by Tim Matson
It was not a banner year: The town doubled our taxes and my favorite calico cat got eaten by a red fox. But the gobblers came through with flying colors. It’s amazing how a tender, homegrown bird improves the flavor of tough times.
It takes a lot more than money to raise gobblers as good as these. What it takes is a lot of heart. Peanut hearts, to be precise. That and a daily salad of garden greens, both thinnings and custom- grown. In the spring I plant an extra row of swiss chard and turnips for the turkeys. We keep the roots, they get the greens.
This astounds our neighbors. The local view is that turkeys are stupid and that they like to stand around in the rain and catch blackhead disease. Growers talk about watching healthy birds croak for no clear reason.
Turkey. Say the word and you conjure up a calamity. There is some truth to all this, which doesn’t explain how millions of the birds land dead center on American holiday tables. Perhaps the gobbler is a bird of paradox. The paradox is that a bird resembling a prehistoric Pterodactyl could not only survive in the Space Age, it actually thrives. A bird synonymous with failure is relished by the richest citizens on the planet. A bird notoriously difficult to keep alive sells for less per pound than a hardy hog. “A bird to forget,” as one farming handbook warns.
I disagree. Now I admit I’m not a turkey man, professionally. What I offer, beyond the recommendation of my taste buds, is four years of experience: a total of 19 birds. The hens have ranged from 10 to 18 pounds, the toms from 10 to 29. The average weight fell over the past couple of years, but now it’s climbing again. After dressing off the first cropâ€“â€“five birds, average weight 25 poundsâ€“â€“we quit feeding the birds “medicated turkey growing pellets.” That was when the birds shrunk. Why fiddle with success?
Over the years, I’d been watching the evidence mount against “modern meat.” Commercial livestock feed is usually laced with preservatives, antibiotics and sometimes hormones. This makes it possible to grow critters in crowded, often unclean conditions. For the people who eat the meat, who knows? It’s no secret that many preservatives are carcinogenic. Residual antibiotics can lower natural resistance to disease. Hormones confuse the glands. The ingredients label on a sack of medicated turkey grower pellets reads
like a chemistry exam.
Q. Define 4-Nitrophenylarsonic acid.
How about Dried Streptomyces Fermentation Residue? According to Dr. Marvin W. Colburn, a nutritionist as Blue Seal Feeds in Lawrence, Massachusetts, it’s a source of “unidentified growth factors” in their feeds. And Ethoxyquin? A preservative. The list goes on.
I remember the proprietor at the feed store who listened to Ellen’s first request for unmedicated feed, and replied, “Scared you’ll grow a moustache?” The room was packed with customers and he got some laughs. That was before newspapers began headlining stories about Puerto Rican children growing breasts at age three. Girls and boys. Puerto Rican children eat a lot of chicken, and therefore, a lot of hormones. In Puerto Rico, until recently, there had been no limits on feeding hormone levels. Levels in the U.S. are regulated and are lower. Still, there is a growing market for unmedicated “organic” meat and fowl.
We switch off the medicated starter after our turkeys have gone through one 100-pound bag, which is about seven weeks for five birds. That first bag is a bow to science, and we are grateful for the preventative medicine. Young poultsâ€“â€“motherless, remember, and nearly featherlessâ€“â€“are vulnerable to disease. But after a few weeks these are plucky birds. They’ve trouped from the brooder shed to the backyard pen. After that, if you treat them right, there’s no call for medicated feed. Supply fresh water every day, and greens right from the start. Dandelion greens and clover leaves are early favorites, up before the garden crops; they should be shredded while the birds are still young. A clean environment is needed, too: fresh litter every day in the brooder, and later, in the turkey house, a wood slat floor to let the manure fall through.
For awhile we followed the starter feed with oats and cracked corn (scratch feed) and plenty of greens on the side. The birds were very healthy on thisâ€“â€“and very lean. After 18 weeks our biggest tom dressed out at ten pounds, including giblets. He looked like a plucked partridge. Not a sign of fat. He was pure indeed, what there was of him. Considering all the time we had spent tending the young poultsâ€“â€“the stove fires to stoke in the brooder shed, the fresh bedding and water each dayâ€“â€“it seemed like a meager return, those ten-pound birds, organic or not.
Then an encouraging ad turned up in the local paper that autumn: “20-30 Pound Organic Turkeys.” Ellen called the farmer. “What makes them organic?” she asked. “We don’t feed them medicated turkey feed,” he answered. “We use 15 percent dairy ration, the same grain pellets I feed my Holsteins.”
True, according to the dairy-ration feed label there were no antibiotics. But there were preservatives and vague by-products similar to those in commercial turkey feed. So his turkeys didn’t impress us. But the 15 percent protein count did. Corn we had been using contained a slight 8 percent.
That winter Ellen heard a story about a Georgia peanut farmer who raised turkeys on surplus nuts. It wasn’t clear how soon he started the gobblers on the goobers, or how great a percentage they amounted to in the feed, but it seemed like a good idea. This lowly legume, known to some as the “goober pea,” develops its seeds underground; hence it’s also called the “ground nut.” It packs some of the highest food levels of any vegetable, rivaling soybeans in protein and exceeding soy in the B vitamins and fat. Unfortunately,
at $3 a pound, it also seemed an expensive idea. I asked the fellow at the grain store how on earth people could afford it.
“They must be nuts,” he grumbled. But he said he would see what he could dig up. A few days later we checked back. For $30 he would sell us 100 pounds of peanut “hearts.” Later I learned that the hearts are separated during the making of peanut butter and peanut candy. People find that the hearts have a bitter taste. Turkeys don’t mind. We ordered a bag in the spring and picked up five white turkey poults.
When the birds came off their starter feed and onto their peanut hearts it was love at first sight. Twenty weeks after bringing them home we dressed them out: average 20 pounds. The total cost was $100: $10 for poults, $90 for the starter feed, grain and goobers. That comes to about $1.25 a pound. Around here, the price for locally grown “organic” turkeys runs about $1.75 per pound, when they can be found at all. In New York City, they sell for as much as $10 a pound.
For all those interested in raising goober-fed gobblers, a few hints. We begin feeding the hearts as soon as our four or five birds have polished off their first 100-pound bag of “Medicated Crumbles.” At 24 percent protein and a whopping 42 percent fat, the tiny hearts, small as radish seed, add weight to the birds fast. We supplement the hearts with dandelion greens, clover leaves and garden greens, mix in soy meal for extra plant protein, and cracked corn for grain energy. The ratio is about 50 percent goobers.
It’s important not to use peanut hearts as the only feed. This was emphasized by both Dr. Colburn and Dr. Richard M. Lockwood of Lockwood Feed Service, a specialty feed ingredients supplier in Newton, Massachusetts. Dr. Lockwood explained that “there are limitations in feeding only peanut hearts in a turkey finishing diet. It is low in lysine.” Soybean meal and corn will balance that. “Because of the high oil content, you run the risk of having a negative effect on the carcass, leading to soft fat.” He explained that because of the high fat content, it is most important that the hearts be fresh, and that they be stored in a cool, dry place.
Dr. Colburn said that storage life is about six months in winter and two months in summer. If the hearts don’t smell right or are musty, they are rancid and should not be used.” A little extra vigilance, plus some shredded four-leaf clovers for luck, doesn’t seem a bad exchange for a flock of pure, tender peanut butterballs.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the book A Country Planet: Smart Ways to Rural Success and Survival by Tim Matson. The book is now out of print. However, watch our blog for several more reprints of Tim’s great articles from this book!