Turkeys

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Farmers shouldn’t put things off. You do that and the next thing you know the place has gone all to hell–the garlic’s rotting in the beds, the hens have gone broody, or the blog has gone blank for a couple of months. Okay, we’re guilty of the latter, and we’re sorry.  There’s certainly been lots to report on since that last post back in April but we’ve just been too busy, too lazy–or a bit of both–to do it.

But we’re back at it now and we promise we’ll do better in the future. Here’s a quick update.

Katt & Adam

The Apprenti–In addition to Hiram and Tess, who showed up at the start of the apprentice period in early March (seems so long ago now) our other two apprentices, Adam Favaloro and Katt Tolman, arrived from New Orleans, as advertised, at the end of March.

 Katt and Adam are both Vassar grads and both have done a bit of farm work in the past–he on a goat farm last summer, she on a tree farm and a couple of shorter gigs on vegetable farms.

Dinah

They brought along Dinah, their spunky dog, who is about the size of our largest cat, Obie.  Dinah, Obie and Selmo, the farm’s other cat, seem to have reached a turf accomodation, something they never really worked out with Mongo, last year’s visiting dog. When Dinah ventured too close to the kitchen door of the farmhouse–cat turf–Selmo scratched her and sent her howling back down to the yurt meadow, where she holds sway. After that, the boundaries pretty much aligned themselves and everyone settled down.

As for the apprentices–they seem to have worked things out pretty well too and have become an excellent crew. They’ll be terrific on their own farms some day.

Katt & Tess

Hiram

Hiram has already amply demonstrated his kitchen skills–a dozen years working in various spots down in Bend, Ore. under his, ahem, belt. He’s this year’s cooler captain–a really critical job requiring good organization skills under pressure.  Tess is a source of boundless energy and good spirits. She was walking around in a tee shirt and bare feet when the temperature hit 50 degrees in April–probably reminded her of summer weather back home in New Hampshire.

The Weather–Ah yes, the weather. We broke a lot of records this spring, it was colder and  wetter than ever before, according to our favorite meteorologist, UW’s Cliff Mass. Cliff’s own misery measurement, the “Barbecue Index,” registered the wettest, coldest spring on record, with just five days over 60 degrees by June. We didn’t need a doctorate in meteorology to tell that, nature’s voice spoke louder–our first lettuce heads and first sweet turnips arrived weeks later than usual this year; the bouquets we are taking to the Bainbridge Island Farmers Market were lilac-less well into May–a true loss–and we’re still waiting for much of our  lavender to bloom in mid-July.

Cliff promised better days–and we did have a couple of beauties earlier this month–but now he’s saying it is going to be June gloom right through July. Another Summer That Never Was?

Number 26

New Arrivals–We’ve got another flock of tiny turkeys scampering around the fowl pasture  down at the farm gate–Chocolate’s back on the job. No sheep this year, but we do have a trio of new neighbors–three young black steers who are summering next door on Don Stevens’ pasture. They go by Number 26″,  “Number 27” and “Number 28”–their ear tags–and they seem to enjoy staring through the fence at the chickens summering in the upper run.

Other Visitors–Tess’s dad stayed the night back in March when dad and daughter climbed out their car after seven straight days of driving from New Hampshire to the left coast. Both her folks will be back visiting later this month. Adam’s mom stayed for a week, baking up a storm for everyone. Katt’s dad and sis will be here soon and Hiram’s folks have visited twice.  

We spent three weeks hosting Pierre Dambricourte, a 15-year-old visitor from France who charmed everyone and earned his chops working hard alongside the local farm crew. That’s Pierre in the truck bed (below) with Rebecca and Tess. He’s a fifth-generation farmer and this was his first visit to the U.S. The first place he wanted to visit was the local MacDonald’s, horrifying the farm’s food purists. But had become a farm-food fan by the time he left–heading back home to harvest wheat on his family’s farm, 22 hours a day for two weeks. We hope to see Pierre back soon.

Pierre and the Persephone farmers

So, in mid-July, the story line is that we are deeply into a new season–a little chillier, a bit damper than we’d like but hip deep in produce and working hard. One last bit of info–Rebecca planted a couple of fledgling giant pumpkins under the big tree near the salad garden back in May. We’re still waiting for her to remove their row covers and let them see the sun. Will they break last year’s record? Will they grow huge on a sour milk diet? Will there be any sun?

We’ll keep you posted as the season unfolds.

