2019 Pastured Turkeys
As I said before this was our first year we have ever had turkeys on our farm. We had no idea what to expect being our first trial with the turkeys. It was an interesting process that we thoroughly enjoyed!
To begin, we had to think about the entire process of how we were going to raise our turkeys. We knew we wanted to raise them on pasture. But we had a lot of questions we had to answer ourselves. Like, What kind of breed? How do we get them started? What kinds of shelter? How to protect them from predators? How long does it take to finish a turkey? Where can we get them butchered? How many turkeys do we raise? Plus many, many more questions.
Needless to say we had to do some research. We spent lots of time learning from people and watching on YouTube different strategies on how to raise turkeys. I was able to talk with a really close friend of mine who works with large scale turkey producers on how turkeys work/function. Through this process we learned a lot, but like everything new in life you really don't learn until OTJT (On The Job Training).
This was honestly one of our toughest decisions to make. Most of all the turkey you get in the store whether that is a whole thanksgiving turkey or the sliced turkey for your sandwiches is from the big broad breasted white turkeys. Usually when purchasing turkeys these are the cheapest to buy as well because they are very popular and supply is usually quite high. But here at Heartland Heritage Farms we do things differently and wanted to try something different. We had read about Heritage breed turkeys (ironically "heritage" is in our farm name). The reason for this is because they are more of a simple breed. But one of the "downfalls" to heritage breed turkeys is, they can fly! After hearing a horror story of a gentleman that raised his heritage breed turkeys until almost finish weight on pasture. Then the next day he went out and all of his turkeys had flown away into the wild.. Well! Needless to say we didn't want to have to deal with that. One way we could have gotten around that is clipping the wings on the heritage breed turkeys, which we didn't want to do. So, ultimately we settled on Bronze Broadbreasted Turkeys. They were dark feathered, but cousins to the white turkey. They did not fly, and we felt like this breed would work best in our first year of raising turkeys.
How many to raise?
Now that we had established what breed of turkey we were going to raise, we had to figure out the quantity. How many turkeys should we raise??? Well our goal to begin was to have whole birds as the end product for Thanksgiving or maybe even Christmas! When raising livestock on pasture there is also extra risks involved. We had to think about how many turkeys would potentially lose their lives before getting to butcher. Now this can happen for a variety of reasons. This could be weather related; if we go through hot and cold flashes and some birds aren't hardy enough things happen. Predators can get in and have their fair share of lunch. Ultimately Mother Nature is the deciding factor of who makes it in the end. We just have to account for those circumstances when estimating our numbers. In the end we decided to order 50 turkeys for our first go around! (Yes, we endured all of these challenges during the year.)
Very similar to the way we started our pastured chickens off, we started the turkeys the same. We started them off in our new brooder system we built in an old insulated mobile lambing barn. (You can read more about our brooder on the Pastured Chickens Blog). Our turkeys arrived on May 23rd and were placed in the brooder. After some of my chats with my good friend we knew we had to have the brooder nice and toasty for our new arriving chicks. We had anticipated that they would need at least 3-4 weeks in the brooder before outdoor temperatures were warm enough for the turkeys. It ended up being around the middle of June when our turkeys were put in the Chicken/Turkey tractors that we built. These mobile tractors were the first time the turkeys were put on pasture and they would stay there until the very end. The turkeys picked up on the daily moves extremely fast!! Every morning we would go out to move them and they would be so anxious to get to a new piece of grass. By this time they knew that new moves meant, new bugs, frogs, toads, and fresh grass were eagerly awaiting their arrival.
At the age of 6-8 weeks we knew our turkeys would need a new home because they were going to outgrow their "Turkey tractor". We were brainstorming ideas of different shelters that we could build for a mobile unit for grazing our turkeys. Then one day my brother Lane said, "Why don't we use the old horse trailer?". Dad and I were like, that's a simple and great idea! We had an old 5th wheel horse trailer that we hadn't used in years just sitting there. This was the perfect fit for our turkeys because it was big enough for the number of birds we had, it provided shelter from the weather/predators, and it was MOBILE! The only other thing we needed was electric poultry netting to make a paddock system for the turkeys. The whole reason for the electric netting wasn't to necessarily keep the turkeys in, but to keep the predators out. Again our turkeys adapted quickly to the new home and adjustment around the beginning/middle of July. The funniest thing was to watch 10 turkeys take off on a sprint and chase down a frog, and then play "keep away". It was like watching a bunch of kids on the play ground. There never seemed to be a dull moment with our turkeys. They had such huge personalities and were very curious!
