Raising Heritage Breed Chocolate Turkeys
Keeping Heritage Turkeys Makes you a Partner in Preserving Endangered Turkey Breeds
Keeping turkeys is more challenging than raising any other poultry. When we made the decision to add turkeys, we researched heritage turkey breeds. Our desire is to help preserve at least one of the endangered heritage breeds. Since we already have heritage breed chickens, we wanted to help other endangered poultry. We settled on Chocolate Turkeys.
We discovered they were the main turkey breed in our area before and during the Civil War. They were eaten and lost their breeders during the war. The breeding stock was almost completely depleted. Even today they remain on the critical list. Most of the Chocolate Turkey flocks of today have some Bronze, Bourbon Red, or Narragansett DNA. This is because of the depleted number of breeding stock. However, the breed is pure enough for The Livestock Conservancy to accept them as a true heritage breed.
I bet you couldn’t guess, but the name “Chocolate” comes from the color of this chocolate turkey’s feathers, shanks, and feet. They are all three a solid milk chocolate color when the bird is mature. They are considered the largest of the heritage turkey breeds. Yet they are known for their gentle nature. Mine have imprinted with me and we hold turkey conversations. When I go outside, they hear me and come running. The chocolate turkey hens are good mothers, at least that’s what I’ve read. My hen is only 16 weeks old so I haven’t experienced this yet.
We were also attracted to the chocolate turkey because they produce more meat than most of the other heritage breeds. A mature tom averages 33 pounds while his hen averages a mature weight of 18 pounds. They’re dressed weight is 24 to 28 pounds for the tom and 14 to 16 pounds for the hen.
If you’re wondering, “What is a heritage turkey?” I’ll be happy to tell you. According to the ALBC, a heritage breed must meet 3 qualifications.
1. They must breed naturally. We all understand what this means. It’s interesting to note a heritage breed turkey must have naturally mated grandparents and parents.
2. They must be able to endure a lengthy, natural, outdoor reproduction system. A breeding hen is productive for 5 to 7 years on average. A breeding Tom is productive for 3 to 5 years on average.
3. They must have a slow growth rate. It takes a heritage breed turkey 28 weeks to reach its marketable weight. The slow growth rate gives them time to develop their skeletal system and internal organs so they can handle the weight of their muscle mass.
“Interestingly, the turkey known as the Broad Breasted Bronze in the early 1930s through the late 1950s is nearly identical to today’s Heritage Bronze turkey – both being naturally mating, productive, long-lived, and requiring 26-28 weeks to reach market weight. This early Broad Breasted Bronze is very different from the modern turkey of the same name. The Broad Breasted turkey of today has traits that fit modern, genetically controlled, intensively managed, efficiency-driven farming. While superb at their job, modern Broad Breasted Bronze and Broad Breasted White turkeys are not Heritage Turkeys. Only naturally mating turkeys meeting all of the above criteria are Heritage Turkeys.” – ALBC
Once we had our order placed, we began our preparations for their arrival. I began checking to see if I could find out about any special needs for brooding chocolate turkey poults. That’s when I discovered there isn’t a simple source of information available on raising them and the difficulties involved. I found different articles, but had to piece together information from each one. After they’ve hatched out and raised their own poults, another year or two, I plan to write a book just on the Chocolate Turkey.
I was able to determine they like it 5-10 degrees warmer than chicks the first couple of weeks. It’s also better for them to have their food and water elevated to neck level. Otherwise, you can brood them like chicks.
We ordered 15 chocolate turkey poults. Three died within the first two days. The stress of shipment and shipment injuries killed them. By the 7th day, I had lost 5 more poults to respiratory problems from shipment stress. I was sorrowful, but did all I could for the remaining 7. They made it to the outside in what I thought was a healthy state, then it happened.
I had an excruciating experience with the turkey poults. One I’ve never had in 30+ years of poultry keeping. It was the dastardly disease, coccidiosis. We lost 5 turkey poults to this disease. I learned a great deal from the experience. At the time I write this article we have a healthy 16 week old tom, Cocoa Roo, and a hen, Crazy Cora.
