Barn Love

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Different Kind of Thanksgiving

This past Spring we took a leap into the unknown. After a few years of friends asking us to grow turkeys, we decided to give it a try.

What started out as adorable poults are now the full grown turkeys that are in my refrigerator. 


We knew all along that the day they met their fate would be the Saturday before Thanksgiving. No questions, no backing out - it was go time. 

Jeff spent the last week going through all of the prep in his head. Were his knives sharp? Was his work station prepped with the proper items to sanitize? Would the feather plucker that his dad made actually work? Did he have what it takes to kill a bird that he had taken care of for the last 6 months?

The mood was somber and reflective. Though there was a fair amount of "excitement" if you will about starting a new tradition on the farm. Jeff's ancestors had raised a killed chickens for their own use, but never turkeys. 

Friends of the family came over to help with the process, but the first one Jeff wanted to do on his own. None of us were there when it happened, but I'm sure there was some sense of closure for him. 

***  This is where it's gonna get graphic***

Even though he spent a TON of time reading about the best method of killing the birds, each one wound up being a little different.  Jeff decided to use a cone for the birds. Essentially, you put the turkey in a road cone, and then slit the neck. The idea is for the turkey to not be able to writhe around until the muscles relax. 

This is how he did the first one. After watching him and his mom make an attempt to do the second one, I have NO IDEA how he managed to do it alone.

They were able to get the turkey into the cone, but couldn't fit the neck through the top.

He freed the bird from the cone, caught it, calmed it, and then quickly slit the neck. In an instant it was done. 

What wasn't done in an instant however, were the muscle twitches. Some of the birds continued to flap their wings for close to two minutes after death. That was the creepiest part of the entire process - to see something moving that you know is very obviously dead. 

After he slit the neck, he let the bird bleed out for about 5-10 minutes and then it was time to de-feather.

De-feathering was probably the worst part of the entire thing. Simple concept, not so simple task.

One method of feather removal is to dunk the bird in hot, but not boiling water to loosen the feathers. Picture a spa-like environment. The hot water opens the follicles and in theory makes the feathers easier to remove.  But there was a fine line - too cold and nothing really loosened, too hot and we risked cooking the bird and hence it would have been a waste.

They let the bird "soak" for 2-3 minutes. 

All things considered we probably kept the water a touch on the too cool side. Our next to last bird I think that we got it just right because the feathers just came right off.

We thought that we weren't going to have any issues with the feathers because we built this:

Here you have a piece of PVC pipe, and a bunch of rubber fingers. There is a drill inside to spin the whole thing.  The drill didn't go very fast, so for the second day my father in law put a small motor on the back of it (pictured above). The plucker still didn't work.

This was supposed to be the magic bullet in terms of making the de-feathering process easy.  In the end, it just wound up taking very little of the feathers off, making a fair amount of noise and costing us $50. Oh well.  Maybe it goes back to us not having the water hot enough for the feathers to loosen properly? Maybe the motor didn't run fast enough?

When the machine doesn't work, you use your hands.  Ugh, what a job. Nothing like getting up close and personal with some turkeys and their feathers.

After most of the feathers were off, Jeff started the process of cleaning and gutting the birds. He clipped their wings, cut off the feet, a layer of the skin, and then took out everything on the inside.

I'll pass on the pics, but let me just tell you - it was pretty gross. It wasn't very bloody all things considered. The innards were incredible to look at compared to something that was store bought. These were so vibrant in color and were incredibly lean.

While it was't easy to watch any of the birds in this manor, the one that bothered me the most was the very last one. She made noise as soon as we took the second to last bird away. Not really a crying noise, but an upset noise to say the least.  Then she managed to get out of the pen - so Jeff had to chase her down.  It was very upsetting for all parties - and certainly a surprise for the last one to be the most difficult.

Below is Jeff and the dogs chasing after the last hen.

After each one was gutted, Jeff had to put them in a cooler full of ice to cool them down.  He would get three turkeys in the cooler and then we weighed and bagged them.

Here is Jeff with the final product.

His face in this picture says it all. Proud of what we accomplished, but sad about what we did. He said he felt bad because "there was no sport" in it.  Yes, they were livestock, but it was hard not to feel some guilt about walking in to a pen, picking out a helpless bird and killing it.

In the end it was a fair amount of work to process the birds, though caring for them was relatively easy. It was also pretty costly. I will do a full breakdown but the amount for the housing, feed, etc. was well over $1,000.  We didn't do it to make money, but we definitely didn't come out in the black this first year.

Put your order in for next year because we are definitely going to do it again. We are going to take a class in the spring to become officially certified.