June 20, 2018
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Free-range turkeys gobble up farmer’s profit

Free-range turkeys get their fill of grain at Dilly Dally Organic Farm, run by Carol and Bill Hayes, in Plymouth recently.
By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff

PLYMOUTH, Maine — The chorus of gobbles from the toms is loud but brief, followed by a constant chirp sound from the hens gathered around the fresh water at Dilly Dally Organic Farm.

Curious, the flock of turkeys comes to the fence, inspecting visitors and looking for something extra to eat. They put their wings out to the side and fan out their feathers, trying to look aggressive. Their caruncles, snoods and wattles — the bumpy skin that grows on their head, neck and droops down over their beak — turn bright red as a warning.

But turkeys are also incredibly skittish, so they just as quickly strut away.

“There are 41. They’re all sold except for a few we have kept for ourselves,” farm owner Karen Hayes said last week. “They’ll be slaughtered Sunday for Thanksgiving.”

Nearly 88 percent of Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation.

One of a dozen or so Mainers who commercially sell turkeys, Hayes said she really doesn’t make any money on her flock. “I just about break even.”

But the local food movement and the ever-growing demand for fresh poultry allows Hayes to use turkeys as an enticement. “It brings people to me,” she said, allowing her to also sell a range of vegetables, eggs and fruits, both from the farm and at the Rockport Farmers Market.

Although there are at least two major turkey farms — one in New Sharon and another in Mercer, both with about 800 turkeys — most growers have 50 birds or fewer.

“It is really a niche market,” Jane Aiudi of the Maine Department of Agriculture said Friday. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t even keep statistics below 20,000 birds.”

But Aiudi agrees that adding turkey to a diversified farm can bring in new and more customers.

“I draw the line at 50 because of the price of feed,” Hayes said. She feeds a half-ton of grain to her flock of turkeys every 10 days. At one point earlier this year, grain was $425 a ton.

Farmers joke that all turkeys do is eat and poop, and Hayes agreed.

“That is pretty much it,” she said. “They are pretty stupid, but they really alert us to danger.”

She said she had not been troubled with predators, but her domestic turkeys have called wild turkeys in from the woods occasionally. Right on cue, the flock emits a chorus of gobbles.

In their first 100 days, turkeys can gain 14 pounds to 21 pounds, increasing that to 35 pounds in just 19 weeks. Poults, the chick stage of a turkey, are usually started in July so they will be ready just before Thanksgiving.

Although the demand over the past several years has been for smaller birds, Hayes said several people ordered large turkeys this year. “I put about eight in a separate pen and really fed them heavy,” she said.

As the bigger birds stood at the fence, viewing the rest of the flock, the size differential was clear. Hayes raises White Hollands, which are a broad-breasted white turkey. “I found the bronze turkeys much more aggressive,” she said.

Hayes also has to figure the slaughter costs into her profit margin, and that costs between $7 and $15 per bird, depending on their weight. “You can see, I’m not making a big profit on the turkeys,” she said.

According to the National Turkey Federation, 46 million turkeys will be slaughtered for Thanksgiving this year, but although 50 percent of all turkeys eaten in 1970 were consumed during the holidays, today that number is around 29 percent as more people enjoy turkey year-round.

The largest producer is Butterball LLC, which sells more than 1 billion pounds of turkey each year, according to NTF statistics.

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