6 Reasons You Need a Pasture-Raised Turkey on Your Thanksgiving Table

pasture-raised turkey

This Thanksgiving, we’ll leave it up to you if you want to dry- or wet-brine your turkey, roast it or deep-fry it, spatchcock it or stuff it. No matter how you choose to prepare the main event, though, there’s one thing we just can’t stress enough: choose a pasture-raised turkey for Thanksgiving. Here are six reasons why this is the best choice.

1. It’s more humane.

Picking a pasture-raised turkey is important, first and foremost, because of how problematic the alternative is. Conventional turkeys may be a bit easier on your wallet, but they cost more in the long run, particularly when it comes to the humane treatment of the animals.

“Turkeys raised in confinement (CAFO) operations isn’t good for the turkeys (just ask them),” says John McAuley of Healthy Hen Farms.

Civil Eats shares the somewhat gruesome details of the lives of industrially raised turkeys on factory farms, noting that these turkeys are first hatched in incubators before being debeaked and fed a diet of corn laced with antibiotics.

“Industrially produced turkeys spend their first three weeks of life crammed into a brooder with hundreds of other birds,” Civil Eats reports. “In the fourth week, turkey chicks are moved from the brooder to a giant window-less room with 10,000 other turkeys where bright lights shine 24 hours a day. With the lights constantly blaring, natural sleeping, eating, and fertility patterns are completely disrupted and the turkeys are, for the most part, kept awake and eating non-stop.”

Heidi Diestel of Diestel Family Turkey Ranch notes that her family’s methods afford the animals a far more pleasant life.

“Diestel birds are raised almost twice as long and given three times as much space as conventional birds,” she says.

Other farms that sell pasture-raised turkeys have similar policies, keeping the birds out of doors and allowing them to carry out their natural feeding and roosting behaviors.

2. It’s better for the environment.

CAFO operations are notoriously bad for the environment. According to the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, agricultural emissions comprise nearly 20 percent of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

“It isn’t good for the land because of all the infrastructure and waste that gets treated as sewage,” explains McAuley.

Pasture-raised turkeys, especially those hailing from small farms, are much less hazardous to the environment. The Diestel family, for example, works to eliminate the use of toxic inorganic substances and to conserve natural resources through its farming methods.

“Through the use of composting, the Diestel family reduces the greenhouse gas emissions of products that would normally be landfilled by approximately 70 percent,” explains Diestel. “And by composting our manure, feathers, and cardboard, we reduce their waste stream by nearly 75 percent!”

3. Pasture-raised turkey tastes better.

Once you’ve tasted a pasture-raised turkey, it’s impossible to go back to conventional.

“Most of our customers say it is the best tasting and moistest bird they have ever had,” says McAuley.

This has a lot to do with the ways in which pasture-raised turkeys are handled.

“The vast difference in the way a small scale sustainable turkey is raised results in a totally different tasting bird,” explains Ken Norton of Norton Farms, noting that both the birds’ living conditions and their ability to eat a naturally diverse diet of bugs and insects supplemented by a quality feed changes their flavor and fat content.

The improved taste also has to do with the ways in which these turkeys are processed for consumption. Unlike conventional turkeys, most pasture-raised turkeys from small farms are not pumped full of water or saline solution, which conventional birds often are to increase moisture, according to Norton.

The farmer’s attention to the needs of the individual breed helps as well, as Diestel explains.

“We select specific breeds of turkeys and raise them to their ideal weight,” she says. “If we didn’t allow our turkeys to be slow grown naturally, the birds wouldn’t develop the flavor and texture our customers know so well.”

4. They’re quicker to cook.

Because pasture-raised turkeys are often leaner than conventional, they have a tendency to dry out if not cooked properly. But if you cook them to the right temperature – between 170 and 175 internal temperature – and then leave them to rest for 30 minutes before carving, they will be juicy and tender, and they’ll monopolize the oven for less time than a conventional bird.

“When we started raising and eating our own turkey and chicken, it was too dry as we were going by how long we cooked other poultry in the past,” explains Norton. “As soon as we switched to the temperature method we have never had better-tasting poultry.”

Another benefit of choosing a pasture-raised turkey from a small farm is, of course, that you can ask your farmer for advice. Be sure to ask how he or she prefers to prepare the turkey so that you get the most out of your bird.

5. Pasture-raised turkey is healthier.

Several studies have shown that eating pasture-raised meat is healthier than conventional, and the same holds true for poultry.

A study at the University of Perugia showed that chickens raised out of doors were higher in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, and a 2013 study by the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association showed that pasture-raised chickens were also higher in vitamins D3 and E.

Health doesn’t begin and end with what’s in the poultry, however; it’s also important to focus on what’s absent from pasture-raised turkey: namely, antibiotics. Studies have shown that up to 70 percent of all antimicrobials are fed to farm animals in the U.S. in a constant, low-level stream to ward off diseases that stem from animals being kept in such close, unclean quarters. This can lead to antibiotic resistance, amongst other issues.

This isn’t a problem with pasture-raised turkey, as Diestel explains.

“Diestel farmers walk the turkeys every day and pay close attention to their health, removing the need for antibiotics,” she says.

6. Buying pasture-raised turkey makes it easier to promote biodiversity.

The broad-breasted conventional turkey has become popular in most American kitchens due to its high proportion of white meat, but small farmers are now bringing back the heritage breeds that were the norm until the middle of the 20th century.

Elmwood Stock Farm, for example, raises pastured Narragansetts, a breed that offers a much richer flavor than a conventional turkey.

“Because the heritage turkeys have a better balance between the dark meat and white meat, roasting a bird to perfection is easier, and the meat has a richer flavor,” explains Ann Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm.

These options are far more available with small, sustainable farms, so be sure to ask questions and choose the turkey that best suits the environmental, humane, and flavor profile that you feel good about.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.