A Comparison and Evaluation of Heritage and Broad-Breasted Turkeys on Pasture

Final Report for FNC14-950

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $5,933.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Wesley Hunter
Providence Farm
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Project Information

Summary:

The initial plan for this project was to raise six different breeds of turkeys—five heritage breeds and one broad-breasted—each in its own dedicated shelter, with the hope of determining feed consumption, dress weight, and ultimately profitability of each breed.  Due to marketing concerns, we decided to split the project over two years, with three breeds raised one year (2015) and the other three raised the next year (2016).  This would allow us to market a smaller number of turkeys each of two years, rather than a larger amount all in one year; attempting to sell a maximum of 36 turkeys per year seemed a much more reasonable goal for us than a potential maximum of 72 turkeys.  In the end, basically nothing quite worked out.

For the first year of the project, 2015, we ordered 12 poults each of Bourbon Red, Blue Slate, and Broad Breasted Bronze, all from Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, MO.  The Bourbon Reds and Blue Slates were brooded together (the Broad Breasted Bronze, being a faster-growing bird, were started approximately 6 weeks later), but shortly after arrival we started having problems with the Bourbon Reds; after four days, seven had died, and in total nine died during the brooding stage.  (The Blue Slate poults were doing fine, so we reasoned there must be something wrong with either the parent stock of the Bourbon Reds, or something at the hatchery itself.)  Because we now had such a small number of the Bourbon Reds, we determined that there were not enough to give us particularly useful data for this project (and as it turned out, all three remaining were males, which may have further skewed the numbers), but we could continue with the Blue Slates and the Bronze.

Then after brooding the Broad Breasted Bronze and moving them to pasture, we started experiencing significant predation issues.  For more detail, I should give a bit of an overview.  2015 was our third year raising pastured poultry on this particular farm.  As I have since learned, the third year is often when the local predator population becomes wise to the readily available poultry, and is thus the time when many farmers experience a heavier-than-normal rate of loss.  Our farm was no exception.  We had had birds killed, of course, the previous two years, but 2015 saw a rather dramatic spike.  A certain number of these attacks came during the daytime, with foxes and red-tailed hawks snatching free-ranging chickens on occasion.  The hawks would typically attack randomly, but the fox (likely a single vixen who found a reliable source of food for her spring-born pups) was at it quite regularly early in the season.  We also had problems at night, as would be expected.  We knew we had a great-horned owl attacking chickens—it would land next to a shelter, reach a foot under the lumber frame, and grab a bird and kill it with its talons.  (Frustratingly, it could not remove the bird from the shelter, so our dead chickens weren’t even given the dignity of being eaten for their trouble.)  But we also had something else, whose attack style we hadn’t seen in previous years, a predator that left our chickens, guineas, and ducks alone but that decimated our turkeys in 2015. 

First, something broke into a temporary shelter that was housing the Broad Breasted Bronze, near our barn, and killed all but four of them.  We then relocated the remaining turkeys, moving them into one of our regular portable hoop shelters on another part of the farm.  They were problem-free for a number of weeks until the one night they weren’t, when something broke through the chicken wire on that shelter and killed the remaining four turkeys.  We had also had intermittent predation on the remaining Blue Slates, lasting quite late into the season, and in the end we weren’t able to gather much of any useful data apart from butcher weights.  (It isn’t feasible to accurately calculate feed consumption—and thus feed conversion rates—when birds are being killed at random intervals.)  At the time we had given up on the year’s portion of this grant project, presuming we would restart with the 2016 season, so we didn’t even keep records of specific bird-by-bird butcher weights.  I only recall that the average weights for our turkeys in 2015 were 7.5 lbs. for the hens and 13 lbs. for the toms.

We had originally intended (and budgeted) to take the turkeys to a local poultry processor, but we couldn’t justify the time off the farm to take only 10 turkeys, so we chose to process on-farm instead.

When it came time to decide how to proceed for 2016, we opted to continue the project as planned and raise only the other three breeds for comparison.  Though we thought we might be able to sell the 60 or more turkeys that would likely result from restarting the entire project, in the end the large potential increase in turkeys to market concerned us enough to keep us cautious.