Persephone

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Eight months is a long time. The apprentices are gone, scattered to both coasts, leaving behind one lone flip-flop, lying forgotten on the driveway. The sheep and a bunch of the birds have been butchered and packed away in the freezer for winter meals–our friend Judith Weinstock cooked three of the stewing hens in a delicious soup a couple of days ago for our weekly Wise Acres dinner. (You can see more about these dinners and Wise Acres at our May 10 post “Dinner for 40”)

We are moving into what one of our icons, Eliot Coleman, refers to as “the Persephone days.” In Greek myth, Persephone was the lovely daughter of Demeter and Zeus, spirited away to the underworld by Hades while picking flowers, not to re-emerge until spring. In her absence, the earth became a dark and barren place. Her return brought back sunshine and new life.

Rebecca chose Persephone for her farm’s name nearly two decades ago, an especially apt  name for a farm operated by two women. In addition to the sign hanging by the gate, one of the first things visitors see as they round the bend at the top of the driveway is a mural of the Persephone myth on the side of the washing shed. It was drawn several years ago by Thom, an Israeli woman who stopped off here for a couple of months during a world tour of visiting farms as part the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WOOF) program.

Thom's mural

We’ve been especially fond  of Thom’s work and never more so than at this time of year, when the days grow dark and the mid-afternoon shadows of the now-leafless maples stretch across the pastures. It reminds us of the other half of the myth–the spring part–when things will come back to life again.

For now though, Louisa and Rebecca putter around the gardens tidying up loose ends, spreading mulches of fallen leaves on the garlic and leeks and digging up the remaining potatoes and onions for the winter CSA. We’ll be shoveling out the chicken run soon to make way for the new flock of laying hens and making sure there is enough gas to keep the generator going if the winter storms everyone is predicting, arrive.

It’s quieter these days down by the gate with the geese and hens gone and the swallows off somewhere in Central America. Some of the turkeys are still around and they let loose with a chorus of gobbles when provoked–it is always amusing to see perfect strangers outside the fence gobbling away to get the chorus started. But they tend to hang back especially since the pre-Thanksgiving culling of the flock.

We miss Mongo too. We watched him drive off in the back seat of the van our apprentice Mondrian and her friend Terry are driving back to the east coast for a couple of months r&r. We kind of got to like him, although he never really figured out the whole manners thing. His departure couldn’t come soon enough for the cats, Selmo and Oberon, who never did get along with that dog and are now slowly reclaming their territory down in the yurt meadow. 

Greg and Caitlin, two more of our apprenti, are headed for Vashon Island to spend next season farming  at Island Meadow Farm with Chandler Briggs, yet another former apprentice. And Joel, our fourth apprentice, will be heading for New Mexico for the holidays, but he too plans to come back this way for some kind of work that will likely involve animals. 

All in all, Persephone Days probably won’t be that dark this year, with apprentices, new and old, nearby and everyone settling in for some lazier days. We’ll still check in with a post fairly often to keep things current but we’re taking it slower too.

Persephone has moved on to her winter home but she’ll be back for the new season. And so will we.

Persephone

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And, as promised, we’ve got some pictures of the new turkey babies. The hatch was disappointing–only 17 of the 80 eggs hatched. And an eagle appears to have swooped down and grabbed one of the newbies as they left the turkey house. That’s life and death on a farm.

Still, they’re mighty cute little guys and they’re already out and about. Got a sec? We’ve got pictures.

Here are a couple of the new young ones out for their first stroll.

And here’s mom giving some bug-hunting lessons.

And another lesson in feeder etiquette.

Ok, so we know that nobody’s baby pictures are as adorable as your own, and we’ll leave it at that. Ah, but they do grow up so fast, don’t they?

If you stop by the farm gate you can see for yourself.

Persephone

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Big day today. After what seems like months of sitting on their eggs the turkey hens seem done and we should see our newest crop of poults peeking out today or tomorrow.

The Guinness Book of Records says the largest turkey it knows of was 86 pounds. Let’s see–80 eggs times 86 pounds…we’ve got Thanksgiving locked.

We’ll post pix.

Persephone

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This post by Louisa has been one of the most popular posts on our farm site–www.persephonefarm.com–so we decided to hijack it and make it a guest post here and on our Farmer’s Guide page. If you have any comments or questions, please post them to this site.

Persephone

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“There are two main groups of turkeys in the world of agriculture. Turkeys that carry the broad breasted gene, and heritage turkeys, older breeds developed before the introduction of broad breasted varieties. Broad breasted types are the kind that everyone is familiar with and have eaten for years. They cannot mate naturally and are all artificially inseminated. Most information about raising turkeys refers to these birds.

Over the last few years I have had several groups of heritage turkey hens raise their own babies. I tried to find information about how to enable this to happen, and other than Barbara Kingsolver’s brief description in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I found very little to go on. As heritage turkeys become more popular to raise, I thought other people might benefit from what I have learned, through trial and error, knowing that the every season I refine my methods as I learn more about what is amenable to them.

