While a majority of American households will consume turkey during their Thanksgiving dinner or other holiday meals, little is known about the giant bird.
Anthony Helfter, his wife, Kristy, and son, Adam, who farm north of New Haven, are among the few Iowans with an extensive knowledge of the noble bird that was once suggested to be our national bird.
Anthony began his education of turkeys at an early age. Today, he and Adam produce thousands of market birds each year.
“I started in turkeys when I was three years old,” Anthony said, “when I was old enough to pick up eggs in a small bucket.” After graduating from Osage High School, in 1979, Helfter helped his dad, Donald, and uncle, Bob, with their brooding and marketing flocks. In 1992, he took over the turkey operation.
Helfter’s Tom production is much different from the early days, when the Helfter operation was centered on producing hatching eggs and meat birds only during summer months.
“I grew up gathering eggs,” he said. “From the end of November until the end of June, we gathered eggs six times a day, seven days a week. Then we went out every night at 9 p.m. and went through the flock, stirring them so they wouldn’t get broody and quit laying eggs. I remember having to walk a good distance to buildings in a blizzards, staying there all day gathering eggs.”
The Helfters quit the brood-flock in 1989, and today are only raising meat turkeys.
“Raising turkeys is an exercise in keeping them alive,” Helfter said. “When they are little, they want to huddle in corners and around water, and they can pile and smother. Turkeys don’t like anything flying over them because they are prey animals. We have a time when crop dusting planes go over our buildings, because turkeys want to pile up or they will quit eating.”
When their turkey production was outdoors, Helfter spent most of his time building fences and moving birds from one pen to another, especially during wet weather. He said birds raised outdoors were susceptible to predators, like skunks, raccoons, coyotes and hawks. Outdoor production was labor intensive and birds were exposed to environmental problems, so today, Helfter’s flocks are housed indoors.
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The young birds arrive a day after they are hatched. They are placed in a brooding house and started on a 27 percent protein ration. As the birds mature, they are transferred to other facilities. Helfter said it is difficult to drive turkeys, so the birds are moved to different buildings using loading conveyors and a large transport cart. During their 18 to 20 weeks on the farm, the feed rations are changed about a dozen times as protein content is lowered until the birds reach market weight, which is about 45 pounds.
“Toward the end, a bird can eat about a pound and a half of feed each day,” Helfter said. “Genetics and rations have had a major impact on the industry. In the 1970’s, my dad won an award for producing 36 to 38 pound turkeys in 36 weeks, today our birds weight 48 pounds in 20 weeks.”
Helfter said you have to get rid of your rings and jewelry or they will peck at you when they get older. “They peck at anything shiny and I have seen them put a hole in the wall pecking at a shiny nail head.” After Toms are 15 weeks old, Helfter said they get pretty aggressive. “I had one fly up and hit me in the chest with both feet,” he said.
When asked what meat he and his family eats, Helfter said, “We eat mostly turkey and when people ask if I dress our own, I tell then ‘no.’ We go to the store and buy a good brand name turkey.”
Helfter shared tips on preparing a turkey.
“There are two main things; one is get a good brand name turkey and read the directions,” he said. “The second thing is to believe the directions, especially the temperature setting and the time it takes to cook.
“Don’t keep opening the oven to check the bird it releases moisture and the bird dries out. We always cook the bird breast side down, because it keeps the breast meat moister and it’s less likely to overcook.”
He added, “If you are only going to cook a turkey breast, buy one with the bone in, because those breasts cook evener and are less likely to dry out. We always cook a larger turkey than we need, because I love leftover turkey for sandwiches.”