Our turkeys for 2016 were purchased from Ideal Poultry in Texas.  Our initial plan was to purchase from Cackle Hatchery (again), but when we went to submit our order they were already sold out, so we had to opt for another source.  We ordered 12 each of Black Spanish, Narragansett, and Royal Palm.  The poults were hatched on May 11, 2016, and they arrived on our farm May 13.  The three breeds were brooded together.  While we understood that this may affect our data to a degree, since we would be averaging their feed consumption during the brooding stage rather than collecting data on each breed separately, we felt that the relatively small amount of feed consumed during the first few weeks wouldn’t make a significant impact on our numbers with a 26-week grow-out period.   There were a few death losses in the brooder, as expected, and we moved to pasture 10 Black Spanish, 11 Narragansett, and 9 Royal Palms.  The poults were moved to pasture on June 13.  The plan was to raise each breed in its own pasture shelter, but we still had an opened bag of feed leftover from the brooder, so we decided to put them in the same pasture shelter for a few days until they finished that bag of feed, at which point we would separate them and start to gather breed-specific data.  We ran into a roadblock, however, again with predation.

For the 2016 season, taking into account our predator troubles of the previous year, we rebuilt our poultry shelters, making them sturdier and more secure.  Around the perimeter of each shelter, at the bottom, we installed 1×6 lumber and above that a 6-inch-high length of 1/2” wire mesh.  The combination of these two was intended to add strength and further protect the birds at ground level.  Rather than attaching the wire to the frame with staples or small bent-over nails, as we had done in the past, we sandwiched it using batten strips screwed down securely.  We also purchased a handful of foot-hold traps and set them up, at night, at points around the various shelters.  (Missouri law allows landowners to trap and dispose of nuisance animals—such as those that attack livestock—out of season.)  So we felt confident going into the season that we had the predator issue largely under control.

When we moved our first batch of chickens out to pasture, in April, there were some losses to our perennial foes the fox and the hawk.  We are willing to tolerate these losses to an extent, as one of the trade-offs of raising truly free-ranging poultry, but when we moved our first batch of ducklings to the same pasture a short time later, we moved with them an adult Toulouse gander (named “Carl”) to function as a sort of guard animal.  Carl, it turned out, seemed to keep the daytime predation at bay; it was only the very far-ranging birds that might later turn up dead.  Whether it was his loud honking that kept predators away or merely his presence, I don’t know, but either way he was effective.  We had a few nighttime losses early in the season as well, until we managed to finally catch the culprit: a great-horned owl.  Interestingly, after that owl was disposed of, the nighttime killings ceased, despite the continued presence of multiple owls in the adjacent woodlot.  Neither raccoons, nor opossums, nor coyotes had been a problem.

So when it came time to move the turkeys out to pasture in mid-June, we thought we had the predator issue under control.  Alas, it was not to last.  In the morning following their second night outside, I was doing my round of chores and found multiple dead turkeys in the shelter.  Assessing the damage, I found that there were nine dead turkeys, and two missing.  Of the nine dead, seven had a leg pulled completely off.  It was quickly obvious what had happened: whatever attacked these turkeys had found a small gap along the perimeter of the shelter where the frame meets the (slightly uneven) ground, where it could reach under and grab the birds.  Some it was able to pull out entirely, while others evidently got wedged between the shelter and the ground, and the predator pulled hard enough to rip an entire leg off.  We were left at that point with 8 Black Spanish, 5 Narragansett, and 6 Royal Palm.

I cleaned up the mess, set a foot-hold trap in the small depression where the predator had gained access (and another couple traps at other points, for good measure), and set up a game camera overlooking the front of the shelter where the attacks had taken place.  The next morning, we were down four more turkeys, in a similar fashion as the night before.  We now had 8 Black Spanish, 2 Narragansett, and 5 Royal Palm.  Our fledgling flock had been reduced by half in two nights.

