Heritage Turkey Breeds: Which One is Right for You?

Reader Contribution by Staff
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It’s the time of year when people are thinking “turkey.” So, this is a good time to compare six heritage breeds of turkeys that we raise. We have been raising heritage turkeys for quite a few years now. It started with a pair of Midget Whites; our most recent addition is the Standard Bronze. At any time, we have approximately 100 turkeys on the farm.

We raise Midget White, Beltsville Small White, White Holland, Royal Palm, Bourbon Red and Standard Bronze turkeys. We originally planned to raise a small flock of turkeys for meat, but we liked them so much that one breed was not enough. The more we researched, the more we wanted to help preserve some of the rare breeds. Here’s a brief history of the breeds that we raise, listed by size small to large.

Midget White

In the 1960s, J. R. Smyth Jr., who holds a doctorate in poultry genetics and served on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass., developed the Midget White as a small meat turkey. Unfortunately, they never really caught on and the flock was dispersed. (Read A History of the Midget White Turkey.) The Midget White and the Beltsville Small White were the only 2 breeds specifically bred for the modern poultry market; the others are much older breeds and were developed on a more local or geographic level. The Midget White was never accepted into the American Poultry Association (APA).

Mature toms (males) weigh 16 to 20 pound; hens, 8 to 12 pounds. The Midgets are easily the favorite at our table because they taste great, and we rank them No. 1. This breed also received the most votes at the second annual “Timeless Turkey” taste test of nine heritage breeds at Ayrshire Farm.

Midge Whites lay a surprisingly large egg for a small hen, which can cause prolapse problems with young hens on the first laying cycle. They tend to be early layers but go broody quickly, are good sitters and do well raising poults (babies). They have a calm nature. The hens can be fence-jumpers because of their light weight. For more information on Midget Whites, read Why the Midget White Turkey is the Perfect Homestead Turkey.

Beltsville Small White

The Beltsville Small White was developed in the 1930s by Stanley Marsden and others. At the height of popularity the Beltsville Small White was the No. 1 selling turkey in the United States, outselling all the other breeds. Its success was short lived, as Broad Breasted turkeys became more popular because of shorter growing time and larger size. Beltsville Small Whites were recognized by the APA in 1951.

These birds are the same size as the Midget White, or maybe a few pounds heavier. They have wider breasts. A very nice table bird, they have the classic turkey appearance; however, we rank them fourth in taste as they have a more bland flavor than the others. They are the most prolific layers and outlay all our other breeds combined. The younger hens show little interest in sitting, but the more mature hens are more inclined to hatch eggs and be good mothers. They are the most standoffish of the breeds we raise; they show little interest in us except at feeding time.

White Holland

The White Holland is the oldest breed we raise. White feathered turkeys were brought to Europe by the early explorers. The white turkeys were bred in Holland where they were given their name; from there they returned to the colonies with the early settlers. Also a popular meat bird that was pushed out by the Broad Breasted, they were recognized by the APA in 1874.

Toms mature to 30 pounds, and hens weigh about 20 pounds. We rank the White Holland No. 3 on our scale, due to the size and shape of the dressed bird; they show their history of being a popular meat bird in the past. White Hollands are the calmest of the varieties we raise and are a great choice for someone who doesn’t have experience raising turkeys. They’re good setters and mothers but they sometimes break eggs by stepping on them because the hens are so large.

Royal Palm

The Royal Palm is the only breed we raise that is not specifically raised as a meat turkey but more of an ornamental type. The breed dates to the 1920s and ’30s. With the black and white color pattern, their appearance is striking. They were recognized by the APA in 1977.

Mature Royal Palm toms weigh about 18 to 20 pounds; hens, 10 to 14 pounds. They are a fine table bird. We rank them sixth, not because of taste but the breast meat is less developed. They are calm birds, but the hens tend to wander and can fly over most fencing easily. They are prolific egg layers and tend to go broody quickly. They are solid sitters and do well raising poults.

This breed won first place among the panel of judges at the second annual “Timeless Turkey” taste test. The qualities noted by the judges were “superior depth of flavor in both its white and dark meat.”

Bourbon Red

Bourbon Red turkeys are named for Bourbon County in Kentucky, where J. F. Barbee developed them in the late 1800s. Bronze, White Holland and Buff turkeys were bred together to develop the Bourbon Red. They were recognized by the APA in 1909.

Toms weigh about 30 pounds; hens, 12 to 14 pounds. The Bourbon Red is ranked No. 2 on our taste scale. They are curious turkeys. Anything in their area is subject to close examination by them. They are calm and often underfoot during feeding time. They’re good sitters and mothers, but also tend to go broody early.

Standard Bronze

Most people will describe Standard Bronze when asked, “What does a turkey look like?” This old breed dates to the 1800s or earlier. They were recognized by the APA in 1874.

These are large turkeys. Toms weigh about 35 pounds; hens, 20 pounds. They rank No. 5 on our taste scale but only because of the dark feathers. They don’t dress as cleanly as a white-feathered turkey. Even though the size makes some visitors nervous, Bronze turkeys are docile. They’re good layers but tend to be less broody then the others. And they tend to break eggs in the nest. They are protective mothers when raising poults.

Is one variety better than another? I would have to say, “No.” Each has its own strengths and weaknesses — even quirks. Big birds, small birds, for the table or eye candy — there is a turkey breed for everyone. Here at S and S Poultry we always say, “Everybody loves a turkey.” The more time you spend with them, the more you can see individual traits in each one.

There is a lot of misinformation about turkeys. For example, they don’t look up and drown in the rain. They are not that hard to hatch and raise, but they are sensitive to clean and proper brooding and management techniques. A little research and planning goes a long way to success. We are passionate about the heritage breeds and want to see them preserved. 

You can get more information from the American Breeds Livestock Conservancy and the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities.