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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!

Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!

by Khaiti French of L.T.D. Farm

Sadly, the first thing many people hear about raising turkeys is just how stupid they are. “Don’t let them out in the rain, they’ll stare up into it and drown…” Our experience with turkeys has been completely the opposite. While most poultry species aren’t exactly bright, we find that turkeys are lovely, personable, and most important for the self sufficient homesteader — extremely efficient converters of grain and forage into delicious meat. In 5 months, a turkey can grow from a few ounces to 20-30+ lbs.

Why raise turkeys? Aside from their beautiful sing-song calls? These massive birds provide bountiful amounts of delicious meat. Turkey is not just a once a year feast for Thanksgiving! Ground turkey makes excellent turkey-burgers, sausage links and patties, roasted turkey meat can go into casseroles, soups, sandwiches anytime of year. Jumbo turkey legs and BBQ wings on the grill, alongside kebabs and summer veggies? These meals sound good to you? Turkey is also a very marketable product for side-income. Selling a few extra turkeys can cover your turkey raising costs, so your own turkey meat supply is paid for! Raising birds humanely, when they can forage and live a good life means you have a special product for people looking for this as well.

On our farm, we raise two groups of turkeys each year, for summer and fall harvests. We get a small group of poults ASAP in the spring. Hatcheries usually require a minimum of 8 poults per order — but you could find a friend to split an order with. Check with your local feed store and see if they are ordering chicks. This way you can avoid the shipping costs you incur when ordering through the mail. These birds we get in March are harvested in July at about 2o lbs. Summer turkeys are lean and don’t have the same large amount of fat as the Thanksgiving birds finished during the cooler fall. That’s another marketing point to remember. People like lean meats.

Around late May or early June, we order a bigger group of 25-50 turkey babies for the Thanksgiving crowd. This special holiday brings us many customers, who actually want to know how the turkey harvesting happens, and they come to the farm to be a part of it. This means we get help on harvest dates, and even the newest to harvesting poultry can help pluck the birds. As farmers, it is so rewarding to put people in touch with the animals they eat, it brings a more full scale appreciation on all angles. Make nice flyers advertising your special Turkeys and put them up at local & natural food stores.

Brooding the poults carefully for the first weeks of their tender lives is most important. Being prepared helps a lot, have everything ready before their arrival date. High protein 24-28% gamebird starter feed is essential to supply their protein requirements, and look for a non-medicated feed which for us is preferred. You may want to order this from your feed store when you order your poults, to make sure it’s there when you get the babies. You’ll also need a very tall-sided brooding box set up in a cozy room in your house (we use the bathroom!) I wouldn’t recommend brooding them in an outbuilding at this tiny stage, unless you’re sure no predators can get in there. Turkey babies LOVE to jump and fly out of their brooder box even at two days old! You can use window screens or chicken wire on top to keep them in.

Turkey babies don’t need a lot of space in the brooder the first week, keep them nice and cozy at 85-90 degrees (don’t guess — use a thermometer) the first several days, then you can begin to lift the heat lamp up a few inches each day. Have the heat lamp focused on one side of the box, so if it does get too hot the babies can move away from the heat as needed. If you see them all piled away from the lamp, or panting with wings away from their bodies, it is too hot in there! Provide water in one of those screw on dishes that fit on a quart jar, refill as soon as it is close to empty. Dehydrated babies die very quickly. With ten babies, they’ll go through two jars’ worth of water a day for the first week or so. Change the jar to a clean one every couple days, as bacteria builds up in the warm environment. There’s a weird backwash thing with those gravity watering devices, so food ends up inside the jar. You may want to fashion a cone top to sit in top of the jar, as soon the turkey babies want to perch on top, and crap down the sides of the jar. And from this height, they’ll keep trying to fly out of the box too. Change the bedding every few days.

Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!

When you bring your new babies home, dip each baby’s beak into the water and see that they swallow when you let them go, otherwise re-dip their beak. This is important to do so they learn to drink, and where to get the water. The first day, you want to line the floor of their box with paper towels (so they have something to grip) and sprinkle feed all over it, so they see food everywhere and learn to eat. Turkeys aren’t stupid, but babies need some training to survive. One thing we learned is that if you teach the babies early about greens, they will be much better foragers as growing teenagers. Simply snip little bits of lettuce, weeds, greens, grass into their box. You can do this as soon as they are eating their feed well, we start introducing greens at two days of age! Once they get it, they will lunge at lettuce bits held in your fingers, tugging on it like puppies. You can bring them small insects too- their instincts are so strong. Be prepared for some laughs as they run to a corner with their bug, trying to hide it from the others and cram it down their throat at the same time!

