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Sunday 17 February 2019

'You'll always get someone turning up late on Christmas Eve looking for a turkey'

Billy Gray rears 5,500 free-range turkeys and 400 geese on his farm in Rathangan, Co Kildare. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Billy Gray rears 5,500 free-range turkeys and 400 geese on his farm in Rathangan, Co Kildare. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

"Never put a free-range turkey in an oven bag, and cook it chest down rather than upwards." This isn't the advice of a Michelin-star chef - instead, it's pearls of wisdom from one of the country's leading poultry farmers.

Billy Gray of Feighcullen Farm in Rathangan, Co Kildare, has been rearing turkeys for the last 13 years and killing and packing them on a purpose-built factory onsite for the last three.

Originally a beef, sheep and tillage farmer, the idea to rear turkeys began in 2002 when his wife, Anne-Marie, was on maternity leave and they decided to add 50 of the feathered friends to their already bustling farm.

Fast-forward to December 2018 and the farm is now stuffed with 5,500 white and bronze turkeys, as well as 400 geese and an expanding flock of ducks.

While it's common for many Irish families to cook their turkey in an oven bag, Billy says that it ruins their free-range variety.

"One thing we always say with free-range turkeys is to never cook it in an oven bag as it destroys the turkeys.

"We find if you want to keep the turkey more moist, you should cook it with its chest down, rather than chest up, and you should always use a meat thermometer," he says.

The turkeys arrive on his farm as one-day-old chicks in July and are reared there for 20 weeks, where they are allowed to forage freely and fed homegrown oats and wheat.

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To ensure the busy festive period takes off in flying form, Billy has had to endure 18-hour working days and employ 17 staff to deliver the turkeys to local butchers, as well as deal with 400 onsite customer orders.

Even with all this advance preparation, Billy says it's impossible to relax until Christmas Day, as there will always be last-minute customers arriving to his farm on December 24.

"We'll have our stock gone to the butchers by the weekend. It's been busy the whole way through... and you'll always get someone driving in the gate at 5 o'clock on Christmas Eve looking for their turkey.

"Your 12-pound turkey is the most popular; the bigger families would have 18 or 20-pounders, last year we even had one lady looking for a 26-pounder, so it does vary."

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