Heritage Turkeys for the Homestead
a wonderful addition to the farm
Heritage Turkey - Narragansett
About 15 years ago, and early into our quest of raising kids with the land, we started learning about Heritage Turkeys. In search of a bird that could breed naturally and that could survive on less grain and do more 'foraging', we came upon a type of type of turkey more closely linked to its wild turkey ancestors.
All domesticated turkeys descend from the wild turkeys of North and South America, but most turkey breeds today are very different from their ancestors. According to The Livestock Conservancy, "heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised." Characteristics of a heritage turkey include:
- Naturally Mating
- Long productive outdoor lifespan - able to withstand the rigors of outdoor production systems
- Slow growth rate - taking about 28 weeks to reach marketable weight, providing time to develop strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.
In the 1950's and into the 1960's, turkeys were selected for larger size, greater breast width, and lighter feather color, to finally arrive with the broad breasted white turkey. Today's commercial turkey converts feed to meat at a much faster rate, but at the loss of the birds ability to successfully mate. They require artificial insemination to produce fertile eggs.
Our personal experience growing broad breasted varieties of turkeys was not satisfying because these birds are not designed to live long productive lives, and we knew that if we continued raising these birds, that we would be constantly purchasing turkey chicks from a hatchery. We wanted to raise a turkey that we could perpetuate on our farm through natural breeding. Closing the loop, if you will.
So, we purchased some fertile heritage turkey eggs from a friend, put the eggs in the incubator, and our adventures with these lovely birds began.
turkey chicks hatching
Some things that we have learned about these birds are:
- They can fly - which means that their yard needs a fenced roof if we want to keep them from roosting in trees at dusk.
- They are rugged and love being outdoors in the winter. Even prefer to roost out in the elements - even on those cold nights.
- They can live a LONG time. We have one hen that is at least 9 years old now. She is not laying anymore, but she is the wise Grandmother of the flock.
- They taste delicious - so much more flavor compared to the broad breasted birds that we used to raise.
- Market weight: The Toms will dress at 14-18 lbs and the hens will be 8-11 lbs; much smaller than the broad breasted turkeys, but very similar to what one would see in the wild.
Right now (late April) we are harvesting fertile eggs from our breeding stock (2 toms and 6 hens), and filling our two incubators with the hopes of having 40-50 turkey chicks hatched for this season. We sell the majority of our turkeys for Thanksgiving and have many families who come back year after year for their bird(s), raving about the meal from the previous year and ways that they plan on preparing their turkey this time around.
Our mature turkeys roam the farm during the day; they prance and preen and socialize with the chickens and ducks and search around for bugs, plants and worms, mindful to return to their yard in the evening where we can close them in - safe from predators. Our young turkeys (after 3 weeks of age) are kept in a movable hoop house, keeping them protected from predators and weather, while also providing them with fresh new grass to graze (and fertilize) each day.
Baby turkey chicks
Yes, we love our heritage turkeys....can't imagine our farm without them.