The more involved we are with urban farming, the more we want to try new things. In addition to our ever changing gardening landscape, we have hens, broilers, ducks, and beehives as well as composting systems to support these activities. Our next goal is to learn how to raise turkeys so we took a few turkey poults from our July hatch and raised them for store use. Here are some of the things we learned.
First check with your local regulations to see if turkeys are allowed. Raising domestic turkeys in the city of Eugene is illegal. We did so anyway not out of disrespect to the city but rather to learn how turkeys behave in an urban setting.
When you talk to large-scale or rural farmers you will find they rarely raise chickens and turkeys together. Indeed both the USDA and ODA recommend raising them separately. Blackhead, a nasty and fatal disease that chickens can pass on to turkeys, is the main reason for separating the species. Of course, urban and small-scale farming is entirely different from rural and large-scale farming and as a result we do not always have the same issues. We raised our two turkeys with three broilers with no ill effects. The broilers were butchered a few days ago and their internal organs looked healthy. Back at the store, our turkeys continue to look healthy and active. Of course the “it worked for us so it isn’t a problem” is a poor argument. If you do raise the two together, do so with caution and monitor for illness.
Turkeys eat a lot and the end product could be a very expensive bird. We started feeding this flock of five a 50-pound bag of turkey starter. When that was finished they were moved outside and they ate another 50-pound bag. We then switched them to a GMO-free turkey grower, then a 5o-pound bag of organic grower. Now that we are down to just two turkeys we will be able to get a better sense of how much they eat. What we do know at this point is this isn’t going to result in some cheap grocery store bird, but isn’t that the point.
In addition to eating a lot, turkeys will eat most anything. Ours gobbled up all the extra tomatoes from the garden as well as most anything else we would toss in for them. For example, we had a couple hybrid volunteer squash on the property. Half of one squash went to the hens and the other half to the turkeys. The chickens barely touched theirs but the turkeys ate their half down to the stem. The other squash was taken home and baked into what turned out to be a nasty soup. Again the chickens barely touched their serving. The turkeys, however, not only ate the whole serving, they even ate the paper bowl. And since they eat so much, they leave ample droppings. We found ourselves picking up after them twice a day and the compost bin filled up rapidly.
Turkey poults are not sexed so you could end up with toms or hens. We ended up with one of each and were amazed to learn how quiet they are. They rarely made much noise and when they did “gobble” it was at the same level as a person’s normal talking voice. Indeed our turkeys were much quieter then some chickens we have known. Our tom started to strut his feathers at about three and a half months old. It could be that if you get two toms then they might get loud and start to fight at this point. But at this point you would have a good sized bird so you could butcher one tom early and save the other for a Thanksgiving butcher.
We have heard of people using less then flattering words to describe a turkey’s intelligence. We have no evidence to suggest that they are any more or less smart than other poultry. We will say however that they can be rather charming. They came running whenever we delivered treats. Their combs and waddles would turn bright red when they were happy and when the broilers went away one day, they seemed to be sad for a few days.
This being said, we are not looking forward to the butchering process. We do not name our poultry but we do feed them high quality feed and interact with them on a regular basis. As a result they have kind of grown on us and the butchering process could be emotionally difficult. We have embraced urban farming because we feel our food system is broken. Even those expensive turkeys you buy at the natural food store are fed cheap grains and live in less than ideal conditions. Just like veggies, fruit, eggs, and honey, if you want clean fresh food you need to either grow it yourself or know your farmer.
While urban farming is different from traditional farming, there are still some similarities. Butchering poultry is not fun but the rewards are great. This has been a good experience and we will most likely do it again next year. Or next year we might have a vegetarian nut loaf for Thanksgiving instead.