Monday, October 11, 2010

Turkey Update

It's been almost four months since I accepted a three-week-old, one-eyed refugee turkey poult from farming friend.  I thought an update might be in order.  To make a long story short, when the turkey first arrived, it was a pale, shy little thing... 

And now it's grown into a shy, bigger thing that shows the full colors of its heritage breed - Bourbon Red.  (Sorry there's not much there for scale.  It's exceedingly hard to take even a decent picture of this turkey.)  If you want more detail, read on.

We had hoped the suggestive power of the male pronoun would influence it to grow into a large tom turkey.  Turkeys are evidently not biddable that way: it looks as though we've got a hen.  When we called her anything besides "he," we've called her Thanksgiving.  But between her sex, the slow growing habits of her breed, and the fact that she was a runty sort of bird to begin with, she's almost certainly going to get a Thanksgiving reprieve.  We're hosting the high holy day for extended family this year, and there's no way she'll begin to feed the 17-23 people who will likely be attending.

This doesn't mean of course that she's now a pet.  No, the plan is to have her on the table for New Years.  We considered Christmas, but I hold my holiday meal traditions dear.  Very dear.  At Christmas it has to be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  That leaves only New Years, which, in our house, to this date, has no traditional meal associated with it.  The problem which presented itself when we realized Thanksgiving wouldn't be ready for Thanksgiving, is where to house her when the weather turns really cold.

The chickens will go into their winter quarters sometime between mid-November and early December, depending on weather, and when we get our act together to rebuild their pen in the shed.  Then we have to decide whether to put the turkey in with the chickens, or keep her out in the cold weather on her own.  I tried a few times over the summer to introduce the turkey to the hens.  She certainly wanted to be near them, and when her pen wasn't in viewing distance of them, she would start up her distress peep, and keep it up for an hour or more.  But the few times I introduced her physically to the hens, they pecked at her viciously and immediately.  So those attempted introductions didn't last more than a few seconds.

But the turkey's slow growth has nonetheless been steady, and just recently I tried introducing one hen at a time into her pen.  The visiting hen immediately tried to assert herself with Thanksgiving, but Thanksgiving is now having none of it.  Up went the tail feathers and out stretched the wings.  Thanksgiving still doesn't weigh very much, but she looks mighty big when she puffs herself out like that, and it doesn't take much to outweigh a laying hen.  She went right after the hen's comb and kept after it as well as a one-eyed turkey can.  (Which is to say, only moderately well. It was actually a tiny bit comical how Thanksgiving would momentarily "lose" the hen anytime the hen was to her left.)  Each visiting hen quickly discovered the utility of hiding under the hanging watering can, and no serious harm was done.  Now that the fear of turkey has been put into each hen individually, methinks that if I do need to house them all together, the hens will have a healthy respect for Thanksgiving.  And Thanksgiving will promptly be a little overwhelmed by trying to track four darting chickens with only one good eye.  That's the hope anyway - that detente will be reached due to instilled respect and a natural handicap.

If it doesn't work out that way, well, something I heard not long ago from a turkey hunter makes me think she might fare outside in the cold weather just fine.  Did you know that hunters aim for the turkey's head when hunting them?  I was astonished and asked why in the world they'd aim for such a tiny target on such a large bird.  Apparently the .22 is the rifle of choice for turkeys, and the bullet cannot penetrate the turkey's feathers.  They act as armor!  Now if I hadn't seen the feathers developing on Thanksgiving as she grows, I wouldn't find this remotely plausible.  They are awfully impressive feathers, thickly layered and tough.  So maybe it's true.  I know there's no logical parallel here, but I figure if those feathers can stop a bullet, they can probably keep a turkey pretty warm through early winter as well.

Anyway, that's the plan: to have a minor turkey feast about five weeks after the major turkey feast.  I haven't decided yet exactly how to handle the slaughtering.  Novella Carpenter swears by branch loppers for the killing, which we have.  On the other hand, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall hangs his birds, both domestic and wild, for up to a week.  As I understand it, a bird for hanging shouldn't have any exposed flesh, which would rule out the loppers, though I could be wrong. I must admit the idea of hanging intrigues me, particularly since it's going to be a very cold part of the year when we slaughter Thanksgiving.  There won't be any flies to worry about, and the outdoor temperature will be roughly that of a refrigerator.  We could hang inside the shed, so no animals to worry about.  I like gamey meats, and hanging is said to enhance the flavor of game, so it all sounds good in theory.  Still, I have no experience at all with hanging birds, which makes me cautious.  I wouldn't want to ruin our very first bit of home-raised meat.  If you have any input about techniques for slaughtering a turkey, or experience in hanging game birds, please chime in with a comment.


karen said...

