Wednesday, November 12, 2014

a turkey travail

Sweetgrass flock at Litengård

The saddest day of the year arrived yesterday, the day I transported the majority of our turkeys to the processor in order to supply Thanksgiving tables all around our area with the healthiest, happiest turkey on the planet.

I dread this day above all others - even more than I dread picking up hay bales.

It's not so much that I dread the physical effort, although in hindsight, I should have been dreading this as well, but rather, because I adore these birds.

For the ones I get from the hatchery, this year the Broad-Breasted Bronze and White, I have been there since they arrived at the farm as day old balls of fluff in the middle of June, five months ago.

a tale of two turkeys

For our Sweetgrass turkeys, I have been there since the day I collected the eggs from my hens and placed them into an incubator in Feb., counting out the days until the first eggs pipped and hatched at the end of March, 8 1/2 months ago.

For these past eight months I have spent every day caring for them, watering them, feeding them, moving them, being endlessly entertained by them.

I have been awed by their beauty, and giggled over their games of chase and keep-away.

I have talked to them and they have gobbled to me.

beautiful Sweetgrass heritage turkey hen

In short, I have loved them.

Every. Single. Day.

Sweetgrass toms at Litengård

So yesterday arrived with much trepidation.  Not only is it an emotional day for me, but also I was nervous because this was the first time I'd be transporting them via a livestock trailer (previously my numbers were so small I could do it via dog kennels in the back of the XUV).

I picked up the trailer the day before, and had no trouble getting it out to the end of the hay field where the Sweetgrass turkey paddock was, even doing a fine job of backing it up to the paddock.  It would be ready for loading first thing in the morning.

Unfortunately, overnight we received 1.5 inches of slick, wet snow.

snow in the Sweetgrass paddock

So yesterday morning, I swallowed my nerves and headed out to the hayfield, remembering to turn off the fence charger before heading down.

I opened a gap in the paddock, making the two ends of the fence into a little funnel right up to the trailer.  With the back of the trailer open, the funnel led right into the trailer.

Sweetgrass flock checking out the livestock trailer

I had no idea if the Sweetgrass turkeys would move up the funnel or be afraid of it (turkeys can be very cautious of something new) but they all were curious and moved right up the funnel.  With some very very slow herding pressure from behind, one by one they all jumped into the trailer.

Well, all except for one Jake who snuck down the outside of the trailer between the fence.

I got the net and caught him and loaded him by hand.

Sweetgrass flock loading onto the trailer

Half of my work was done for the day, and it wasn't even 10:00am!


Cocoapelli watches the turkeys load up

After firing up the truck (a GMC XUV with 4WD) I inched my way forward up a slight incline, hearing the wheels spin and slip a little.

Uh oh, this was the easy part of the journey - by far the steepest part was getting up off the lower hayfield.

I made it up the little rise and gathered speed as the truck descended down the hayfield, giving it as much gas as I felt it could handle.

We made the rise at the top end of the field and the sharp turn up off the hayfield onto the grass field road running below the cheep shed, and I continued along the field road towards the last turn.

Cranking the wheel for the last turn, I felt my anxiety spike as the truck refused to obey, continuing straight into the next hayfield and completely missing the turn.

off the lower hayfield, only to get stuck on another field

By the time the truck turned we were 20' off the field road.

And stuck.

Spinning tires turned slick snow into even slicker ice and mud - I wasn't going anywhere.

Time to call in Plan B.

I tromped to the house in my 20 pounds of Carhartt insulated barn clothes and called my closest neighbor, the one who often cuts hay for us.  They always seem to have a lot of large equipment around, and I was praying they could pull me up the last 40' to the dry pavement of my driveway.

"No problem," my neighbor assured me, he'd be home in 90 minutes.  I checked the clock and estimated a noon arrival, giving me plenty of time to load the remaining turkeys and get on the road for the processor by 2:00pm.

In the meantime I did all the other afternoon and evening chores that I would need to do before leaving for the many hours it would take to get to the processor and back home again.

12:30 came and went.

I kept myself busy.

Somehow I managed to wriggle the truck and trailer off the hayfield back onto the field road, but I was still stuck there.

stuck on the field road in 1" of snow

I realized by original plan of driving the trailer up next to the paddock of Broad-Breasted turkeys would not be feasible given the slick conditions of the snowy hayfields, so I made a "Plan B" for getting my broad-breasted turkeys onto the trailer - I would make a laneway out of my extra net fences leading from their paddock down to the trailer on the driveway.

The fences were extra heavy, given that they had been laying on the ground and covered in wet snow when I picked them up, showering the back of my neck with cold water.

But eventually I had them both set, and beautiful little lane leading right down to the driveway.

{Hard to see them in this photo but there are 2 net fences blending into the snow}

laneway to the broad-breasted bronze paddock

1:30 came and went.

