—something it does not deserve. Rearing these animals at Elmwood Stock Farm is not only rewarding, but a joy.
We keep a breeding flock of heritage turkeys, which are barely domesticated cousins of the wild turkeys you see along the backroads. We have someBourbon Reds, but mostly Narragansetts, with a few Gray Slates and White Royal Palms in the flock. These breeds of turkeys used to be the standards of what a Thanksgiving turkey should look like, yet fell from favor as breeding programs developed the large-breasted strains with a lighter-color meat.
The heritage breeds became very rare indeed, with just a few hundred breeding females in the entire country. The Livestock Conservancy maintained them on numerous small farms, almost like zoo animals. We were not interested in maintaining them as a novelty, but us and other market farmers like us said that if you let us produce them for consumption, we will raise lots of them.
We started with about 12 heritage-breed turkeys the first year, and now we have several hundred. The best of the best are held back as breeders for our flock. Turkeys are seasonal egg layers, so we gather the eggs from mid-March through June, incubate them in a warm room, and carry them to the brooder (more on the brooder in a minute) in the “turkey transporter,” which is actually a bushel gourd (pictured below).
Generally, we like to keep about 30 hens and five or six toms. One tom can service several hens. A hen will lay numerous fertile eggs each week, yet only needs to be with the tom turkey once a month.
The heritage breeds’ sleeker conformation, and darker, richer meat is not for everyone, so we also raise Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys, too, which have full, plump white-meat breasts that many of us are accustomed to. This type of bird cannot mate naturally the way heritage turkeys can, so we purchase the young turkeys—called poults—from a hatchery in Ohio.
Growing Up Turkey
Poults are fragile creatures when very young. We have modified the old tobacco-barn stripping room into a brooding facility for our poultry. The baby chicks also use this area. It has a concrete floor, insulated walls and ceiling, heat, cooling fans, and running water. Within the room are some 2-foot-tall plywood boxes with lids that can be adjusted to hold in heat or let in cool air. The poults must be kept at 95 degrees F for a couple of weeks, then gradually the temperature can be backed off over several more weeks, until nighttime temperatures are appropriate. They graduate to the “nursery,” which is an open pen in the room where they can run and fly a bit and learn that they are birds.
As they become juveniles, we move them outdoors. In the pasture, they have shade-house enclosures that they are free to use as they wish and an electric-netting perimeter fence to keep out ground predators. Here, they have plenty of space to run and jump and fly a bit, as they please.
While these creatures have some individualistic personality traits, turkeys are quite gregarious and very social. When they are young, in the brooder, some will literally fall asleep while standing and plop down, while others run around bobbing and weaving amongst the others as if challenged to run the gauntlet. Once outdoors, they seem to be constantly on the move, chasing bugs, checking out the feeder, hopping up and down on the roosts.
The pecking order is not just about size. It is quite comical to see foot-tall males with their tails flared and wings flexed, rubbing the ground and strutting around as if to say, “I’m bad!” It’s hilarious when one happens on to a grasshopper, too big for one gulp, and it runs away to eat in peace, but 10 or 15 others see what is going on and form a train of turkeys weaving through the group trying to get some of it. Maybe that is what the baby was practicing for in the brooder.
A Well-Balanced Diet
Raising each of these breeds of turkeys on pasture has its challenges with all that Mother Nature tends to throw at us, but the quality of the meat is well worth the effort. Their 1/4-acre enclosures get moved around the field several times per week, affording the birds a fresh batch of insects to devour and tender, young plant leaves to round out their organic-grain-based diet. They do seem to eat less feed on the days we move them to fresh pasture. (Kinda like the kale and carrots we eat may seem like a relatively small portion of our daily intake, but we know it makes a tremendous difference in our health.) The relatively yellow fat we see in the birds is an indicator of the beta carotene they got from eating green and growing plant material, which is good for us as well.
Being organic, the grains are non-GMO and raised without the use of synthetic fertilizers or synthetic pesticides. No honey bees were harmed in the rearing of our turkeys; in fact, the bees we have on the farm may get water from the turkey pens.
Literally Talking Turkey
We have three turkey groups in the pasture, and they communicate amongst themselves, much like a flock of wild turkeys does in the woods. If one sees or hears something that may bring danger to the flock, she (usually a she) will make a sharp, loud squawk, and immediately each bird will raise its head and stand stone still. In effect, their collective eyes cover every angle away from the flock, trying to find the problem. When nothing seems to happen, they go about their way, albeit a bit cautiously for a few minutes while a few tend to keep an eye out.
They are very polite about speaking when spoken to. If you approach the pen and give an audible “Gobble-gobble”, they will gobble-gobble back in unison. Not to feel too proud of yourself for encouraging them to communicate with you, they gobble-gobble every time we use a hammer or post driver, or certain cellphone ringtones work just as well.
Older males have that deep guttural thump, much like an elephant, that is hardly audible, but very penetrating once you become aware of it. The most enjoyable sound is when we open the netting to move it, they scatter out through the field in search of unsuspecting insects, making something of a combination cooing/chirping sound, that collectively sounds like singing, almost yodeling.
The Cost of Quality
We have been caring for the Broad Breasted turkeys for the previous 16 to 18 weeks and the heritage for at least 24 to 30 weeks, or actually year-round, if you count the breeding flock. The price you pay to acquire one of these beauties is calculated based on the amount of feed they eat and how much time it has taken us to care for them. Processing alone costs us more than what the supermarkets charge for a whole bird, but those stores are using the turkeys as loss-leaders to get people in the door to buy canned sweet potatoes and marshmallows, boxed stuffing, frozen apple pie and whipped-topping, and the infamous gelatinous, gooey, cranberry-whatever-it-is from a can.
Harvesting the birds can be quite exhilarating since they fly, but we are thankful they don’t fight when cornered! Our processor handles each bird with care, understanding all that it has taken for us to be at that place at that time. In Kentucky, we are fortunate to have small, independent facilities willing to work with us to provide you such a quality product. The US Department of Agriculture provides an inspector that watches every step of the process and verifies the health of each animal.
Hunters will tell you just how intelligent and perceptive turkeys are. Benjamin Franklin said the wild turkey would be a better choice for our National Emblem than the Bald Eagle. These magnificent birds became the symbol of what Thanksgiving is all about for good reason—they nurtured early settlers through some rough winters. We are proud to have learned how to raise them on prime bluegrass pastures in a manner that respects their heritage. We tend to their every need from the time they hatch and come into our care. Whichever breed you choose to share with your friends and family this season, you can eat in peace knowing just how much respect was given them. I’m glad ‘Ol Ben did not get his way on this one, otherwise we couldn’t eat them. —Mac Stone