I was given twenty bronze chicks that a friend had raised to six weeks old in his basement, several years ago in April. I fenced a pasture to six feet about one acre in size. This keeps the birds in, gives them plenty of room to forage, and keeps dogs and coyotes out (most of the time). This pasture has several large trees and a couple of shrubby areas for cover. I also run about 75 laying hens in this area. I put a low fence between the birds, which the turkeys can cross but the hens cannot so that they won’t eat up the more expensive turkey food.

I built them a semi-portable house with sturdy walls and a tight door to keep raccoons away at night. I read that turkeys liked an open sky to roost so I added two roof panels with clear plastic corrugated roofing and two screened windows for ventilation. Most of the time they will go in of their own accord, but not as reliably as chickens. In good weather they will sometimes just squat on the ground at night. When this happens I have to herd them into their house, for fear that raccoons will eat them, and this is the biggest pain about raising turkeys.

They are gentle on the pasture and forage well but I also feed them high protein organic turkey food. They do not eat nearly as much as chickens, but eat more during their peak growth period. When I have small poults in the run I give them 28% protein game bird starter. Turkeys need this extra protein to grow well.

When female turkeys are ready to mate, they hang their wings down and get kind of droopy, or squat down before the toms. The toms puff up, fan and vibrate their tails. Their heads turn blue, their necks red, and they huff. They will walk on the hen’s backs to mate. This is called treading. I have heard this described as hard on the hens but I have never seen any signs of damage or discomfort. To anyone who has watched a rooster in action this is positively gentle and kind.

That first season, just when I was getting ready to butcher them for Thanksgiving, two of my hens started to lay eggs along one of my fence lines in a clump of grass. I was afraid to move them and also afraid that something would eat them at night. I built an elaborate fenced thing with a tarp rigged over them to help them out.

I have since learned that if they nest in an inconvenient area, you can just move the eggs to a straw filled house and they will change their nesting location readily. The hens share nests and multiple hens will lay in one nest. The hens will bury the eggs, which are larger than a chickens egg, more pointed on one end and speckled, and will carefully pull bits of straw over them just so. The hens won’t sit on a nest until there are fifteen to twenty eggs in a nest.

One year, I created three nests and kept the numbers such that they wouldn’t sit until all three had enough eggs. It was less than ideal having them hatch in December that first year, but usually they do this in the spring. Another year, I had hens sit on unfertilized eggs for a long time, so they do not know not to do this.

When the toms have access to the hens during full-swing laying, there can be problems. The toms have stomped on the eggs deliberately to break them all. Also I have had the hens refuse to sit while the toms are around. When I removed the toms, they sat the next day.

It starts with one hen getting the idea to sit and will dabble a bit at first, getting up and spending the night on the nest. After several days, she will get serious about staying on the nest and soon all of the other hens will join in. One of the interesting features of heritage turkeys is this communal nesting. If the hens are not allowed to join together, everyone does poorly.

At first, I thought that a sitting hen would like privacy, and they do from toms and humans, but they need to be together. They will hurt themselves trying to get together and the babies will die more readily. The sitting hens like to have access to pasture and will rise once a day to eat and drink a give a large poop, then return to the nest after twenty minutes or so. The hens seem alert and nervous when sitting so I try not to scare them off the nest and pretend that I don’t see them. They like the idea that they are hidden. I keep dogs and loud people away from them at this time.

After 28 days or so, the babies will start to hatch. Over the next two days, they will emerge. Late hatchers tend to die and after a couple of days the hen will move off the nest a bit, keeping the babies under her wings. I put small feeders and waterers near them so the mom and babies do not have to go far. The babies can get lost and die so I try to make it simple for them and keep a look out for strays peeping pitifully when I am around. The moms will not leave a group of chicks to find one lost chick. In my climate this is usually in April or May so the weather is a bit warmer and the chicks have a better chance at survival. I remove the unhatched eggs after a few days because they really stink.

I have tried keeping the families confined (for their safety, we have a lot of raptors and predators), and let them take their chances in the open pasture. I have had by far greater success with letting them free, way less dying babies.

Heritage turkeys have lots of learned behaviors, unlike chickens, which are more instinctual. Turkeys imprint on their moms or on the person raising them, sometimes both. Day old poults, from the hatchery are rather expensive, need a lot of teaching and tend to die. I found that by having the hens do all the work, it was more manageable for me.

Sometimes, the game bird starter is old or deficient in vitamins and the baby birds develop leg problems. As soon as I see this happening, I put a tiny pinch of vitamin electrolyte powder in their water that I buy from my local feed store. This seems to clear up the problem really quickly. After a week or two I stop giving it to them and they have done well.

