Just four short miles from Pipers Farm is a very special farm and one of the homes of our flock of Properly Free Range Turkeys. You may have heard us wax lyrical about this fabulous family before, that is because Mark, along with his brother John, their partners and their parents, are responsible for rearing our incredible native breed pigs, as well as running a flock of our Suffolk lambs.
You’ll find a small bunch of diary heifers, a flock of Suffolk lambs, Saddleback pigs, fodder beet, kale, turnips, barley, and of course our Properly Free Range Turkeys all working in rotation around this farm, each one providing a vital, supporting role that means inputs are reduced, the soil is well nurtured and doesn’t become overburdened by any one crop, and the livestock have a well balanced diet as well as paramount welfare. This is an exemplary example of the importance of a traditional mixed family farm, full of dynamic enterprise, with a deep connection to natures rhythms.
When it comes to the turkeys on the farm, the chicks are hatched in late spring and spend their first few weeks inside a roomy barn. When the chicks are days old Mark sets the barn up so they are huddled close together, warm and snug, in close proximity to the brooder, keeping the chicks happy and healthy in an environment that replicates a mother's wing.
After the first week, once the chicks have begun to ‘feather up’ and have doubled in size, Mark changes the barn around so the young birds have the option to snuggle under the brooder, or stretch their legs and move away from the warmth. These gradual change in temperature are important to slowly and carefully prepare the turkeys for a life outside, properly running around the blustery Devon hillside that this farm calls home.
Into the last few weeks of the turkeys stay inside the barn, Mark feeds the birds kale stalks and leaves, encouraging the young turkeys to explore their natural instincts of pecking food and to prepare their gut for a heavily forage based diet.
Once the birds have feathered up and are strong enough for a life outside, the barn doors are flung open and out the birds go into the sparkling daylight. It’s a moment that Mark always comments on how much he loves to witness, as the Turkeys take their first steps outside.
Turkeys can be slightly nervous creatures and are not the brightest of all the inhabitants you find on a farm. It can take them a few hours and sometimes days for the most shy, to work out how grass feels between their toes and how to manoeuvre around a pile of logs. Even a muddy puddle can stop a turkey in its tracks as they querulously ponder what to do next. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to rear turkeys slowly and not push them beyond where they are comfortable, they can be easily stressed, and so patience, care and attention are all vital traits of a good turkey farmer - thankfully Mark has these qualities in spades and adores the quirks of the slightly skittish, prehistoric looking creatures.
The turkeys spend their days out on the grassy hillside, eating grasses and picking through the pasture for insects. Their diet is also supplemented, as they cannot survive on pasture alone.
Fodder beet, a sweet tasting root, is a large part of the turkeys diet, adding an important diversity of nutrition and importantly giving the birds something that they enjoy pecking at to encourage them to display their strongest natural instincts. Mark and John grow the fodder beet on the farm, using the Pipers Farm pigs to fertilise the crop and till the soil at the end of the harvest.
Kale is also grown on the farm specifically to feed the livestock, including our turkeys. It is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber and boosts digestive health.
Another important addition to the turkeys diet are oats. Grown on the farm and harvested in late Autumn, oats are key in not only the flavour of the finished turkey, but for their health and wellbeing. Feeding the turkeys oats ensures the bird’s gizzard works properly and naturally.
Think of the gizzard like an old stoneground flour mill, pulverising the cereal into flour. When food and digestive juices enter the gizzard, the thick muscles and grit help crush the food, the gizzard 'chews' the food for the bird because it does not have teeth to chew food the way humans and other mammals do.
On intensive turkey farms the birds eat a very high protein diet that can only be described as ‘rocket fuel’. The feed, or as it’s referred to often as ‘crumb’ is a paste like substance that is made up of lots of soya. An intensively reared turkey has no opportunity to use its gizzard and therefore fills its belly with high protein mush, leaving the birds with poor gut health. We understand increasingly how important gut health is to our physical and mental wellbeing and it is no different for animals.
Every evening the turkeys are tucked up safely in the barn to protect from predators that roam the landscape and are known for decimating flocks. The turkeys are bedded down in a spacious barn on another homegrown crop, barely straw.
Mark and John grow the turkeys slowly from Spring until the end of October and into November. They will reach maturity when their feathers begin to glisten and you can really understand where the ‘Bronze’ comes from in their name. Their wattle (the bumpy skin that hangs from the birds neck) will become bright red, and you will see the Stags (the male birds) display more frequently, strutting their stuff around the farm and tempting other males into a rather funny dance battle.
The turkeys are plucked and then game hung in time honoured fashion to allow the flavour and texture of the meat to intensify, resulting in the depth of flavour that only one of our free-range heritage birds can offer.
When you order a Pipers Farm Turkey at Christmas time, you are directly supporting small-scale, nature friendly farming. Each of our Turkey farms are wonderfully nuanced, creating truly special artisan produce that you can enjoy with complete confidence.