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Midget White turkeys: start a new Thanksgiving tradition.

Turkeys are one of the most amazing birds a back yard enthusiast can raise. Once you become interested in turkeys, it doesn't take long before you are intrigued with the large variety of heritage turkeys that are making such a name for themselves in pastured poultry. We feel they all deserve a place in our collective future but there is one breed in particular that worked well on our farm and that is the Midget White turkey.

My husband and I live on a small farm in Texas, and we raise almost all the meat we eat so it was only natural that we would raise turkeys. I love breeding poultry, so when I came across an article in the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) newsletter about a blind taste test of heritage turkeys and the classic Butterball, I was thrilled. They compared several heritage breeds along side the broad breasted and the winner hands down was the Midget White. You can read more about the experiment at the Sand Hill farm blog.

Since eating is one of my favorite pastimes, I went on a quest to find the bird that won that taste test. The Midget White Turkey is not commercially produced so it is not available in the freezer section of your grocery. The Broad Breasted White is the breed of turkey that becomes the Butterball and other store brand birds and is used in processed foods. The Broad Breasted turkey has been bred to grow efficiently and quickly to a huge size. I have to admit that I have always loved Butterballs and served them on many a Thanksgiving table, but that was before I had something to compare it to.

I have a friend who says, "You don't know what you don't know," and that applies to eating turkeys, too. If you've never tasted a free range Midget White then you have no idea how much better it is than a commercially raised turkey. It didn't take long before I began the journey into what I can only describe as a passion for raising and sharing this extraordinary bird. Homesteaders love to raise their own food but many think raising turkey is difficult. I couldn't disagree more. If you want to raise your own meat, it probably doesn't get any easier than raising Midget White heritage turkeys on pasture.

History

Heritage turkeys are the old breeds that were around long before the commercial turkey became so popular. Heritage turkeys reproduce naturally (commercial turkeys must be artificially inseminated), are able to fly, and tend to be great foragers on pasture. The Midget White is probably one of the youngest heritage breeds since it was created in the 1960's but it was created from mixing heritage breeds. The resulting birds were then selectively bred for many generations in order to establish a true and unique line of turkeys with specific qualities. One of those great qualities of course is taste.

According to the ALBC, the Midget White was created by Dr. J. Robert Smyth by crossing heritage turkeys and then selecting for several generations to achieve a great table bird. His intention was to create a smaller version of the Broad Breasted White that would be more practical for everyday use. Strangely enough, the idea just didn't take off so the birds almost became extinct. The remaining birds were later rescued by a Dr. Wentworth, a former student of Dr. Smyth, who bred them until his retirement in the 1990s when he disbursed them to other breeders for safekeeping. Today, you can find them at many on-line hatcheries that carry heritage poultry, thanks to a renewed interest in local food and heritage breeds in general.

Although turkeys do not lay as often as chickens, the Midget White was bred to be a prolific layer as far as turkeys go. They are also the perfect homestead bird due to their love of humans. Ours follow us around and the toms especially love to wait at the back door for some attention when we come out. During the breeding season, the hens will "squat" for us every time we come near. My husband loves to pet the hens and watch the tom get jealous as demonstrated by his elaborate display. Although these are not colorful like many heritage breeds, I still find them stunning when they are all fanned out and strutting proudly.

Selecting a breeder

Fresh-hatched birds are hard to evaluate and if you paid retail for them, you certainly don't want to cull them before raising them to eat anyway. But for breeders, you need to start thinking about what you want to keep from day one. If you find an obvious flaw at any time, mark that bird somehow so you will not let it in the breeding pool. Many people use colored leg bands and those work great once they are older but for the very young, try a black marker on the back. Don't use red nail polish or you will send them into a frenzy of cannibalism! Once the marked birds begin to feather out, you can separate them or leg-band them as culls.

You want only the most healthy and vigorous to carry on their genes so mark any bird that seems to be sickly or barely hanging on. After health, cull for things like crossed beaks, crooked legs, or out of proportion birds. As they grow, you will start to see subtle differences. The male will obviously grow faster and be bigger but you are not trying to grow the biggest bird you can. That has already been done. Midget Whites are supposed to be a small bird that dresses out to look like a miniature broad breasted turkey. Our toms dress out at 13 pounds and the hens a few pounds less. What you do want though is a plump bird of good proportion.

