Sunday, December 26, 2010

Mixed Feelings on a Turkey Harvest

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.


Mareena said...

I really appreciate your thoughtful explanation about how you were feeling about the task at hand.

Sasha said...


My husband and I raise our own animals, too and we do not withhold food from our poultry before slaughter. Basically, we just do it in the morning before they are fed. Generally speaking, the shorter the days, the better it works and often we do find that there is food in the crop or stool in the intestines. You have to be more careful in these cases but it is doable.

If you are going to cut the bird into parts, then food in the tract is even less of a problem. After the bird is plucked (or sometimes I skin it) I cut the legs off and remove the breast before eviscerating the bird. Then I can make a large opening just under the breast bone and remove the organs I want to keep without putting any pressure on the intestines, which is what causes the stool to come out. I usually cut into to back bone about 2 to 3 inches from the vent (I use Fiskars pruning shears.) That piece of back bone (with the intestines still attached) goes to the pigs. The rest of the carcass is either used for broth or fed to our dogs (they are on a raw diet).

I've enjoyed reading your blog.

spotty dog farm said...

Thanks for posting the joel salatin video..good stuff. I haven't seen that one yet, but when I set out to slaughter our two roosters last month i watched dozens of similar videos on youtube.

also, bravo on the classy slaughter post. i considered one, but never did post/ take any photos. the first time i was too preoccupied with the task at hand but maybe next fall when we slaughter the males again.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I raised four turkey's this year. They all turned out to be Tom's. I butchered two of them after watching videos on you tube and it went well. I am going to butcher one more this week keeping the one Tom and the recently purched Hen so that I can have more Turkey's for the freezer next year. While I do feed mine they also free range. I did not hold back food from my Tom's before butchering. I was very careful when butchering not to cut open the crop or intestines. I hung a five gallon bucket with a large enough hole to quickly put the turkey in after catching slitting the throat to bleed out. The bucket was attached to a large tree and kept the bird still while it was bleeding out. I also found it very easy to pluck after dipping in hot water. It took me about 30 minutes to complete. My sister brought over a store bought turkey on Thanksgiving and I put it next to my butchered Turkey and the store bought was discolored, bruised and overall a bit disgusting looking next to my fresh, hormone free, free range, humanly killed bird. We deep fried it and it was excellent.

Anonymous said...

My feelings are always mixed when it comes to butchering time: sadness, deep gratitude, and something more that is hard to put into words. Those of us who understand don't take our meat for granted. Thank you for this post.

Hazel said...

Barbara- you deep fried a whole turkey??! How in the world did you manage that? Aside from the enormous pan you must have needed, how long does it take? I've never heard of doing that before! We always roast ours in the oven, but had a brief power cut on Christmas morning and did think for a moment we were going to have to dig out the BBQ...

Thanks for the post, Kate. I'm a complete novice at this, and do admire your ability to remain detached without losing your concern for the animals welfare. I've only prepared pheasant that I've been given, but thinking about that and the comment Sasha posted, they haven't been starved for 24 hours because they're roaming in the woods. Their crops are usually full of grain. (I don't think they ever learn to forage because they're so well provided for. I've never found anything other than grain in a pheasants crop whereas the pigeon we had c/o our cat (!) had all sorts of seeds, grit from the road- a real mixture of stuff)
Anyway, I usually manage to cut the crop out without splitting it, and haven't noticed a problem with the intestines, but then a pheasant is a more manageable size than most turkeys!

I heard about the snowstorm on the news last night. I hope it doesn't cause you too many problems. We've had snow around for over a week now, which is very unusual; it's just starting to thaw now. The chickens have hated it, but the ducks don't mind, other than the fact they've had a smaller area of water than usual. (I've concentrated on keeping part of their 'pond' defrosted; enough to stand in, but not to splash around in.)

Anonymous said...

Ya done good, lady.

Vera said...

A wonderfully honest and thoughtful blog, and thankyou for posting it. We are just starting out as smallholders, and recycling our animals is a steep learning curve for us. Reading about other people's experiences helps us with that learning.

Mitzi G Burger said...

More people should prepare their own meat in this way. Thanks for a detailed and interesting tale. Hope you are enjoying the festive days.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

So much of your experience parallels our own that it's uncanny. From the Salatin video, to the home-made plucker (discovered to be unnecessary), to the careful evisceration.

I'm very sorry that you can't look back at the bird's life with more satisfaction. As far as I can tell, you did absolutely everything right, and the problem was inherent in the situation.

Perhaps the lesson here is that we all need to think carefully about how to deal with disabled livestock. If it's a flock animal, and its disability prevents it from living successfully in a flock, it may be that the most humane thing to do is put it down young. If you feel as though you couldn't give that bird a good life, I'm sure nobody on the planet could have. I know I couldn't.

I feel as though our turkeys had a good life, and the only difference is that we had four. We also had a heritage breed (standard bronze), and I suspect we raised them in much the same way you did. But one of the best things to come out of the experience for us was the satisfaction of knowing that the birds we ate lived well.

You deserve the same. I hope you'll try turkeys again.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Thanks for the fine, honest thoughts. As a hunter, I sometimes wonder how different it feels to raise animals for slaughter, partly depending -- as you point out -- on what kind of life you feel you were able to give them.

Kate said...

Mareena, thanks.

Sasha, interesting. I simply assumed that it was best to do the same with the turkey as is recommended with chickens. I kept the turkey's feeder full pretty much all the time, so there was no period when she didn't have access to food. It just seemed like she needed fuel to stay warm in winter. We don't have hogs or dogs, but I like your economy of use!

sdf, yes, I think that's the best demonstration of poultry evisceration I've come across. Very useful to me, and it made the job go much easier than I had previously managed with the chickens. This is the first slaughtering job which I've managed to take any pictures of. My attention has always been elsewhere. Maybe if we'd had a third person around there'd be more images.

Barbara, thanks. What breed of turkeys do you have? I assume it's a heritage breed if you plan to have them reproduce, as I understand the industrial models can't do that on their own. I like the sound of the bucket slaughtering method. We simply hung the bird upside down by use of two slip knotted cords, one for each foot. It worked pretty well.

Anon, right there with you. It is hard to put into words.

Hazel, deep-frying whole turkeys has become more and more popular here. It started, from what I can tell, in the south. I've never done it or even tried a deep-fried turkey, but I'm told they don't turn out greasy. The expense of sufficient oil to submerge/float an entire turkey can't be inconsiderable, so it's not a method that appeals to my frugal side. But I'm also told that it's a relatively fast method of cooking, and it undeniably frees up the oven at Thanksgiving, when there are so many other things that need to use the oven too.

I too have heard of your winter weather on the news. Ours wasn't much to write home about, at least in our immediate area, though the winds were impressive. No loss of normal routine.

Emily, thanks.

Vera, I'm sure you'll do well by any animals you need to kill, up until that point. It's not something I find emotionally easy to do, though the technical aspects of it are becoming more familiar. I'm not sure I ever want it to be emotionally easy either.

Mitzi, I can't say I disagree. It is an education, that's for sure.

Tamar, thanks for weighing in, and for your kind vote of confidence. Coming from someone who's been there, it means a lot. I am (as my title indicated) of mixed feelings about having kept this turkey alive. On the one hand, I suppose most of us would want six months of life over three weeks of life, given the choice. But as you say, it may indeed have been the more humane thing to put her down earlier. Of course I didn't know at the time what price her disability would exact, and it seemed best to not let the expense and effort of producing the poult go to waste. My calculus of all factors is more nuanced now. I don't think I would accept a similar offer again from farming friend. But that's not to say I've ruled out turkeys for the future. As noted, this was a learning experience, but not entirely a positive one. That's how it goes sometimes.

Kate said...

Tovar, yes. I was thinking about my emotional relationship to livestock and how that would differ from animals I intend to hunt. I imagine that I could allow myself an unrestrained admiration for a wild animal in my gun sights, however briefly. I'm not sure why that should be so. Something perhaps to do with the very brief time I'd have to see the animal alive before killing it. I am acutely aware of the gap between my affection for my pet cats, and the distance I keep from the laying hens. I feel lucky that this arrangement has turned out to be uncomplicated for me, emotionally speaking. Wild animals will probably be different, since I will have no opportunity to build an ongoing relationship with them. I suppose that makes it seem "safer" to simply appreciated them, to the fullest extent possible in a brief moment, for what they are.

Leigh said...

Excellent post Kate. I had a lot of emotions to deal with the first time we butchered chickens. In the end I think it all boils down to mindset. The modern mindset needs a lot of adjusting when it comes to raising our own meat.

Jennifer Montero said...

great post Kate. I like that you face the whole experience and still come out with questions, and aren't afraid to share that with us. I'm still unsure how to measure quality of life for a creature that can't tell me how it feels.

We've been experiementing with breeds of chicken, to find which are suitable to the lifesyle we can offer them. We've tried 4 already and there are still pros/cons with each. And I still haven't refined our dispatch and plucking technique, so we're as quick and stress-free for the bird as we can be.

You and Tamar have encouraged me to raise a few bronze turkeys next year. I'll be referring back to your posts and Joel's video when the big day comes.

C.R. Urban Homesteader's said...

Very educational. My husband and I live in town now but raise meat rabbits and are getting chickens in the spring. We plan to raise most of our own food when we move to the country. Hopefully in 2012!

Bunny said...

I've lurked on your blog for over a year. I'm a organic-gardening vegetarian and have always enjoyed and benefitted from your posts. This one is no different. I'm a "moral" vegetarian: if I'm not prepared to kill it, I shouldn't eat it. Kudos to you for managing the difficult dance of compassion, the need to do the right thing, and continuing self-sufficiency. My christmas day "tofurkey" was disappointing from a taste point-of-view, but placid and stoic to the end! Thanks for a great blog.

Kate said...

Leigh, my hat's off to anyone who confronts the emotional and ethical issues of meat head-on, as you clearly have done.

Jennifer, thanks. I am left with some questions, but it's more that mixture of feelings I keep talking about. I know I did the best I could; and I know my best wasn't really good enough; and I know there was nothing more I could have done. The lesson, I suppose, is that sometimes there's no way to get to a positive outcome. I hope you get plenty of tom poults in your turkey run. Hens really do make the yield smaller.

C.R., rabbits are probably a good way to go. I considered them seriously for a while, and will probably raise them for meat at some point. Good luck with your new livestock species.

Bunny, thank you. I am pleased to hear from a vegetarian who found the post to be worth the read. I can certainly understand "moral" vegetarianism. I think if I couldn't handle the killing, I'd feel morally obligated to give up meat too. It is a difficult dance, as you say. But I seem to be learning the steps.