Much like raising our chickens, we had a huge learning curve for raising our turkeys on pasture as well. We noticed around the 9-10 week mark that our turkeys weren't really growing like they had in the past and were kind of stalling out. We had been rotating them through the pasture to new fresh grass religiously. We were supplementing them with some Non-GMO grain cleanings we had from the previous year. Yet, something wasn't right. We had been supplying them with some sand sized grit. Because after discussion with a friend of mine and learning about the importance of grit in poultry diet we knew they needed something. But one thing we overlooked was particle size.. As we learned that as a turkey grows so does their need of particle size in their feed and grit. We noticed they were picking out the larger corn kernels in their feed and avoiding smaller size kernels of wheat etc. Well, this was because they were looking for larger particle size. So, we had to match that in our Grit as well; which we then started to make available. You may wonder why we need to do that if they are already outside like wild turkeys are. Well, in our pastures there is primarily grass and you would have to dig in the soil to find rocks. Unlike wild turkeys that have free range of everything and can find what they need when they need it. Unfortunately we lost a few prime weeks of growing our turkeys because they were at a stand still. So, we learned a lot in this critical portion of their lives.
The Finished Product:
Trying to find a place to butcher our turkeys took some time. We knew we wanted to get our turkeys USDA inspected, but where would the closest place be to get that done. Well, the closest turkey processing facility is about 30 minutes away, but we would need 1,000+ turkeys to bring in. Which we did not have! We ended up finding a USDA inspected processing facility about 3.5 hours from our farm. This was the closest facility we could find and they were more than happy to work with us. At about 20 weeks of age we loaded up our turkeys and made the trip. Although for our trip, it just so happened that the first October blizzard was to hit the day we were planning on traveling. My dad and I played super truckers and we made the journey over night before to beat the storm.
Now, we are happy to provide a wonderful nutrient dense product to our customers and their family's. Our turkeys ended up in a wide range of sizes. We had a runt that came in around 3.5 lbs in size, and a feed hog that came in around 10 lbs in size. The average weight was around 6-7 lbs. We were hoping the majority would finish around the 10 lb mark. This way they aren't too big for the oven, but just right. We are still happy with the size though because our delicious turkeys are now a great size variation for everyone and allow a multitude of different ways to prepare them. Whether that is in the crock pot, in the oven, on the smoker, or in the fryer.
Overall we were very happy with our first year raising turkeys! Yes, it was an extreme learning curve. But that is the beauty of Regenerative Agriculture. It gives us the ability to observe, adapt and react. And to always provide the most nutrient dense products out there.
Below are pictures of the journey and the wonderful life the turkeys spent on our farm.
If you are interested in learning more about our pasture raised turkeys or are interested in purchasing any please let us know! We have a limited supply this year, but if we have a high demand we will raise some more next year!
Thanks for reading!
Brad Schmidt (The oldest son)
**For more pictures of the brooder and "Turkey Tractor" process and builds, check out our Pastured Chicken Blog**
My sister Taylor enjoying some time with the new turkeys and even holding and cuddling with a few.
All the new turkey chicks staying warm under the heat lamp.
They were even curious at a young age!
Just before the turkeys were ready for the "Turkey Tractor". If you couldn't find my dad or Lane any where, all you had to do was check the brooder because they would sit and admire the turkeys and their unique qualities.
Our turkey tractor ready for the turkeys!
Getting close to their last days in the "Turkey tractor" before their new bigger home!
This was our mobile turkey trailer. This was their new home once they outgrew the "Turkey Tractor".
We decided to put roosts in our turkey trailer. We used brush from our grove to keep a natural roost for the turkeys.
Fresh grass! One of their first days in the bigger paddock.
Every now and then you would catch one "Strutting his stuff". (You had to be quick with the camera!)
The turkeys picking through the grass.
Our turkeys being curious! Maybe this is the same one from before?!
The turkeys are loaded and ready for the trip.
Dad and I playing Super Truckers, taking our turkeys to the processor.
The end product. Our turkeys ready to make the journey home.