Intro to Heritage Turkeys

Give heritage turkeys a chance!

I know. I know. What are turkeys (especially heritage breeds) doing on a continued Lyme disease site?!

First, this my life story (now that the little beasties are mostly under control), and animals are therapeutic to my soul! After losing many things that refreshed me, I find great delight in taking them back! I love having farm animals once again!

Secondly, good meat is important to me. With an O+ blood type, I tend to fade away without good meat. Notice I said ‘good’ meat! In raising our own birds, not only does it do something for my soul, but I also know what is going into our meat supply (aka what we are taking from it!).

Yes, its out of place. But not really. Cause hope for better living is about recovering life! This is what my recovered life looks like!

Let’s talk heritage turkeys!IMG_20151010_161659455

What comes to mind when you hear the word “turkey.” Be honest! Isn’t it “dumb bird?” Turkeys are known for being difficult to raise and their history is riddled with stories of their stupidity…at least recent history.

Y’see there are two varieties of this bird today. One is indeed dumb. The other? Unfortunately it has been lumped in with the first, though they don’t deserve the bad rap given ’em. I’d like to distinguish between the broad-breasted and the ancient heritage turkey!

Heritage turkeys are smart and capable birds, being excellent flyers, runners, foragers and mothers. I believe they are a great addition to any homestead or farm. Broad-breasted turkeys are not-so-smart and require lots of help for survival. In fact, if left on their own, they would die out completely!

A great comparison for chicken lovers is this: broad-breasted turkeys and your broilers are the same deal. Neither is especially hardy: they bulk up quickly and die easily! Are they natural? No.

In the 1930-1940’s broad breasted turkeys began to dominate the market. With faster meat product and unnatural growing abilities they soon dominated and drove the heritage turkey out. Many heritage breeds have been lost over the years due to lack of breeders.

But good news! Heritage turkeys do still exist (though they can be difficult to find) and they aren’t so empty-headed as what you think! With strong wings and legs, good immune systems and excellent foraging abilities, they can be a great addition to any farm or homestead!

They vary from broad breasted in three significant ways:

  1. Slow Maturation: these birds have a natural developing skeletal structure and can run and fly as their wild cousins do!
  2. Mating Abilities: many are unaware that broad breasted turkeys cannot reproduce on their own. Males have been modified to produce extra breast meat and are too heavy. Heritage toms are proportionate and generally do their job gently and discretely.
  3. Mothering Instincts: heritage hens lay, go broody and care for their young…all on their own! Meat varieties rarely do. As with any other poultry, particular heritage breeds are known for their abilities in this regard.

To date, the livestock conservancy recognizes only 8 pure heritage breeds. On their list are 4 others that are recognized breeds, but considered ‘impure.’ When choosing a bird, do your research. What do you want? Meat production, eggs, natural mothering, or an all purpose bird? Breeds and purposes can be found at the livestock conservancy page.

Wanna know a bit more about these birds?

The productive lifespan of a tom is 3-5 years. Generally, toms are gentle (far more than roosters). If you catch him mating, your lucky! He is usually very discreet and silent in his business.

2+ yr old Narragansett Tom
Lavender turkey egg

Females will produce large eggs until 5-7 years of age. Turkey eggs are mild in flavor. Many who are allergic to chicken’s egg can eat duck or turkey eggs without complications. However, most hens are not prolific producers. Our birds begin laying in April (without a heat lamp) and are finished come Sept. We get eggs every 2nd or 3rd day. If you are looking for a prolific layer, I’d recommend the Midget Whites!

Birds raised for meat will take 23-32 weeks to mature. Be aware if researching breeds for this purpose: due to the bird’s decline over the years and non-selective breeding, turkeys are usually smaller that the weight given. Young birds will continue to mature until 1 yr of age. Poults hatched in May will be ready (or slightly under-ready) come Christmas.

These are relational, sensitive birds. Keep more than one! Don’t gentle them unless you wish for a dog-like bird who follows you everywhere, waits for you on the front doorstep and continually gets underfoot!

It’s true that turkeys are easily worked up, similar to a leghorn chicken. But if you tame ’em from poults, they won’t be so flighty.

Turkeys learn from example. Its an extreme trait among  these birds! The best method of raising turkeys is to let em’ do it all themselves, breeding, laying, hatching and mothering. Yes, there are things to be aware of when raising ’em, but its really not that difficult!

I’ve outlined the procedure for you as best I know how. I’ll walk you through our setup, caring for hens, brooding pens, poult care, the natural raising of these birds.

And come Christmas? It will be worth it! Heritage turkeys are known for their superior flavor. I’ll even walk you through how to cook ’em as their flesh isn’t so flimsy as their overweight cousins!