Our modern mindset must change when it comes to raising heritage turkeys for meat. Wave goodbye to the plump, 30 lb Christmas turkey! Only in the last 85 years has this become the norm! Instead, you’ll find yourself roasting a lean, lanky bird that doesn’t have the rounded muscles and body structure you are accustomed to. In fact, if it weighs 20 lbs you are fortunate indeed!
About Heritage Meat Turkeys
Most claim that heritage turkeys take approx 24-26 weeks to mature to a harvesting size. My personal experience says they will continue to “fill out” until 40 weeks of age. Yep! Ten months!
Due to lack of selective breeding, heritage turkeys are usually smaller at “maturity” than the assessed weight for their type. You ought to know this as you research breeds for your homestead! In fact, take the lesser number and count on that weight being the heaviest bird you’ll get. Among the largest are the Chocolate and Standard Bronze (not to be confused with the Broad-breasted Bronze).
While heritage turkeys are a charming addition to any homestead and truly old fashioned, the first thing everyone wants to know is…
“Are slow-growing turkeys a worthwhile investment?”
It depends. Yes and no. Anyone confused?
$$$ and Raising Heritage Turkeys for Meat
Heritage turkeys cost right from the get-go! While a meat chicken costs (in American funds) approximately $2.50 per bird, a heritage turkey will drain your pocketbook at $11.50 per poult. For this reason, I believe it’s worthwhile to purchase the breed/s desired, raise ’em, butcher unwanted ones, and keep the best for breeding and brooding the following year. Propagating your own flock is the way to go!
Second cost is feed. The longer I deal with heritage turkeys, the more I’m convinced that the larger meat breeds ought to be free-ranged for the sake of your pocketbook and their health!
As a result, I don’t think heritage turkeys are suitable for a small homestead (less than 1 acre). If you are determined, there are 2 smaller breeds you could check into: both the Midget White and Beltsville Small White reach full size anywhere from 7-15 lbs, are among the best egg producers. They will dress out at the same size (or perhaps slightly larger) that the meat chickens.
Selling ‘Em for Dinner
Want a way to counter-act the feed costs? If you free-range or raise your birds on organic/non-GMO feed and if you live in the proper location, Thanksgiving or Christmas offers opportunity to sell your birds at an approx $9.00 per lb. For a 10 lb bird, that is a whopping $90 bird!
Location is key and you must pay to have ’em processed at a government approved facility in order to sell freely. This fee is usually quite reasonable. Check into your state/provincial laws for details and to find the facility nearest to you.
Heritage Turkeys vs Meat Chickens
The next question that pops up is this: if heritage turkeys take longer to mature, eat lots and dress out not much bigger than meat chickens, why not just do broilers instead?
Great question! Here is where I give my best “yes” to heritage turkeys!
As part of our community farm we raised raised broiler chickens-the Jumbo Cornish X Rocks-last fall. I came to some startling conclusions afterward. And that is why I give a “yes” to turkeys. I’m a health freak because I have to be. My body is constantly battling chronic Lyme disease and because of this, I must be very careful what I put into my body as it wears out quickly. Filtering extra “junk” is something I don’t need. When it comes to meat? I’m very particular about it all!
While I never did like the idea of a bird that was too heavy for it’s own legs, it was cleaning the birds that turned me off. I found ’em to be startling, actually. Y’see, I grew up in the farming & hunting world. We were always taught to never shoot (if hunting) or eat an animal that looked sickly. Ever!
As a health freak, those meat birds freaked me out! I know what a bird’s liver ought to look like: richly deep and even in color with a shiny, luster-like coating. Instead, I was removing pale organs, sometimes with a hint of yellow, white or green. Their livers were obviously not in the best of shape!
With their inability to move and pump their lymphatic system…? How healthy was the flesh on those birds?
“Something was obviously wrong and the bird’s filtering system wasn’t working. Was I going to put that into my body and make it work to filter out whatever the bird hadn’t?!!!
E-hem! No judgement on anyone who loves their meat chickens! But this is where I believe heritage turkeys pay off: natural body functions, filtering and growth! They are incredibly agile birds and love runnin’ around, are incredibly clean eaters and overall, have strong immune systems and are healthy, hardy birds.
An active, healthy, agile bird or…a bird who can’t move very well, grows too fast for it’s own good, sits in its own manure and has signs of poorly functioning filter organs when butchered?
For my own condition, the answer is obvious. Give me the healthiest and the hardiest!
But Aren’t They Tougher Birds?
Yes, the meat of heritage turkeys isn’t as mushily soft as the birds that don’t move. Think athlete vs. couch potato! While the methods for cooking these birds died as the birds faded from the homestead, there are ways to cook and tenderize ’em!
Is it different from what we know today? You bet! Is it incredibly homesteader-ish?!