A long, long time ago, I stayed in West Sumatera (Indonesia) for 6 months. I was visiting a family in the capital of that city, and a turkey wandered by in their back yard. I said, Mmmmmmmmm, is that dinner, and they looked at me, mouths and eyes agape in horror.

Apparently Indonesians keep turkeys as pets and could not believe that we would EAT THEM.

Conversely, in our renos in Vancouver, we had pigeons roosting in our rafters. My kids (then preschoolers), being of Chinese decent as well as western, would point out the window at the cooing birds and shout "Dinner!"

el said...

Well, I use a modified cone. Last year's Thanksgiving dinner was pretty big so he actually broke the cone so I ended up simply hanging him from a clothesline. I slit his throat and then held his body tightly so he didn't flap around. Fairly effective; I held his head down to let the blood drain.

I am used to simply slitting, not decapitating...seems a lot more calm to me (which is why I held him; the cone would've done that).

Our turkeys are outdoors unless it's really cold, then I herd them into the coop. It rarely gets below 10* here though.

el said...

Oh and I dry-pluck too. Lots less crazy when it's 20* out.

City Sister said...

Thanksgiving dinner last year...nothing tastes like homegrown...we used a feedsack with a corner cut off (careful they are very strong)and pulled the head through the corner and tied it up by the feet. Then we did the brain scramble and neck slit, let it bleed, then get to plucking while still warm. WARNING: DO NOT FEED FOR 1-2 DAYS BEFORE THE DEED

Maddrey said...

We used a traffic cone slightly modified with the end opened up a bit, this was mounted to a 2 by 4 stand that we use as an eviscerating table with a chopping block slapped on it after the bleeding is through. Our last turkey was a 20 pound standard bronze and had a full crop that was easy to work around. We do open both sides of the jugular and I scalded in my buggest canning grainitewear, the plucking was easy. Portable propane burners are a must in this case. Good luck and make sure to dry pick any feathers you would like to save, ifyou dry pick the body, expect to have very torn skin.

Diana said...

Hullo, your question about hanging meat reminded me of a post I read once over at HunterAnglerGardenerCook. I dug it up for you here:
Hope there's some information in there you can use. I look forward to reading about your adventures, since I'm probably going to get us some turkeys and meat chickens of our own next year.

Hazel said...

Thanks for the update!

No real practical turkey experience to offer, but from the few birds I have dealt with (pheasant and pigeon) I'd say hanging definitely increases the gamey taste. It also makes any bird harder to pluck (though pheasant are notoriously difficult anyway). Much easier when they're warm.

Barbara Kingsolver decapitates on a block with an axe and plucks immediately, resorting to pliers for some of the wing feathers...

My friend with geese uses a broomstick and two people to break the neck. That would work with turkeys too, I'd have thought, if you can do it with a goose.

Re: living outdoors. Wouldn't turkeys have been native to your part of the US? They'd be equipped to deal with your weather, I'd have thought, unlike chickens who are originally jungle birds.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Thanks for the turkey update! Our hen is also quite small, but she's one of four and the other three are toms. The biggest tom wieghs a good 50% more than the hen.

As for slaughter, we're facing the same decision you are. Since we had a good experience with our first chicken slaughter -- hang upside down and slit the artery in the neck -- we'll probably go that route for the turkeys as well. I see from your comments that we're not the only ones doing it that way, which gives me confidence.

Good luck with your cross-poultry introductions. Why can't we all just get along?

Rough Rider said...

We just finished slaughtering 10 turkeys. They were Broad-breasted Bronze so a very different breed in regards to size. I'll be posting our process to my blog very soon. I'll try to remember to stop back by here to post when I update it.

As for the mixing of turkeys and chickens, I did the same only when they were poults and chicks. It worked well, but I separated them as they got older. I've read much that says you should not try to do that as the chickens are carries of a disease that affects turkeys. However, many small scale family farmers swear that they've not had a problem. I just wanted to let you know. As I said, I did it without issue. Good luck!!

