Sunday, November 27, 2011

The story of the turkey buying club (part 2)

This is my first experience with raising the broad breasted turkeys -- I've been raising the heritage turkeys for the past few years -- and they're a bit like the cornish-cross meat birds.  You have to watch to make sure that they don't overeat, and they're generally not as oriented as the heritage breeds. 

We feed the turkeys a higher-protein feed, usually called a "game bird starter" or "turkey starter", from a local mill, and in July we were about done with that.

So far so good:  We're in July, birds are due end of November; only 4 more months. 

We had a predator issue in August, four turkeys committed suicide in September -- and now I'm getting worried about having enough turkeys to fill the order.  I started watching them carefully. 

Feed prices spiked in the summer; what we used to pay $300 a ton for was now $450 a ton.  The problem with contract growing is that this risk is pretty much on my end; I didn't think to negotiate an escalator on feed prices, which I'll do next time. 

We're into October now, and things are looking good for the delivery.  But I'm noticing that the broad breasted, as they get larger, are starting to sit on the ground most of the day.  This is wearing the feathers off their breasts, which doesn't look good, but doesn't harm the birds, but it's different than the heritage breeds. 

Finally we get to November; and I staff a turkey processing line, and get the equipment in order, and schedule it.  Unfortunately the pickup date for the buying club is the same as for my other customers, which complicates things for delivery.  Hmmm... have to work out the calendar together next time.

We started processing this batch of turkeys and found that the tub plucker we used wasn't doing a very good job of removing the feathers, and it ripped the skin on a couple of birds -- which is not what you want.  You want to deliver a perfect bird, so we had to pluck these birds by hand.  Every one. 

Hand plucking a turkey takes about 3 times as long, and the problem with the broad-breasted birds is that where they'd worn off the feathers on their breasts we had to, one by one, individually pluck out each feather with tweezers. 

Oh yea.  One of my guys called in and said his car was dead, couldn't make it. 

Three days of tediously detailed hand-plucking and processing turkeys. 

Oh.  And during this time we're getting 4 inches of rain.  And we're outside during most of this.  And it's truly miserable.  I mean really bad.  Sean and Dan get full credit for showing up for work; heck, I own the farm and I didn't want to get out of bed.

So we get a call, and I explain that I'm running late, and I actually am about 2 hours late for the pickup, but to make things better I dispatch a truck of turkeys to the buying clubs other pickup point (30 miles southeast) and drive the turkeys myself to the main pickup point. 

So I'm soaking wet.  I've been up to my elbows in turkey blood and guts and feathers.    This little turkey flock has been more work than any other turkeys I've ever done, and they're mad that I'm late.  I apologize, and they ask me if I can do anything to make it better. 

And I look at the woman, and I think about it, and I realize that I'm not going to make a dime off this whole 7 month experiment; between the extra labor costs for plucking, the slower gain, higher feed costs and so on...   and I say "yea, I can take $5 per turkey off". 

Here's my take-home lesson: 

  * $3 a pound for a delivered turkey is too little.  I should have charged $3 a pound for the turkey and then another $100 for delivery for each location.  Or maybe just say $4/lb.  At $4/lb I would have had another $600 margin to play with, which would have covered my feed and unexpected labor costs. 
  *  8 months of work isn't really appreciated if you're a couple of hours late.  Next time I'll slaughter earlier and keep the birds chilled.  No missing deadlines.  Being on time is important. 
  * Heritage birds are easier in all respects for my farm and staff to deal with.  And the margins are better. 


Joanne said...

That's good to know about the heritage vs broad breasted. I'm deciding whether to work with the heritage or broad breasted right now.

I used to breed wild turkeys and never had a problem with them except flying. Those birds fly like a leghorn even when mature. I've only worked with a few heritage birds and that was quite a while back. I got some broad breasted bronze poults in the spring of 2011 and didn't really like working with them, as you say, too much trouble with mortality and feed conversion. At least when I compared them with what I remember of working with the wild turkeys. I'd do wild turkeys next spring but they're pretty expensive, even at whole sale prices. I think I'll go with the heritage birds next spring.

$3/lb is very reasonable. I think the heritage birds around my part of Oregon (I'm in Mulino) are going for $6.00-$6.50/lb dressed weight.

Good tip too on an adjustment rate for the feed. I think I'll price mine on a cost plus basis next year.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

We actually liked the broad breasted much better as far as an economically viable poultry product. What we did different was purchase poults for delivery the last week of July, or first week of August. Our experience was that we could expect a carcass weight of about a pound per week of age, with outliers on either side. They were aggressive grazers and did fine, although big cats started moving in about Halloween each year, so we moved them into a greenhouse that was planted with a late summer cover crop for grazing those last few weeks before Thanksgiving. Worked great for us.

We tried ordering poults early than the late July dates and found that they got too big for most people by November.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story! We processed a few of our heritage birds a couple weeks ago, our big tom was 16# just like you said. Most were 10-12. A neighbor also brought down 5 broad breasted to process at the same time. The tub plucker gagged on them (the big one was 44# after processing). The heritage birds came through without an issue.
We also sold some birds to a 'coupon-er' (similar mindset to your buying club). There was a definite disconnect on price till I explained how different our birds were from the others she had been looking at. Education is key!

