For turkeys to be grown successfully free-range, there needs to be sufficient land, a suitable climate and expert management. A turkey farm in South Australia had these fundamentals in place when the owners established their free-range enterprise 15 years ago.

Identify the right market

Birds are reared on three hectares of a 250-hectare property where wheat, safflower and canola are grown. The turkey growing not only provided the opportunity to diversify established agriculture pursuits but also to grow a distinctive meat product for the market place. There are only a small number of free-range turkey farms in Australia and this business was seen to have great potential. The decision turned out to be a good one: the enterprise has developed to produce, process and market 16,000 turkeys annually.

An important factor in the success of the farm is the promotion that turkeys are grown under natural conditions, with less stress than those grown intensively.

Another factor in this development is that the range of turkey products available has encouraged consumers to eat turkey meat all year round. This market strategy is to overcome the Christmas turkey custom by supplying smaller cuts that are easier to cook and eat. Also the turkey value-added products offer a variation to consumers and at a lower cost than buying a whole bird, and the smaller cuts can be consumed quicker. The comprehensive range of turkey products include breast fillets, schnitzels, mince, marinated wings and legs, turkey rolls, thigh portions and turkey burgers. Traditional whole turkeys are always available usually the smaller, female bird for Christmas and other celebrations. In the early years, all products were marketed fresh, which added appeal to customers, but the expansion of the business meant that it is necessary to freeze some products to supply the market at times of higher demand.

Being an independent company, the owners chose to supply directly to customers, which include hotels, clubs, butcher shops and institutions. Success was achieved by supplying a quality product and keeping in touch with customers' needs.

Tips for free-range turkey production

On the growing side, a great deal of knowledge and experience has been gathered over the years since the business was established. Nevertheless, turkeys are still considered to be demanding birds and difficult to rear successfully.

The ability and instinct to understand their behaviour patterns and to react accordingly is essential in their management from day-old to slaughter. These birds can be unpredictable, and what may appear logical to manage them correctly does not always have the right result. They require expert management through all stages of growth and this applies even when they are free-ranging. Even a short lack of attention can adversely affect liveability and growth.

Brooding a critical phase

Brooding the poults is arguably the most critical and delicate part of the growing cycle. Immediately when the poults arrive at the farm from the hatchery, they are placed in previously sanitised sheds with shavings on the floor and gas brooders to provide sufficient heat to avoid any chance of chilling the young birds.

With poults renowned for having to be encouraged to eat and drink, the turkey starter crumbles are placed in aluminium pie dishes. The bright foil attracts the poults to the feed, and the same material is also placed in the water dishes for the same reason. Tube feeders are introduced as soon as possible to avoid food wastage.

The behaviour of the poults is closely observed during the first day or two to confirm that they are responding to these good management practices. Water-soluble vitamin mix is given to the poults as an additional boost.

In addition, bright lighting is provided for the first 3 days, again to encourage the young birds to eat and drink, as well as to get used to their surroundings. At the end of the first week, the poults are only receiving natural daylight. Initially, bright lighting was used throughout the whole brooding period but it has been established that turkeys can develop leg weakness during their time in the paddocks under this practice. Less light stimulation during brooding encourages stronger bone growth and so the light intensity was consequently reduced.

By adopting these management practices the mortality rate during brooding is about 1%. Young poults are expensive and it is essential that each one placed under the brooders must have the chance not only to survive but to grow to its genetic potential.

Managing the birds on free range

All birds are vaccinated at 4 and 7 weeks of age to control cholera, which can be a major problem with any free-ranging poultry.

Following brooding, the turkeys are placed in deep litter sheds and allowed access to the free-range paddocks at about 8 weeks of age. The well-fenced paddocks are set near the homestead where the turkeys can be closely observed, particularly during the first few days when they are settling into their new environment.

The mild Mediterranean climate with cool winters and warm to hot summers is ideal for growing turkeys in this way. Only a minimum amount of shelter is needed and only then to protect the birds in extreme weather conditions, which occur infrequently. Housing costs are low: all that is needed are gum and pine trees and a simple shelter to offer protection when needed. Because of the mild climatic conditions, the turkeys favour camping in the open usually near the feeders and drinkers.

The biggest concern is high summer temperatures, when the birds need shade and ground water to dip their breasts in to keep cool. These periods are infrequent and do not last for extended periods. This is one time when expert management is required to prevent mortalities from heat stress.

The turkeys range on clover and native grasses, which supplement the compound feed from a feed mill. Only Nicholas White turkeys are used. Liveweights of more than 14kg are achieved at 18 weeks of age.

The farm is isolated from other properties and roads, making it possible to keep the turkeys calm. Visits from foxes cause concern.

Own processing facilities

All turkeys are slaughtered and processed on the property. Being only a short distance from the rearing paddocks, the birds are easily transported to the processing factory, reducing stress and adding to their yield and texture of the meat.

The owner has full control over most aspects including output and marketing products to meet present and future demands. Birds are processed under strict hygienic conditions, as with larger operations.

This commitment was made because many chicken processors are reluctant to break their processing lines in order to dress turkeys a specialised procedure.

Turkey portions are mainly cut from the bigger carcasses by local skilled operators. Once processed, the turkey meat is delivered as quickly as possible to retain the fresh taste. Turkey meat grown on free-range offers an exciting alternative to consumers, offering a better flavour and texture than intensively grown turkeys.

Producing free-range turkey requires particular skills and this farm has successfully risen to the challenges and built up a successful enterprise.