Choosing a Heritage Breed Turkey
Here at The Farmstead we are slowly moving to a cycle of growth in which we eat only the things we raise (with the exception of flour, sugar and other grain based essentials). Inevitably, we are faced with the decision to raise turkeys.
What makes a Heritage Turkey? Heritage does not mean organic or free range, although many homesteaders choose to raise their Heritage breeds in this manner. Broad Breasted Turkeys (which is what you are most likely buying from a store) can also be labeled these things. Heritage turkeys must meet certain criteria, mainly, they must be able to mate naturally to continue its genetic legacy. The popular Broad Breasted (BB) can only be bred through Artificial Insemination. BB are not genetically modified. They have simply been selectively bred and hybridized to reach 20 lbs carcass weight in just 4 months.
Heritage breeds mature slower, usually 24 to 30 weeks, as opposed to 12 to 18 weeks for the Broad Breasted. But they can also fly, mate naturally (BBs get too fat too fast and can’t mate on their own, hence the AI), and live to 14 or 15 years of age (whereas BBs are not recommended to live past 26 weeks of age due to their mobility issues). And finally, Heritage breeds must sustain some level of self-reliance so that they can survive outside. The photo above was provided by Les Farms. Her Royal Palm roosting in the tree with a wild turkey.
There are less than a dozen turkey breeds that meet the American Poultry Association's Standard of Perfection. These include: Standard Bronze, Beltsville Small White, Black, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, White Holland and White Midget. Based on feedback from our Facebook followers we've chosen to explore five breeds even further.
Bourbon Reds Touted as being one of the smarter turkey breeds, Bourbon Reds were by the far the majority opinion in our informal facebook poll. Bourbons have also gained a reputation as being easy to raise and handle while also being great foragers, excellent mothers, and very good layers. Curious turkeys, they are calm and personable, usually found closely examining anything in their vicinity.
Average weight is 33 pounds for a tom and 18 for a hen. Like most Heritage turkeys they will require AT LEAST 6 months to reach market weight, most growers suggest 9 or 10 months for optimal roasting size. Homesteaders tend to agree, if raising for yourself Bourbon Reds are the way to go. If raising for sale they may not be the wisest decision in terms of cost benefit analysis.
In a Mother Earth News taste test comparing nine breeds of turkeys, the Bourbon Red came in second (Butterball was last!).
Facebook Comments: “We raised Bourbon Reds last year. They were hardy and very curious and fun. We kept a tom and two hens. The hens laid eggs, set and hatched out more Bourbon Reds! The ones we harvested were easy to clean and very delicious. They don't finish out like a butterball though. Longer legs and leaner breast. Oh, they can fly too. You have to clip their wings or go get them off the neighbors deck.” ~ Lorraine
“We only have Bourbon reds right now but we love their personalities. They seem to grow quite nicely on very minimal feed and do great at foraging even in the rain. I did a lot of research before getting them and so far we've been really happy with our choice.” ~ Rebecca
Royal Palms Widely considered the “prettiest” of turkeys, it’s easy to see why homesteaders prefer raising the Royal Palm over other varieties. Justine of Les Farms (that's her tom to the right!) says, “They are simply magnificent. The toms are quite a bit bigger than the hens and both can fly incredibly well. My pair used to roost in the trees and loom over the neighbor’s car business. They have an obsession for shiny things. They liked to follow (scratch that, escort!) us to and from the house. They are peepers…they liked to look through windows at what was going on.”
Royal Palms turkeys are considered good foragers, and are often kept for insect control. They are very prolific egg producers and go broody quickly. Royal Palms have the least filled out breasts of the Heritage Breeds but due to their mild manners still find a place on many homesteads. The toms average about 16 pounds and the hens average about 10 pounds.
White Hollands Considered one of the oldest breeds of turkey the White Holland was recognized by the APA in 1874. Known for having exceptionally calm demeanors the hens lay large eggs very early and are known for broodiness. However, hens often break their eggs by stepping on them because of their larger size. White Hollands are recommended by many homesteaders as a great “starter” turkey.
