Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Our First Year Raising Turkeys for Thanksgiving

Disclaimer: This is a post about raising turkeys for Thanksgiving. Yes, we slaughtered our own turkeys. Due to the nature of this post, the very end will describe the process, but I did not include pictures of the process (mainly because I didn't really think to take any).

This year we moved to our dream home, a modern "homestead" of sorts, and so many of my husband's and my goals are coming to fruition. We have just over 5 1/2 acres of space that's a range of flat usable yard, terraced paths where we built our chicken coop and plan to grow a vegetable garden, an established apple and pear tree, trails to run our quad and dogs on, a creek, a separate mother in law building with garage space for the hubby and so much more. The house is beautiful, built as though someone had us in mind. I could literally go on about all of our plans for this piece of heaven, but today I'm going to write about our experience with raising turkeys for the first time.

For the last three years I've raised close to three dozen chickens of various stages (this year was my first with chicks - The Pierogie Peepers) and we decided that we also wanted to give turkeys a try. I had only tasted an all organic pastured Thanksgiving turkey once, though it was long before I even cared about what that truly meant, but both my husband and I knew that this was something that a lot of people raved about so we decided to give it a try and see if it was something for us.

For simplicity's sake, I decided to get turkey poults (the term for baby turkeys) from our local farm store, and they offered only one variety this year; broad breasted whites. Turkeys come in a huge variety of breeds and of the domesticated type you can divide them into two groups (just like chickens) - commercial and heritage breeds. A heritage breed bird is one that is considered old school; the breed was established prior to the 1950's (and hasn't been subject to the commercialized selective breeding), takes longer to mature and still mates naturally. A commercial breed is pretty much the opposite - a domesticated bird that has gone through the selective breeding process over generations, probably starting around the 1950's, to grow bigger, faster and easier. Broad breasted white turkeys fall into the commercial category. They mature in as little as 16 weeks! On the other hand, many heritage breed turkeys take well over a year to fully mature and reach their maximum size. Some people say that there is a marked difference between the taste of a commercial versus heritage bird, even those that are fed the exact same food and grew up side by side.

A broad breasted white turkey (which is the exact same thing as a broad breasted bronze, they are just different colors) was developed to grow a huge amount of breast meat. Because that's what we Americans love. The white color was developed because it looks more sterile. Commercial birds were bred to grow big and fast, so interestingly enough most of them have no idea how to mate and due to their size are incapable of it (even if they were given a life long enough to act). It's my understanding that all commercially hatched turkeys are a product of artificial insemination.

There are many reasons why you would choose between a heritage and commercial breed for poultry, but mainly what it came down to for us was that this was our first year (so we took what we could easily get), these birds were intended for Thanksgiving dinner so they did need to mature in a relatively short amount of time, and we were curious to see how big it really would get.

So on June 2 this year our little gang of three turkeys arrived at Two Tire Fire Farm and they were raised in the brooder next to The Pierogie Peepers (the 11 chicks that we got a few weeks earlier). In comparison to raising chicks, the poults were a lot more slow to get up to speed. They were about twice the size of a chick of the same age, but didn't have the inherent knowledge of how to eat or drink. Truly, people who raise turkeys will tell you that either you put a chicken chick or two with poults to show them the ropes, or you have to dip their beak into the food and water for a few days to show them. The phrase that turkeys are dumber than a box of rocks tends to be true in my experience.

We chose three turkeys because we wanted one for our Thanksgiving dinner, a friend asked us to raise one for them and I got a third one "just in case," because again.. turkeys aren't very smart and don't have the best resilience to disease and honestly, begin to look mighty tasty to predators once they get a bit of meat on them.

Before they were a month old it was pretty clear that we have one tom and two hens. I was really hoping that we had two toms so that the other family could have a nice big bird as well, because we had no clue on what to expect for how big they would get. They graduated from the brooder with a heat lamp by 5 weeks to living exclusively outside in a mobile turkey "tractor" (a pen that we can move around to give them free range of grasses, bugs and dirt but keep them protected).

I found that they really did not graze and forage on grass nearly as much as chickens would in that same space. It would take 2-3 days for them to eat all the grass in the footprint of their tractor whereas it would easily be done in a day with chickens. Turkeys, at least mine, were incredibly picky about their food. I had started to introduce leaves and fresh grass into their brooder at an early age, but they never cared for it. My chickens get tons of kitchen and veggie scraps in addition to their feed and getting to forage in their own tractor, but the turkeys really wouldn't touch it. On a really hot day I brought half a watermelon to them (a real treat!) and they cautiously circled it for hours. Had this been in the chicken pen - it wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes.  Finally I dumped some of their pellet food on top of it and they tried it. ???

I found that it was incredibly difficult to source organic turkey feed in my area. It was completely unheard of. Raising an organic pastured turkey was my highest priority because I'm well aware of the benefits of this standard of food, although the cost is higher. I am thankful that this financial cost is something that we can afford because it's important to my husband and I.

