This is a season of gratitude, but this year, I have found myself even more thankful for the food we get to eat, the animals we get to care for and the home that the Lord has blessed us with. May we never take our blessings for granted. May we always find joy in the lessons we learn.
This past weekend, we said goodbye to our beloved turkeys. We spent the last seven months raising them and preparing them for our family’s Thanksgiving table. It was quite a challenge, mostly in trying to keep them all alive for those first few months (if you don’t know, turkeys are notorious for being, well, stupid). I’ve learned a few important lessons in raising turkeys, primarily (as homesteading goes...) from my mistakes. Mistakes are, horrible so, the best teachers. I try my best not to fool you into thinking I’m great at this farm life, let’s be clear about that.
But, I’m still learning, I’m still here.
Learning how to raise turkeys was very similar to raising chickens, just bigger! After 8 weeks, we moved the turkeys to the pasture with the goats. It was a joy to watch them sunbathe and putz around finding bugs and little snacks. I know these turkeys lived a better quality life than any turkey we would buy from the grocery store. And it's in those moment I know that we are filling our bellies with the best quality meat.
What you need to know before you raise turkeys…
1. They’re stupid.
Seriously, like really, really, really stupid. Like the bowls of food and water that you put in right next to them and watched them eat and drink from numerous times? One will still die from dehydration. That heat lamp you put in the brooder to keep them warm? They’ll still sleep in the opposite corner and freeze to death. You will do everything possible to keep them as safe as possible. You will do all the things. Still, be prepared to lose at least one. We lost three out of six turkeys this year. Lessons learned and next year will be better.
2. They have minimal natural defenses.
Turkeys aren’t known to be aggressive, necessarily. Not to say they won’t try to peck you when they’re hungry, but for the most part, they can’t really defend themselves. Okay, I'll admit I've heard a story or two about children getting chased around the yard by a big scary turkey. I can't tell you how grateful I am that that was never the case with our turkeys. When I noticed that the turkeys were beginning to be a little bit too large for the chicken coop, I clipped their wings (which is not painful for those who might be wondering) and move them our to the pasture with the goats. There they not only had more space and grass to snack on, but they also had the protection of our livestock guardian dog, Goliath. And as long as they didn’t try to eat his breakfast, the friendship was mutual.
3. Turkeys are inefficient.
It takes them a lot of food to get to the prime butchering weight. After about 8 weeks on a starter feed (check with your local feed store for a good quality feed), we switched our turkeys over to this All Flock feed which was about 20% protein. Turkeys need that much protein in their diet. Since the turkeys were free ranging in our pasture, the pellet feed was a great addition to their diet.
When it came to butchering, death was quick. Processing the three turkeys took about 5 hours from start to finish, with two people. After they were butchered, we gave them a hot bath to loosen their feathers for plucking, removed their head, neck and feet, and removed their internal organs. Then it was into the kitchen to remove the last few pin feathers and have a good cleaning of both the inside and outside of the carcass.
My last piece of advice when raising meat is to utilize the entire harvest. After we’ve carved the meat off the bird, I’ll save the carcass to make turkey broth. We saved the hearts for the dogs. We dug a hole by the compost pile for the blood and organs, which will in turn give nutrients to the soil for our garden next year.
Every bite will be savored. And not an ounce will be wasted. When you grow or raise food for yourself and your family, there is a higher sense of gratitude. The gratitude that comes when taking that first bite of meat from an animal that you raised and cared for. Something that I feel is important. Something that I want to continue here on the farm. There is joy in harvesting lettuce and onions and strawberries. And as odd as it may sound, there is joy in harvesting a farm raised turkey.
Live well friends.