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5 Things You Need to Know About Pastured Turkeys

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many people will start thinking about who will cook the turkey this year and where they will get it. According to data from the National Turkey Federation in 2012, Americans eat an estimated 46 million turkeys every Thanksgiving (the numbers are smaller for Christmas and Easter -- 22 million and 19 million, respectively). That’s a lot of turkeys! Most people opt for the cheapest turkey available; but what they may not know is that this may cost them a lot more in the long run, both in terms of their health and the environment. The alternative is to opt for a pasture-raised turkey: a bit more expensive, but a lot tastier and healthier than its mass-produced counterpart. Read on to learn what you’ll be getting when you buy a turkey from us this year.

Here are five things you need to know about pastured turkeys:


1. Pasture-raised turkeys are raised humanely and ethically. This is better for your health and the environment.


Labels on poultry can be very confusing. There’s “free-range”, “cage-free”, “organic”, “vegetarian-fed”, and “pasture-raised”, just to name a few. Most of these terms, besides “certified organic” are unregulated for the most part, and some are downright misleading. For example, the free-range claim recommends that farmers “give the birds access to the outdoors” but there is no standard as to the duration of time outdoors, or the space or condition of the outdoors area -- and there is no oversight to ensure compliance. The “all-natural” claim means absolutely nothing; so you’ll definitely want to stay away from that.


With certified organic birds, they have received no antibiotics and are given organic feed. However, much like their factory-farmed counterparts, they are usually still crammed into a poultry house, stepping on their own manure, and debeaked and de-toed since they are in such close proximity to each other. The typical non-organic turkey you find in your local grocery store is also given antibiotics in its feed, and fed all genetically modified grains. This is all hardly a cause for celebration!


In contrast, we and a handful of family farms around the country follow an outdoor-based model of raising poultry. The birds really do roam the field freely during the growing season of May through November (we don’t raise poultry in the winter since it’s too cold in this part of the country). They use their unharmed beaks to peck at bugs (grasshoppers are their favorites!), harvest seeds, and forage through clover and other shoots; and are given access to a supplementary feed of grains that are not genetically modified. Every couple of days we use a movable roost assembly to physically move the birds to a fresh patch of grass where they get to feast all over again, all while simultaneously fertilizing the soil with their manure.


Customers who visit our farm during the growing season can see for themselves that pasture-raised is clearly superior to the industrial model, and they are eager to reserve their holiday birds even months in advance.


2. The price of pastured turkeys reflects the cost of raising them naturally and on pasture. The price of mass-produced turkeys reflects the extreme, unnatural shortcuts taken to keep the cost as low as possible.


As committed grass-based farmers, we experience first-hand the challenges that come with raising poultry on pasture. We start with baby turkeys called poults; and for small farmers, the cost is often tenfold what industrial farms pay: up to $10 per chick at one day old. Once they’re out on pasture, they’re not as shielded from the weather and predators as the conventional ones that are crammed into windowless poultry houses.


Our commitment to sourcing local, non-GMO feed makes the feed a lot more expensive than those being fed genetically modified grains, thereby raising the cost of raising our turkeys. This is not to mention the labor involved with pasture rotation management, which involves moving the birds to a fresh patch of grassland every couple of days during the growing season. We like to say it is a labor of love, but it is definitely still labor. If you would like to get a clearer idea of how we raise our poultry, take a look at our turkey and chicken pages.


Slaughtering and packaging pastured turkeys is also a labor-intensive process on the farm. However, processing on home turf keeps our processing cost more manageable for a small quantity, ensures that we are doing it humanely, and gives us the ability to maintain high quality control. The downside is that in our state (Virginia) we are limited to selling poultry processed on the farm to customers in our home state. We are in the process of figuring out if there is an alternative option that does not in any way compromise our quality or standards.


3. Pasture-raised turkey meat is a lot more nutrient-dense than industrially-raised meat. This is not surprising since turkeys are sensitive to their dietary intake (as are humans!).


Since pastured turkeys have the luxury of foraging on fresh grasses and bugs in addition to the protein-rich supplementary grain they’re provided, their bodies contain a lot more nutrients than factory-farmed turkeys that eat mostly genetically modified, medicated feed (and we now know that the antibiotics in their food gets them — and the humans who eat them — fat quickly!).  


A number of recent studies (here’s an example) show that meat from pasture-raised poultry contains a much more balanced omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, which is linked to better heart health in humans. Pastured turkey meat is also very high in all the B vitamins and many essential trace minerals, most notably selenium, zinc, and magnesium. According The World’s Healthiest Foods, turkey meat ranks third on their list of foods with the highest amount of protein per ounce, with turkey breast having slightly more protein than turkey legs or thighs.


Another important point to keep in mind is that turkeys raised outdoors in open pastures and treated humanely will have much healthier meat than turkeys raised in confinement, subjected to painful debeaking and de-toeing, and constantly dwelling in piles of their own manure day after day. When we eat diseased animals and ones damaged by chronic, intense stress, we increase our incidence of disease; and conversely, when we eat healthy animals, we benefit from the stress-free and natural life they led. Many people dismiss the humane treatment of animals because they don’t make the connection that animal wellbeing ultimately affects their own wellbeing as well (not to mention the wellbeing of the workers who handle them).


4. Factory-farmed turkeys are usually injected with water, vegetable oil, sodium phosphate, and emulsifiers. Pastured turkeys are not injected with anything -- so brining your bird will result in a more tender and flavorful turkey.


Did you know that many of your grocery store turkeys are pumped with flavor enhancers and additives equal to 3% - 12% of the turkey’s final weight? Since the recipe is proprietary and the company is not required to disclose it, you can never be sure exactly what is in it (it can’t be good though if the primary objective is to increase profits and increase moisture at the expense of everything else!).


We like to know exactly what is in our food and how it was raised, so we do not inject birds with any self-basting solution. Instead, we encourage our customers to brine their pastured turkeys with a salt and seasoning mixture at home before cooking. Brining a turkey for 24 hours before cooking will allow moisture to penetrate the meat and infuse it with the herbs’ flavors. We like to keep it simple and use unrefined sea salt, filtered water, black pepper, lemons and herbs -- here’s a link to our favorite recipe.


5. Pastured turkeys cook faster and more evenly. We like to cook it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.  


Since pasture-raised turkeys are leaner than factory-farmed ones, they cook faster. According to the The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook, the recommendation is for 12-15 minutes per pound, uncovered, at 325 degree Fahrenheit. (As a point of comparison, it is around 20 minutes per pound for conventional turkeys). Some people swear by the taste of a slow-cooked pastured turkey -- here’s a recipe for that from Nourished Kitchen. If you’re short on time and need the oven for other dishes, the aforementioned cooking time and temperature are sufficient. Here’s a recipe for how to cook a pastured turkey from The Prairie Homestead. In any case, we love the taste of herbed or infused butter or ghee rubbed under the skin before cooking so don’t skip that step!


It’s a good idea to cook the turkey breast-side down since the white meat tends to cook a little faster. This way, the white meat keeps all its moisture and the dark meat browns as it cooks, which makes for a delicious final product. For your pastured turkey, the final measure of doneness is the internal temperature, not the total cooking time. Factory-farmed turkeys should reach an internal temperature of 180F; but with pasture-raised turkeys, if your thermometer measures 165F at the thickest part of the thigh, then it’s ready.


A turkey raised outdoors in harmony with nature is truly something to be celebrated; it feels good to know that your money was used to support your values relating to how animals should be treated. Also, your tastebuds will surely thank you!

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