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Talking turkey

Frank Reese raises turkeys the old-fashioned way at Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, near Lindsborg.

He also raises old-fashioned birds. Some of the last of their kind anywhere populate his flocks of Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Norfolk Black, White Holland and Slate turkeys.

Reese, a fourth-generation Kansas poultry farmer, also raises heritage breed chickens: Barred Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire, Dark Indian Game Cornish and Silver Laced Wyandottes, along with ducks and geese. A pair of llamas and an 18-year-old Jersey cow also roam the pastures with the birds and the farm’s three dogs.

The cow, which he calls “Moo-rissa,” is a pet, he says.

“She lost her home in a divorce when she was just a little calf,” he says. “I took her in, and she’s been here ever since.”

Key Points

• Lindsborg farmer raises heritage breeds of turkeys and chickens.

• This grower would like to see more people join the ranks of diverse producers.

• Lack of biodiversity in mass production creates alarm.

Reese says his goal is to help more poultry growers turn away from mass-produced birds and toward production of the heritage breeds that are slower-growing, leaner and stronger.

He says the lineage of some of his turkeys dates back to the 1890s; the Bourbon Reds are remnants of the breed that was popular in Kansas in the early 1900s.

The broad-breasted White hybrid turkeys that dominate mass-production farms have been around since the 1960s. The industry likes them for their fast growth, rapid meat production and larger, wider breasts.

“But their bodies often grow so big so fast that their hearts and lungs can’t keep up,” Reese says.

“They have been known to drop dead of a heart attack during loading for market. There is no biodiversity in the industrialized breeds. They can’t breed naturally and they have a short life span. I think the lack of biodiversity is a big red flag for the future of the industry.”

A heritage turkey hen can live and lay eggs for up to 12 years, he says. Broad-breasted Whites rarely live more than two years.

Reese acknowledges that price — and affordability for the consumer ­— is on the side of mass production.

“The infrastructure is all on the side of the mass producers,” he says. “They own the production, the hatcheries, the processing plants. It’s hard for me even to find a processor for my birds. You have to have more than 10,000 birds to even get in at the plant.”

Reese reached that threshold two years ago. He takes his turkeys to a plant in Gibbon, Neb., for processing as whole birds. Those that are not suitable for sale as whole birds for one reason or another come back to Krehbiel Specialty Meats at McPherson, where they become ground turkey or deli meats offered for sale in Green Acres food markets in Kansas and across the country.

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TURKEY TRADITION: The Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch raises old-fashioned breeds of turkey, including Bronze and Narragansett, the old-fashioned way. These birds roost indoors at night and forage in wide-open pastures all day. A heritage turkey hen can lay eggs for up to 12 years; the common White hybrid usually lives just two years.

This article published in the November, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.