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The Green Book

Raising Historical Turkeys

Raising Historical Turkeys
by Jody Padgham APPPA GRIT!
Issue 22, Fall 2002

Royal Palm, Blue Slate, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Broad Breasted, Bronze. What is this, a list of beverages available in a smoky bar? No, it is the breeds of historical (or heirloom or heritage) turkeys being raised by Mike Walter at the Walters Hatchery in Oklahoma.

Mike has been committed to the preservation of historical turkey genetics for ten years, starting when he was only 20. When asked why heirlooms are important, he explains that these are the birds that were historically raised throughout the country. The average grocery store bird, typically a white turkey, comes from genetic stock developed in the 1950's. "In the 2000 turkey census there were only 108 registered Blue Slate hens left in the US" Mike tells me. "It is important to keep the diverse genetics of these birds around, and intentional preservation is critical."

Commercial birds are now of only one genetic type, and in fact don't even reproduce naturally any more, they are now bred using artificial insemination. Commercial birds grow fast, are efficient eaters and have been bred to be disease resistant. The historical genetics Mike is working to preserve represent genetic lines of birds that take much longer to grow out (6-8 months vs 16-18 weeks for commercial birds), and as a result, have a much fuller flavor. These are the kind of birds your grandparents ate and still rave about.

Walters Hatchery
The main focus of the work Mike is doing is genetic preservation of these turkey varieties. Mike will be keeping 300 breeding pairs, a mix of the above mentioned varieties, to produce chicks and breeding pairs to sell for next year. Eggs are laid and incubated from April through mid-June. Walters Hatchery is a state licensed facility, and Mike ships day old chicks and 9 month old breeding pairs around the country. (www.historicalturkeys.com)

Mike dispels the rumor that turkeys are hard to raise by noting that the key to a successful historical turkey production operation is in starting with healthy birds. Mike is very proud of the quality of Walters Hatchery birds and chicks. Each breeding pair is blood tested for several strains of avian disease every nine months. "Problems are almost always imported through introduction on new birds," Mike says. If you eliminate this potential by buying clean birds, you will have an excellent chance of success.

Walters Hatchery also produces historical birds for the slaughter market. Having the extra 400 birds around for slaughter not only brings in significant income to support the breeding work, but also allows Mike to pick only the best birds to retain or sell as breeding stock.

Connected to the popular "Slow Foods" movement, Mike has received national recognition for his birds, and is able to claim a hefty $3.50 per pound for his dressed historical birds, which usually range from 15-18# for hens and 18-22# for toms at slaughter. Those not picking birds up at the hatchery also pay shipping, which can be as much as $52.00 per bird (fresh and iced, shipped next day air). "Once people try these birds they always come back for more" Mike comments. "Even people in the neighborhood feel it is worthwhile to pay the extra price for the longer grow-out and fuller flavor."

Raising Turkeys
Mike was willing to share a few tips on raising turkeys. 
· Most people make the mistake of raising turkeys like chickens, which is like raising horses like cows. They are different than chickens, and need to be raised in deference to their natural tendencies.

· Keep new chicks on clean wood shavings or wire mesh for the first 8 weeks. It is critical to keep the area clean and fresh to discourage salmonella. Reduce temperature 5 degrees per week in the brooder until you reach the outside ambient temperature. (this will have to be approximate in some climates).

· Move birds out to range after 8 weeks. Mike keeps his birds in 7500 ft octagonal shaped open pens. He has 8 pens on his place, and rotates each batch of birds between two pens. Bird density is something he is still working on, and he is not comfortable at this time making recommendations. Mike suggests working with your state Extension personnel and Department of Agriculture when designing your pen system- especially if you are close to water or drainage of any kind.

· Grown out birds range on 7-8 acre fields, with less than 1000 birds per range. Mike sets up shade areas and cover for the birds, but they rarely use it. The birds are personable and easily herded, and when produced from disease-free genetics are very strong.

· Mike feeds his turkeys a ration that was developed in 1936 at Ohio State. He recommends finding old turkey ration formulas, but emphasizes that turkeys need 28% protein all the way until slaughter. His mix uses less soybeans and is heavier on wheat and milo than most, and is as natural as he can find but not organic.

· Go to a USDA inspected facility for slaughter, so that you can ship birds across state lines.

· If you are buying breeding pairs, visit the birds or ask to see pictures before you commit to buying them. The hens will contribute shape and confirmation to their offspring, toms contribute color. Genetics will dictate the amount of meat a bird will carry- some people breeding birds will produce for quantity of stock and not quality. You will want to keep an eye out for good confirmation in your breeding pairs. Hens will lay eggs every 36 hours from April through August, and can lay for an average of 9 years. Toms will be fertile for about 6 years.

· Disease-test any breeding pairs you will be keeping at 9 months. Blood can be drawn by a vet and sent to labs at most poultry science departments at Universities. (Mike is a medic and does his own blood drawing, which makes this economically feasible at his scale). Keep any new birds isolated from the existing flock unless you are sure they are disease free or they have been tested.

Mike markets his birds fresh, as historical turkeys, but with as much emphasis on "the greatest tasting turkey you will ever have." He requires his customers to put down a deposit in April for birds he will have butchered this year on November 23rd and shipped overnight on Nov 25th. Pre-ordered birds orders are invaluable for planning, but Mike will also grow out 200-300 extra birds for later sales. He butchers birds only for the Thanksgiving and Christmas market, but sells chicks and breeding pairs throughout the summer months to balance out his income.

Mike can and will talk about turkeys all day. I recommend you check out his website (www.historicalturkeys.com) and consider buying a few breeding pair of your own to try you luck with these beautiful birds. Walters Hatchery is managed by Mike Walter and owned by the Walter family. It is located at Rt 3, box 1409, Stilwell, OK, 74960. 918-778-3535. turkeylink@intellex.com

Additional Note: 
Joel Salatin did a workshop and stopped by the APPPA table at the Ohio Small Farm Field Day in September this year. He has been doing a lot of work on turkeys and had a few interesting things to say: 

· Get the young birds out on grass early- even at only 1-2 weeks. Joel raises his young birds in insulated houses that are out on clean,fresh grass (not used for poultry in the last year). He does not use any bedding at all until the birds are at least 7 days old, when they can tell the difference between food and bedding, and even then only to treat damp spots.

· Turkeys have a hard time with fences. If you want to get them used to moveable fence, you have to start early, otherwise they will just run through it. Joel starts with a short fence using rebar and heavy black landscape cloth when the chicks are two weeks old (they roam out of their insulated house to the fence). He then moves the 5-6 week old birds to a day range with shelter pens surrounded by poultry netting that has been DOUBLED so that the holes are small enough and the young turkeys can't squeeze through. Joel has found that they learn well enough that the fence is a barrier at this early age that they will then respect a fence for the rest of their life.

· Joel confirms Mike's perspective that turkeys are indeed different to raise up than chickens, and that you need to try as much as possible to duplicate their natural habitat. He notes a major difference being that turkeys like a lot of space to roam, and do best in open topped LARGE ranges (such as Mike's 7 acre runs). The density of the birds can be high, but they want to all be able to range over a lot of territory every day. Birds go out into these large ranges when 6 weeks of age.

· Turkeys are very personable and friendly, and will sit on your back porch if you don't contain them, so keep this in mind!