It helps if you have several together when you start judging so you can distinguish the small differences. I like to view the bird starting from the back of the head and glance all the way down the back. A wide head and wide back will generally translate to a wide and plump body all the way around. It would be great if you could "undress" the bird before judging but you can't, so pick them up. Feel up under the feathers and check out the breastbone. You want it to be long and straight with wide, plump, and well-rounded muscles. After all, the breast is what makes a beautiful roasted turkey on the serving platter.

If you want to be a serious breeder, you will need to consider keeping at least three different flocks and a rotational plan with the toms. Since this is a rare and endangered breed, we certainly need breeders who are willing to preserve the health and genetic diversity of the Midget White. If you decide to go this route, you may possibly be able to cover your expenses by selling eggs to the hatcheries or on computer auction sites such as eBay. You do not need multiple flocks though if your purpose is to raise turkeys for the table. If your stock becomes inbred, you can always start from scratch by ordering new birds or trading toms with a friend. If you need more information on selecting breeders, the ALBC has some great articles and books on selecting and raising turkeys, some of which you can download for free.

Hatching turkeys

I purchased my original flock through the mail from Welp Hatchery, but there are many others to choose from. The least amount I could purchase was 15 and the price seemed expensive at the time, but I considered it an investment. Once the poults were near grown, I sold several pairs for $100, each which more than paid for my birds, and it got others into raising them that might not otherwise have done so.

I kept only six hens and two toms but had to separate the toms due to fighting. I eventually ended up with just one tom. From this small flock I am able to hatch well over a hundred each year. Actually, I lose count since I sell some and loose some to predators along the way but end up filling the freezer, selling several, and gifting many to dear friends and neighbors to enjoy for the holidays. I could have raised more as these birds just keep laying but I had all I needed. They do go broody but I remove their nest box until they are ready to go back to work and it seems to help.

You don't have to hatch your own since you can buy them, but turkeys are expensive. At over $9 a piece right now, there is just no way I would buy the amount we need so hatching was the perfect solution for us. I figured an incubator would soon pay for itself since my small flock gave me close to 20 eggs a week. I invested in a large cabinet size incubator but you can buy smaller tabletop units for much less. I use my incubator for all types of birds so it has more than paid for itself the first year.

When I started raising Midget Whites, I wanted to do it perfect since these were endangered and I felt their survival was important. I studied everything I could get my hands on pertaining to turkeys. What I read sounded very difficult and time consuming and I almost got discouraged and thought of giving up. But I bought them anyway and tried to do as much by the book as possible. I soon discovered that for me to do everything the way the experts recommended, I would have to stay home and watch turkeys and eggs all day. Well, that just wasn't feasible, so I did what I often do, I adjusted. I figured out what had to be done and what I could let slide. My hatching and finishing rate may be slightly less than if I had done it as directed but not by much. For me, it was a trade off and as a result, I spend very little time tending turkeys yet get amazing results. If you are like me and have a job, a family, a farm, church, and volunteer responsibilities, you can adjust and still do a great job with your turkeys. Don't let the experts make you think this is out of your reach because it is not. So, if anything I say in this article contradicts something you have read elsewhere, that is because I am explaining my method, not theirs!

In a perfect world, I would gather the eggs several times a day but I work off-farm so I gather them in the evening. I do not wash them but if they are soiled really badly I will wipe them off with a dry paper towel. The reason you do not want to wash eggs meant for hatching is because they have a natural film of protection on the eggshell that if removed, could allow bacteria to enter the egg. I place the eggs in a carton and store in a cool area of the kitchen until Saturday.

I have plastic trays that are made for my incubator and they hold the eggs in the proper position, point side down. I use a separate tray each week to hold the eggs laid during that week. Fertile eggs will last longer than a week before incubating but the hatching rate begins to decline with each passing day after the seventh day. It takes turkeys four weeks to hatch (incubation time) so every Saturday I set the eggs laid during that week while I remove the birds hatched the night before from eggs set exactly four Saturdays earlier. My incubator has four shelves (three of which rotate/turn) so it helps me to keep track of them. I place the new eggs on shelf one while I move the previous week's eggs down one shelf to shelf two, and so on. By the end of the third week, they have made their way down to the hatching drawer where they will no longer be turned.

