PEQUEA, Pa. — Most consumers start planning for their Thanksgiving turkey when the supermarket starts advertising its holiday special early in November.
Ben and Kristy Railing start planning in August.
For the farming couple, turkeys started out as a logical way to expand their grass-fed chicken operation. They started with 30 turkeys four years ago and will have 135 for Thanksgiving this year.
About 75 percent of the turkeys are already pre-ordered. “They’re going quick,” Kristy Railing said.
Raising the turkeys on grass allows the Railings to finish the birds faster than barn-raised turkeys. The chlorophyll in grass helps the turkeys grow, Kristy Railing said.
“If it’s warm out here, they can pack on the pounds in a hurry,” she said.
The feed mixture is 75 percent grain and 25 percent grass, but “when you clean them, their gizzards are all full of grass,” she said.
The Railings raise the turkeys on seven acres of grass, moving them every two days. The chickens move every day.
Ben Railing likes to show people that the patches where the birds have grazed are visible in the satellite images of the farm on Google Earth.
They rent the ground from a neighbor who, ironically, is a USDA poultry inspector.
The relationship is working well. The birds eliminate the need for mowing the field, while the neighbor gives the Railings a good deal and forwards relevant notices to them.
The turkeys do not require a lot of attention, usually just a visit or two each day for feeding. Ben Railing often stops by the field on his way home from his off-the-farm job.
The Railings raise several flocks of chickens each year, totaling 2,500 birds. They process 120 birds a week. By contrast, they grow only one flock a year of turkeys.
Because all the birds live outdoors with shelter but no heat, the growing season is confined between March and November.
Even so, snow fell two years ago before all the birds were harvested. But the birds did well given the circumstances, Kristy Railing said.
The Railings pick up their standard white turkeys as day-old chicks in August at Reich Poultry Farm in Marietta. Reich could mail the turkey chicks, but the Railings do not want the August heat to hurt them while they are going through the postal system.
The Railings do get their chicken peeps through the mail, though. They pick up those shipments at the post office every two weeks during the season.
“We have a really good relationship with the post office,” Kristy Railing said.
The birds start out in the brooder for four to six weeks and then get acclimated to grass.
The all-natural grain comes from a company in Oley. Kristy Railing said the feed is basically organic, though not certified, and contains no genetically modified ingredients.
“That seems to be what people are really going for. They don’t care that it’s not certified organic,” she said.
The Railings also do not give their poultry any medicine.
“We don’t see a lot of sickness,” she said.
A few years ago, they did get an illness in the flock they could not figure out, so Kristy Railing fried beef liver and fed it to the birds.
At Penn State, where Kristy Railing studied agricultural education and Ben Railing majored in agricultural business, Kristy had used drenches in the poultry houses as a nutritional supplement.
Beef liver has many of the same nutrients as the poultry drenches, she said, and she had liver on hand.
“Do they want onions on their liver?” she joked as she cooked the meat at 2 a.m.
After eating the liver, the birds recovered.
Kristy Railing said she and her husband are very conscientious about what they feed their animals. She wants to provide safe, healthy food to consumers because “I’m feeding that to my family” too, she said.
Even in southern Lancaster County, many people are interested in knowing what goes into their food, she said.
The Railings’ young daughters, Emily and Nancy, like the turkeys. They started raising turkeys just before Emily, the older sister, turned 1. Four years later, the girls are already helping to herd the birds and put the babies in the brooder.
Their younger brother, Wyatt, is too little to help yet.
Kristy Railing, who is also a preschool teacher, said helping with the birds is good for the children.
“It’s something that kids don’t have to be afraid of,” she said.
Larger animals, such as cattle, are more dangerous for young children than turkeys.
Helping with the birds also gives the girls quality time with their father.
Three years ago raccoons took 200 chickens over two nights. Ben Railing caught some of the predators in live traps and relocated them.
Now the turkeys are in fences electrified by a solar power unit. That keeps the raccoons at bay.
“Before we got the fence, we were tying down the pens like Fort Knox,” Kristy Railing said. They could spend an hour a day getting into the pens to work with the birds.
Ben and Kristy Railing, and Ben’s father process the chickens and turkeys in the state’s first certified outdoor processing plant, which is behind Ben and Kristy’s house.
When the inspector first came to certify the small setup, he was a little surprised because the setting seems so different from indoor plants, Kristy Railing said.
The shed-size building includes industrial-grade chicken processing equipment but is open on three sides. There are still only a handful of such processors in the state, Kristy Railing said.
“We are very, very meticulous” about food safety, she said.
The birds are hot for only 20 minutes during processing and then are put in a chill tank. They are not piled up to cool, which is a recipe for foodborne illness, she said.
The birds go to market the day after they are processed. This year’s Thanksgiving turkeys will be processed this weekend.
The Railings’ business partner sells most of the poultry fresh at markets in southeastern Pennsylvania and holds the rest for winter harvest.
Most of the Railings’ turkey business is in whole breasts, but they also sell the feet, heads, gizzards and other parts.
The feet are used in egg rolls and other Asian foods, and some people think eating the feet can help ease joint pain, Kristy Railing said.
She has also experimented with selling turkeys on Facebook. On her first post, 30 people — more than the number of turkeys they had available — replied in about 10 minutes.
“It’s amazing the demand for fresh, local food,” she said.
Now, the Railings are thinking of growing the turkey part of their business by selling ground turkey and by raising a spring turkey flock in addition to their Thanksgiving flock.