Thanksgiving Day has come and gone and families prepare for Christmas feasts.
Most of us don’t think too much about what kind of turkey we serve.
Basically, it’s 8 pounds or 20 pounds. White or dark meat.
Danny Williamson of rural Tampa is giving consumers another choice. Although Williamson doesn’t like labels, his turkeys are “all natural.”
Williamson has the largest flock of black breeding turkey on a farm in the country.
As part of Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch Inc., Williamson is general manager and chief financial officer of the company with Frank Reese of Lindsborg who serves as chief executive officer.
What’s so special about his birds?
“We are rescuing these historic genetics before they become extinct,” Williamson said.
There are no hybrids, cross-breeding, or genetic altering on this farm. He’s raising historic, American Poultry Association purebred, free-range turkeys.
Instead of taking only 14 weeks to process, these turkeys take twice as long.
“It costs more this way,” Williams explained, “because there is more time and feed involved.”
These birds are not caged fowl. They can run and fly which is why it takes them longer to grow and fatten for market.
The “pure” birds aren’t any larger than traditional commercial turkeys and don’t have any more meat. But many consumers find the meat more tasty.
It’s all about blood circulation.
“Commercial turkeys have no muscle strength,” Williamson said, because they are kept in confined places. “The flavor of meat comes from blood-flow. The meat of free-range birds is richer, more solid than in other birds.”
Just before the Thanksgiving Day holiday, Williamson took 9,500 turkeys to market. Currently, he is doting over 300 breeding hens and 50 toms, owning all of the black breeders for the company’s operation.
It has taken Williamson 13 years to get to this point.
“This is the most dangerous time for me,” he said, as he looked over his flock. “This is all I have. If disease or something wipes me out, I would have to start over.”
Williamson’s birds reproduce the natural way. No artificial insemination is used as in commercial operations.
The toms are in perfect condition this time of year as they strut their puffed physiques and fanned tail feathers around the seemingly disinterested hens, making gobbling noises for which they’re famous. The toms are choosing their mates for the breeding season. This ritual is vital for the continuation of the breed.
“Everyone talks about sustainable agriculture,” Williamson said.
This is sustainable agriculture in its purest form.
“Commercial birds cannot sustain because they don’t mate,” he said. “It’s the end of the line for them.”
When the hens are bred and eggs are laid, eggs for hatching will be taken to a hatchery at the Lindsborg location.
From there they are hatched, with some returning to the Tampa farm for future breeding.
Keeping the turkeys safe
While taking a tour of the turkey yard, two playful Australian shepherd collies frolicked about.
Do the dogs bother the birds?
“No, actually they protect the poultry,” Williamson said.
The turkeys are in fenced areas with shelters and roosts. The dogs know when there’s trouble by the noises the turkeys make. When trouble occurs, the dogs are in the pen, defending the turkeys from prey which includes coyotes and horned owls.
“Sometimes an owl will sit on a light pole (near the shelter), picking out its victim,” Williamson said.
Another adversary of the feathered fowl are skunks.
“They’ll come into the shelter at night and bite the necks of the turkeys,” Williamson said.
The dogs, Jack and Tango, typically lay in the yard near the house, a few hundred feet from the turkey house. They also scout the area for possible spoilers.
These homegrown, purebred turkeys are available at area markets as Good Shepherd Heritage Turkeys.
“The market used to be such that only upper-scale stores were interested. There are more stores and consumers interested now,” Williamson said.
The closest location to purchase a turkey from Good Shepherd Turkey Farm is Krehbiel’s Deli in McPherson.
“It isn’t for everybody,” Williamson said, “but for those who care about where their food comes from, it is for them.”
Why he does it
“There have been times when it’s rained several inches and I’m slogging through the mud to fill the feeders and I wonder if it’s worth it,” Williamson said with a smile. “This is worth it. I love what I do.”
Williamson grew up on a chicken farm but loves all animals. He remembers gathering eggs and playing in the chicken pens.
“In the 1920s and 1930s, every farm had chickens for meat and eggs,” he said. “Raising poultry is becoming a lost art form.”
It bothers Williamson to know that many consumers do not know what they’re eating or how their food was raised and processed.
To make sure his poultry production continues, Williamson shares his love and experience with youths by volunteering with local 4-H clubs and judging events.
“I want to teach the younger generation what poultry is all about.