Eggs must be turned the first three weeks of incubation. Actually, it is recommended you turn them up until three days before hatching, but that would not work for my system and me. I find they do just fine not being turned seven days before hatching. If your incubator does not do so, you will need to roll them by hand. This keeps the bird from sticking to the inside of the shell. In nature the hen does the turning for you. By the last week, the bird has filled the egg and is getting in the proper position to hatch so moving them now can actually cause difficulty while hatching. Most experts recommend you do not incubate eggs in multiple stages of development, such as my once a week additions, but I do and have had no problems. They also recommend you clean the incubator after each hatch which is impossible with my system because it is never empty. I clean it once a year and have not had a disease outbreak yet.

You will need to monitor the temperature and humidity in the incubator, but each one is a little different so follow the manufacturer's instructions. We like the cabinet incubator because it has a five-gallon bucket water reservoir on top to keep the humidity pan filled, and it has an automatic egg turner, and of course it keeps the temperature set to the proper level. I go days without even checking it since it is pretty much self-contained. My dad was very frugal but he taught me to buy the best and you'll only have to buy once. I believe I would not be raising turkeys now had I not purchased a good incubator that saves me time and trouble. Money well spent in my opinion. If you can't afford it at first, get an incubator piggy bank, and every time you sell a turkey or some eggs, put the money in the bank. Soon, you'll have the money to get a top of the line model.

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Most books will tell you to "candle" the eggs and I enjoy doing that but have long since stopped candling on a regular basis. My hatch rate is so high that I don't worry about dead or rotten eggs spoiling the lot. The purpose of candling (shining a light through the shell) is to see if the embryo is alive inside the shell and to see if the fluid is drying up at the suggested rate for each stage of incubation. If not, you will need to adjust your humidity. Until you get things worked out and feel comfortable with hatching, you may want to watch it more closely. Again, a good incubator is going to take care of the humidity for you. Candling is fun to do though and very educational for children. I think part of the attraction of raising poultry for me is the magic of taking an egg and watching it come alive and turn into a beautiful peeping bird.

If you haven't guessed by now, I am a big fan of incubators. But, you can hatch birds the way it has been done since time began by letting the hen do it. Midget Whites do go broody, but I have never allowed them to hatch their eggs, so I have no personal knowledge about that. I do know others claim they are very good mothers. If you only want a few birds each year, this may be your best bet. You will probably need to protect the sitting hen with a temporary screen around her to keep other hens from laying in her nest. Hens can fight over them and break the eggs. You will need to provide her with her own water and food since she will not want to leave the nest.

Brooding turkeys

My eggs begin to hatch Friday night and finish Saturday morning. Turkeys can actually live three days after hatching without food or water because they still have part of the egg yolk inside their abdomen to provide nourishment. If you order turkeys through the mail, they may actually be three-days old by the time you receive them. I usually let them remain in the incubator until Saturday afternoon, at which time they will be moved to a "brooder." Your turkeys (either hatched or purchased as hatchlings) will need a brooder to keep them warm until they feather out. You can use all sorts of things to do this as long as it is safe and convenient. If you only have a few turkeys you can use a box in the garage with a hanging lamp, but be sure it is not a fire hazard. With a little work you can make a box out of scrap lumber and place a rod over the top to hang a heat lamp or purchase a heater made for brooders. We find that a heat bulb works just fine and doesn't cost that much.

Since we hatch and raise many each year, we made a large brooder box out of treated lumber for the frame and light fiberglass panels for the inside. It is easy to clean, light, and very sturdy. We leave the bottom open to the ground but made a lid to close and keep out predators. You must have ventilation so we finished a portion of the upper walls with chicken wire to let air in but it is high enough not to become drafty for the birds. If you live where it gets really cold, you can adjust this ventilation with plastic "curtains" on cold nights and remove it on sunny days.

