Turkey Tales – Raising a holiday feast in our own backyard

A Killer Halloween

It was dawn of Halloween 2011, the cold crackling air was leaving chilly crystals on the ground and falling from our breath as we grabbed the drunken turkeys by their giant, dinosaur legs.

They usually go limp that way, making transport much easier.

I was unaware Kristina was having a much harder time than I was — as Norman Rockwell, the big white bird, had tried to cling onto anything he could with his wings, lodging himself like a cat on a bathtub between the car and the house. Glaring at her with a piercing serpent’s gape… He had decided he wasn’t going anywhere. He flapped wildly while Kristina held fast to Norm’s thick ankles until the bird tired and followed Rockwell’s lead in playing dead.

I had pulled out the back seats of my truck in order to fit in the saved box our chest freezer came in, the two 35 lb birds would fit in it just fine.

The Broad-Breasted Bronze, Charles Dickens, and Norman Rockwell, the Broad-Breasted White, laid down comfortably. Low fog gave way to sun breaks on the drive east to Boring, Oregon and it didn’t seem scary enough outside to be Halloween. Yet.

Not far from downtown Portland, the city gives way to rolling farmland dotted by pines and orchards, against the curtains of the Mt. Hood wilderness. We sat in silence for a while, contemplating the inevitable, then switched the radio over to the classical station which the turks seemed to like. Aside from a few gobbles when the road got curvy, they were pretty quiet.

Arriving at Harrington Farms poultry processing, a gravel driveway heads toward an older, restored farmhouse beyond a scattering of barns.

The loading dock was littered with an array of cages and boxes, holding turkeys and several fryer chickens.

Up inside was the killing floor, with two racks of cones for the smaller birds, a giant boiling vat for the de-feathering, and a butcher block with a chute into the processing room. Once processed, the carcasses would soak in an ice bath for a couple of hours before we could get them to our cooler.

Everything seemed to have gone smoothly until we began to pack the processed birds into the freezer at home.  It was then that we received a haunting Halloween message from beyond the grave…

Raising the Turkeys

With the fresh blue skies of summer 2011, our first brood of chicks had well become accustomed to our urban Portland barnyard, roaming among the grass and finally dried-out straw, to graze and peck.

We had avoided getting any turkey chicks when we started, since it was known that a couple of diseases could be transmitted between them and chickens, and we assumed separation was necessary, something we felt impossible for our small, urban lot.

However, after talking with poultry expert Pete Porath who owns a local farm and poultry sanctuary, we learned that until the turkeys reached a certain age, they would be able to mingle with the chicks as long as we kept their diets separated after a few weeks.

Pete brought us the two turkeys a couple of weeks later, they weighed around seven or eight pounds, a Broad-Breasted White and a Broad-Breasted Bronze

We formally named them “Norman Rockwell” and “Charles Dickens” (nicknamed Thanksgiving and Christmas).

They ate a blend of poultry feed that was 22 percent protein. The chickens’ food was a lower ratio, but the turkeys need that extra boost for the layer of fat under the skin to develop, which is important to create a self-basting bird. We were able to mix the food at 50/50 so they could share with the chickens to start.

Around the yard, they grazed as much as the chickens did, but being quite a bit bigger, they were able to snatch a lot of the fruits and veggies in our garden we thought were out of reach — blueberries, tomatoes, kale, banana leaves and herbs. We had to erect a couple of new fences after their first week.

In the coop, the turks ended up showing the chickens how it’s done. They already knew how to roost and were happy to bunk with the other birds.

One really appreciates the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds when you see these majestic-slash-terrifying creatures strutting about.  Reptilian claws and necks with the feathers and beaks of birds.

A couple of weeks in, one of the birds began sneezing. Dickens developed some mucus clogging one nostril of the beak, crusting up and hindering his breathing. There we learned one of the biggest rules of livestock keeping – have the ability to separate and isolate your animals in case of disease, injuries or parasites. Obviously all of those things WILL happen on an organic farm.