Depending on the weather, you can move them to a shelter or an outbuilding when they are 2-3 weeks old. We use those giant cardboard watermelon bins from the grocery store as a large corral for the second stage of raising the turkeys. There is a heat lamp for them still if it is very chilly, otherwise they are tough little birds with plenty of feathers and each other to keep warm. If possible, make a place for them to start exploring the outdoors, but make sure they are cozy and sheltered as the temperatures fall in the evenings. They don’t have the same instinct to roost in their coop at night like chickens do, so some care has to be given to ensure their safety and comfort. Tuck them in before nightfall. If you have a large farm space, you can experiment with just letting them out to roam during the day. Use a fenced pen if you have wandering dogs. Keep an eye on them, they will tend to stay around home base, but may wander due to their curious nature and herd mentality. If they see you, they will most likely run to you, and follow you around, so be careful of leading them to your garden area!

This is generally how it goes until they reach 3 months. Before dusk, we tuck them in to their area, make sure they still have their higher protein feed and some assorted grains to fill up on before sleeping, after a day of browsing and foraging greens. Their rapid growth requires more than just grass and weeds to be healthy and strong. At 3 months old, the turkeys are much more full sized, so you can worry less about feeding them high protein feeds. As larger birds, they have more ability to fly over fences, but they can’t fly for any length of time, like their wild relatives can. At night, they usually prefer to roost, and they like plank fences for this. If you have them in a roosting on a fence at night, try laying some hay beneath their roost so their excellent and plentiful manure is laid out nicely for you to collect for the garden.

At 5-6 months of age, most of your turkeys are full grown and will only be packing on more fat. Your toms will be between 30-40 lbs, and the hens 20-25 lbs. It’s harvesting time. We schedule this date right after the babies arrive, and before we sell any birds. Part of what we require from our turkey customers is participation in the harvesting. When they give us a deposit on one of our turkeys, the customer gets the date well ahead of time. We are not set up to have a bunch of butchered huge turkeys hanging around, nor do we want to be delivering all those birds. Having our customers come help also means they take their bird home with them. Our butchering set up is simple- a clean table top, a very sharp strong knife, some feed bags with the corner cut off, and then something to hang the bird on for dry plucking. Turkeys are very easy to dry pluck, if you do it immediately after they die. Can you imagine a scalder big enough to hold a huge turkey anyway? The day before harvesting, try to keep the turkeys off any feed, to keep the evisceration cleaner.

We aim for a very humane and respectful death for our birds. This is how we do it: The person who will do the kill has the feed bag with the corner cut off for the turkeys head to come out of. The “holder” corrals the bird and walks them over to the harvesting area. Turkeys are so mellow, this is not a problem in our experience. If you don’t freak out, they stay relatively calm. The person with the feed bag carefully puts it over the turkey’s head and feeds the head through the opening. The holder gently brings the turkey down to the ground, so they are sitting in a natural position, and the holder’s legs are straddling the back of the turkey. Some turkeys get a little riled up, and so we find it best to let them have a minute if so. Fear and stress mean adrenaline in your meat. It is worth it to be calm, keep in mind this bird is giving up it’s life for you to eat. Be grateful and give the bird it’s moments to calm down. Hold the turkey’s head in in one hand, and with the other, with a sharp knife, cut the neck and the jugular veins, going from one side to the other in a swift motion. Keep hold of the head and tell the turkey how grateful you are as it dies. As their spirit leaves, the wing muscles will move with amazing strength- hence the feed bag to hold the energy in. The holder should be prepared for this power so they don’t get bucked off. If they keep their knees firmly placed on the ground, they should be fine. Once the turkey has died, we use stout wire and tie it to one leg, and then hang the bird at a comfortable height for plucking. A semi-low strong branch on a tree works well. Eviscerating turkeys is the same as other poultry, except easier since they are so large. Their gizzards peel out easily and are delicious when roasted with the whole bird, or finely minced and used gravy. The heart and liver are the only other things we save besides the feet. Turkey feet can be dipped in scalding water and peeled, then added to bones for stock, supplying lots of excellent glucosamine and chondriton.

