When the couple that ran a free-range poultry business in our town got divorced they stopped raising chickens and turkeys. As a result we decided, together with neighbors, to raise our own birds this year, including the Thanksgiving turkey that we bring to Brunswick every year and cook for that assembled group.
We could have switched to another small poultry grower for our chickens and turkey, but due to recent confusing state and federal laws regulating poultry slaughter and sale, many small growers had either shrunk or gone out of business completely, and none of those left were growing organic birds. Although the poultry business in our town had not grown organic birds either, they were very close (non-medicated feeds, and assiduously free-range) and we had visited the farm many times for tours, which convinced us of the care and high standards they used to produce delicious chicken and turkeys. (This is the magic of Local Food, of course.) Since we did not know any of the existing poultry suppliers nearly as well, and since we had raised our own chickens for meat in the past, we ordered the “Barbecue Special” from Murray McMurray (25 assorted chicken chicks bred for meat), and joined a group order with another neighbor to get three Broad Breasted Bronze turkey chicks.
The chicken chicks arrived the first Monday of June, we split them with our neighbors Liz and James who wanted to raise meat chickens as well, then we all dispatched both groups at the end of July. The turkey chicks arrived around the same time, but spent their formative weeks (when they require a controlled environment until they feather out) at Joyce’s farm with their brethren. Mid-July, looking like long-legged brown pigeons, they arrived at Winswept Farm and were installed, away from our meat and egg chickens, in their own pen by the side of the driveway where they could roost in the little shed we have sitting there that used to (before we arrived) serve as a farm stand.
And there they stayed, first cheaping as we walked by, then making their goggle noise (sort of a singing gargle) through the summer. They were remarkably “less intelligent” than the chickens we are used to â€” they had to be led inside every night to roost. Chickens will establish a roost within about three days of being situated, and then return there every night (i.e. “chickens come home to roost”,) no matter where they may wander during the day. Chickens will also scratch for plants and bugs to eat, where as the turkeys seemed interested ONLY in their very expensive high-protein organic feed, no matter what delights from our garden we tried to tempt them with. Near the end they seemed to be somewhat interested in apples, but that was about it.
At the beginning of September, Joyce let us know that she had slaughtered one of her turkeys from the same batch, and it weighed fifteen pounds. We figured ours had to be nearly the same size, and that was the low end of what we required for our T-Day bird â€” usually we needed a 15 to 20 lb. bird to feed everyone but not provide TOO many left-overs. But Thanksgiving was two and a half solid months away, and the birds looked like they had grown as tall as they would every get (about three feet), so most growth between September and T-Day would be horizontal,
We consulted with Liz and James: did we want to harvest three 20 lb. birds and freeze them? Or let them go and have a potential, but fresh, monster bird for Thanksgiving? Liz and James were freezing their bird in parts for personal consumption, not Thanksgiving, so it didn”t really matter to them. I, however, preferred the thought of a fresh bird for Thanksgiving, and I also convinced them that now that their frame had grown to full-size, we would get a maximum return of feed-to-meat conversion over the next few months. And it was easier to wait, so we waited.
And they grew. We had one tom and two hens, which our niece Tait had named “RedHead” (tom), “Miss T” and “Bubbles” (actually, I think I came up with “Bubbles”). RedHead was decidedly bigger than the hens, but with all those feathers â€” especially with the tom puffing them out and “displaying” much of the fall as his hormones seemed to be kicking in â€” it was hard to tell. We know from experience with our chickens that what seems like a big round bird can easily be skin stretched over bones underneath the feathers. But then when our plumber, Forrest, came over to install a extension to the barn water system in early November, he said that he thought RedHead would dress-out around 35 pounds based on his experience growing turkeys. Oh-kay,
Their “due date” was the Sunday before T-day, and Liz and James arrived at 10am. We had hung the meat chickens we processed in July by their feet off a support, but had noticed that quite a few of the chickens ended up dislocating their wings as they bled and flapped, and wanted to avoid that for our few turkeys. Normally a “killing cone” is used, through which the chicken’s head and neck are suspended for easy ‘sticking” but we didn”t think we should have to buy or build this item for just three birds. Luckily our friend Roberta passed along a trick she had used: cut a hole in the bottom of a feed bag, through which the bird’s neck would hang while the body is immobilized in the bag, just as it would be in a metal cone. This worked perfectly: I grabbed (hugged) each bird, Liz placed the bag over it’s head and body, then I turned the bird-bag over and held the top around its feet while James severed the neck veins and we waited for the bird to bleed out completely. The birds, in fact, hardly reacted to being ‘stuck” and mainly stared up at us with little struggle in the bag until the bleeding began to stop and the brain lost conciousness. It was fairly peaceful. The hardest part was my being able to hold the bird out and away from bleeding on me for the three or four minutes it took before the bird expired.
Once fully bled (i.e. dead), we plucked the feathers, many of which came out dry. We only needed to dip them in hot water (at EXACTLY 140 °F!!!) to get the big tail and wing feathers, and the small stuff around the neck and ankles. Then they went into an ice bath to chill while we stuck the next bird.
Finally, when we got ready to evicerate the birds, we decided to weigh them: RedHead was 39 lbs.; Bubbles was 29 lbs.; and Miss T was 27 lbs. Minus four or five pounds for innards, head (see link for head-neck guessing results), and feet, and Forrest appears to have a career eyeballing turkey weights!
RedHead and Bubbles got parted up for freezing (we had to go out and buy a 2.5 gallon ziplock freezer bag to hold just ONE of his breasts because the 1 gallon size was too small!), while Miss T was kept whole for Thanksgiving. And they all tasted very very good.
All told, raising the big birds was quite easy and the total cost for happy organic turkey meat was around $1.25 a pound from direct cost (no labor factored in). Granted, that’s more than a Butterball ®, but then we wouldn”t have gotten to hear that precious gobble-gobble greeting all summer long.