We were able to grab him and clean it off, but it became clear we would now need to isolate the turkeys from the rest of the birds to make sure we were never putting the chickens at risk. We built the turks a simple a-frame chalet in another part of the yard, and from then on they were their own flock.

Their home was built 4’ high by 6’ long on top of a wood pallet. We sprinkled in fresh straw and they soon learned how to get in for the night… Which was usually by us herding them in with a rake — they are not nearly as intuitive or brainy as the chickens we grew to appreciate all the more.

Dickens had a form of sinuitus and needed to be medicated (we were sure to wait until after the medicine had cleared the body to harvest the bird) — we added a few drops of Sulemet in their water dish, and then we’d hold a moist tissue to his noise and instruct him to “blow” — something I’m sure was never offered to the Butterball at the Safeway. They did not like the taste of the meds too much, and would not eat it if it dropped accidentally into their food, so a big container of clear water was the best way for us to administer the meds.

As they grew, they would assert their dominance, puffing out and strutting in circles, proud pilgrims in the ghetto. Within about two months, the turkeys were over 20 pounds, gaining 1-2 each day.

These big birds are born to do two things and two things only: Eat and Shit.

And good lord – did they eat. We had them on their purely 22 percent protein mix and added an increasing amount of corn and kitchen scraps as the weeks went on.

The results were a constant stream of input-output.

Mornings began with letting out the birds, cleaning the yard and sidewalk – often times with the plastic bags I used when walking the dogs. Eventually we couldn’t tell the difference between dog and turkey shit…except that there was a lot more turkey shit.

The new smells around our urban farm were now also very strong. Luckily, it was fall, so the insect accompaniment was at a minimum.

Each day upon coming home, the routine was the same – refill the water, clean out the food dish and debris and shovel up the poop.

While pricing 60 gallon vats and propane burner frames at the Restaurant Depot, the sight of the rising dollar bills with little turkey wings flying away prompted our decision to find a processor, avoiding the kill mess in our yard and saving a few hundred bucks. It was really hard to find the HVAC pieces to make an effective kill-cone for a 65 lb bird (which is how large they would have grown had they been harvested later) with a 25-inch circumference that would have to be attached to the fence.

We always wanted above all to take their lives humanely, and with the reverence for the good lives we worked so hard to give them — and we did work hard — for every dang pound of meat.

By the time October rolled around, we decided not to wait for them to get up to their predicted 65-lb weight. They were only 30, but already looking beyond our oven capacity, so we decided to start them on their finishing diet.

Farmer Pete recommended corn, of which we bought a large frozen box at Costco. We also used apple remains from a local cider-pressing event. We were told this technique would make for a juicier bird add a more buttery flavor.  This method instantly beefed-up the layer of fat on both turkeys.

We offered them beer to calm their nerves before they “retired” to the country. I chose one of my own Gold Top Ales I had brewed earlier in the fall (Yep, we blew their noses AND brewed them their own special batch of beer — our animals are pampered, our effort comes from our passion and this is why we are on this Free Range Quest).

The connection we drew with the animals we raised from teen chicks still existed, and in a sense we were sad to see them go. We had fattened them on corn, gotten them a little tipsy, and were strengthening ourselves for what was to come. After the deed was done and the totals for feed and butchering were tabulated, we did come to the conclusion that raising these giant turkeys had actually been a frugal way of attaining the healthiest-possible, free-range, 35 lb., delicious, moist, flavorful, farm-to-table holiday feast we could have imagined.

The chore of keeping the turkeys on our city lot had been enough effort, stress and mess to ensure we would not do it again until we have more land in a less rainy climate (I think this is where the term “up shit creek” may have originated). But we will definitely do it again — after all that, we wanted our own country farmland (complete with turkeys) all the more!

They charged us, they challenged us, they stared us down — Sometimes with the look of love, sometimes leading us to believe they’d kill us if they had half a chance — Dinosaurs man, you can’t get a read on ‘em… Until they flat-out flip you the bird.

David & Kristina

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