The cooler nights recently have me thinking about fall holidays and our turkeys, as they’re nearly ready for harvest, and we’re already taking your preorders on the Elmwood Stock Farm website. The general scope of this year’s flock was decided way back in the spring when the first eggs were laid. The number of turkeys we raised this year was based on a review of previous years’ production and sales records and a little bit of guessing.
The turkey hatchlings have grown well. In fact, both Elmwood Stock Farm’s home-hatched heritage turkeys and the broad breasted turkeys are doing great. They probably benefited from the long days of summer, not to mention the careful care they receive here.
Now when I am out in the pasture, any attempt to accurately count the turkeys is futile at best, but we do attempt. We line up the feed troughs end-to-end and fill them with food. Gerardo and I walk along either side, counting both sides of the trough as the birds eat, but with all their jockeying for position, it is still only an estimate. We each write down the number before showing the other to see how far apart they are. In the last couple of years, I’ve gotten close.
Timing their sizing up for Thanksgiving meals is our challenge. We want to bring them along, but not too fast. We work to match our offerings with your plans, and this year may be back to the nice-sized family gatherings we enjoyed in years past, pre-pandemic.
A Turkey Primer
On our Central Kentucky farm, we maintain two flocks of turkeys: rare heritage turkeys, which we breed here, and broad breasted turkeys, which come to us as day-old poults (baby turkeys) from a hatchery just up the road, outside Cincinnati.
The heritage turkeys come from genetics developed in the first 200 years of domesticated turkey farming in this country. These birds lay eggs in spring only, and we incubate and hatch them, then rear them to be full grown before winter, mimicking the development pattern of their wild cousins. Their slower-growing nature and greater ratio of dark meat to light—not conducive to commercial farming situations—made these birds fall out of favor as industrialized farming took hold in this country. The local food movement and interest in small-scale, sustainable farming brought heritage breed turkeys back from extinction, essentially.
The turkey hatchery supplies little, backyard operations like ours along with commercial-scale clients. The broad breasted bronze turkeys are completely different birds than the heritage turkeys and they are less industrialized than the all-white turkeys. We think the turkey breeders lost some of the meat’s flavor when they selected birds for all white feathers. (White feathers don’t leave dark pigment spots on the skin associated with the feather follicle, which grocery-store customers prefer.) The bronze birds may be heartier outdoors, as well, which is important in our pasture-raising system. These turkeys do get big fast—a force to reckon with when walking amongst a hundred or more this time of year.
The heritage turkeys we hatch in the spring—primarily Narragansett and a few Bourbon Red and Slate—grow more slowly than the broad breasted bronze and never get as big, but they provide a rich-tasting treat. Their coloring and behavior are much like wild turkeys, yet they are amazingly calm in domestication, even needing the security of a shelter and their flock.
Turkeys on Pasture
As the turkeys go through their ugly duckling adolescent phase into adulthood, they work amongst themselves to finalize their pecking order with definite alpha males and subordinate hens. Our outdoor system gives them room to express their turkeyness and give others space to stay out of the fray.
Rows of roosting rails run the length of their moveable shelters, and the turkeys instinctively seek their places in their shelters each night. When they are young, we close the sides at night until the turkeys get bigger because owls—persistent nocturnal predators—are too close to the flocks for our comfort.
Daily feed intake records and years of experience indicate the turkeys are growing well. It’s kinda hard to tell when you look at them every day. I often think that if they would only sit still during the day they would put on more weight, but they seem to not be able to.
Holiday Turkey Offerings
With our collective holiday celebrations ahead, we plan to have nice 20-pound turkeys with lots of white breast meat to carve, dark meat for leftovers, and bones to pick on for a couple of days and then turn into stock. For gatherings of smaller families or close friends, the darker-meat heritage birds offer amazing flavors and plenty of breast meat.
We also have increased our stock of breast, thigh, and leg packs as we get asked for these frequently. We also stock ground turkey year-round, that is superb, made from top quality breast and thigh meat.
We are now taking holiday turkey orders, trying to decide how many turkeys to keep whole for the traditional holiday big bird and how many to have packaged as individual cuts to enjoy anytime. In short, we’re asking you to preorder sooner rather than later before your preferred turkey size is made into individual cuts. This will help us to plan within our harvest schedule. Our turkey processor’s calendar is filled for the rest of this year and next. We have our dates reserved to provide wholesome, organic turkey for you, whatever form your celebration with family and friends takes on this year. Remember that we ship to all the lower 48 states, so if you are traveling, your turkey can still meet you at the Thanksgiving table!
From what we can tell, we are one of only a few farms on this continent going to all the work to provide wholesome, organic heritage turkeys for your enrichment. Place your order now so we can save yours for you. —Mac Stone