As the birds get older I clip the flight feathers on one wing to keep them from roosting in the trees. Unlike chickens, they will need to be clipped several times that first year, as the feathers tend to grow back. If they roost in trees they tend to roam the neighborhood and could fall to predation or get lost. Also they are hard to catch and manage. Turkeys are really good flyers and can jump very high. I clip the right wing for the ones I intend to eat and the left wing for the breeders. This doesn’t hurt them if you do not clip to close to the wing but it does make them very lopsided fliers.

Turkeys gain weight and get larger for nine months or so. I often choose my butchering date based on what people want rather than their prime size. Christmas is probably better than Thanksgiving for size. The toms are much larger than the hens. I like having the hens in my freezer as they are a good size for a family meal with some leftovers. A lot of people like a smaller turkey. I butcher them myself and they are somewhat harder to manage than a chicken because of their size and weight.

My turkeys come running when I enter the pasture and will pick at a shiny button or a shoelace but never attack. They will run after a running child, which can scare the kid, but for the turkeys it is kind of a game. They are interested in people and new things. My neighbors visit the turkeys often and they are a destination in my small town. People will honk their horns at grown turkeys to make them gobble. Kids like to scream at them. I try to discourage this because it bugs me. I would not consider raising heritage turkeys to be exactly profitable, although people will pay a good price for them, but it is fun and interesting. With each season, I learn new things to have greater success at raising them.

I hope this helps others who might like to try this project. We are busy at the farm so I can’t respond to your comments or emails about this subject.

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We’re a quarter of the way through Persephone Farm’s 2010 season and already there is a lot of catching up to do. What’s happened to Chocolate, the randy turkey? How are the new lambs doing? Which intern is wearing the tiara as the top Farmers Market seller?

We’ll start with Chocolate. When we left him, he had been introduced to the five lovelorn turkey hens, who immediately lined up to make Chocolate’s aquaintance. We’re happy to announce that Chocolate is now a proud papa-to-be. The hens are taking turns sitting on two clutches of eggs–about 80 in all–in a pair of nests in the rear corners of the turkey house.

But the bad news is that Chocolate is a lousy dad. He pushes the hens off the eggs and walks on them. He gobbles and distracts the mamas. Why? Who knows, but Louisa was running out of patience and it looked like, impending fatherhood or not, Chocolate’s days might be numbered. I suppose most of us would be a bit disconcerted at the prospect of fathering 80 kids, so we cut him some slack. Chocolate was exiled to a pen full of chickens, well away from the nesting turkeys. He’s not happy about it and spends a lot of time complaining but he’s escaped the chopping block. The chickens look at him like he’s nuts.

Chocolate in exile

And the lambs, well they seem sort of bemused by all of this. But it’s hard to tell. They watch, they graze, they move a little bit, then they graze some more. Maybe that’s how it is when you are a lamb. You never know what life will toss onto the pasture next door, so the best thing is to put your head down and munch some more grass. 

Our experiment in putting the lambs into enclosures for rotation grazing  has run into some problems too. The idea was to preserve the pasture by penning the lambs inside an electric fence within the pasture–both the keep them in one place and protect them from coyotes–then shift the whole fence to another part of the pasture after they mow down the grass. The problem is they keep busting out of the electric fence and gamboling all over the place. Of course, lambs are supposed to do that in the spring, and it certainly is more interesting than eating grass all day in one spot.

On to the tiara. Each week, Rebecca takes an intern to the Farmers Market. And when the totals are added up at the end of the market, the intern with the highest sales figure gets a cut of the take and is entitled to wear the farm’s ceremonial tiara until someone hits a higher number. Ok, it’s kind of goofy, but it keeps things moving along after a day of pulling weeds. So far, Greg and Caitlin are the tiara-holders–they worked together week two, befitting their unitary status.

Caitlin the Queen

No one remembers where the tiara came from, but it’s been around here for years and has passed through many hands. Sales at the market have been pretty good so far this year, despite the economy, so the crown will probably change hands a couple of times before things wind down. Meanwhile, the tiara rests in Greg and Caitlin’s yurt for safekeeping. Or maybe they’re afraid it will melt if they wear it in the rain.

One more item, for now.

Cleo, the lone pea hen, is still flying solo. She tried hooking up with Chocolate, and the chickens, and Rebecca’s Volkswagen van, and pretty much anything else around here that moves. Her mating methodology seems to be an odd mixture of stalking a potential target, then imitating her late mate–Ramm–by spreading her tail feathers and displaying, while issuing male peacock mating calls. Everyone finds this strategy a bit perplexing–Chocolate and the chickens included, no doubt. Going to be a long spring for Cleo.

Tune in again for the next installment: Rebecca gives a lesson in over-the-top tomato transplants.

Persephone

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