I conducted my heritage turkey project on the arid plains of north-central Montana, 12 miles southeast of Big Sandy on the Quinn Organic Farm. I used the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Turkey Manual, How to Raise Heritage Turkeys on Pasture, extensively.
I raised forty-five heritage turkeys, of three different varieties, on dryland pasture. An aluminum frame and canvas carport provided the birds with shelter from the hot sun, high winds, and snow and rain. Surrounding the shelter was electric poultry netting, which protected the birds from predators. The shelter and fence were moved weekly to fresh ground. The turkeys started in the brooder house on May 1 and were butchered on November 22. All of the turkeys were sold, most directly to customers and a few to a restaurant. For ten customers, I combined a turkey in a package with winter squash, potatoes, onions, and black corn to create a Thanksgiving CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The purpose of the project was to experiment with an alternative enterprise to assess its economic viability within an existing dry land system.
1. Determine how a farmer can make a living on smaller acreage in dryland country while promoting sustainable, organic, and local agriculture.
2. Expand the mostly crop-based experiments to include livestock production by raising heritage turkeys on pasture in a dryland system.
3. Raise the turkeys organically on pasture that is rotated.
4. Control insects and weeds, provide tillage, and build soil fertility.
5. Create a more diverse landscape of plants and animals on the farm.
6. Contribute to rebuilding depopulating communities and providing the next generation of farmers with opportunities.
7. Provide examples for others of alternative, high-value enterprises.
8. Build local markets for local food.
The turkeys fit well within the dryland system. While they weren’t integrated directly with either the dryland grain or dryland vegetable production, they provided a good balance to both enterprises. A downside of dryland pasture is it not as productive as irrigated pasture, so most of their food came from commercial organic turkey feed, which was very expensive. During the height of summer, though, grasshoppers provided a nice supplement.
The flock experienced high mortality, likely due to a less than adequate brooder. Though I can’t verify this, I suspect it was too drafty during the colder months of May and June. Two were lost to leg problems, which was unavoidable. Remarkably, none were lost to predation even though the area is populated by coyotes, skunks, badgers, raccoons, and large birds of prey.
Careful management was required while the turkeys were in the brooder and during the first month or so of being out on pasture. After that, management times were usually limited to twice per day, morning and night, mostly to replenish their food and water and to check on them. More time was required when they flew over their fence, but they usually stuck around with the rest of the flock and weren’t much trouble to herd back inside the fenced area. During the first couple months on pasture, any bird that flew out would get its wing clipped, but as they grew, this became harder to do.
By mid-season, all the turkeys had been spoken for by customers and as the season progressed, more people expressed interest than there were turkeys available. At the end of the season, the turkey were sold fresh to a restaurant, through a Thanksgiving CSA, and directly to customers, all locally.
Benefits or Impacts on Agriculture
The project provides an example of an alternative enterprise that can easily be added to any number of existing enterprises. Pastured turkeys have the potential to be part of a diverse farm. They can be placed on pasture that can be baled for hay or put on recently harvested grain fields, thereby increasing the value of that acreage by having two enterprises off of one field.
The project used the Montana Poultry Growers Cooperative’s mobile processing unit in its first year of operation. By supporting the Cooperatuve and the use of the unit, the project helped to increase interest in others interested in raising and processing poultry on a small-scale.
There is a market demand for pasture-raised organic turkeys. As the market grows, so will customer knowledge of local food in general and the need to support local farmers and rural communities.
Adoption by Other Producers
A few people have contacted me asking questions about turkey and pasture poultry production, though it remains to be seen if any will adopt a poultry enterprise next season.
While raising heritage turkeys on pasture is a viable enterprise within a dryland system, scale matters. Raising forty-five turkeys may be hardly different than raising one hundred, which would spread the cost of production across more birds, thereby increasing the economic viability of the enterprise.
Using commercial organic grain is expensive. If possible, grow and process grains the turkeys will need for feed or experiment with grain screenings from the grain cleaning process. This will require knowledge of turkey nutrition to ensure they receive a balanced diet. In addition, it would be worth experimenting with allowing the turkeys to range beyond their fence during the day. They cleaned their area of grasshoppers immediately upon moving to a new spot, but couldn’t access all the bugs beyond their fence. Insects are a highly-nutritious food for turkeys.
Depending upon the climate, experiment with alternative shelters. While the shelter survived the entire season, the canvas walls were shredded due to high winds, and replacing the canvas each year would be cost-prohibitive. Weather on the plains of north-central Montana is highly variable with its strong winds, sleet, hail, and snow. A structure for the turkeys must be able to withstand any of these weather onslaughts while still remain mobile.
Outreach and its results to other producers
Numerous groups came to the farm to visit the vegetable experiments and the turkeys. The Alternative Energy Resource Organization (AERO) in cooperation with Montana State University, the Montana Department of Agriculture, the Montana Farmers Union, the Montana Organic Association, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology, conducted a farm tour in June with over 100 participants. I gave a handout to participants.
Over a dozen students from the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) in Missoula visited the farm in August. In addition, twenty of the local Big Sandy Rotarians visited in October and thirty students from Stone Child College in Rocky Boy came to the farm in November.
On August 13, I presented the Quinn Organic Farm’s dryland research, including the heritage turkey project, at the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s summer meeting in Minnesota.
On October 31, I participated in the demonstration of the Montana Poultry Growers Cooperative’s Mobile Processing Unit. I spoke briefly to the fifteen participants about my heritage turkey project.
I submitted an article to the Trader’s Dispatch, and the Prairie Star published one I wrote December 6 titled, “Central Montana farmer raises holiday turkeys on organic pasture” (http://www.theprairiestar.com/articles/2008/12/06/ag_news/local_and_regional_news/local2.txt).
In addition, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition posted a blog I wrote December 1 called, “Raising Heritage Turkeys with the Help of SARE” (http://sustainableagriculturecoalition.org/blog/notes-from-the-field-raising-heritage-turkeys-with-the-help-of-sare/).
I have written a piece for the upcoming winter AERO Sun Times and will write a short article for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Newsletter.