A Year for Happy, Chunky Turkeys

This morning, four inches of fresh snow covered the farm. It was chilly enough that the snow remained fluffy and didn’t instantly melt. Still green grass poked up through the snow, persistent in its mid-November solar sequestering.

It was chore time yet again, with the morning’s release of eager, hungry birds into the day. The chickens were grumpy, the incredibly clean-looking ducks had magically turned all the snow in their pen to mud, and the turkeys seemed completely unphased by the changes. It has been quite a time with the turkeys this year!

Usually, in the spring, I harvest eggs from my flock of heritage birds for hatching in the incubator, waiting the long four weeks as the large, speckled eggs meditate and rock back and forth in their moist, warm environment. To the cheeping crew that emerges I add several standard white turkey chicks to have a few extras and some larger birds.

But this year, with the cold, prolonged spring and frosts that damaged apple blooms across the Northland, challenges arose for the spring egg collection. The insulated coop my breeder flock uses for the winter months is also the coop we use for broodering the baby chicks, and chick season arrived when it was still too cold to collect eggs from the turkeys! Too chilly out, and the embryo inside dies before the egg makes it to the incubator.

So, to avoid having hundreds of chicks in the house (we’ve certainly done that the before, but we’re ready to graduate from the copious quantities of dust that ensues), we had to evict the breeder turkeys out of their winter home and into their mobile summer home before egg collecting was possible. And then it became a battle with the egg-stealing ravens, with more cold weather, and the window for collecting eggs in time for hatching passed without any success. In the end, I doubled my order for standard white turkeys to have any for my Thanksgiving bird reservations.

Now, turkeys are certainly not the brightest bulbs in the barnyard. They are ridiculous, often flighty, and prone to accidents. I’ve therefore learned how to turkey-proof my coops like you might toddler-proof your home. It’s never perfect (there’s always one that manages to figure out a really stupid stunt), but it certainly helps. Knowing that the heavier white standard turkeys (which have been specifically bred for their meatiness and light skin) can be especially fragile, we ended up letting them stay in the brooder coop while the Red Ranger meat chickens and Golden-Laced Wyandotte pullets moved out to mobile summer pasturing tractors.

The turkeys were quite pleased with this arrangement, first being allowed the small permanent pen outside the coop to stretch their legs and nip off the leaves of the growing lamb’s quarter weeds that offered them shade and protection from the hungry ravens. Then, as they grew larger, I used our portable mesh fence to cordon off portions of the barnyard for them to munch down the grass and check out the view.

Finlee, one of our two English Shepherd herding dogs, loved to check on the crew of 22 white turkeys every morning, bounding over to see if he could get them to flap their wings and spook away. Partly, this is his instinct to teach them to respect the fence, and partly it was for his own entertainment. Soon, however, the turkeys thought this was a fun game, and instead of running away at the approach of this fox-colored dog, they would run over to meet him and follow him along the edge of the fence.

Finlee would look back at us as we watched, puzzled, as if to say, “Eh, Mom, this isn’t how this usually goes.” He paced off to one side, eyeing the cohort of turkeys as they followed him, cackling and flapping.

“Good morning pinkies!” I’d call while opening the coop door. They received that name this year because of their very pink, healthy heads against the snow white of their feathers. The crew would trundle out, wings outstretched, eyes looking for any tasty bugs that might have appeared overnight. They were really quite an amiable bunch, without picking fights amongst each other or me.

After a time, however, convincing 22 chubby, white turkeys to go back into the brooder coop at nighttime’s curfew became its own challenge. “Mom, it’s too small in there, and we’re too big!” They really still had plenty of room, but in their little turkey pea brains, they didn’t agree.

That is changing now, however, as we enter the time of year for eating turkeys. I will miss the friendly crew of chunky, curious birds, but I know that this is part of the cycle of the seasons and of life and death, and that their breed is not suited for longevity (we’ve tried keeping white ones over the winter and learned about their weak livers), so the time has come. Orders were placed well in advance, and each bird has a loving, appreciative destination as guest of honor at the dinner table.

“They’re so heavy!” I grunt, catching the first females (which are typically much smaller). And I was right. Not only was this a year of happy turkeys—these were happy, chunky turkeys! The females dressed out at 20 lbs. If there happen to be any extras, I’m sure it will be some of those large males we have yet to process. Oi! Here’s to another year of adventures with turkeys. See you down on the farm sometime.

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