The Battle of the Breeds

The Broad Breasted Turkey

Turkeys are a common enough bird in our culture, often gracing the dinner table at Thanksgiving or Christmas. We think that we are being traditional and “old fashioned” in doing so. But did you know…the bird that dinner centers around today is vastly different than the bird that graced most tables 100 years ago?

And these modern birds are a “pain in the neck” on many a modern homestead! Talk to anyone who has raised ’em. You’ll get the same story every time. These birds are undoubtedly the most brainless of all poultry!

Not only are they dumb, but they are also very prone to disease and sickness. With next to nothing for an immune system they must be handled carefully.

Want to keep a tom and hens for raising your own poults (aka turkey chicks)? You’ll quickly discover that these birds can’t reproduce on their own! Toms are too large and legs are too weak, the hens rarely go broody and if they do, they won’t adequately care for their young. Eggs must be incubated!

In all reality, our modern day turkeys are (almost) sterile. Without human help, they would die out completely.

These are the broad-breasted turkeys that have been selectively bred since the 1920’s. While they do bulk up quickly (unnaturally fast), they are compromised in many other ways, making them unsuitable for the modern homestead.

“So why talk turkeys if they are so hopelessly helpless as all that?!”

I’m proud to be able to introduce you to another variety of turkey we have today, the same one that did grace the dinner table 100+ years ago! You’ll find ’em under the label of “heritage breeds.”

The Heritage Turkey

Unlike the modern day broad breasted turkey, these guys are the real deal. Exactly what do I mean by that?

First, they develop at a natural (slow) pace, have strong legs and wings, can run, fly and forage as the wild turkey does! These are independent creatures. I’ve seen ’em roosting anywhere from 10-50 feet off the ground at night. If you let ’em range, they’ll canvass your property in search of bugs and greens.

Secondly, the males can do their job with ease and comfort…to both birds! He needs no help mating and is usually very discreet, gentle and silent about the job.
Narragansett Tom

Thirdly, females produce eggs regularly, go broody in the spring (terribly so!), will take care of and defend her eggs. She will also hatch and care for ’em on her own initiative.
Lavender hen with 19 poults

These are truly the homesteader’s bird! While they have been on the decline during the past 85+ years, some hatcheries offer a selection of poults and eggs if you wish to incubate your own.

I personally believe if propagating as your own personal meat supply, the best way to raise heritage turkeys is to a) primarily free range because these birds are excellent at it, eating alot and b) allow the hen to do the mothering. And as always, mothering instincts vary according to breed and each particular hen within the breed.

Of course, the big question everyone has is…is it worth raising a slower-developing bird for meat?! If free-ranging, totally! If not…well, it depends on several things. Don’t worry! We cover that under the “raising meat birds” section!

If interested you can check out the various breeds at “” as well as the breeds they recognize as “pure,” and a few they recognize but are considered “impure!” You’ll also be able to research the various qualities each breed carries.

And the continued information I offer? I’ll walk you through our setup that includes

  • basic information about the life of heritage turkeys
  • meeting your bird’s basic needs
  • cheap fencing methods
  • free-ranging your birds
  • raising heritage turkeys for meat
  • Egg production of heritage turkeys
  • how to set a broody hen
  • caring for poults
  • where to buy ’em (and to be start with mail-order poults)
  • Troubleshooting disease, deworming methods

As always, I’d love to hear what you do and your own personal experiences with these birds!