The game camera revealed the culprit: a raccoon, who had visited the turkeys on at least four separate occasions during the night.  In one photo the raccoon is seen walking away from the shelter with what appears to be a turkey leg in its mouth.  Somehow it had managed to take advantage of the same depression at the edge of the shelter multiple times without ever triggering the foot-hold trap.  Realizing that we could not, apparently, rely on trapping this raccoon, even though we knew exactly where it was attacking, we decided for the following night to put our guard goose Carl in the shelter with the turkeys.  The next morning all was fine, and the game camera showed that the raccoon had approached the turkey shelter only once before apparently turning right back around.  It never came back.  Carl had done his job.  Why this raccoon should suddenly attack our turkeys so severely when it had left hundreds of chickens and ducklings alone, I do not know (but I’ve never wanted a coon-skin cap so badly).

Raccoon with turkey leg.

So we left Carl in with the turkeys for the next few weeks, until they were large enough to likely be safe from nighttime predators.  Because we had lost such a large number of birds, and because we had only two Narragansett and five Royal Palm turkeys left, we decided that we no longer had enough birds to give us much detailed breed-specific information.  Thus, we opted to raise the entire batch of turkeys in one shelter, hoping to get some kind of useful data on heritage turkeys as a whole.

Turkeys with guard gander.

We had presold a number of our turkeys at the beginning of the season, through our poultry CSA, and after our predator losses were tallied we lacked the excess birds necessary to use for our planned side-by-side tasting event.  This was unfortunate—it was the component of the project I was most looking forward to—but the realities of farming and marketing forced our hand.  We also opted to again process our birds on farm rather than take them to a custom processor, because of the time requirement and the small number of turkeys we had left.

Our large predator losses also greatly reduced our ability to acquire accurate feed consumption data.  The guard gander ate a percentage of the feed given to the turkeys, but we cannot know for certain how much.  We also ended up purchasing three additional started poults (of the Blue Slate breed) as a sort of insurance, to be sure we had enough turkeys to cover what we had presold.  As best as I can figure, the average feed consumption was approximately 70 lbs. per bird.  (This is reasonably close to the figure of 72.93 lbs. per bird, as mentioned in Marsden’s book “Turkey Management.”)  With an average butcher weight of 8.82 lbs. per bird, this calculates to an approximate feed conversion ratio of 7.9 lbs., carcass weight. We had intended originally to weigh the birds live before processing, to determine a feed conversion ratio for live weight and to calculate the dressing percentage of each breed, but in the end the logistics of trying to weigh each individual bird were untenable.

Weight, per individual turkey

Breed:

Black Spanish

Narragansett

Royal Palm

 

6.63

6.62

5.84

 

7.69

10.15

6.34

 

8.07

8.96

 

8.22

9.38

 

9.48

10.37

 

10.65

 

11.51

 

12.45

 

Total:

74.70 lb.

16.77 lb.

40.89 lb.

Average:

9.34 lb.

8.39 lb.

8.18 lb.

 

I do not believe these figures offer a true representation of any of the breeds, due to such a small sample size.  The Black Spanish may be moderately representative, because there were more birds than the other two breeds and because they were evenly split between toms and hens, but the relatively small sample size still raises certain doubts.  Furthermore, it is my contention that the lack of free-ranging, necessitated on our end by the large predator losses (we wanted to minimize the possibility of further losses, and leaving the turkeys in the shelter seemed the best way to accomplish that), ultimately resulted in smaller carcass weights.  In years past, when our small turkey batches were allowed to roam freely during the day, the carcass weights have been slightly to considerably larger.  In 2015, for example, our hens averaged 7.5 lbs. (compared to 7.3 lbs. this year), while our toms averaged a little over 13 lbs. (compared to 10.4 lbs. this year).

I am really disappointed in the ultimate results of this grant project.  Quite obviously, it did not go as planned.  I think there is still great potential for a project of this sort, to determine comparative feed consumption, feed conversion rates, carcass weights, and profitability across a number of turkey breeds, and I am saddened that we were not able to provide the information we had intended.  I think what most disappoints me is the lack of a blind side-by-side tasting, where we and others could compare and contrast the flavors and textures found in the different breeds of turkeys.  Having done this with heritage chicken breeds, and informally with a couple of breeds of meat ducks, I think the potential to understand and even celebrate the differences with turkeys is great.

Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.