Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The story of the turkey buying club (part 1)

I got a call this march or april from a lady in Seattle who wanted to arrange a basket of local products from local producers, and was interested in whether I could supply the turkeys. 

I get this sort of call all the time; lots of people are interested in local food, and the idea of a group purchase seems to make sense.  Often times you'll get a better price, but the downside is that you have to agree to buy large quantities. 

So I talked with her for a while, and she said she was after 30 turkeys; I told her that we usually don't take orders for turkeys before October 1st, but if she was willing to put down the $20 deposit per bird that I'd order extra poults and raise them for her project. 

Now that's where most of the people vanish; hundreds of dollars tends to make it real, and I was surprised when I got the $600 a few days later.  Guess I'm raising her turkeys. 

I called her back and we talked a bit more about the turkeys; did she want heritage ($6/lb) or broad breasted ($3/lb), and she wasn't sure.  So I asked what weight people wanted.  In my area, for a young bird, the heritage turkeys top out at about 16lbs, and the average is probably closer to 12. 

This is particularly true when we have cold, wet springs.  And speaking of that, 2011 was the coldest, wettest springs ever recorded in Western Washington.  The long term forcast for 2012 is the same, so I'm expecting more of the same this coming  year.

So she thought about it, and said 16-20lb, and that the broad breasted was what she wanted to go to keep the costs down, and I noted that, and then upped my order of turkey poults to cover that. 

Now lets talk a little about turkey poults from the hatchery.  We've had batches that have arrived with no problems, and we've had batches that have had 75% mortality.  I'm talking about dead in the box on arrival, or within 24 hours of arrival.  It's been my experience that we will get a bad batch from hatcheries randomly, which is a bit of a problem for me.  I'm aiming to produce a fixed number of birds, and I really don't want to over-order.

So what I do now, for the broad broad breasted, is I buy them from a local feed store at their asking price.  I did the math, and even marked up by the feedstore, it's cheaper on average for me to buy them than it is to deal with the random mortality.  The feedstores in my area must think I'm an animal hoarder; I'll walk in, find a bin of likely looking poults, and buy them all.   A short trip in the cab of the truck, and they're warm and safe in the brooder, and the turkey slog begins. 

I call it the turkey slog because it's a marathon, and it starts on the day the turkey poults arrive.  As I put each into the brooder I dip their beak into the water, and then watch to make sure that they're walking around, and then move the next poult.  After they're all in the brooder, I'll tap at the feed container, which sounds like pecking to the little poults, and they'll all gather around my finger and then peck at the feeder.  Some of them miss, and accidentally get their beaks into the feed, and you can see the little turkey wheels turning in their heads.  Once a couple have figured out how to eat, they teach the rest. 

If the batch of turkeys is particularly slow, I'll put a chicken chick in with them, as a learning aid for the little turkeys.  Chickens don't have to be taught to eat or drink, and the turkeys will do better by imitating the little chicken. 

I want to put the turkeys on pasture as soon as I can, and the weather this last spring just did not cooperate at all.  Not one bit.  Cold.  rain.  Rain.  Cold.  Little turkeys do ok with cold once they're feathered out but they cannot get wet; you can lose your entire flock in a rainy night.  It's a myth that turkeys look up and open their mouths in rain and drown.  it's not a myth that a wet turkey will probably not make it. 

So I struggled with the turkeys in April and May and June.  June, when it should be warm and sunny, wasn't.  Better housing for the turkeys, more bedding, bringing turkeys indoors when they weren't doing well, this little contract flock took a lot of individual attention.  More so than my usual heritage birds.  A lot more. 

Next:  A summer of discontent

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