You will need a way to adjust the heat lamp. We have a thin metal rod that runs across the top of the brooder and that is what we use to support the heat lamps. We adjust the height as needed by using a wire to attach the light fixture to the rod. I always want to make sure the birds have a way to escape the heat lamp if they get too hot, but I also want to be sure I have enough heat source so all the birds can bask in its glow without piling up on each other. Watch your birds. A warm happy bird is ether sleeping spread out or walking around pecking at the feed quietly. If they are piling up on each other, making a lot of noise, they are cold, and the birds on bottom will be crushed and die. If they are too cool, lower the light or add another light. If there are no birds under the light, and they are in the far corner with their mouths open, they are about to have a heat stroke. You should raise the light or turn one of them off. If your box is big enough, I always like to have two lights in case one bulb blows while I am away. I will place one lower than the other so as the temperature changes during the day, the birds can self adjust by moving from one light to the other. Like I said, I am away from home all day and can't check on them until evening, so I want them to be able to take care of themselves.

The bottom of your brooder box is important. You want it to be open bottom so moisture can seep down to the dirt but you will need to provide some sort of bedding. Use what you have available but some things work better than others. They will eat anything very small so sawdust doesn't work well. We prefer to use mulch. We have tried hay/straw, and it will do but it tends to stay too wet. Don't spend a lot of money on this, look around and see what is cheap in your area and try it. As it gets soiled, simply add a new layer on top. This becomes great compost and the compost decomposing in layers actually seems to be beneficial for the birds. It creates a probiotic environment in addition to breeding bugs and worms, which they love. Over the season the bottom will slowly rise up (assuming you hatch new ones all summer) so make sure your box is deep enough to hold the constant building of layers of bedding but not so deep you cannot reach the birds. Once the season is over, clean out your box and use the compost on your garden.

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Now that you have them safe and warm, it is time to feed and water them. Adult turkeys can see extremely well but baby turkeys are nearly blind and will have trouble finding their food and water. They do see color and they love anything with "bling." They always try to peck at my wedding ring when I reach inside the brooder. Use this to your advantage. I place bright sparkly marbles in their water and feed as an attractant. Depending on how many birds you have, you can use a jar with the little plastic screw on water lid or buy a poultry waterer at the farm store. Just make sure they will have enough water to last the day if you can only check on them once a day. For feeders, I like to use the chick feeders where they can stick their head in but can't get their feet in. Again, put lots of colorful marbles so they will peck at the colors. They will accidently taste some feed and soon figure out how to eat. By the time they are a week old, the marbles will not be needed.

Tiny turkey poults need a very high protein diet. Depending on where you live, you may or may not be able to find turkey feed. If you can't, wild game bird feed should do since it is high protein. If all you can get is chick starter then you will need to add protein to their diet. If you are like me, the one thing we have plenty of is eggs, so I like to boil eggs daily and cut them up small to supplement the feed while they are in the brooder. Do not use medicated feed. I would make my own feed before I fed them medicated chick starter. If they do not have non-medicated at the feed store, ask them for it. If enough people request it, they will begin to carry it.

Water is important as well. If it is cold, do not add cold water for day old turkeys. It will chill them so add room temp or slightly warm water. In a few days it will not matter (or in warm weather) but I try to keep it warm on Saturday and Sunday. As an added boost of protection, sometimes I add ground red pepper to the water. Just a few sprinkles will give them extra vitamins and the pick-up they need in addition to making the water red, which is an attractant to them. They have no ability to taste the heat from the pepper, so don't worry about it burning their mouth.

If you use my system of hatching weekly, all spring and summer, your brooder will have birds of all ages. I do not find this a problem since the young birds tend to learn how to eat and drink from those that are a week or so old. As soon as they begin to feather out and for sure by a month old, remove the birds from the brooder to their new home on pasture. Crowded conditions in a brooder can lead to cannibalism or pecking each other. It can be out of boredom, cramped space, lack of protein, or simply they see something that attracts their eye. If your brooder is big enough, and you give them boiled eggs or high protein feed, and have the colorful marbles, I don't think you will have this problem. But, if they ever pick one and he starts to bleed, the others will keep on until they kill him and learn a bad habit in the process. Remove any that have an injury or have blood on them. Sometime I put them in a box to themselves in the bathroom until they are well enough to go back in the brooder (doesn't every farm house have animals in the bathroom?). If all else fails and this is still a problem, get the fingernail clippers and clip off the very end of the top beak. You will see a little hook-like thing but don't take off too much. If it bleeds, you clipped too far. You only want to get the beak tissue, which is like your fingernail.

