Heritage Turkey Breeds for Homesteaders

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Heritage turkeys are a better choice for the homesteader than the breeds developed for industrial farming, with higher feed conversion rates and greater self-sufficiency than their larger relatives.
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In "Beyond the Chicken," renowned author and poultry keeper Kelly Klober offers a wealth of information for aspiring poultry keepers looking for something other than chickens, whether water fowl or land, game birds or highly domesticated breeds.

While producing and selling chickens and eggs may remain the most common American poultry venture, Kelly Klober invites readers to explore the possibilities of other poultry varieties in Beyond the Chicken (Acres U.S.A., 2014). Practical advice interspersed with humorous personal anecdotes guides poultry producers through the process of creating or expanding an alternative poultry venture, raising and caring for each type of bird discussed and building a customer base in local markets. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “The Turkey: Beyond Thanksgiving.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Beyond the Chicken.

Benjamin Franklin considered it the noblest of all farm fowl, a bird better suited to be our national emblem than the American Bald Eagle.

The turkey and the Muscovy duck are the domestic fowl of the New World. The turkey has long been the first choice of entrees to center the table at the big holidays at the end of the year. The meat of the Broadbreasted, factory-farmed birds is being chopped and restructured to be used in everything from nuggets to hotdogs and luncheon meats.

Many would question the value Franklin placed on the turkey due to so many having sad experiences with the Broadbreasted White and Bronze varieties bred for micromanaged life in confinement housing. Those birds can no longer even naturally reproduce; that Thanksgiving turkey that needs a pop-up timer to guide inexperienced consumers was produced via artificial insemination due to the monstrous disproportions to which it is now bred. The Broadbreasted poults are still the most available at farm supply and feed stores, but watching even a handful of these grow and consume volumes of feed and then not produce any young has quelled many a would-be producer’s desire to raise turkeys. It is perhaps the ultimate example of what can be termed a man-made food item.

Due to their sad experiences with these gobbling hothouse orchids, many country folk have come to believe that turkeys hatch looking for a place to just lie down and die. My first venture into turkey production was with a dozen Broadbreasted Bronze poults bought to be a summer project while I was still in grade school. I raised two of the twelve, we ate both of them, and my progress as a turkey raiser was a topic at the family table for many holiday meals to follow. My kid sister was in a picky eater phase at the time, and she ate 100 percent of the drumsticks produced in my first turkey crop.

Decades later, the interest in heirloom chicken breeds and range-produced broilers has also revived interest in the turkey as something more than a blob of white meat perched atop two unsteady legs. The heritage turkey varieties have survived to be again taken up and made into something special and apart from the factory-farmed turkey.

Smaller turkeys are being deep fried on back porches and balconies, the heirloom turkey has considerable panache among foodies and food writers, and the more naturally produced turkeys have been given considerable added value by the local and Slow Food movements. Many heirloom turkey varieties such as the Bourbon Red and the Narragansett have strong regional associations, and the Royal Palm, smaller Beltsville Whites, and even the Midget White produce meat birds more in keeping with today’s smaller families and fewer meals eaten at home.

Heritage Turkey Breed Revival

For a long time it was believed that there was just one domestic turkey existing in a number of color and size varietals. All will freely interbreed. Recent research has shown some slight genetic differences in the backgrounds of some varietals such as the Black and the Slate. They were all derived from the wild turkey, which does exist in numerous forms. Varietals include the Eastern, Merriam’s, Rio Grande, and Osceola. A colorful variant from Central America, the Ocellated turkey, is a much smaller bird, unique in its coloring and with distinctive red legs. Some folks are even finding their market niches raising one of the wild varieties, although they require special permits to possess and breed and may subject the producer to on-farm inspections from a state wildlife agent. Contact your local wildlife or conservation agency before acquiring any of these birds.

The most commonly seen heirloom varieties of turkey are the Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Black (sometimes called Black Spanish), Slate, and Narragansett. Less often seen are the Buff, Auburn, Blue Royal Palm, Holland White, and Lilac. There are others, including a chocolate-hued variety with a long history as a bird of the South that could soon enjoy a big upswing since chocolate is the current hot color in poultry circles.

The small farm stalwarts are the Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Black, and Narragansett. The last of these was long kept to naturally incubate eggs from other turkey and fowl varieties. The Royal Palm was recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1977, but its distinctive black-and-white coloring with black bands on the tail and coverts make it one of the most recognizable of the turkey varieties. Its weight of seventeen pounds for a young tom and ten pounds for a young hen make it a handy-sized bird for the small acreage and smaller consumer families.

A few years ago we had one pair of Royal Palms produce fifty-one poults in a single breeding year. They were also truly easy keepers, staying quietly within a pen made with fifty-four-inch-high cattle panels, and we found a fairly ready market for poults, young breeding birds, and even a few table birds at the local farmers’ markets.

The Black, Slate, Bourbon Red, and Narragansett all have the same weight standards. They are twenty-three pounds for young toms and fourteen pounds for young hens. Old toms will cross the scales at thirty-three pounds and old hens at eighteen pounds. The Bourbon Red was sanctioned by the American Poultry Association in 1909 while the other three received their sanctioning all the way back in 1874.

The White Holland and the Beltsville Whites predate the Broadbreasted White and are heirloom white birds with all of the desirable dressing qualities associated with white feathering (cleaner dressing, fewer noticeable pin feathers). Rather than catalog all of the available color varieties here, suffice it to say that there is something for everyone. Varieties like the Slate or Lilac can offer true challenges to the color breeder, and interest in the different colors and patterns has certainly waxed and waned over the years. Vivid coloring has become a marketing factor for many working with the heirloom birds, but for lasting success the birds must be taken up and carefully bred for ever-improving growth rate and feed efficiency. These are big birds, and during the growing stage of their development they will, like my grandfather used to say, have to be fed with a scoop shovel.

More from Beyond the Chicken:

Getting Into the Heritage Poultry Business
Can a Small Poultry Business Bolster the Rural Economy?
Raising Guinea Fowl

Reprinted with permission from Beyond the Chicken: A Guide to Alternative Poultry Species for the Small Farm by Kelly Klober and published by Acres U.S.A., 2014. Buy this book from our store: Beyond the Chicken.

Related Video:Turkey Processing with Franny & Meagan

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