Ryan Rich and his partner, Emmanuel Farrow, experimented with raising turkeys on pasture. To avoid having to install the special equipment that hatchlings require, they purchased their birds at the age of 3 weeks. These they reared in moveable pens on a pasture, 32 birds to a pen, later reduced to about 28. The pens were moved daily; in addition to eating what they could forage, the birds were given purchased, organically grown feed, with a protein content of 18%. Ages of the birds were staggered, so that various sizes would be available to market at Thanksgiving. A record of expenses was kept, and soil samples were taken in the pasture, before and after the turkeys were introduced.
Two hundred turkeys were raised this way, with a total dressed weight of 2800 pounds. All were sold at Thanksgiving (aged 20 to 24 weeks) for $2.75/lb., representing a gross to the partners of $7700. Cost of the poults, organic feed, and slaughtering amounted to some $6000, leaving a net of $1700, or about 22%. Certain costs are not however factored in, such as the seven mobile turkey pens, which they had already, and the water (2200 gallons) which, though flowing freely from a spring, had to be hauled to the birds in 5-gallon buckets.
Though the price they obtained might seem respectable, Messrs. Rich and Farrow do not feel it was sufficient to justify the effort they put into this endeavor, amounting to an hour or two each day from early August until early November, and considerably more from then until Thanksgiving. They purchased 8.75 tons of organic grain, which the turkeys converted to meat at a ratio of approximately 6:1, far worse than the industry standard of 2:1. They attribute their poor conversion ratio to 1) the fact that organic feed was not available in pellet form, but only as a mash, much of which was wasted during feeding, and 2) the cold weather during November of 1997, which made it necessary for the birds to eat more, just to take in enough calories to live.
Through their manure, the turkeys did have the expected salutary effect on the quality of the soil where they were pastured, increasing pH, CEC, % organic matter, and levels of available P, K, Mg, and Ca. A further benefit was that the following year when this pasture was planted to sweet corn it yielded 150 bushels/acre, with no additional fertilizer.
Even so, the partners feel that before large-scale production of pasture-raised organic turkeys can be feasible, either the quality of organic grain must improve, its price must come down, or the retail price for organic turkeys must increase.