It is normal to lose some birds but if you are losing over 10% then you might want to look for the problem. Usually the biggest cause of loss at this age is from the birds getting chilled and piling up on each other. If they have plenty of room, proper temperature, food and water, you should be successful. We did find one problem in south Texas that we had never experienced and that was ants. We would have tiny black ants tunnel under and come up on the inside of the brooder box. They would literally attack the little ones and kill them within hours. As the bedding got deeper though, that became less of a problem.

Raising turkeys

At a young age, the turkeys are very vulnerable to all sorts of predators. Only you know what is lurking on your farm (or maybe some you don't know about). We like to get them out on grass as soon as possible though so we built a moveable pen or cage to protect them from predators and the elements. There are any number of ways to do this. If you are handy, you can design and build your own. Simply build a wooden or PVC frame and cover it with wire. As long as it is light enough for you to move, it will work. Or, you may want to buy some that are on the market but those seem too expensive to me for what you get.

You could also try the electric netting. If you don't have an electrical source, you can use the solar powered chargers. We tried the netting with limited results. It worked great at preventing attacks by dogs, raccoons, possums, cats, rats, and coyotes but the owls and hawks thought it was their personal buffet. I could hear an owl's nightly kill outside my bedroom window and got to where I woke up automatically about four in the morning to see his shadow carry away at least one bird a night. So, the only true predator-tight solution I have found is the moveable pen.

Your birds will grow fast though and soon they will outgrow the moveable pen. But, by then they should be better prepared to protect themselves. The great thing about heritage turkeys is they can fly so they can escape once they get their flying feathers. The bad thing about heritage turkeys is they can fly! That means you really are not going to keep them in a fence if they want out. So, if you live on a small plot of land and don't want your turkeys bothering your neighbors, you'll have to clip their wings, or you will have to keep them in the moveable pens until you eat them. But, if you live on a few acres, turn them loose and let them find a good portion of their own food. They will likely roost in trees if you have them and they will forage in forest or fence rows as well as cover a pasture looking for grass, seeds, and bugs.

You still need to feed them though so pick a place you want them to come home to and keep their water and feed there. I don't like to keep feed out for them all day once they are big enough to put on pasture but ! do want to get them used to coming home for "supper" every evening. This will make it easier if you need to catch some and it keeps them from going so far from home. Don't be surprised if their favorite place to roost is on your rooftop if you have them close enough to the house to find it. I think there are many reasons and maybe the best is because it makes them feel safe. I'm not sure it hurts anything but the husband hates it so I try to discourage such behavior.

We find that the Midget Whites love people and want to stay wherever the people are. Ours often hang out in our back yard and look in the patio door. When I go outside, they all follow my every step. I have heard it said, and I am witness to the fact that turkeys are one of the most stupid animals on earth. Every night, ours fly up into the oak trees to roost but once they hit the ground again in morning, they forget they can fly. If they happen to land on the wrong side of the fence, they walk up and down the fence row all day long looking for a way to get through the fence instead of flying over. Eventually, as they become more mature they seem to figure this out but by that time, they are freezer bound.

Just remember they tend to stay where they are raised so if you raise them in the back yard, it is going to be hard to move them out to the back 40 once they are big enough to fly. They are going to want to come home to your back yard. So, place the moveable pen wherever you want to finish them and they will more than likely stay there for the duration. Where you raise them will depend on how much land you have and what you prefer but I personally enjoy being around the birds so I keep them close to the house so to keep an eye on them.

It's hard to say what percent of their feed they find for themselves but I know when we process them, their craw is full of grass, berries, bugs and even food scraps. This ability to graze and harvest nature is what makes them so great to have. It makes the meat healthier, improves the texture and certainly improves the taste. But, unless you have planted a grain field for them to harvest, you will still need to feed them a pellet poultry feed daily until processing for best results.

Processing turkeys

You can process your turkeys at any stage you like, but it is a tradition at our house that we wait until the week of Thanksgiving. Depending on where you live, the turkeys start laying early spring and it takes a month for them to hatch so we usually have poults hatching in March or April. We continue hatching until summer so some turkeys mature before Thanksgiving. Once they reach puberty, they are not going to grow much more so they should be ready for the table. If you want to wait though, you will not lose anything in quality. Time simply adds flavor to a turkey.

