Saving an American Icon — Raising Turkeys

Erin Krier is Bringing Respect Back to Raising Turkeys

Saving an American Icon — Raising Turkeys

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Christine Heinrichs, California
Photos by Erin Krier

Erin Krier planned to get her kids started with a dairy cow when she attended her first 4-H meeting. She left the meeting as poultry leader.

Although she holds a master’s degree in crop science, she didn’t have any poultry experience. She found Jim Adkins’ Sustainable Poultry Network class and signed up.

“I went to the class to learn about being a poultry leader,” she said. “I ended up becoming really interested in raising heritage poultry for the market.”

Ms. Krier has been raising turkeys on her California ranch for five years. She intends to make money at it someday, but for now, it’s about more than money. She’s teaching her own kids and others about American heritage values that come with being close to the land and self-sufficient. The beauty and historic value of heritage turkey breeds have become her passion.

“I like them as production-based livestock,” she said. “What has happened to market turkeys is despicable. Turkeys are an American icon. I’ve become very passionate about saving heritage breeds.”

A Narragansett, a heritage breed, keeps a watchful eye on the photographer and her poults.

Heritage Versus Commercial
Mrs. Krier’s 4-H group has attracted many new poultry lovers. The group now has 30 members, raising both turkeys and chickens. She meets separately with kids raising chickens and those raising turkeys.

Her county fair accepts only Broad Breasted Whites in the Market category, so the kids get those poults at the feed store. Those who want to raise heritage breeds raise those to show at the American Poultry Association at the fair. Ms. Krier raises Bourbon Reds and Narragansetts.

Ms. Krier’s poultry group is hands-on. The kids handle the birds to learn about correct conformation. Comparing the birds is useful to illustrate the differences between the different types.

“My poultry meetings are very different. We compare the heritage and the commercial birds. We talk about what is different about them. We discuss why the market dictates the fat white ones that grow so fast,” she said. “I get it, financially, the cost of feeding them much longer.”

Turkeys are American Natives
Turkeys are native to the American continent. They were domesticated about 2,000 years ago in Mexico and the American Southwest, but wild turkeys still range across the continent. Domestic turkeys are all the same species and breed. They vary by color variety. Eight are recognized by the American Poultry Association for exhibition: Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm.

Commercial turkeys are Broad Breasted Bronze and Broad Breasted Whites. Like commercial chicken breeds, they grow rapidly, to 35 to 40 pounds in 14 weeks. Heritage breeds take 28 weeks or more to reach weights of 12 to 20 pounds. Like commercial chickens, the commercial varieties suffer from leg and other physical problems. Their breasts are too large for them to breed naturally. All commercial turkeys are artificially inseminated.

Turkey Poults
Erin Krier gets her turkey poults started off with some love and attention.

Getting Started
Ms. Krier acquired the equipment and constructed the coops and pens she’d need for both chickens and turkeys. She bought a cabinet incubator and a brooder, and enclosed an 8-foot by 8-foot pen around it. She and her husband built a 30-foot by 40-foot coop. The bought electric fencing and set it up for movable pasture, so the birds could safely range across their five-acre property. She bought the processing equipment she’d need: a starter kit of cones and a cone stand; a scalder; a plucker; and knives. Eventually, they fenced off the pasture to keep the birds from pooping on the back porch.

The initial setup cost about $10,000. That doesn’t include any electricity or labor cost, as she and her husband did all the work themselves. She welcomed 100 heritage breed chicks and 20 Bourbon Red turkey poults to her new operation. Then, she found out she was pregnant with her fourth child.

“We had all this money invested,” she said. “We had to make it work.”

She powered through that first year, honoring the spirit of her pioneer grand-mother, who had died earlier that year. She named the operation Babe’s Birds, for her grandma.

Her kids participate to the extent that they are willing. She doesn’t want to force her interest on them, although they do have chores as part of farm life. They help catch chickens as needed and assist in processing. They learn how to cook.

“They are involved probably more than they want to be,” she said.

Narragansett Turkey Poult
A Narragansett poult wanders about the coop.

Problems of the Turkey Year
It’s never smooth sailing. Her first hatch in 2016 was a disaster. Of the  15 eggs she set in the incubator, 13 were fertile. Ten hatched but eight had splayed legs and only two survived. Poults in later hatches had sturdy legs. She added  17 Narragansett poults in 2016.

To have turkeys ready for Thanksgiving, she prefers to hatch her poults in late March or early April, which gives them 30 weeks or more to grow.

She keeps a brooder flock of about  10 of her best birds over the winter, seven or eight females and two toms. In 2015, only one tom was good enough to keep, a risky strategy. If that single bird dies, there’s no male to fertilize eggs. But it worked out, and the eggs had high fertility.

The number is limited by how many she’s able to process in a single day, about 30. She’s not willing to commit to more processing.

Selling Heritage Turkeys
Her birds are in demand. She has more requests than she can fill.

“I always have a waiting list,” she said. “I can’t produce enough.”

Nationally, Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas supplies turkeys to wholesale and retail outlets. He raised around 3,600 Bronze, White Holland, Red, Black and Narragansett turkeys this year.

Pricing is tricky. At Thanksgiving, supermarkets offer a turkey free with a $100 purchase. With no other local turkey producers competing with her, she doesn’t have competitive pricing to guide her. Her pasture raised heritage turkeys are the only ones available in San Luis Obispo County. In 2015, she set it at  $7 a pound.

Heritage Foods USA sells Mr. Reese’s for about $10 per pound, plus shipping, which can add $70 or more.

“The smart way to price them, which I know in my head, is to figure how much  I have into them and add a profit,” she said. “Instead, I target what I believe people are willing to pay for a Thanksgiving turkey. I may be underestimating the amount of work I put into it.”

She’s not immune to the birds’ charms, though.

“Their personalities are fun,” she said. “They are gentle. I’ve been attacked by many roosters, but never a tom. I have a softer spot in my heart for turkeys.”

Other Rewards
I paid $75 for mine last year. Driving to her ranch has become part of our holiday festivities. The roast turkey is delicious, cooked slow. And the turkey soup made from the carcass was wonderful, too. It was worth every penny.

Although one 4-H member loves her chickens as pets and wants to snuggle with them, Mrs. Krier teaches a bigger picture: historic value, better quality and nutrition.

“My goal is to teach the new generation things my mother and I didn’t know,” she said. “We have lost touch with that. I want to get back the knowledge of a couple generations ago, when their basic needs such a big part of life. I feel like heritage poultry helps me pass on early American values to my children.”

Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens, How to Raise Poultry and The Backyard Field Guide to Chickens.

Originally published in the October/November 2016 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine.

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