I was lucky enough to find some organic meat chicken food ("fryer ration") and fed that to them until I found a feed store about 3 hours away (luckily, in the town that my parents live). The reason why choosing your feed for your turkeys is important is because of the protein level. More protein = faster growth, just like any other animal. Turkeys are recommended to have between 19% to 30% protein in their feed. Meat chicken feed tends to be at about 18-21%. However, more protein is not always better. If you feed any animal too much protein too fast they won't be able to healthily support their own weight. The horror stories that you hear about chicken production farms can be true - chickens whose legs break at the end of their life cycle because they simply cannot support their own weight. They've been stuffed too much. That was my fear for the turkeys. So I decided that a gradual increase in protein would be a safe bet. They were fed an 21% protein diet (on CHS Payback Organic Fryer) until they were about 12 weeks old, when I found that Modesto Mills has an organic turkey ration that is at 28%. At 19 weeks (about 5 weeks before slaughter) I added organic cracked corn into their diet, which is a "finisher." The finisher feed, in addition to the regular feed, helps finish off the meat but giving it an extra bit of fat which will add to the flavor. They got about 40 pounds of cracked corn in the final 5 weeks. The three turkeys went through 160 lbs of feed and 40 lbs of cracked corn in their 24 weeks of life.

We slaughtered them the Saturday before Thanksgiving. A friend who has several years of farming experience came to help out, as well as the husband of the family that we grew one of the turkeys for. Our local feed store rents a "poultry processing kit," which includes a stand, kill cones and basin, a scalder and a plucker.  My husband had slaughtered turkeys and chickens "by hand" in the past and it was a time consuming process. The kit cut it down to processing 3 turkeys and 6 roosters in under 3 hours. Because of the ease of this process, the whole experience was quiet, humble, humane and respectful. I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch the process because I was worried that it would be too hard to watch, but it really wasn't that bad. I was the primary caretaker for the turkeys and was reminded every day that their lives have an expiration and that their sacrifice would be respected. At the last minute I decided that because I had taken on the responsibility of raising them I should see it through to the end. I watched; I don't think I will ever want to participate, but I'm glad that I know have an understanding of the process.

There are several ways to kill a bird, but the way that we did it was by placing the bird head first into the kill done and slitting the jugular and allowing the bird to bleed out. It only takes a few minutes and the bird does not struggle. After it is gone, you place it into the scalder to get the feathers to come off easily. Scalding the bird loosens the pores and regardless if you have to pluck by hand or have a machine that does it - it's easier. A plucker essentially looks like an open washing machine that spins the body around with some rubberized nubs that pull the feathers off for you.  We placed two roosters at a time into the scalder and plucker but the turkeys were way too big.

After the feathers are removed you remove the head, then the neck, feet (we saved them for our dogs!) and internal organs. Because I was only watching, I can't give you a tutorial on what exactly to do. You then cool the body and you're good to go!

So what did our birds weigh in at? That was my most anticipated surprise!!

Our tom - 31 1/2 lb and the two hens were 21 and 22 lbs.

I brined it in a Costco brine mix (it had apples, cranberries, vanilla bean and other spices) for about 48 hours and I made an herbed garlic butter to slather on top and under the skin. It was stuffed with my mom's stuffing. For a bird that size we expected it to take just over 7 hours to cook at 350 degrees. So I prepped it the night before Thanksgiving and got up at 5am to put it in the oven. It ended up being ready (165 degrees at the thickest part of the thigh) almost an hour and a half early. THAT was a surprise! I read that pastured turkeys take a little bit less time but I wasn't expecting that big of a difference. The other two turkeys also took less time than expected.

And the verdict on the flavor? Even the most skeptical of family members (we invited almost 20 adults to get this bird eaten, after all!) agreed that this was much better than store bought. We still had a ton of left overs that were used for turkey sandwiches, pot pie and a few other things. I simmered the carcass to make broth that I pressure canned with a Black Friday purchase.

It's very likely that we'll grow a turkey or two every year from now on. They didn't take any more work than my chickens do and the pay off was worth it for us. It was very personally satisfying to see 6 months of work bring so much of our family together for a great meal and wonderful memories.


  1. this is great insight, i would love to raise chickens and turkeys, just in the plans right now.

  2. Wow! What a process! Not sure I could watch the butchering either, but good job on the whole process!

  3. What an adventure! It has been so cool to share it with you through your posts, thank you so much for sharing! :)

  4. I remember seeing your post about the turkeys on thanksgiving. I am glad they turned out so tasty. The fact that your family put so much work into raising what ended up being your dinner was fascinating. When I was very young,my mom and dad and grandmother raised pigs. I don't remember much about how they tasted though. Sad that birds like chickens and turkeys grow so big that they can break their legs before being slaughtered. Really makes you think more about where you get your meat. I can't raise my open ,now,but it makes me want to become more aware of where we get our poultry.

  5. This reminded me of the book "Merle's Door," which may seem unrelated, but I assure you... there is a correlation! The writer, who was found by Merle (as I would put it) lived an unorthodox life and hunted game once a year, froze the meat, and it was his only source of meat until the next year. I have a lot of respect for the fact that you put the effort and investment into a more humane and considerate form of meat consumption! I can't believe he was just under 32 pounds. HUGE!

  6. Wow, what a cool experience! I am very intrigued by your posts on raising turkeys (and chickens!) and it is has been so fun getting to share it with you! :) I have never had a turkey this way, I bet the taste was amazing!

  7. Omgosh what a big bird!! Way to raise turkey mama!! I think its great you stuck through till the end!! I bet it was hard, Im so glad to hear there was no struggle and that it was humane!! I love the idea of guessing weight. Great way to involve the family and make it a little fun. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!!

  8. I really like this! Very interesting things I've learned! Thanks for the info!



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