Okay, doing the dreaded deed! The first time you do this, it may seem gross to you but you will soon come to terms with it. After all, if you are a meat eater, someone killed an animal to provide every chicken nugget or burger you ever ate. If you want it done right, do it yourself. I know I do. This is an animal that I created (okay, hatched) nurtured, protected, followed, enjoyed, fed, so why would I trust the end to anyone else? I want to know it is quick and painless and then I want to control how the meat is handled before I consume it. After a few of them, the process will get easier and quicker each time. It works best if you have some help, so bring the whole family in, including the children.

There are different schools of thought on getting children involved in the killing of animals. In our household, little boys went hunting with Dad at an early age and understood the purpose was not to destroy something but rather to harvest from God's bountiful earth. It was never meant to hurt or torture anything but a clean kill was the goal and waste was not permitted. The same goes for harvesting farm animals. I don't think it should be taken lightly around children. After all, this is not a video game. The blood is real and the children should be made to respect the animal.

For those family members who think humans should never kill animals for food, help them to understand we must eat them in order for the breed to survive. The truth is, these are not wildlife protected by governments or associations. There are no livestock sanctuaries to ensure their survival outside of farms. Turkeys and all livestock were domesticated for a purpose and when that purpose ceases to exist, they have no home. That is exactly why the Midget White almost went extinct in the first place. They were replaced by a bigger and faster growing bird so no one had a reason to raise them. Now they have found a new purpose, great taste and the ability to be raised outdoors. It will be the people who love to eat these birds that will save them from disappearing forever. I value this bird and think it is a treasure we can't afford to lose.

What's needed to get started?

You will need what is called a killing cone. You can purchase it from most poultry suppliers on line. They are expensive but made to last so you can get by with just one or you may want several to speed up the process. You will need something to place under the killing cone to collect the blood. You will need a scalpel, or purchase a thin sharp knife made for cutting the main artery. You should be able to purchase it at the same time as the killing cone. It is not that expensive and well worth the money. You'll need a large pot big enough to submerge the turkey and a way to heat the water. You will need to monitor the water temperature so get a thermometer that is waterproof. You can rent scalders from local hatcheries and maybe some rental places, or you can use your gas fired turkey fryer, we do. If you prefer to pick the feathers as opposed to skinning the turkey, you can pick them by hand or rent a picker.

Decide where you want to process them. I would advise you start the process outside and then move indoors after the feathers are gone. Attach your killing cone to a barn or wall, etc., about eye height and place the bucket under it. Have your scalder set up near-by and ready to use. If it is heated with an open flame, use common sense and make sure nothing can catch on fire and never leave children around it unattended.

You will want a water hose to add cool water in case you get it too hot and you will also need a way to fill the pot. Heat your water to 145[degrees]F and keep checking it to make sure it does not vary much from this target.

We do not feed the turkeys the night before we process them, but they may still have grass in their digestive system. Continue to provide drinking water. Catch the birds with the least amount of effort and keep them calm in a temporary cage. Once everything is ready, gently take one; place it upside down in the cone so the head sticks out at the bottom. There is an artery that runs down the side of the neck on each side. Draw an imaginary line from their ear and follow it down to their shoulder. Make a shallow cut on the side of the neck near the head. It may help to pull down on the head to straighten and hold the neck. You do not want to cut the throat (esophagus) because the bird will not be able to breathe. You only want to cut the main artery, which is on the side of the neck, not the front. You will know when you successfully cut it because the blood will squirt, not drip. Study the turkey's anatomy the first few times until you get good at finding that artery. You want to cut no deeper or wider than is necessary to cut the artery. With a little practice, you should get so good that your cut is no more than a half inch or less across.

If you're good, the turkey will hardly notice you've cut him. Hold his legs so he can't thrash around and get out of the cone. By holding his legs, he will mostly stay calm. Once the blood slows to a trickle, the bird may stiffen a little from the lack of oxygen or jerk a few times but by now he is unconscious and unaware. After that he will go limp and should be dead but make sure of it before you dunk him in hot water or he will give you the fright of your life. If for some reason the artery clots and stops bleeding, open it up again with the tip of your knife.