I fed and moved the rabbits, switched out their frozen water bottles, checked on the chickens and sheep.

I spent some time hanging out in the Broad-Breasted turkey paddock, soaking in my last sights and sounds of the flock.

broad-breasted turkey hen from a flock at Litengård

2:00 came and went.  I decided to call again.  He was nearly on his way he said.

At 2:30 he arrived with his 4WD truck and a chain.  It didn't take long to realize we still weren't going anywhere.

"I'll be right back," he assured me, then slipped and slid his way off the hayfield and disappeared.

I entertained myself by checking my Facebook and Instagram feeds, and when I next looked up, a GINORMOUS tractor loomed into my sight.

GINORMOUS tractor pulling us off the field road

In less than two minutes the monster and pulled us up the remaining field road onto hard pavement.

I tried sending my rescuer off with some frozen chickens as a thank-you, but all he said was, "That's what good neighbors are for."

It was now 3:00pm, time to load the broad-breasted turkeys.

I pulled the trailer up the driveway and parked it next to the laneway.  After opening the back door of the trailer I realized the turkeys would be able to duck under the door, so I took the ATV and got 3 bales of hay to stack along the back side of the door and prevent any escapes.

laneway, trailer, hay bales, what could go wrong?

It was time to open the paddock.

The turkeys headed down the laneway just as I had planned.

herding turkeys


Until they got a couple feet from the driveway.

Apparently, pavement is scary, because they would not BUDGE from their position, even with pressure from me behind them.

And then as if on cue, half of the flock attempted to fly over the netting and escape.

Because they are so big, they didn't quite make it over the net, but did hit the netting hard enough to tumble over it anyway.


Now I had several turkeys in the laneway, and even more outside of it.

The thing about herds and flocks is, in general, they desire to stick together.  That's why if one sheep or one alpaca escapes, I never panic, since they will always hang around the paddock where their mates are.

The same goes for turkeys.  The ones on the outside followed along as I led the others back up the laneway and back into their paddock, then herded them over to their night shelter which consists of a shade shelter with a livestock panel on each end, which we shut them into at night.

Once I got the inside group contained, I opened the paddock and herded the others inside, eventually getting them into the shelter as well.

Now the real fun began, as I could not attempt to herd them down the laneway again, I would have to catch each one individually and bring it to the trailer by hand.

could you lift this tom by yourself?

After lifting two nearly-forty-pounder toms I realized I would not have the strength to carry them one-by-one all the way from the shelter to the trailer, so I went and found the wagon and grabbed the biggest dog kennel we had, and caught and transported them two-by-two.

I was utterly exhausted when the last one went safely into the trailer.

By now it was after 4:00pm.  I rushed inside to quick shower and change (I was thoroughly drenched from the exertion of hauling the turkeys), feed the dog, count the cats and if all present (they were), shut them inside the house for the night, then grab a couple of water buckets (in case we got stranded on bad roads on the way there) and head out.

By 4:30 I was on the road, only 2.5 hours past my desired departure time.

Thankfully, the rest of the night was uneventful and the roads that I feared would be slick and snowy were clear and dry.

The friendly folks at the processor even offered to back my trailer up into the loading area for me.

The turkeys herded off the trailer with much less effort than they had required getting on.

The trailer was returned to its owner only slightly muddier than when it left.

Today I ache so badly I almost cannot move.  After morning chores (which consisted of emptying and refilling every single water bucket which had frozen into 4" thick sheets of ice) I had to take a 2-hour nap.

Now that the difficult physical parts of the turkey tale are over, I will have the time and space to grieve the loss of my turkeys, as I do every year at this time.

I will remind myself that another new batch of turkeys will hatch in the spring, starting the cycle all over again.

But the nearly empty paddock will seem lifeless despite the remaining inhabitants - five remaining Sweetgrass turkeys (my breeding flock), and the boys, all of which will be coming up off the hayfield this weekend and settling into their winter paddocks.

And of course there are still the sheep and lambs, the girls, the laying hens, meat rabbits and the Velveteens.

My daily chores and care giving tasks will help me take my mind off of the loss, and will also remind me of a greeting card I once read, the wisdom of children always surprising me:

I once asked a four
year old what the
secret of life was.
"Feed the kitties," she said, "Feed the kitties."
— Ellis Felker

Blessings -
Gypsy Farmgirl loads turkeys for transport


jenlarson said...

I think this would be the hardest part of raising animals. However, I appreciate all of your hard work, and look forward to enjoying the wonderful meals your turkey(s) will provide!!
Thank you!

Victoria Strauser said...

Jen - yes, it is by far the hardest part. I reassure myself with the thought that for every turkey I raise and sell, one less turkey lived a life in a pole building. It is still sad for me though. Thank you for supporting small farmers!

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