When I first started researching the cost of heritage breed turkeys, I was surprised to see them for sale at $7.50 - $10/pound. How can that be when you can go to the market and buy them for $0.39/lb before Thanksgiving? Are they crazy? Now, after raising them and actually accounting for the costs, I understand. We raised Naragansett turkeys 3 and 4 years ago. Before that we raised Broad Breasted Bronze. We had one tom B.B.B. which dressed out at 38 lbs! He was fully mature (about 2). The 6 - 8 month birds were between 18 & 25 lbs. The Naragansetts (heritage breed) dressed out between 14 & 22 lbs. at around 7 or so months. Not bad. This past year we purchased 7 Blue Slate and 10 White Hollands, also both heritage breeds. Now, most people know that I'm all for raising animals that are sustainable. I like the goats because they are healthy, require less land to graze, make it to market relatively quickly, etc. It is said that the heritage breed turkeys can forage nicely, can reproduce naturally, and aren't as inbred as some of the "commercial" breeds, thus may have fewer health problems. I don't know what happened, but of the 7 Blue Slates, only 1 made it to market. Of the 10 White Hollands, 7 made it. The Blue Slates were weak from the start, lost eyesight, and were not very adventurous. So, we won't order them again. The White Hollands did well. But, in the end, they dressed out at a max of 15 lbs for the toms and 8 for the hens. It costs approx. $10/chick. Processing is $7.50/bird. So, as you can see, it's impossible to sell a bird for about $2/lb. when they are so small. If you add in solely the cost of feed, it cost us $5.89 to raise 8 turkeys this year. I sold them for $4.50/lb because I had told people that would be the approx. cost (which it would have been if they had reached a higher weight). So, we had 2 turkeys for Thanksgiving. If I subtract out the gross proceeds from the costs, the result is that our 2 turkeys cost us $226 or $7.63/pound. Of course, the labor and overhead are not factored into any of this. So, I now understand why some people are charging $7.50 - $10 per pound for turkey. I will say that the taste of White Holland is the best we've had - they were tender, juicy and excellent. Those of you who bought the birds this year might want to comment (there were only 3 people) individually but I heard comments that concurred that these were the best tasting turkeys ever. All of this said, I realize that not all people can afford meat at $6/pound. So we'll raise some of the giants. Their feed conversion ratio is higher than the heritage breeds - they're too heavy to fly so they don't expend as much energy as others. Since they grow larger, we can charge less per pound. We realize that we can't offer birds at $0.39/lb. but we hope to be able to offer healthy meat at a price point that is affordable, thus sustainable.
What happened in 2009?
- We ordered 2 breeds that looked cool. There is quite a bit of info. out there on the White Holland. But we couldn't find much on the Blue Slate. I think there's a reason for that - sometimes people don't raise certain breeds because they just don't do well. So, we won't buy Blue Slates again.
- We "pasture raised" the birds. What does this mean? Dave built a very nice enclosure for them and we put them out in the goat paddock. It has a corrugated roof and is made from ash slab wood from our forest. It's surrounded by poultry wire. Every 3 days or so, he went out and moved the pen so that the birds would have fresh grass and a fresh supply of bugs. When we could, we let them out for exercise. They'd spend 3 - 4 hours walking around - flying up on the roof, looking at themselves in the windows, pooping all over the place. Our neighbor did her best to keep them out of her flowers - it's kind of like shooing away a squirrel from a feeder - they just keep coming back. Turkeys love to look at themselves so they're drawn to doors and windows at the house. The dog likes to bark at them. It's all very amusing if you can keep your sense of humor. Every once in awhile we'd have to go out and herd them back from the road or out of our other neighbor's garden (she doesn't really like turkey peck marks in her tomatoes). If they get into the lettuce, forget it! We didn't clip their wings so they could go anywhere. Before dinner, we'd have to herd them back to their enclosure.
- One Saturday morning Dave went out to let them out for their weekend walk and 4 were dead. A raccoon had found them and the birds had stuck their heads through the enclosure in an attempt to escape. So that was bad. He reinforced the enclosure with smaller wire so that they couldn't stick their heads through and we didn't have another occurrence. But, we're always mindful of the risk of predators. It's said a weasel will finish off a whole flock; we hear the coyotes at night; the hawks circle the chickens during the day. We try to keep losses to a minimum but realize that we are part of nature.
- One turkey looked to the sky a bit too long during a rainstorm.
- One turkey walked into the woods never to return (a Blue Slate, of course).
- And 3 chicks died within 3 days of delivery - two Blue Slates (we did receive a refund for those).
What's up for 2010?
- I wonder about letting the birds out. I know that they'd gain weight faster if they weren't flying around and using their energy to spar with each other for the attention of the hen (the toms start this at about 10 days old - strutting around, looking all puffed up). But, they also wouldn't be as happy. When they're out, they cluck and chat and goof off. Quality of life vs. quanity.
- We're going to raise 4 types of birds this year. The White Hollands will be $6/lb., Naragansetts will be $4.50 (or maybe 4), Broad Breasted Bronze about $3.25/lb. and White Giants $3. Maybe the giants will be less but they won't be more. Again, the larger breeds are generally huge. We like this especially for ground turkey - it's much easier to get a good amount of ground meat from one large turkey than 3 small ones.
- Maybe we'll save 3 hens and a tom so that we can raise our own chicks next year. We tried to hatch 9 turkeys 2 years ago and only 3 made it out of their shell. They were cute and lived in with the goats. They would hitch a ride with the goats. One day, the hen got under a goat's foot. So we were left with 2. Anyway, we had fun letting the chicken hens rear their chicks last spring and I've read that people have good luck with turkey poults in this manner so maybe we'll give it a try.