ORANGEVILLE, Pa. — Todd Hopkins takes pride in her hands-on approach to raising turkeys.
And it isn’t limited to just feeding, watering and other daily chores with the birds.
Hopkins, who owns Forks Farm with her husband, John, raises beef, pork, chicken and turkey utilizing a grass-based approach. They also refrain from using antibiotics, and that sometimes means a lot more work.
Especially with turkeys raised on pasture.
One year, Hopkins said, some of her 250 turkeys had swollen feet from stepping on thorns in the pasture. Every day she would sit with each bird and hold its feet in an Epsom salt solution to alleviate the swelling. The approach worked, and since then Hopkins has made a habit of removing thorn bushes before the turkeys are moved to a new pasture.
“We keep the operation small because it’s all we can handle,” she said. “We’re with the birds every day, feeding in the morning and night, moving pastures and checking on their health. It’s a lot of labor.”
And it’s been a learning experience.
They’ve been raising turkeys on pasture for 20 years. The flock consists of 250 broad-breasted whites, which are processed on the farm. Allowing the turkeys to roam through the tall grass with plenty of space to flap their wings and pick bugs produces a better tasting meat, Hopkins said.
But it also comes with a few challenges.
After spending their first five weeks in a brooder, the young turkeys are moved to pasture pens and then to large enclosures where they are free to roam. With the brooders, Hopkins quickly learned that the poults needed plenty of room to reduce the risk of fighting, and the corners had to be rounded or else the birds could smother each other.
“The brooder was a nightmare,” she said.
Hopkins also gained an early lesson on another threat: predators.
If the turkeys are moved into the pastures when they’re small, avian predators such as hawks and even eagles take a toll.
Today, Hopkins has rounded the corners in the brooders to prevent smothering, and she doesn’t move the turkeys to the pastures until they are bigger. As a result, the problems have diminished.
“From the brooder to the pasture, we lost just two birds this year,” she said.
And for a small operation, cutting losses is critical to turning a profit. The birds are purchased as day-old poults with two shipments of 100 and 150 arriving a week apart. The turkeys are processed on a weekly basis beginning Nov. 15, and they’re sold for $4.15 per pound. The client base includes restaurants, buying clubs in Philadelphia and customers who come to the farm store.
“We usually sell out a week before Thanksgiving. If we have any ground turkey, that sells quickly too,” Hopkins said. “People want to connect with what they eat, and they like that they can come here and see the turkeys grow.”
When the birds are 16 to 17 weeks old, they have an average weight of 20 pounds, and are closing in on the 22.5 pound dressed weight that most customers prefer. Hopkins did experiment with raising heritage breed turkeys on the pastures, but she said the birds took much longer to finish — an additional five to six weeks — and they had a smaller breast, making them harder to process than the more robust white breed.
Hopkins added that the pastured turkeys, which are fed an organic feed mix in addition to consuming bugs and grass in the field, cook faster — 10 minutes per pound — because they have plenty of fat.
“They have grass, bugs, fresh air and sunshine, and as a result the meat has more texture and flavor,” said Hopkins, who is a lifetime member with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. “They’re running around and building muscle and being a bird.”
And they’re an important financial component to Forks Farm. Hopkins and her husband both have full-time jobs off the farm, but the operation is far from a hobby or even a side business. With the extra labor required for the grass-based approach, a profit is necessary to justify the heavy workload.
With the turkeys, pastures are rotated weekly and there is no automation when it comes to feeding or water. Hopkins fills feeders every day by hand, and the water is pumped from a nearby creek. Gravity carries the water through hoses to the pastures, and Hopkins keeps numerous tubs filled on a daily basis.
All the work culminates with a final turkey pick-up day at the farm that also includes a market with numerous vendors. As soon as the birds are processed, customers can take them home.
“We stop doing beef in November, our pigs and meat chickens are done, so the turkeys are our final crop,” Hopkins said. “Thanksgiving pays off those last bills and it’s a great way to end the season.”