Warning: this post contains images and text pertaining to animal slaughter that some may find disturbing. They're buried down towards the bottom of this long post. So if you don't want to see them, skip this one.
Christmas morning was cold, and quiet. That was to be expected. It was also perfectly still; no wind. This I counted fortunate, since it fell to me to cut off the turkey's food supply on my morning round of chores. I hated doing it, knowing she'd be suffering from hunger for the next 24 hours. I thawed and rinsed her frozen waterer with a kettle of just-boiled water from indoors, then came back with a pot of hot water to fill it up again. This had been the routine since winter weather set in and turned the poultry's water to blocks of ice each night. She had shelter from wind in the mobile pen, but that small grace on her last day made it just a little easier to accept what had to be done.
I've had very mixed feelings about keeping this Bourbon Red turkey. We got her as a handicapped poult from my farming friend in June. She was blind in one eye, and had been picked on by the other poults to the point that it was obvious that the others would kill her if she weren't removed. So she came to us, small enough to perch nervously on my wrist. We didn't know her sex back then, and frankly hoped she'd be a tom so that she'd grow big. My feelings for her were an odd mixture of concern for her well being, excitement over a new species, responsibility for her care, and the clinical approach that I use towards most livestock. We intended this bird for consumption; she was not a pet. So I held my emotions in check. I do the same with our laying hens, but I don't have to with the honey bees. I'll probably never have to take the step of killing our bees. They live or die largely on their own, beyond intimate supervision. Thus I can allow myself a variety of pure affection for them, at least to the extent possible for an undifferentiated seething mass of insects who can inflict pain. For whatever reason, the combination of diligent care and emotional detachment towards livestock comes easily to me. I don't know why, but I'm grateful for it.
But there was something else going on in my emotional relationship with this turkey. I felt badly for her in a way that I don't for the laying hens. The turkey was forced into a solitary existence, never knowing the company of other turkeys. This, I think, deprived her of something important, and definitely affected some of her behaviors. She never learned to eat much other than what I put in her feeder. Had she enjoyed the company of other turkeys, she would have learned by observation and imitation that foraging was a worthwhile endeavor. I thought that the company of laying hens would be better for her than no company at all, but that turned out not to be the case. The hens dominated her mercilessly when she was around more than one of them at a time. And laying hens can be mean. So my attempts to relieve her solitude failed. There was nothing I could do to make her life better. She had the basics: enough room, fresh air, natural light, clean food and water each day. But beyond that, the best I could do for her was to keep her from being physically picked on by other birds. She was always a flighty, easily spooked bird, probably owing to her lack of vision on one side. That meant that she didn't take to any of my attempts to interact with her either. It didn't seem like much of a life for her, and that gnawed at me steadily through the summer and fall. When winter added the challenge of cold weather, it only made me feel worse. I don't have a problem with animals dying; everything that lives also dies. I don't even have a problem with being the agent of that death. What I feel is my own responsibility is to ensure that the creatures in my care have good lives, with the ability to express the full range of their natural behaviors and as little suffering as possible, until they meet their end. For our turkey, I felt that there was no way for me to give her that good life.
I recognize that our experience with raising our first turkey is not typical. We would never have chosen to get just one bird, and the fact of her blind eye was unusual as well. Also, I put in a disproportionate amount of work for a very small yield. With more birds, and some of them being toms, that work would have yielded far more. Still, raising a turkey this year was a learning experience. Among the learning experiences I've been through in pursuit of homesteading, this was certainly one of the harder ones, emotionally speaking.
Anyway, today was slaughter day, and we aimed to get the job done early. Even if I hadn't wanted to spare the turkey further discomfort, there's also a snow storm on the way. My preparations were in place: mulch in the wheelbarrow parked beneath the slip knotted cords I'd attached to the framework for our solar array earlier this fall, knife well sharpened, water in several pots heating on the stove, outdoor work space arranged on the saw horses, a fully charged battery in the drill used with our homemade plucker, latex gloves, a cutting board, separate containers to receive the organs and the guts, and a cooler full of ice to receive the bird when when she was all finished. For our own preparations, we watched this video of Joel Salatin demonstrating the evisceration of a chicken a few times.
I could only hope that the differences between chicken and turkey evisceration were minor.
At the moment of truth we said thank you and apologized for not being able to give her a better life. My husband held the wings, and I cut the jugulars. Her head was warm in my hand as I exposed her neck, and she bled rather more than I expected based on what I'd seen when slaughtering chickens. Her wings flapped strongly, or tried to, as she died. My husband held on tightly, impressed by her strength. In a few moments, it was over. Once she was dead, the job became nothing but the challenge of a skill I was still trying to master. I used a thermometer to make sure we had the scalding water at just the right temperature. The feathers came out so readily after that that we decided not to use the plucker. It was easy to pluck her by hand, all except the largest wing and tail feathers, which the plucker wouldn't have been able to handle anyway. After plucking, the evisceration went fairly easily too, thanks to that video. While she wasn't a big bird, the thick layer of fat around her gizzard told me that she'd been plenty well fed, with reserves to fall back on for those final 24 hours. We had her chilling in a cooler full of ice water less than an hour after we started setting up.
After six months of work and feeding, our ready-for-table heritage breed turkey hen weighs merely eight and a half pounds. There's no way to make that yield sensible from a strict accounting, measuring either by money, resource use, or labor, even having gotten the poult for free. All I can do is chalk this up to a learning experience. I take satisfaction in knowing we were able to keep a disabled animal alive, and in my improving skill at slaughtering. If we were to raise turkeys again, given our inability to free range birds, I'd think long and hard before choosing a heritage breed.
So that's the story of our first meat bird ever. We'll have her for New Year's dinner, and then I'll make stock from her bones. We haven't quite decided how to cook her, but I'm sure it will be a special meal.
On the Back Porch of America
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