Mountain Walker said...

We experienced some of the same issues last year with our turkey experiment. Except that we hadn't "practiced" on the heritage breeds. We just plunged into the broad breasted. I think my biggest disappointment was that the birds were too big for the plucker. By the time we had hacked off their heads, been beaten to death by the flailing head-less birds, hoisted them into the scalder (it took two of us to lift just one bird) then dragged them (they were HUGE) to the plucker, I thought I was going to cry when the big bodied birds jammed the plucker. Hours after the pin-feather plucking…..they were safe in the freezer.
I’ll have to admit, though, the flavor was outstanding.

We are going to do it again next summer.

I am crazy.

Bruce King said...

Joanne: My experience with heritage birds is that they can fly, but if they can possibly do it, they'll just walk. Most of the time they'd fly to cross fences, and I finally had to clip the wings of a bunch of them last year so that the local hunters wouldn't shoot them if they hopped my fence. The washington state dept of fish and wildlife maintains a stocked hunting area next to my farm, and there are hundreds of hunters out there with dogs and shotguns after they restock it, which seems to happen 3 or 4 times a month in season. Most of the hunters are respectful, but I was raising eastern wild turkeys and I just don't trust them to be able to tell the difference between one of my birds and a wild bird. If its outside my fencelines I'm pretty sure they'll shoot it.
I'm raising birds that have different coloration than the wild (bourbon reds for the most part) and that solves the problem with the adult hunters, but I did find arrows on my property with turkey feathers in them this year. grrr..

Bruce King said...

Matron, you're absolutely right that broad breasted are the most efficient feed-to-meat conversion that there is, and that ordering/buying them late in the year is the way to go. I had to restrict the feed of the bigger turkeys so that I didn't have giants, which meant I had to sort and then pen them differently than the main flock. Much easier to deal with a single flock than several smaller ones.
I raise the cornish cross for my own table (I've got a batch in the brooders now) but I really can't sell them as easily as I can heritage roosters, or basically any non-white bird. My latest customers are an extended family of hindus from Nepal. They've been buying 30-50 birds a week for the last 2 months.

Bruce King said...

adaylyn: yea, my heritage bird sizes are what yours are. I see "20lb heritage pastured birds" advertised, but I never see birds that big. 16lbs is tops for my 8 month old pastured heritage turkeys.

Bruce King said...

Elizabeth: I hear you on having to work for your food. This whole farm thing for me isn't about doing it the easiest way. It's about quality of life and knowing more about my food.

It tastes better because you earned it. And boy did you!

wooky said...

I got 5 BB Bronze this spring and raised them. It was an experiment more than anything since I had no experience with turkeys. One died and the other 4 kept on growing. The first thing I learned it that the feed stores have these for sale too early in the year. They will top out right in the middle of summer. They will eat all your profits up keeping them till fall. The next thing I learned is that a white turkey will look much better dressed. I hand plucked them meticulously and still couldnt get them looking good. Im glad to know that a plucker cant handle them. I had planned on using one next year. I also thought that the breast blisters was due to not moving the tractor coup enough. Did anyone have this problem with them on grass all the time? My wife and I love your blog.

Joanne said...

Thanks for the info Bruce. I hear ya on telling the difference between a domestically grown wild turkey and one that was out in the hunting area to begin with. Unless someone is a wild turkey expert, there's really no way to tell if a person had wilds that were the same size, more or less as the native birds.

As to the 20# heritage, seems to me the best way to get a large carcass in a heritage style would be for a person to raise the big Rio Grande wild turkeys. That's what I used to raise and the mature toms (not the Jakes) will dress out big like that. But then you're looking at slaughtering a bird that's 18 months old. Not cost effective unless you can get someone to pay the feed bill or you have a really big area that's safe for them to forage in.

On plucking, I think the best strategy on turkeys, especially the broad breasted birds, is to scald and then hand pluck. Even on a big bird like a turkey you should be able to pluck in a few minutes. If they're scalded properly, it's mostly a matter of wiping the feathers off the body or pulling them off by the hand full. I don't slaughter enough birds at my place right at the moment to justify a plucker, so I hand pluck everything. Goes pretty fast. But they have to be scalded properly.

Bruce King said...

We do scald all the turkeys prior to plucking, and the feathers do come off pretty easily. most of them. But the pinfeathers that are regrowing dont' come out easy. They're tweezer work. We didn't have any of that with the heritage birds, but had some of it with every single broad breasted bird.

Usually we have one person killing, scalding and plucking, and 3 eviscerating, and one quality control, bagging, weighing and icing.

This year we had .5 person bagging, weighing and icing, and everyone else was mostly plucking.

Mike said...

I have hand plucked about 20 birds and it takes forever. I have also used a smaller plucker that I made for the chickens. You attach it to a cordless drill and it spins off the feathers. It works well, but it is still time consuming. The best part is that your fingers don't get as fatigued holding the drill as the would plucking. It does have a tendency to tear skin if you spin it too fast or if the birds are scalded to long. I posted a link below to a picture of it.