You don’t just wake up one day and decide to kill a turkey. First you have to get one, and they are usually pretty small and need to grow, which fortunately takes a while, giving you time to get used to the idea of being a butcher. And after feeding a turkey every morning, your perspective changes; as they get bigger, they appear more and more like food each day. By harvest time, your turkey looks just like a big ball of meat running around on two drumsticks. At least I find that it works best to imagine them this way.
To raise a turkey for Thanksgiving, you should start with chicks hatched in May or June. Turkeys are social animals, so it’s better to get at least two. A turkey left alone will make quite a pest of itself, being noisy and trying to get into the house so he can be with people. It sounds sort of fun to hang out with a turkey, but it’s not. Their poop is pretty big, and they like to peck shiny things like shoelaces and eyeballs.
You will need a coop to keep your turkeys out of the rain and safe at night. The enclosure can be a simple wood frame with hardware cloth stapled to it. I made mine so it breaks down for easy storage when I’m not using it. It doesn’t need to be that big because the turkeys should be allowed to roam free in the daytime.
Turkeys need food and water and that’s about it. The food comes in 50-pound sacks; each turkey will eat about two of these before it is ready to harvest. Get a small trash can to keep the feed dry and prevent other animals from eating it. Hang the fowls’ feeders and water from a fence or put it up on some bricks to keep it off the ground to prevent the turkeys stepping in it or knocking it over. (This also helps keep their waste separate from their food.)
Preparing for the Harvest
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, go up to the turkeys and a cop a feel. Yes, reach down and fondle your turkeys’ breast. What you want is a nicely fattened bird, which makes the meat more tender and flavorful. If your turkey feels too lean, get some scratch and supplement their diet with that until harvest day. (Scratch is mostly corn and whole grains, and to a turkey, it’s like eating candy bars. They will love it.)
Time your harvest three to four days before you want to eat the bird. Under refrigeration, the meat will rest and tenderize. The day before harvest, take away their food and clean up any spilled on the ground. This gives the turkeys time to empty their digestive tract and will make cleaning the bird the next day much easier and more sanitary.
Cut off the top a traffic cone (see sidebar for things you’ll need). Hang the cone upside down from something sturdy about four feet off the ground. Catch your turkey. Now is a good time to appreciate and give thanks for your turkey. Remember, he doesn’t know what is about to happen so he will not suffer. Don’t give your turkey human emotions. Put the turkey upside down into the cone. Put a bucket with some water in it under the cone to catch the blood. Hold the turkey’s head with your thumb deep in the “V” of the bottom beak. Hold tight. Cut the neck just under the jawbone, then cut the artery on the other side. Hold on, keeping the neck extended so the incision remains open and flowing. The turkey will lose almost all of its blood immediately. You will notice the turkey’s muscles contracting, but this is not because he is in pain. The brain is already dead, and muscle tissue cramps on its own when it has no oxygen.
Scald the bird for a minute or so in 140-degree water to loosen the feather cuticles, then pluck the bird and remove the head and feet. You will have to insert the knife in between the vertebrae at the base of the neck and between the knee joints; it’s easier than cutting through bone. Until now, the body cavity has not been opened. It’s a good idea to clean up any feathers and hose down your work surface before the next step.
Your turkey is really starting to look like the meat now. All that’s left to do is remove the organs. Make a shallow incision in the abdomen and cut around the cloaca-the cavity into which the intestinal, urinary, and generative canals open in birds-without puncturing the intestines. Reach in as far as you can, loosening the membrane from the cavity. Now you can pull out the whole digestive tract from the esophagus to the anus in one piece. The liver will be attached, so be sure to save it before you put the rest of the innards in the waste bucket. When you’re done, bury all of this plus the feathers in your compost pile. Get the heart and lungs out and give it a good rinse and you’re finished! Submerge the meat in ice water, filling the cavity to cool for a while, and then dry, bag, and refrigerate for a few days while you browse your cookbooks.
Bon appetit and cheers!
A 20-pound turkey will take about 20 weeks to grow and will eat about 100 pounds of food.
Where Does Salmonella Come From?
Salmonella is an intestinal bacteria sometimes found in poultry that is dangerous to humans. Factory-farmed poultry is killed and cleaned by robots. When you butcher your own turkey, you can remove the digestive tract and organs whole, keeping the bacteria contained. In an industrial slaughterhouse, the guts are pureed by inserting a blender into the cavity and then blasted out with high-pressure water, spraying the contents of the intestines all over the meat.
Did You Know?
Turkeys don’t have teeth so they “chew” their food by grinding it with small rocks in a muscular organ called the gizzard.
Things You Will Need on Harvest Day
- A bucket big enough to fit the turkey in for scalding
- Another bucket for waste
- A thermometer
- A source of 140-degree water (boil some water and add it to hot tap water to make it 140 degrees)
- 20-pound sack of ice
- Big plastic bags
- A very sharp knife
- Hose with spray nozzle
- Large traffic cone
Why Raise Your Own Turkey?
- Store-bought turkey is raised in overcrowded and inhumane conditions.
- Store-bought turkey is fed a steady diet of antibiotics.
- You can butcher your own turkey much more cleanly than in the factory.
- Turkeys are beautiful and more fun to watch than TV.
- Turkeys will eat your leftovers from the kitchen and provide you with free fertilizer for your garden.