Heirloom Turkeys at Mountain Ranch Organically Grown

November 11, 2011

In this personal account, Normal Gunsell of Mountain Ranch Organically Grown talks about raising a new flock of heritage turkeys. He and his wife, Aimee, also raise free-range heirloom chickens on their ranch in Calaveras County.

sites/default/files/turkey_gunsell3.jpgIn the spring of 2010, we started our first flock of heirloom turkeys. Acquired through a poultry catalog, we were able to raise about 20 beautiful birds: 10 hens and a tom for breeding stock, and about a dozen birds for Thanksgiving. Having started out in farming by raising turkeys with my parents more than 40 years ago, I was looking forward to working with these remarkable creatures, and I had often told my wife that she might find turkeys much more fun to work with than chickens.

The first profound difference that we noticed between baby chicks and baby turkeys that arrive in the mail was that turkeys need much more attention than newly arrived chickens. In their motherless condition, they even need to be coaxed to eat and drink. They also seemed to bond to us right away, which is something baby chicks don’t ever seem to do. While the young birds grew, it was so much fun to spend time with them in their enclosure. We believe they thought us to be their mothers, and they would actually flap their wings and jump up to perch atop our backs and even on top of our heads!

After they were old enough to go exploring during the day, they would run after us from place to place. We often had to be very sneaky and try to outsmart them so they would not follow us, especially if we were trekking any distance across the ranch. They had a propensity for getting lost in the woods or “stuck” behind a fence. (It is both funny and a little bit annoying that these winged wonders, who know perfectly well how to use their instruments of flight when they are startled or excited or seeking the shelter of some tall trees, seem to never have it dawn on them that they could simply fly over a fence to make their way back home again.) We spend a lot of time herding them back to friendlier and familiar territory, where they are afforded at least a modicum of safety from the hosts of wild predators which abound.

When this group of birds matured and began laying eggs, we actually allowed one of the hens to take up residence in the shop behind our house, where she proceeded to make a nest for herself, and laid a hefty clutch of eggs, which she guarded day and night, rarely getting up to even eat. But when it became obvious that some unknown marauder was swiping her eggs out from under her, we had to intervene. We returned her to the shelter of the turkey house with the others, who were under temporary lock-up, due to their new-found interest in disappearing to unknown places.

sites/default/files/turkey_gunsell2_0.jpgWe decided that we might have better luck using an incubator, rather than taking a chance on the mothers breaking eggs while squabbling over nests. When the first eggs hatched from our own birds this spring, we set up pens and introduced the poults to individual mothers, who were so happy to have children of their own! And the babies just thrived with their “instant mothers.”

We find it so rewarding to have a small enough number of turkeys to be able to give them this much attention and allow them to have not only a natural environment but a social environment as well, where they can tap into their true tribal nature. After the poults are big enough to not get lost in the grass, they are allowed to forage and explore with their mother during the day, and they are returned to the safety of the turkey shed at nightfall. It’s fun to watch them all rush out in the morning and immediately begin pecking at the grass, seeds, and bugs, which they seem to prefer over the certified organic poultry feed we offer to them. 

So, what is the difference between heritage turkeys and your standard commercial breeds? Well, standard commercial turkeys that are commonly sold in grocery stores are generally of a strain called Large White. These birds are widely known for their enormous breasts and the large quantity of white meat procured from them. They grow very quickly and convert feed to meat very efficiently. Heirloom turkeys, on the other hand, are descendants of the original wild stock domesticated centuries ago. They grow at a more natural rate, are smaller, and have bodies that are leaner and much better suited to a natural free-range environment. They are extremely active and quite capable of flight. When it comes time to eat them, we find the meat to be of a finer grain and profoundly more flavorful than their hybrid, mass-produced relatives.

Photos courtesy of Mountain Ranch Organically Grown.

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