Betting the farm on heritage turkeys

Saturday, January 22nd 2005, 12:18 pm
By: News On 6

CHRISTIE, Okla. (AP) _ Mike Walters has a quick smile and an even quicker laugh as he discusses his life and livelihood in Christie, an Adair County town about 12 miles from the Arkansas border.

While he's a full-time emergency medical technician in nearby Stilwell, Walters' true passion is turkeys _ not the typical ones found on fall holiday tables, but free-range, rare breeds. He raises them from chicks for other breeders and producers, as well as for seasonal sales to discriminating cooks who don't mind paying extra at speciality Web sites such as the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, Slow Food USA and Dean & Deluca.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 264 million turkeys were raised in 2004. Most of them were the Broad Breasted White variety that carried well-known names such as ConAgra Foods' Butterball, or Cargill Turkey's Honeysuckle White.

But Walters' birds are heritage turkeys and carry more distinctive names such as White Hollands, Bronzes, Bourbon Reds, Royal Palms, Narragansetts, Blue Slates, Blacks, Buffs and Eastern Wilds.

And in the world of heritage turkeys, his operation, Walters Hatchery, has become well known.

``I guess of those who have turkeys, and who know about such operations, I would say about 80 percent know about me and my hatchery,'' Walters said. ``It's taken awhile, but I've finally earned respect in the poultry world.

``But it's a really, really small world,'' he added, with a chuckle.

Walters' passion, sparked when he spotted a wild Royal Palm while fishing with his grandfather as a teenager near the Kerr Dam in Sallisaw, is helping save several breeds from extinction.

In 1997, there were only 1,335 heritage turkeys in the country, according to a survey by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Today that number has grown to several thousand, but some of the rare breeds, such as the White Hollands, remain low in numbers.

``Three years ago, there were only 20 breeding White Holland hens in the United States,'' Walters said.

He himself has 16 hens of the White Holland breed, of which he is particularly fond because of their gentleness.

Walters recently added four toms from New Mexico, given to him by a woman who decided to leave the business and who knew of his dedication.

The turkeys roam on about 12 acres, the toms continually strutting for the hens, until the breeding season begins in February.

He also raises some quail, pheasants and chickens on his 120-acre spread, but the place is, undeniably, a haven for the turkeys. They seem to have it made in this pastoral setting, with plenty of shelter, fresh water and even a special feed that Walters has mixed in Van Buren, Ark.

The birds come to him when he calls and choose to stay on the acreage despite their unclipped wings, which could take them to nearby farms and fields.

``They know where their bread is buttered,'' Walters said.

While Walters grew up in the country, he wasn't raised on a typical farm and didn't participate in FFA or 4-H. Instead, his interest in turkeys began when his third-grade teacher in Westville, Burl Ford, brought to school a chicken egg that was about to hatch.

The chick came out ``in front of us kids,'' Walters said. ``Watching the eggs hatch is just the coolest thing.''

Then, with a voice filled with amazement, he added, ``Did you know that their heads are always under their right wings?''

After completing high school at the Markoma Bible Academy in Tahlequah, Walters began breeding turkeys.

Walters' endeavor undoubtedly has been a success. His hens are quite fertile when it comes to producing baby chicks, which are called poults. Each lays about 96 eggs annually, and they boast an 87 percent fertilization rate. In total, the hens will lay about 2,600 eggs between the end of February and early June.

``I already have standing orders for 600 poults,'' Walters said.

When breeding season begins, the birds are separated by variety in an octagonal metal building that provides protection from the weather while allowing the species to roam outside in a separately fenced areas.

The eggs are collected and marked by species, and are placed in incubators.

As the eggs are collected, they are kept at 55 degrees _ in a condition called ``statis'' that prevents the beginning of the eggs' mitosis, or conversion into chicks.

When enough eggs are collected to fill the incubator, the incubation begins. Mondays and Tuesdays are designated as starting days for the four-week process. At that time, the temperature is increased to 99.5 degrees and the humidity targeted for 45 percent to stimulate mitosis.

``Anything more and the babies would be too wet to come out of their shells,'' Walters said.

After two weeks in the incubator, each egg is ``candled,'' or looked through, to see if it has been fertilized. The good eggs go back into the incubator for another two weeks until they hatch.

``My grandmother and fiance take care of the babies when they hatch after eight weeks,'' Walters said. ``I clean the pens and do the heavy lifting, and all the management for the problems that arise.''

Once the eggs are hatched, they are immediately mailed out to breeders. Some are kept to raise for holiday tables, with the best saved from slaughter for breeding.

Three years ago, after receiving federal certification, that means attaining a USDA label, Walters began raising the birds for holiday sales. Last year they cost $4 per pound, and were processed in Missouri. While the cost for shipping alone was $40 to $50 for each bird, they sold quickly.

``Once you take a bite of one of my birds, you can taste the difference,'' he said.

But Walters also believes in educating others about the somewhat endangered turkey breeds. In the past two years he has participated in ``agriculture in the classroom'' programs sponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Education and the Oklahoma Beef Council. His hatchery has become one of the stops on the tours, during which children see his operation.

``I've got a good family, and they support what I'm doing,'' Walters said. ``They see the potential, and they want the farm to survive.''