November 24, 2013

Fresh vs frozen turkey: The logistics

Every year, we're asked if we raise turkey for Thanksgiving. We have individual customers ask us as well as potential commercial customers such as butcher shops, markets and restaurants.  Everyone wants a fresh turkey and they want a guaranteed weight range.  On a large farm with multiple sales avenues and a large, established customer base, this wouldn't be such a big deal. But for a small farm, this is a logistic pickle.

To provide fresh turkeys, we would need to start processing them (killing, cleaning and packaging) no more than one week before Thanksgiving.  Our processing is mostly outdoors and in an open door garage that has been converted for animal processing. November in the Shenandoah Valley is pretty cold.

Hot Water
To properly process poultry, we need a large scalding pot with water at 150 degrees. Keeping the water at this temperature in the freezing cold and wind is time consuming and costly. We heat the water with a propane fire and go through a lot more propane when it's cold and windy.  Because turkeys are so large, they require a lot more hot water for scalding. This means that we have to continuously replenish -- and reheat -- the water for each bird as it is processed. This adds more time and expense to the process.  We have limited space to process each bird because they are so large. Because of this, we can only kill and process two or three at a time. During this processing time, the water cools significantly and we're back to reheating the water.

Chill Time
After each bird is processed, it is immediately put in a chill tank of ice water to bring down the core temperature, protecting against bacteria growth.  While this is not a huge expense, it does require a lot of coolers. Each cooler is sanitized before being filled with the ice water. It only takes two or three 15 lb birds to fill up a cooler. Imagine needing to process 100 turkeys over two days!

Keep It Fresh
Normally we get our poultry packaged and into the freezer as soon as possible.  But for fresh turkeys, we would need multiple refrigerators to keep them all at a safe temperature while awaiting customers to pick them up. Investing in more refrigerators is a very  large expense.  While we can often work timing around when people are scheduled to pickup their orders, we often find ourselves having to call customers to remind them to pick up their orders so we can have more space in our freezer or fridge.  Imagine if 25 customers didn't pickup their orders on time.

These are all considerations we deal with just in deciding on whether to offer fresh or frozen turkeys.  Even with frozen turkeys, it's a lot of freezer space and we have to balance the potential profits against using the freezer space for other products that won't take as long to be sold.

What Size?
We had several commercial customer ask us to provide 100 birds - 25 in X weight range, 50 in Y weight range and the final 25 in Z weight range.

Weight gain for turkeys is pretty predictable just like it is for broiler chickens.  We know it takes a certain number of weeks to get our birds to a desired weight. But in every batch of 100 birds, there will be a range of weights. Our batch of 20 turkeys ranged from 13 to 18 lbs with an average of 16lbs.  For a Thanksgiving bird, that's a wide range of sizes.  Not many people have the capacity to roast an 18 lb bird!

We always want our customers to be more than happy with our products. We want you to be blown away by the quality and taste. Our goal is to impress you, every time.  We would hate to take an order for a 12 lb turkey, give you an estimated price based on that weight and then have our smallest bird be 14 lbs or more.  In order for us to get a wide variety of sizes, we would need to do two things: stagger the hatch dates and grow significantly more birds to give us more variety.

Staggered Hatches
Instead of ordering 100 poults (turkey chicks) for delivery all at once (which saves us a lot of money on the price per bird and saves us tremendously on shipping costs), we would need to order 25 for week 1 (to grow out the longest and be the largest when butchered), 50 for week 3 (to be the mid-range size birds), and 25 for week 4 or 5 (to be the smallest when butchered).  This would require three different brooders, three different pasture pens.  Each brooder needs its own set of heat lamps, waterers and feeders.  Each pasture pen requires it's own waterer and feeders. Our list of expenses continues to grow and our profit margin decreases.

Economy of Size
The more we grow, the more variety there is and the easier it would be to provide specific sized birds to our customers.  After the first year purchasing the essentials for a larger operation (heat lamps, waterers, feeders, etc), our profit margin would start to increase a bit because we'd have all the construction and reusable supplies already on hand.

Back to the Freeze
By growing out our turkeys over the summer, butchering them mid-fall and freezing them for Thanksgiving, we're able to keep our expenses down and provide a competitively priced turkey.  And because they are not being sold fresh, we can butcher them at the weights we want all from the same batch of birds instead of having staggered hatches so they are all butchered at the same time, right at Thanksgiving.  We're able to process the birds in a more relaxed environment, giving each product our full attention without the stress of the weather and deadlines.

Our turkeys are delicious. Absolutely phenomenal, really.  And we hope to do more of them next year. But until we have a commercial style, enclosed processing area, we won't be doing fresh turkeys.  I promise, the frozen ones taste every bit as wonderful as the fresh.

But if you are convinced that you need a fresh turkey, please purchase from a local farmer. Give him or her an extra thanks for working in the cold and for sacrificing their own family time right before the holiday.  I'm sure they're putting in long hours to make sure your Thanksgiving turkey is perfect. Be on time to pick up your bird. Pay with cash if you can. Compliment their hard work but don't stay too long chatting because they still have lots of work to do.  Be respectful of their schedule -- try not to come at dinner time or during chores. Ask them what is the best time for pickup.  If you're running late or can't make it, call as soon as  you know so they can get back to work instead of hanging around at the house waiting for you.

Turkey season is hard work. We love the work and love sharing our products with you.  We'll see what next year brings, but we'll probably have frozen turkeys again next year. It's okay if you want a fresh one and choose a different farm to provide your Thanksgiving turkey. We understand.  We're glad you're buying local, no matter which farm it is.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Thanks for sticking with us as we grow. We're so glad to be able to share our experiences and products with you and your family.

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