A LITTLE late in the day, we have some turkeys in the garden. We keep three or four turkeys each year, one of which ends up on the Christmas table with the balance going in the freezer.
It's our second major poultry-rearing project of the year, having reared 35 chickens for the freezer back in the spring. I like the idea of taking on a food-producing project so late in the year when, if we were sensible, we would be winding down instead.
In previous years we got the turkeys back in August, but we are chronically late this year, having got the birds with just about six weeks left to Christmas.
We sourced them from a farmer near Clonmel, where they have been roaming free in a field since early July, and we paid €20 per bird for the privilege. At this stage they are nearly ready for the table (already at about 14lb weight) so really it's more of a finishing project than a rearing one.
They won't get much larger than they already are – from here on in, we will be simply adding a layer of fat under the skin. This of course, is a very good thing indeed, because fat is where the flavour is. These turkeys will be effectively self-basting as they cook.
We will almost certainly rear these birds for less than we would pay for a good free-range bird in a butchers (they will ultimately cost around €30 per bird when you factor in the feed we will have to buy for them), but this project is not just about saving money. It would have been far more economical to buy the turkeys back in the summer as chicks, rather than getting a farmer to do most of the rearing as we have done.
Nevertheless, it's simply wonderful for us to have turkeys back in the garden. The Christmas dinner will be far more special for all of us knowing these birds spent six weeks roaming free in our own garden and exactly what they were fed in the process.
So, we're back to animal husbandry. We keep them in an old shed at the end of the garden, with plenty of straw on the ground and a place for them to roost up off the ground at night. By day we simply open the door and let them graze out and about in the garden. They are not terribly destructive or dirty, though they would be if there were more of them. Four birds don't have much of an impact.
Interestingly, turkeys are, in our experience, a nightmare to get in at nighttime. While the hens head for home as soon as it gets a little dusky, turkeys seem to enjoy being out and have to be shepheded, cajoled, even lifted in to their house at night. We've even found them roosting in trees at times. Don't be tempted to leave them outside, however, in case you get a visit from a fox.
For food, we buy an organic turkey finisher pellet – expensive at almost twice the cost of normal feed, but worth it we think (since the non-organic feeds contain GM ingredients). They weren't fed organic feed back on the farm, but I like to think that six weeks on organic feed will be enough to make these birds pretty natural by the time they get to the table. They will eat up to a pound per day per bird from here on in. They need access to plenty of fresh water, so we have a large poultry drinker.
We keep the turkeys separate to our small flock of hens – it is not considered a good idea to run turkeys and chickens together because of the risk of transmission of a chronic disease called blackhead between them.
Of course there will come a day in just a few weeks' time when this project will move on from being a rearing one to something different. These birds will have to be killed, gutted and plucked. Retaining one bird for the Christmas table, we will put one turkey in to the freezer whole, perhaps to be used for a big family get-together in the spring. Two of them will be jointed up before going in the freezer – a turkey breast provides an enormous amount of meat.
We cut it up in to small slices of breast as well as chunks for stir fries and the like. All in all, a thrifty little operation.
Keeping a few turkeys at home is an enjoyable project. They are a bird that seems to like human company and handling – you can pick a turkey up relatively easily with none of the flightiness you can get in hens. At home, you get to try out some more unusual varieties than the regular commercial, broad-breasted ones. We have two white birds and two wonderful looking bronze ones. The result of all their roaming and grazing is a meat that is more flavoursome than much of the commercial alternatives.
The farmer told us that he will lose money on the birds this year, which is a real shame given how much pride and care he takes in his flock. And why will he lose money? Because food costs are soaring (thanks to rising grain costs due to drought in the US) while supermarkets continue to drive the perceived value of turkeys down.
Bottom line, he can't get the premium for his birds their impeccable rearing deserves – roaming outside with lots of fresh air, access to grass etc as opposed to indoors in cramped sheds.
So my final point is that if you can afford it, you should seek out turkeys that have been reared by a farmer who cares enough to keep them free-range and pay them a fair price for their birds. They are not doing well this year from their enterprise and need our support.
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.