Raising Chickens

The End of a [Turkey] Era

Monday night our turkeys had a date with destiny. Well that’s at least how we continued to refer to the fact that they were going to butcher. A few months back the tom aggressively attacked Dylan (scratching his face and ripping his shirt) and has had his eye on him ever since. I’ve made many jokes, ever since then, about being happy to see the big guy go. I’m not entirely heartless, but we knew these birds were being raised for food so we haven’t gotten attached. Not to mention, I have an overwhelming amount of love for my child and his perfect face, so to see a giant scratch down the side of it infuriated me.
Well last week we discovered that the hen had laid a couple of eggs and was dutifully sitting on them. Since these turkeys were our experiments, we just bought whatever they sold at Tractor Supply and, like the roasters, they were the over-bred, broad-breasted variety. Broad-breasteds, like the name implies, are bred to grow enormous breasts – America’s favorite part of the Thanksgiving feast – and as a result, can’t breed naturally. Their chests are simply too large. So lately the female has been sitting around the yard and the tom has been attempting to “climb aboard,” but we didn’t have any faith that these eggs were actually fertilized. Still though, she was sitting like such a proud mama and broad-breasteds are said to have little to no mothering instinct left. So then we considered keeping the hen. If nothing else, she’ll provide eggs (giant ones at that) and maybe the two she’s sitting on will actually hatch. Either way, once we started calling her “mama” the thought of taking her to butcher turned my stomach.
Then a few days went by. She grew tired of sitting on her little nest and left the eggs in the cold for the warm comfort of the coop at night. We were then sure that, even if those eggs were fertilized, they were not viable now. We cracked them open to find that they were in fact NOT fertilized and also learned that the shells of turkey eggs are quiet hard! Then the hen started pecking the comb of one of my layers until it started to bleed, and once again, I was okay with the impending butcher date.
So on Monday we load the two turkeys into our old dog crate and strap it into the back of Chris’s truck. His truck has a cap on it so even though they’ll bounce around a bit, their trip will be much warmer than factory farm poultry that is transported for hours in those open-air semi-trucks.
As a side note, when you look up “poultry butchering” in the white pages, not many businesses pop up. So I went to Tractor Supply and asked around. (Thank God for Tractor Supply!) Anyway, the very same guy who sold us our chicks so many months ago, gave me the name of a guy about 30 minutes south. I called him and we set a date. He was super friendly on the phone, with a warm chuckle.
Well, we head out a bit before dusk so by the time we get there it is just beginning to get dark. The road changes from blacktop to two-track dirt. We find his driveway (marked by a sign that reads Skinning, Butchering, Processing) and take the windy path back into the woods. The driveway opens up into a clearing where there is a ramshackle house to the left and a small pole barn with a screened in front “porch” area. There are no cars, no lights on, and no signs of human activity. We spend a minute or two debating if any person actually lives in the house before I give Tim a call. He says he’s down the road chopping wood and will be right up. By the time his pickup truck pulls up the drive it it very nearly dark. I get out, expecting a jolly man in his mid-60’s (by the phone conversation), but what I get is nothing short of mountain man. He is large and potbellied alright, but with a long, snarly hair, dirty jeans, a flannel shirt, and a Carhart jacket that has probably existed longer than I have. I feel like his face was dirty, but it could have been the impending darkness. Another younger man gets out of the truck too. I assume this to be Tim’s son and, while his hair is only slightly shorter, it is hidden beneath a filthy baseball cap. They are friendly, but if I was to judge based only on appearances, we probably would have jumped in the truck and sped away. So here we are, in the middle of nowhere with little cell phone coverage, standing with two dirty mountain men, in front of a make-shift butchering facility. This is how horror movies begins! The pair of ragamuffins also have a young child with them, maybe three, wearing an oversized cowboy hat, so I assume everything is okay. Backwoods murderers don’t usually bring along toddlers.
We make small talk and then, afraid that these men are going to handle my turkeys in a rough manner, I say, “I’m really sad to drop them off. We’ve gotten attached!” This is only moderately true, but I am trying to play on their chivalric tendencies. Either it works, or they just aren’t the type to manhandle turkeys because the younger of the two “escorts” the tom out of the cage in a way that does not feel harmful or overly rough. He plops him on the scale and says, “47lbs!” The hen is closer to 30. In the end, they will dress out at 43 and 23 lbs!
They move them into another cage and say, “we’ll move them inside so the dog doesn’t bug them.” I find this considerate and this eases my mind.
Obviously these men are going to kill these turkeys and the ride out was rather somber and we both felt a little queasy. Death isn’t pretty, and even though I choose to raise and eat my own livestock, doesn’t mean I rejoice in their deaths. However, I do feel that this is a feeling that everyone who eats meat should feel. When you buy a prepackaged pound of ground beef at the grocery store it is so far removed from the actual animal it once was. Taking an animal to butcher (or doing it yourself) really puts you face to face with the fact that these animals are dying so that my family can eat. I think about how much I carried them around as babies and all the times we took them lettuce, watermelon, tomatoes, and corn cobs. We made sure they were warm and dry and always had food and water. We separated the male for days at a time when the hens were pulling his tail feathers out and we gave the hen “breaks” out of the coop without the tom so that she could wander without him trying to mount her every 5 minutes. We put a towel down so that they wouldn’t slide around in the cage in the car. They had good lives. We respected them and took good care of them, so we whispered our usual prayer of thanks for these turkeys and went on our way.

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