We raise the conventional broad breasted turkeys. Mostly because the heritage breeds of turkey poults are 2 times as expensive. Despite the nostalgic heritage concept, we didn’t feel the flavor was any better or different from our free ranged, well cared for broad breasted birds. Heritage turkeys also have a lower meat to bone ratio. The benefit to heritage birds should be that they can grow, breed and raise their own offspring without much input from the farmer. We tried keeping a pair of Bourbon Reds for a year, but the hen never sat on her eggs. We incubated them and had one poult hatch out, who died after a week. Our experience was not so good, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try again. Our current idea is to develop our own hybrid — we’ll be keeping 2 broad breasted hens and getting a heritage tom turkey for them. The Broad Breasted toms as too top heavy to naturally mate or mount a hen, but we’re thinking the other way around should work. However these hens most likely have most of their natural brooding ability bred out of them, so we’ll plan on incubating their eggs. Why bother with all this work? Poults are expensive to buy — our Broad Breasted poults run around $4 a piece. The heritage poults are $8-9 each. And a self sufficient homesteader wants to supply their own needs as much as possible.

You should give turkeys a try. They are an absolute joy, hilarious to watch, and so easy to please. And free ranged, real turkey is one of the most tasty meats imaginable.

Raising Free Range Turkeys is a Joy!

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. Unlike the almost complete recycling of nutrients which can take place on a livestock operation, we are always amazed – even a little disturbed – to see how many tons of fertility and organic matter leave the market garden each year with so little returned to the good earth.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Bamboo A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

Bamboo: A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

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from issue:

The bamboos are gaining increased attention as an alternative crop with multiple uses and benefits: 1) domestic use around the farm (e.g., vegetable stakes, trellis poles, shade laths); 2) commercial production for use in construction, food, and the arts (e.g., concrete reinforcement, fishing poles, furniture, crafts, edible bamboo shoots, musical instruments); and 3) ornamental, landscape, and conservation uses (e.g., specimen plants, screens, hedges, riparian buffer zone).

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

An Introduction Into Plant Polyculture

An excerpt from What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden
Companion Planting for Beginners

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Carrots & Beets – The Roots of Our Garden

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from issue:

Carrots and beets are some of the vegetables that are easy to kill with kindness. They’re little gluttons for space and nutrients, and must be handled with an iron fist to make them grow straight and strong. Give the buggers no slack at all! Your motto should be – “If in doubt, yank it out!” I pinch out a finger full (maybe 3/4” wide) and skip a finger width. Pinch and skip, pinch and skip, working with existing gaps and rooting out particularly thick clumps.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

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We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

Lost Apples

Lost Apples

The mindboggling agricultural plant and animal diversity, at the beginning of the twentieth century, should have been a treasure trove which mankind worked tirelessy to maintain. Such has not been the case. Alas, much has been lost, perhaps forever. Here are images and information on a handful of apple varieties from a valuable hundred year old text in our library.

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Prairie Grass: A Jewel Among Kernels

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Years ago, my brother advised against plowing the patch of prairie on the back forty of our Hubbard, Iowa farm. “Some day,” he predicted, “that prairie will be as valuable as the rest of the 40 acres. We know how to grow corn; but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” Left untilled by generations of my family, the troublesome treasure has now become a jewel among a cluster of conventional crops on the farm.

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

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The old way of selecting seed from open-pollinated corn involved selecting the best ears from the poorest ground. I have tried to select perfect ears based on the open-pollinated seed corn standards of the past. I learned these standards from old agricultural texts. The chosen ears of Reid’s average from 9 to 10.5 inches long and have smooth, well-formed grains in straight rows. I try to select ears with grains that extend to the end of the cob.

Cabbage

Cabbage

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Cabbage is the most important vegetable commercially of the cole crops, which include cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, collard, broccoli, and many others. It also ranks as one of the most important of all vegetable crops and is universally cultivated as a garden, truck and general farm crop. The market for cabbage, like that for potatoes, is continuous throughout the year, and this tends to make it one of the staple vegetables.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT