Turkey Talk - Raising on Pasture, Fresh vs. Frozen, Thawing/Cooking tips and more
With Thanksgiving only a week away we are getting lots and lots of calls and emails about turkeys. In a nutshell....YES we still have some turkeys available! YES they are frozen (fresh were sold out weeks ago). And YES we do have a variety of sizes ranging from about 12 pounds on the low end to 25 pounds on the high end, with most in the 16 - 20 lb. range.
With all these questions about turkeys coming in, I decided it was time to write a post that was 100% dedicated to turkeys - starting with production, feeding, processing, and preparing the perfect Thanksgiving bird.
For the last 10 years, we have been raising Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys for our customers at Thanksgiving. This breed was the primary turkey raised outdoors on American farms from the 1930's through the 1960's, when the Broad Breasted White was developed for indoor confinement production. We love this breed for our outdoor pasture-based system for many reasons - while they don't grow quite as fast as the whites, they are very hardy outdoors, excellent foragers, and very pretty birds with their irridescent black and green feathers. And they grow large enough that most can't fly over our portable electric fencing like the smaller heritage turkey breeds.
As we discuss our production practices below, keep in mind that almost all turkeys that you buy in the grocery store, even those labeled as organic, are raised indoors on a concrete floor their entire lives, and never see a ray of sunshine or blade of grass. That is how our turkeys are different.
We usually get the day old turkey poults in the mail from a hatchery in Waterloo, Wisconsin in late July or early August. They spend the first few weeks inside our hoophouse. where they have access to a heated brooder box where the temperature hovers around 100 degrees. If they get too warm they can move outside the heated area. As they grow up and are big enough to hop over the 18" high walls of the brooder area (usually about 2-3 weeks of age), we then move them out to our enclosed Mobile Range Coops, essentially a floorless 20x36 hoophouse that we move every day to a fresh patch of grass. The MRCs provide predator protection for the little poults while allowing them to learn how to forage for bugs and insects on the grass. See photos below of the turkeys at different life stages.
At about 6-7 weeks of age they are the size of a full grown chicken and less susceptible to aerial predators. At that point we move them out to our open pasture shelters, where they can free-range in a large area surrounded by a portable electric fence. The electric fencing keeps them in the area of the field we want them in, plus protects the turkeys from most ground predators. We then move the entire setup (fencing, feeders, shelter, and turkeys) to a fresh patch of grass three times per week until they are ready for processing at about 17-18 weeks of age. The turkeys are much easier to move than chickens so it's probably one of the favorite chores for the farm operations team. With 600+ Thanksgiving turkeys on the farm during the fall, we usually break them into two separate groups. One group rotates around the front pasture by Route 31, and another group rotates around the pig field across from the store.
The little turkey poults need a much higher protein feed than baby chicks. The first day they arrive we use a 26% protein organic turkey starter feed from Cashton Farm Supply, and on day 2 we start providing very small grit to help them digest their feed. Every day we put a splash of organic apple cider vinegar in their water to aid digestion and ward off parasites.
After we move them out of the brooder we drop them to a 24% protein turkey grower, then 22% at 6 weeks of age, 20% at 10 weeks, 18% at 12 weeks, and finally a 16% finishing ration at 14 weeks and later. During the last few weeks each turkey will eat on average 1 pound of feed per day. Plus whatever vegetation and bugs they can forage off the pastures. They also eat a lot of grit. It takes us on average about 75 pounds of organic feed to raise a 20 lb. turkey.
We take all of our turkeys to Twin Cities Pack in Clinton, Wisconsin for processing. They are about an hour from the farm, but they are USDA inspected and do a very nice job with processing and packaging for us. We can only fit about 125 full sized turkey into our livestock trailer at one time, so we have to reserve four or five processing dates each November well in advance to make sure we can get all of our turkeys processed on the dates when we want them. This year we had three dates setup for frozen turkeys beginning on November 5th, and two dates for fresh turkeys the week prior to Thanksgiving.
Loading turkeys into the trailer is actually pretty easy, we just create a triangular "catch pen" adjacent to their pasture paddock using three hog panels (16 foot x 3 foot portable fencing sections). Usually when I back the trailer up to the catch pen the turkeys are very curious and will come over to check things out. Once we have a big group gathered in the catch pen, we swing the hog panel closed behind them and box them into an area with the only outlet being the open trailer door. They will usually begin hopping up into the trailer and we just try to count them as they are jump on. Once we get to 125 we simply close the door and push the rest back to their paddock.
Unloading the trailer at Twin Cities Pack is also pretty easy, usually I take a push broom with me to herd the turkeys off the trailer and into the open door of the facility. I then have to return the next day with the box trailer to pickup all the fresh or frozen turkeys and bring them back to the farm for customers.
FRESH vs. FROZEN
For the first few years of raising turkeys, we always arranged for processing the week prior to Thanksgiving so that our customers could pickup a fresh turkey. That worked great with 20 birds the first year, then 40, then 80, then 125, etc. As demand grew we tried to grow more birds, setup more fresh processing dates, and keep up with the phone calls. Two years ago we tried FOUR fresh dates the week before Thanksgiving and it just about killed us. All of our farmer friends thought we we crazy as they delivered all of their frozen birds to customers in the weeks before Thanksgiving.
So for the past two years, in an attempt to maintain some sanity leading up to Thanksgiving, we decided to schedule only two fresh pickup days (125 turkeys per day reserved), and the rest of our production would be frozen turkeys available on a first come/first serve basis with no reservations or deposits to keep track of. That worked well for us last year, and we only had to cope with the long lines at the store on the Saturday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
This year we had a bumper crop of turkeys with very few losses, and so ended up with about 625 turkeys to sell in total. After allocating 250 for the fresh pickups, we still had about 375 frozen turkeys available to sell, and as of this writing a week before Thanksgiving we have well over 100 left to sell.
See the chart below with general instructions for defrosting a frozen turkey. If you have time and room in your fridge, the best bet is to give yourself about a day of defrost time for each 4-5 lbs. of turkey size. If you end up with a time crunch for the defrost, you can also place your turkey in a sink or big pan of cold water and thaw out more quickly, changing the water frequently to keep it cold. You can also cook a frozen turkey, but it will take about 50% longer than when already thawed.
TIPS FOR SELECTING AND COOKING A PASTURE-RAISED TURKEY
I published these tips in our last post a few weeks ago but figured I might as well repeat them here. We will also hand our a printed version of these tips for anyone purchasing a fresh or frozen turkey at the store. From Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker. Buy her book "Grass Fed Gourmet" in our farm store.
Please be flexible. If you are buying your pasture-raised turkey from a small, local, sustainable farmer, thank you VERY much for supporting us. That said, please remember that pasture-raised turkeys are not like factory-farmed birds. Outside of conscientious animal husbandry, we are unable to control the size of our Thanksgiving turkeys. Please be forgiving if the bird we have for you is a little larger or a little smaller than you anticipated. Cook a sizeable quantity of sausage stuffing if it is too small, or enjoy the leftovers if it is too large. If the bird is so large that it cannot fit in your oven, simply remove the legs before roasting it.
Balk about the price in private. Look, I’m not going to lie. If you are used to picking up a free turkey from the grocery store, then the $5-$8 per pound ticket on a pastured turkey seems expensive. If you’ll notice, however, the farmer selling it isn’t exactly getting rich off you. He or she is selling it based on the farm’s expenses (and grain, labor and processing are VERY expensive these days!) Factory birds from the grocery store are not cheap, either. The price is a ruse. You pay for industrialized food ahead of time through your taxes. I guarantee that, once you get home, experience the amazing flavor, the ease of cooking it and the fact that you don’t suffer gastrointestinal illness after (as so many folks do with factory farmed birds), you will agree the price was worth it.
Know what you are buying. If you don’t personally know the farmer who is growing your turkey, take the time to know what you are buying! “Pastured” is not necessarily the same as “free-range.” Some grass-based farmers use the word “free-range” to describe their pasture-raised birds, but any conventional factory farm can also label their birds “free-range” if they are not in individual cages, and if they have “access” to the outdoors – even if the “outdoors” happens to be feces-laden penned-in concrete pads outside the barn door, with no access to grass. “Pastured” implies that the bird was out on grass for most of its life, where it ate grass and foraged for bugs, in addition to receiving some grain.
Brining and Basting optional. If tradition dictates that you season your meat by brining your bird and basting it as it roasts, by all means, do so. However, many people brine and baste in order to keep the bird from drying out. With a pastured bird, this is not necessary, and basting only wastes energy as you continually open the oven door. Pastured birds are significantly juicier and more flavorful than factory farmed birds. You can spare yourself this extra step as a reward for making the sustainable holiday choice! (By the way, those turkey roasting bags are not necessary, either.)
Monitor the internal temperature. Somewhere along the line, a lot of folks came to believe that turkeys needed to be roasted until they had an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Yuck. You don’t need to do that. Your turkey need only be cooked to 165 degrees. If the breast is done and the thighs are not, take the bird out of the oven, carve off the legs and thighs, and put them back in to cook while you carve the breast and make your gravy. That entire holiday myth about coming to the table with a perfect whole bird and then engaging in exposition carving is about as realistic as expecting our daughters will grow up to look like Barbie (and who’d want that, anyhow?). Just have fun and enjoy the good food.
Cook the stuffing separately. I know a lot of folks like to put the stuffing inside their holiday birds, and if Thanksgiving will be positively ruined if you break tradition, then stuff away. However, for a couple reasons, I recommend cooking your stuffing separately. First, everyone’s stuffing recipe is different. Therefore, the density will not be consistent, which means that cooking times will vary dramatically. If you must stuff your bird, allow for about 12-15 minutes per pound cooking time, but be assiduous about monitoring the internal temperature of the meat and the stuffing. Due to food safety concerns, I happen to think it is safer to cook the stuffing outside the bird. Plus, it is much easier to lift and move both the bird and the stuffing when prepared separately, and to monitor the doneness of each. Rather than putting stuffing in my bird’s cavity, I put in aromatics, like an onion, carrot, garlic and some fresh herbs. When the bird is cooked, I add these aromatics to my stock pot. The aromatics perfume the meat beautifully, and the only seasoning I wind up using on the surface is melted butter, salt and pepper.
Do not cover your bird! Covering it will only make the skin rubbery and soggy. Do not put tin foil over the breast. It is an unnecessary waste of aluminum.
No need to flip. I used to ascribe to that crazy method of first roasting the bird upside down, then flipping it over to brown the breast. The idea was that the bird would cook more evenly, and the breast wouldn’t dry out. When I did this, the turkey came out fine. But I suffered 2nd degree burns, threw out my back, ruined two sets of potholders and nearly dropped the thing on the floor. Pasture-raised turkeys are naturally juicy. Don’t make yourself crazy with this stunt. Just put it in the oven breast-side up like you would a whole chicken, don’t cover it and don’t over-cook it. Take it out when the breast is 165 degrees (see above). If, despite the disparaging comments above, you still want to show off the whole bird, then bring it into the dining room, allow everyone to ooh and aah, then scuttle back to the kitchen, and proceed as explained above.
Be ready for faster cook times. Pasture-raised turkeys will cook faster than factory-farmed birds. Set the oven temp for 325 degrees and figure on 8-10 minutes per pound for an un-stuffed bird, 12-15 minutes per pound if stuffed. Don’t worry — It WILL brown! But remember: oven temperatures and individual birds will always vary. Use an internal meat thermometer to know for sure when the bird is cooked.
Use a good-quality roasting pan. If this is your first Thanksgiving and you do not already own a turkey roasting pan and cannot find one to borrow, treat yourself to a really top-quality roaster, especially if you have a sizeable bird. Cheap aluminum pans from the grocery store can easily buckle when you remove the bird from the oven, potentially causing the cook serious burns or myriad other injuries in efforts to catch the falling fowl. Plus, they often end up in the recycling bin, or worse, landfills. If you buy a good quality large roasting pan, and you happen to have a copy of Long Way on a Little and/or The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook (another shameless hint), I guarantee you will have multiple uses for the pan!
Pick the meat off the bird before making stock. If you plan to make soup from your turkey leftovers, be sure to remove all the meat from the bones before you boil the carcass for stock. Add the chunks of turkey back to the broth just before serving the soup. This prevents the meat from getting rubbery and stringy. For an extra-nutritious stock, follow the advice offered in Long Way on a Little.
Help is available. In recent years, our home seems to have become the unofficial Pasture-Raised Thanksgiving Hotline. Please do not hesitate to write to me with your questions at email@example.com. I make a point of checking email three times a day right up through Thanksgiving Day (I stop around noon), so that I can promptly respond to your questions or concerns. Please make sure you write “turkey question” in your subject heading so that I spot it quickly. Enjoy your holiday!
We hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday. Please follow us on our Instagram Page where Anna posts photos and farm updates a few times per week.
Cliff, Anna, and the Farm Team