Now that I’m completely stuffed and also staring at many days of delicious soups and sandwiches, it seems a good time to reflect on how that 16.66 pound heritage breed Standard Bronze turkey got to be so delicious, or, as Jan Burman writes:” It was the juiciest, tastiest bird I have ever tasted. ”
Sometime pretty soon I’ll sit with Julie, the Farm Manager, and review how we did this year with our turkeys, and what we’ll plan on doing for this coming year. Technically speaking there are 10 heritage breeds we can chose from, but not all of them will be available when we need them delivered. The heritage breeds aren’t simply delicious and good sellers, they’re really fun to watch grow. Compared to commercial breeds they seem to thrive with an outdoor life and are a big attraction for visitors. They live in various locations on our pastures, fenced in with electrified netting. They’re moved to fresh areas frequently as they eat the bugs and plants and worms – and, it is easy to see where they’ve been. The diet of fresh greens and insects and whatnot helps flavor them, but they can’t get much more than about 20% of their daily nutritional needs from their outdoor life, so they’re supplemented with a complete feed.
First, however, we need to order them. We’ll buy more than 100 for 2014, but that’s an easy number to use, so Julie will pick out the breeds she wants, check for availability, and place the order for delivery in the spring, counting back from Thanksgiving and allowing for the time they need to grow. All the heritage breeds are different from each other in expected final weight, rate of gain and even yield. This is a far cry from commercial birds where predictability of final result is an essential part of the breeding program. (Want to know more? Check out George Nicholas, founder of the birds that bear his name and dominate American turkey production. He got started in the 1930’s in Sonoma County, CA)
The prices for 2014 are already posted, and they look to be over $10.25 a poult – a baby turkey – when 20 or more of a ‘straight run’ are purchased. That means we’ll get a mix of males and females -toms and hens – when they arrive. Calling the male a ‘tom’ is supposedly because Ben Franklin was mad at Thomas Jefferson for not naming the turkey the American bird…
So, we’ll invest over $10 a poult plus freight to MV, and hope they all arrive alive. If they don’t we either absorb that loss, raising the price we paid per bird, or a good company will give us credit – on next year’s order. If a poult dies 4 or 5 or more days after arrival, we usually have no recourse – so our price per bird goes up and we have less meat to sell.
The young birds need a constant temperature between 95-100 degrees the first week. We have a special ‘brooder room’ for them with heat lamps, electric heaters, etc. They have multiple waters, feeders, the floor is covered in paper shreds – its a nice place to be a poult! Over about a 4-6 week period the temperature gets lowered in stages until they are feathered and ‘hardened’ to regular temperatures. During this period they have a special ‘starter’ diet high in amino acids, energy density and vitamins and trace minerals. And high in price as well. No antibiotics are used at TFI.
From the brooder room they head outdoors to the pasture. They have a big sheltering roof that moves with them, and they are free to range, roost, forage and make noise – they are really vocal, and have some amazing sounds they make besides ‘gobble gobble.’
While we firmly believe in raising turkeys this way, it adds to the expense in a few different ways. First, since they are no longer in a controlled environment their ability to convert feed to weight changes, almost on a daily basis. Birds raised in confinement barns are in a thermo-neutral environment – it’s always the same temperature, it doesn’t rain, etc. Birds raised that way have predictable results and can convert feed to body weight at about 3 pounds of feed (or less) to 1 pound of gain (‘gain” here isn’t just edible meat, it is the whole bird). For large scale producers that means their feed costs are about 65% of total costs. For heritage breed turkeys, that feed conversion ratio can easily double – meaning twice as much feed for equivalent gain. And, since our birds can run around, they consume more energy just for ‘maintenance’ than caged birds do. In addition, TFI as an educational working farm so another measure of efficiency is impacted – feed wastage. As you can imagine with feed for commercial producers representing 65% of costs, they manage the feed delivery system very tightly – wastage being kept to 2% or less. However, for us feeding the birds is a chore we share with our campers, so we get spills, ripped bags, etc. Since everything is outside, we also get wind and rain loss, as well as treating the occasional sea gull. Best estimate for wastage under these circumstances? 10% or more.
So, more expensive to buy and more expensive to feed. Slower to grow, more labor involved. And, since we do all our own processing, more labor and time and equipment.
Cost of poult, average, delivered: $11
Cost of feed, average, delivered: $.30 per pound
Total feed disappeared, per bird, average: 100 pounds (includes wastage)
Feed cost: $30
Average dressed weight : 12 pounds
Our cost before processing: $40 per bird or an average of $3.33 per pound
And, this is BEFORE any labor charge, equipment charge (on an annual basis we spend about $500 in repairs and maintenance just for the turkeys), or processing charge (we process for three days due to the high volume of turkeys).
Now, to end this I could easily give you the cost comparison for barn-raised conventional turkeys. But, frankly, that’s irrelevant to us as we’re not going to raise birds that way, no matter what. Let’s just say that yep, they sure are cheap, and there’s a reason for that, but that’s another note, for another time. But with the happy Thanksgiving feeling persisting, and the refrigerator promising more, it’s enough to share some information with you about how this all happens. As always, we welcome comments and questions.