Kate said...

Karen, there's no disputing taste, is there?

Hi, El! We used jury-rigged cones for the laying hens, and slit rather than decapitated. So that's a process I'm somewhat familiar with. But yes, a turkey is a much larger bird than a chicken. Good to hear your turkeys are okay outside in 10 degrees. I figured they're pretty hardy, for the reasons Hazel points out above, but it's reassuring to hear it.

City Sister, I'm liking the feedsack idea. When you say brain scramble, do you mean a knife tip through the roof of the mouth? Never done that one, but have heard/read about it. And yeah, I'll definitely take her off her feed before slaughter. Thanks for the reminder though.

Maddrey, thanks for sharing your technique. Interesting to hear the different comments about dry-plucking. I'm definitely wondering about how plucking, scalding and hanging would interact if I decide to hang. Hanging a naked plucked bird sounds rather unaesthetic. But I've no idea whether scalding would be wise after hanging, nor if the feathers would become much easier to pluck after hanging, even without scalding. Much to research, evidently.

Diana, thanks for the reference. Hank is a great writer and anything he has to say on hanging is worth the time.

Hazel, it's interesting to hear that hanging makes plucking harder. If anything I would have guessed the opposite, but it would have been just that - a guess. I've heard of the broomstick technique, but I think I'm drawn to slaughtering techniques that bleed an animal to death. You're quite right that turkeys are native to these parts and so should be able to withstand our winters. It's just that a turkey in our pen won't be able to find a bush to shelter under, though there is some wind and weather protection. Had it been my idea to add turkeys this year, I would have done all kinds of research and I probably wouldn't have this concern. But I was caught a bit unprepared with the poult, so...

Tamar, I'm pretty much there on the inverted bleed-out slaughter technique. The question is how to make that work with a much larger bird. Might have to brace something up on some largish cross beams.

Rough Rider, thank you. I'll look forward to reading your post. I too have heard the warnings about mixing a flock, and also the reassurances from those with small mixed flocks who report no problems. I guess either I'm lucky, or the clean living keeps them healthy.

el said...

Wow, well, neither of my birds had torn skin with dry-plucking...but my previous attempt with hot water meant a torn skin...maybe it was because I plucked him when he was still warm? I am not saying I have *the* answer, just that it worked much more easily than wet-plucking a bird in 20* weather :)

The Naked Gardener said...

I'm not sure how big it is going to be, but wringing it would certainly allow for it to hang with no exposed flesh. I've did a kind of large chicken by grabbing its head and swinging in a horizontal circle. I've also seen a farmer who had aluminum cones mounted wide end up on his pole barn that he stuffed his bird in. Its head comes out of the smaller end and you give it a good tug.

Andy said...

I don't know if the coop would have enough shelter for Turkey in the winter, but I do remember plenty of turkeys up in my neck of the woods foraging in the front yard all through the coldest parts of winter.

As for the "armor", a .22 may go through it, but the shotguns used for turkey hunting use such tiny pellets with almost no mass, they can bounce right off.

Anonymous said...

I think the turkey would be ok with a minimal amount of a shelter aside from predators.

You must post your Yorkshire pudding recipe, I loove them.

Kate said...

Naked Gardener, I've heard about and seen video of the neck-wringing technique you describe. But I don't think even an experienced chicken-wringer, which I'm not, would manage that with a turkey. It's just a much bigger bird. But you're right to point out that it would preclude an open flesh wound if I want to hang. I'm just not sure how to work out the apparently conflicting issues with bleeding out (which is how I prefer to kill animals) with hanging. Much to think on in the meantime.

Andy, you're right. Turkeys have to be pretty hardy for a New England winter. Thanks for the clarification on the hunting.

Anonymous, I'll try to remember to post my Yorkshire pudding recipe. There's not much to it, but it does turn out really well. I'm usually in a bit of a rush when making it though, so snapping a picture might not happen. No promises, but we'll see!

Rough Rider said...

I remembered to circle back. Here's what we did with our ten turkeys.

Kate said...

Rough Rider, good write up and I really appreciate you coming back to let me know it was up. Thank you. When the time comes, I'll think about posting my own write up of the slaughter if I get any pictures taken.