In the heart of Virginia’s turkey country, not too far from where turkeys were first domesticated, lies Wesley Kent’s farm. The first-generation farmer has a 100-cow robot dairy, a few beef cows, 600 acres of crops and pastureland and two turkey houses where he grows 35,000 birds a year.
On this week’s episode of The First Years podcast, Kent walks listeners through the life of a turkey from barn to table.
The process of raising turkeys starts before the pullets come to the farm, Kent explains. The first step is preparing the house.
“That means pressure washing, cleaning, and disinfecting the house. Also, you know, of course, we've removed the litter from the previous flock,” Kent explains. “So, we're stripping the house all the way down to the floor, basically, and completely pressure washing, disinfecting, and then we're putting in brand new shavings.”
Next, it’s time to get ready for the birds’ arrival. The turkey house is warmed up to 86 degrees.
“We've got fresh shavings and we have to have the house very warm. We're looking for a whole house temperature of around 86 degrees,” he says. “No matter what time of the year it is we got to have that house pretty warm because these little pullets, they can't stand the cold. They will huddle up and pile on each other if they get too cold and they will actually smother each other and die.”
At this point, Kent says the house is equipped with small-sized waterers and feeders. In fact, the first few days the baby turkeys eat their food off of thick, clean paper on the ground because they’re too short to reach a feeder.
“They’re in this house from their whole life, that's all they know. They've got to start out with the small equipment,” he says.
The other important step is ensuring the water offered to the turkeys is free of bacteria to keep them from getting sick.
“When the turkeys arrive, we have to have all the feed out clean water,” he says. “We always try to make sure that water lines are disinfected with chlorine and other cleaners to make sure there's no bacteria in the water. You don't want their first drink of water to be full of bacteria because they don't have quite the immunity that maybe some of the old breeds of turkeys do so you know you can have them starting off sick from day one.”
The birds come in crates of 100, so once they come on the truck, they are unloaded into the houses by hand.
“Over the course of the weeks that they grow, and especially the first week, we graduate them from the baby feeders and baby waters to have like a middle-aged feeder and water system and then eventually to an adult turkey feeder and turkey watering system,” he says.
When the birds arrive, they only live in roughly half of the turkey house which saves on the heating bill.
“When they're small, they don't need that much that they don't need all that square footage, right? Well, when they're about four to five weeks of age, they're large enough maybe as much as four or five pounds, they're kind of teenagers and they're growing up ready to get out of the house if you know what I mean,” Kent says. “So, we open up the whole house and then they have access to the whole house and that's where they will stay.”
It usually takes around 13 weeks? from the time a turkey is born and when it’s on your dinner table. They typically weigh about 15 to 18 pounds depending on what the market is demanding at the time.