Some people don't like messing with plucking the feathers and they skin the turkey instead. We have never done that so I'm only going to mention it here. We prefer a lovely bird to oven roast so we choose to pluck them. Since we do so many birds a year, we invested in an electrical plucker and so glad we did. It works very fast and does not damage the bird. If you don't want to buy one you may be able to rent one or share one with another local farmer. Or, you can do it the old fashion way and pluck them by hand.

Once the bird is dead, you need to dunk him in hot water to open up the feather follicle so it will release the feathers. If you get your water too hot, it will damage the skin. If it is not hot enough, it will not let go of the feathers. That's why the thermometer is so important. If you watch it and adjust the burner under the pot, you should be able to hold the temperature just right and get a perfect product. Hold the bird by the feet and dunk him up and down under the water. You want to swirl him in the water so the feathers open up and allow the water to penetrate to the skin. I dunk him for about a minute and then lift him to test the chest feather. If it pulls loose easily, I test the wing feather. If it lets go then he is ready. If not, he gets dunked a few more times. Pluck the feathers while they are still warm from the water.

You'll need a good table at a comfortable height to use in cleaning the birds. If you do it outside, you'll need a water hose. If you have a deep sink such as a laundry room you may prefer to work there. A few five-gallon buckets will come in handy for the waste. You'll need some really sharp knives. I prefer large ones and a few smaller ones. With the right tools the job is easy, but dull knives will make you swear you will never do this again.

I start by pulling or cutting off the head. Now, cut off the neck. This is where a big knife or cleaver comes in handy. Place the blade at the base of the neck and hit it hard. It may take a few times, but it will come off. Save this to store inside the turkey when you freeze it. It makes great broth so you may want to collect several and freeze them together for soups, etc.

Below the neck is the craw. This is where the food is stored until it makes its way down to the gizzard. It is located on the outside of the body cavity just below the throat and under the skin. Reach your finger under the skin to find the little pouch. It takes some practice to learn how to remove this without breaking it. If you do break it, it is not the end of the world. Just wash the area good. Try and use your finger to separate the skin from the craw and then slowly pull on it until it separates from the muscle it seems to be "glued" to. If you didn't feed them before killing them, the craw is actually hard to see since it just looks like part of the skin on the upper breast.

Next, I cut the feet off at the first leg joint. This is where a big knife comes in handy. I lay the knife on the joint where the two bones meet and with my other hand, I slap the top of the knife, sending it cutting through ligaments that hold the joint together and the foot is off. We do not eat them, but the Chinese love fried feet. If you have an adventurous nature, you may want to clean them good and fry them until crisp.

Lay the bird on its back with the legs facing you. Lift both legs like you are changing a baby's diaper. This will pull the skin tight so you can cut a small slit between the anus and the tip of the breastbone. Cut from side to side, not from top to bottom. You only want to penetrate the skin but you do not want to puncture any of the internal organs. Once you get a hole big enough for your knifepoint to enter you can carefully cut the skin and muscle enough to get your hand in. If needed, put your left hand in the hole with your palm facing the breast and place your right hand in the hole with your palm facing the floor and pull the bird open. You should see the intestines and organs now. Gently pull them out into the bucket and cut around the anus so that it stays with the intestines. You may need to reach inside to pull the esophagus loose from the throat. When done correctly, there should be no spillage of fecal matter onto the meat. Rinse the turkey well.

Keep the liver if you like liver, but be very careful with the little dark bulb attached to it. If you break that, it will squirt this ink-like stinking stuff everywhere and it will make the meat taste bitter where it touches. This is the gallbladder. Cut if off the liver by leaving a little piece of liver attached to the gallbladder. Some people keep the heart and the gizzard, but that's up to you.

The bird is mostly empty now but the kidney and lungs like to cling to the inside of the ribs. You can use your fingers to scrape them out or some people use a dull flat knife. Turn the bird over and find the oil gland located at the base of the tail. This is what they use to groom themselves and oil their feathers but it is not something you want to eat. Cut above and below the gland in a V shape and remove and dispose of it. Now, your bird is empty and it is time to wash it good. If you are outside, use the water hose. If inside, take it to the sink and run water over it and through it until you are convinced it is clean.