Standard weight for White Hollands is 25 pounds for a young tom and 16 pounds for a young hen. Mature weight is 36 pounds for a tom and 20 pounds for a hen.
Facebook Comments: “We've raised Bourbon Reds, Royal Palms, Bronze, Blacks, Narragansetts, Slates and White Hollands throughout the years. We prefer the White Hollands because they are a larger bird that dress out nicely due to the light colored feathers.” ~ Stephanie
Narraganset Narragansets mature early (for a Heritage Breed) and are considered good foragers. Also considered to be one of the calmer varieties they are good egg producers and make good mothers. (Some turkeys get so excited about having babies they accidentally step on them and kill them, oops). Narraganset toms dress out around 22-28 pounds and the females dress around 12-16 pounds.
Narragansets seem to be a great option because of their disposition, especially with little Gizmo running around now. Additionally, they are known as being hardy and capable of foraging well. Because we don’t vaccinate or use antibiotics/medicated feed in any of our birds, the Narraganset is appealing for their health stature.
Facebook Comments: “I loved my Narragansetts! So calm and entertaining. We are getting more come spring. They lay beautiful eggs and are great moms.” ~ Angie
“Narragansett's. I do love the bourbons but they can be trouble and the toms can get mean.” ~Amelia
Midget Whites Midget Whites are often the number one tasting bird in Heritage and commercial breed taste tests . Toms weigh from 16 to 20 pounds and hens weight from 8 to 12. They lay early and go broody quickly. Because of the size of their eggs hens often suffer from prolapse problems during their first laying cycle. Hens are specifically called out as fence jumpers because of their smaller size.
There does seem to be some disagreement among homesteaders as to the desirable taste of these birds. Some do not prefer the flavor, color or texture, even going so far as to compare to the grocery store brand. Perhaps the way this bird is cooked means a lot.
Facebook Comments: “Yes Midget Whites are a heritage breed and are actually a breed threatened with extinction on the US Livestock Conservancy- very excellent choice!” ~ Maureen
Broad Breasted Breeds
While not a Heritage breed, many homesteaders are opting to raise Broad Breasted Breeds for their table in order to meet the looming Thanksgiving deadline. Even though they are the product of Artificial Insemination, they are not Genetically Modified, and may provide a good transition for those looking to get into Heritage birds.
Facebook Comments: "I raise broad breasted whites and the flavor is amazing!!! We do raise them small scale and sell to customers, every person always raves about the flavour. We grow them slower and have never encountered any leg issues. The first year we raised them we did encounter blackhead which did cause looses. Living on the wet coast of British Columbia and having chickens nearby allowed for infection (I can get more in details if you wanted). However I did make slight changes the next year and had no looses. We looked into Bourbon Reds and was told by a breeder to watch as they will sleep in the trees, and they take a good 6 months to grow so think more for Christmas if starting in spring. She also mentioned she liked her blue slates personalities more." ~ Tracy
"I raised 6 broad breasted whites although not a heritage breed I grass/range fed them in bottomless pens and supplemented them with clabbored milk following a 1920 method from farm journal. 22 weeks start to finish great experience we fed 70 hungry mouths for thanksgiving with each bird about 30lbs. I am an advocate for heritage breeds but for us the economy of getting them finished out before the grass was gone was important." ~ Amy
"Party pooper here. We found the heritage breeds to grow too slowly and be too bony. We buy the broad-breasted bronze for our table. We buy them in May and butcher in October. They make a lovely, moist Thanksgiving dinner." ~ Melody
So what is The Farmstead going to go with? Honestly, we're not sure. I'm leaning towards the Narraganset though. We'll keep you posted!
Photo Credit: The photos in this post are from our good friend and fellow farmer Justine at Les Farms. If you are a Canada resident she could be your source for hatching eggs, day old chicks, pullets and cockerels. Visit their "For Sale" page to learn more.