The turkey’s rich history is well deserved, considering how majestic these birds are. As turkey production began to be concentrated and industrialized, someone mistook their cautious curiosity for stupidity and labeled them as dumb. Spend a few hours with them out here on the farm, and you’ll realize 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. Rearing these animals at Elmwood Stock Farm is not only rewarding but a joy.
You’ll find two types of organic, pasture-raised turkeys from Elmwood Stock Farm: heritage breed and broad-breasted. The Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys have full, plump white-meat breasts many of us are accustomed to. These look like the turkeys you find at the grocery store, but the similarities stop there, as they’re raised on our rotational-pasture system and fed organic, non-GMO grains. The heritage turkeys are barely domesticated cousins of the wild turkeys you see along back roads and hiking trails. These have a more equal white-meat to dark-meat ratio, and the meat overall has a deeper, richer flavor and texture.
Young turkeys—called poults—are fragile. We modified the old tobacco barn stripping room into a brooding facility for them and our broiler chickens. The brooder barn has a concrete floor, insulated walls and ceiling, heat, cooling fans and running water. The poults must be kept at 95 degrees F for a couple of weeks after hatching. Gradually the temperature can be backed off over several more weeks, until the ambient temperature is suitable, especially at night. They graduate to the “nursery,” room which is an open pen where they can run and fly a bit and learn that they are birds.
As they become juveniles, we move them to the pastures, where they have outdoor shade-house enclosures with an electric-netting perimeter fence to keep out ground predators and allow them plenty of space to run and jump and to fly a bit as they please.
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. We move the turkeys to fresh pasture 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—kinda like how 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 receive from eating green and growing plant material, which is good for us, as well.
We care for the broad-breasted turkeys for 16 to 18 weeks and the heritage turkeys for 24 to 30 weeks, or actually year-round, if you count the breeding flock.
While these creatures have some individualistic personality, turkeys are quite gregarious and 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 and hopping up and down on the roosts.
The flock’s pecking order is not just about size. It is quite comical to see 1-foot-tall males with their tails flared and wings flexed, rubbing the ground, strutting around as if to say, “I’m bad!” It’s hilarious when one happens upon a grasshopper—too big for one gulp—and it runs away with the hope of eating in peace, but 10 or 15 others see what is going on and give chase, trying to get some of the grasshopper.
The turkeys in the flocks communicate amongst themselves, much like wild turkeys do in the woods. If one turkey sees or hears something that may bring danger to the flock, she (usually a she) will make a sharp squawk. Every bird will raise their heads and stand stone still. In effect, their collective eyes cover every angle,, trying to find the problem. When nothing seems to happen, they go about their way, albeit a bit more cautiously for a few minutes while a few tend to keep an eye out.
The turkeys are polite about speaking when spoken to. If you approach the pen and give an audible, “Gobble-gobble,” they will gobble-gobble back in unison. But don’t 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 ringtones work just as well.
Older males have that deep guttural thump, much like an elephant, which is hardly audible but very penetrating once you become aware of it. The most enjoyable sound is when we open the fence netting to move it. The turkeys scatter through the field in search of unsuspecting insects, making something of a combination cooing/chirping sound, that collectively sounds like singing, almost yodeling.
In our breeding flock of heritage turkeys, you’ll find some Bourbon Reds but mostly Narragansetts, with a few Gray Slates and White Royal Palms. These breeds of turkeys used to be the standards of what a Thanksgiving turkey should look like, yet they fell from favor as breeding programs developed the large-breasted strains with a greater portion of lighter meat. The heritage turkey 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 eat them, we will raise lots of them. We started with about 12 the first year, and now we raise several hundred.
The best of the best of our heritage turkeys are held back as breeders for next year. They are seasonal egg layers, so we gather their eggs from mid-March through June, incubate them, and let them get their start in the brooder barn before moving them to pasture. Generally we like to have about 30 hens (females) and five to six toms (males).
Turkey as a Holiday Meal
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. The cost of processing each turkey at our abattoir, who handles each one by hand and with care, is more than what the supermarkets charge for a whole bird (but the supermarkets are using the turkeys as loss leaders to get people in the door to buy canned sweet potatoes and marshmallows to top them, boxed stuffing, frozen apple pie and whipped topping, and the infamous gelatinous gooey cranberry whatever-it-is from a can).
Hunters will tell you just how intelligent and perceptive turkeys are. Benjamin Franklin fought to have the wild turkey be our national symbol, not the bald eagle. 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 to them. I’m glad ‘ol Ben did not get his way on this one, otherwise we couldn’t eat them. —Mac Stone