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Heritage Turkeys, from Egg to Thanksgiving

The heritage turkey hens laid their eggs, and we hatched them in the incubator, back in the springtime. They’ve been living on our rolling pastures since coming out of the brooder barn at a few weeks of age. This represents the essence of farmer optimism: turn an egg into the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast, and have some fun while doing it.

The season’s first frost has arrived out here on the banks of the Elkhorn Creek—an event noted by the people more than the animals that inhabit this place. The heritage turkeys we have nurtured along since spring seem to have been waiting for this weather. Like their wild cousins, they’re equipped for the cold. 

The heritage turkey hens laid their eggs, and we hatched them in the incubator, back in the springtime. They’ve been living on our rolling pastures since coming out of the brooder barn at a few weeks of age. Over the decades we have refined our mobile housing systems to provide optimum conditions so each and every one can grow and thrive. This represents the essence of farmer optimism: turn an egg into the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast, and have some fun while doing it.

The Narragansett is the primary heritage breed on the farm now, as they’ve fit in best here. (Bourbon Reds and Grey Slate heritage turkeys were part of our original heritage flock.) By definition we now have our own strain of turkeys, as we are 13 to 15 generations removed from the gene pool we started with. They look great and perform well on our organic pastures.

Beginning With a Turkey Egg

In mid-March the hens began their seasonal egg laying. In nature, turkeys’ egg laying is in the spring to allow the poults time to mature enough to survive winter weather in the wild. Our job to raise these birds is to mimic what a hen in the wild would do, and that is no small task. 

We gather eggs daily, and when we collect 198, we put them in the incubator. It is a wooden cabinet with precise heating and humidifying systems, racks that cradle the eggs while resting on trays that rotate back and forth 45 degrees, dozens of times a day, all to simulate what a 9-pound bird would do in the woods. The eggs each hatch in a 36- to 48-hour period 27 to 28 days after being set in the incubator. 

At hatching time, the poult pips a perfect circle precisely around the outer circumference of the widest part of the shell and essentially pops off the lid. It’s a miracle every time. We repeat the incubation cycle a few times throughout the spring and early summer.

In the Poultry Brooder Barn

Now we are really committed, holding hundreds of fragile 1-ounce birds that must stay warm and be well nourished. Our brooder barn and handling techniques have evolved as we have learned what works best for the birds. Once the first set of heritage turkeys hatch, the time it takes to do daily chores goes up by about an hour. 

We adjust the heating and ventilation in the brooder barn countless times per day, depending on climatic conditions. It must be in the mid-90s and ventilated, but not drafty. It’s tricky. We can tell what the poults need by the way they behave. If crowded under the heat lamps, they are cold and need more heat; if scrunched around the edges, they are hot and trying to get away from the lamps. The corners of the room are rounded to keep them from getting crowded in, as the birds can’t walk backward.

Twice daily, we refill the shallow trough feeders, clean and refresh the drinkers, and top-dress the bedding with fresh hardwood shavings. The organic, non-GMO feed for these little guys is ground finer and is of higher protein content than adult turkey feed. The importance of providing a well-balanced diet cannot be underestimated at this stage. In the wild, Mom would make sure her babies got just the right amount of seeds, bugs and leafy greens. We generally use about five different formulations of feed grains to suit the various classes of poultry we keep, with the turkey feeds requiring significantly more protein than any of the chicken rations. 

We are fortunate to have Kentucky Organic Farm and Feed Inc. (KOFFI) a few hours away, which sends a truck once a month up this way to keep us and other farmers in our area in fresh organic feed. The driver arrives in a large grain truck and augers feed directly into our hopper-bottom bins, which keep the feed dry, away from mice and easy to dispense. 

Turkeys Living on Pasture

The pasture shade houses we built a few years ago are performing handily. They look simple, and I guess they are, but there are numerous bird behavioral design considerations. These heritage turkeys could fly away, into the trees, and live for years, because we know of one that did just that. So, we make every accomodation to keep them comfortable enough that they’ll want to stay in their surroundings. 

Each shade house is a little different but involves some version of 2×4 framing that supports the roof and is affixed to an antique wagon of some sort. Some of these still have steel wheels. The metal frame acts as an anchor in high winds, which we want to pass under and over the houses without tipping them over. The birds like to roost on all parts of the riggings and rails. Once they spend a few nights in the same place, they like to go back to that spot every night. For this reason, we have to move houses with a tractor in the morning so they have time to realize exactly where home is at dusk.

The open-sided shade structures not only repel solar rays and rain, but offer refuge from aerial predators. The heritage turkeys’ instinctual fear of raptor predation holds true, to the point of each of them keeping a watchful eye on Delta jets approaching Blue Grass Airport. 

Watching the flocks’ behavior and activity is part of the joy of turkey farming. When we open the electric fence netting to move the turkeys to the fresh pasture every few days, the dominant toms and hens scamper out into the field first in search of unsuspecting insects. Others cautiously look around, not sure if they want to keep up, or maybe they don’t realize what all the fuss is about since the early adopters eat most of the bugs. Besides, they must be thinking, the house is still back here. Watching the turkeys strut and flap about is fun. Often a small group will get so excited when they start running that they end up taking flight, but they quickly realize they don’t want to stray too far from home, and circle back. (Whew!) 

Turkeys Well Raised

We have had many thrills in rearing birds from eggs again this year, for your nourishment and enjoyment. Your kind words keep us motivated when the hours are long and the weather challenging. Your financial support has afforded us the ability to design, improve and build secure housing for these magnificent creatures, while allowing them to live in an environment consistent with their inherent behaviors. 

As we are coming up on Thanksgiving meals and holiday orders, we’re again grateful for the opportunity to keep these magnificent creatures on our farm, especially knowing they’re part of making your traditions special. This is what farming is all about for us. —Mac Stone

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