The last step I call quality control. I like to take care not to tear the skin when I am cleaning it, and I like to leave the yellow fat that tends to collect at the opening of the cavity. Don't cut this off and throw it away. This contains the carotene and omega fats that pastured poultry is known for. That's why I like to take my time when I am making that first cut into the body cavity. I don't want to disturb or destroy any more of this than I have to. Look the bird over for any feathers that were missed and then place it in an ice bath. We use ice chests with ice but you could use an old freezer or any container that will hold the birds and ice overnight.

Just as in beef, we age our birds, but the aging process is only one day. This day in the ice bath is important though because it gives the natural enzymes time to tenderize the meat. Make sure the birds are completely submerged in ice water or the skin will dry out and look bad. You have raised the best turkey possible so take the extra care at this stage to keep it looking good. The result should be a beautiful bird with a big plump breast and intact skin with a sunny yellow glow.

If you are not going to cook your turkey within a day or two, put it in a freezer bag and into the freezer. The best way of course is to vacuum seal if you have a way to do that or you can put them in freezer bags. I like to fill the sink with water, place the bird in the bag and place the bag in the water to force the air out the top. Close the bag before removing it from the water to keep air from returning. Air is what will cause freezer burn so the less of it the better.

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Cooking turkeys

There are many uses for your turkey meat but for me, nothing beats a beautiful roasted turkey on a platter. The midget is a smaller turkey weighing in at about 10- to 13-pounds dressed so if you need it to feed a group for the holidays, cook two or more. But, for the rest of the year, it is perfect for any meal. Since it is smaller, it does not take as long to cook and can be served in just a few hours. Not only that, but you don't have tons left over and you certainly won't have the legs uneaten, as is typical during Thanksgiving. Unlike the commercial bird, this dark meat is moist and tender, so the kids will fight over it.

I like to set the timer and leave my turkey in the oven while we go to church or work outside. I cut a few slits in the skin of the breast and insert a few pats of butter to melt and baste while baking in a covered roasting pan in a 330 to 350 degree oven for about two hours. I also like to sprinkle a little sea salt and paprika over the top. Remember, the commercial turkeys are injected with a saline and oil solution so your bird will require more salt than a purchased bird. Since you will have no pop-up to tell you when it is done, go by the legs. When you can twist the leg bone and the meat separates from it, it's done. Or, you can use a meat thermometer but most country cooks prefer to go by feel. Don't over-cook the meat or you will lose the moisture and flavor. You want to keep it covered so it does not dry out and you will capture all that great broth.

If you prefer turkey to beef and you raise enough, you can cut it off the bone and grind it into ground turkey to use in your ground beef recipes. Turkey is cheaper than beef and healthier for you and ground turkey will take up less space in your freezer. No freezer space, that's OK too. If you have a pressure cooker you can "can" your own turkey meat to store on the shelf to use in all sorts of recipes at a moment's notice. At the end of the day you can open a jar of cooked turkey meat with broth, add some mushrooms, green peas or carrots and serve it over some pasta or rice and you have a great meal with no preservatives or surprises.

Summary

There are many reasons to raise turkeys. Besides being an inexpensive yet great tasting protein source for the family, they also bring so much enjoyment to the homestead. There is nothing like watching the strutting toms or the pretty little hens catching bugs. If you want to become more self-sufficient but don't have the land or resources to raise larger animals, these turkeys can provide the meat your family needs with so little time commitment. Just because you have a full and busy lifestyle doesn't mean you don't have time to raise Midget White turkeys. I am proof that it can be done and done in a big way.

I'm glad a few men realized the value and potential of these wonderful heritage turkeys and saved them for me. Now, I want to ensure my grandchildren and their great-grandchildren live in a world that still has heritage turkeys like the Midget White but that future is not guaranteed. If you are ready to become more self sufficient, try your hand at raising these great-tasting birds that come in a more manageable size. It is just too easy not to, so let's raise them, eat them, and ensure their survival for another generation.

BY KAY WOLFE

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Title Annotation:The poultry yard
Author:Wolfe, Kay
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 30, 2011
Words:8398
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