Cocoa Roo got his name because his snood was cocoa colored when he was a poult. Now that he’s more mature, it’s not cocoa colored, but he knows his name so it stays. Crazy Cora got her name because she’s just that, crazy! She reminded me of the Crazy Cora character on “Quigley Down Under.” (Who doesn’t like a Tom Selleck movie?)
She freaks out about everything first thing in the morning. Flying here and there and making all kinds of noise. As the day goes on she gets more relaxed, most of the time.
We’re never bored. When they were learning to fly, they would fly over the fence on accident. Oh! You’ve never heard such commotion like when they are seperated. I was always running out to catch and “rescue” whomever was over the fence. Now they come and go as they please.
I fall in love with these birds every day. I had 15 Speckled Sussex chicks arrive three days before the Chocolate Turkey poults. There are some notable differences in chickens and heritage turkey breeds.
The turkeys are larger and more aggressive as young poultry. By the time they are 3-4 weeks old, the turkeys are more laid back and the chickens are more aggressive.
The turkeys are slower to learn to eat and drink. With chicks, you dip their beaks once or twice and they’ve got it. I had to show the turkeys how and where several times before they began eating and drinking on their own.
The turkeys are extremely sensitive to environmental changes when poults. If you move the food or water, you have to show them where you moved it to a couple of times. They don’t handle temperature, sound, or light changes without letting you know they aren’t happy. Now that they’re older, they are most resilient and inquisitive.
Turkeys become attached to their humans and are much more friendly than chicks. This is noticeable from about 3 weeks of age.
They like to start perching and roosting as early as 3 weeks of age. I was amazed at their instinct and ability to flutter and perch at such a young age.
They are louder and more vocal than the chicks. Turkeys want to talk to you, sometimes for extended periods of time. If Cocoa Roo and Crazy Cora hear me moving around outside without talking to them, they’ll get louder and louder until I acknowledge them. They run up to me in the morning wanting me to get down and talk with them. Every morning I’m followed to the feed shed. Even though the gate is closed, they fly to the top of it or to the top of the feed shed and talk to me while I get the feed and open the gates.
I read that turkeys are kind of “simple minded, almost stupid.” I believe this may be true of domestic turkey breeds, commonly called commercial breeds, but not heritage breeds. My Chocolates are smart, independent thinking birds.
While they free range with the chickens, roost with them, and eat with them, they seem to know they’re different. You will almost always see Cocoa Roo and Crazy Cora together. She’ll go to roost in the right place, most of the time. She’s always on the roost before him, but talks to him when he finally gets in the coop.
If one flys up or out, it will call to the other one until they join them or until the calling one gives up and joins the other. They are so funny. He likes to “boss” her by strutting and gobbling, in his best big boy voice. She likes to ignore him.
Cocoa Roo began strutting when he was 9 weeks old. The first time I saw him, I squealed with delight and joy. He immediately stopped. It took me a couple of weeks to be able to take a photo of him doing it. He does it more and more. They began “gobbling” and making other mature bird sounds around 13 weeks old.
They pretty much do what they want to do. If the gates are closed and they want to free range, they simply fly over. When it’s time to go to roost, I never know where I’ll find them, or him. I coax them down and they go to roost where I want them too, but not without some convincing. I may let them roost where they want when they’re older, but I’m still protective of them. I want her to feel safe in the coop so she’ll lay in her nest. I don’t want to have an egg hunt to find her laying spot.
Turkey hens begin laying later than chicken hens. She won’t begin laying until she is about 8 months old. She also won’t lay as often as chickens do. Heritage breed hens will lay an egg every 3-5 days. On average 100 – 150 eggs a year.
I’m excited to share my journey into breeding the heritage breed Chocolate Turkey with you. We are privileged to be a part of its preservation. Our excitement is not only for the sake of the Chocolates, but our own pleasure.
Yes, we are sustenance farmers, but we will only eat the birds not chosen for breeding. Building a breeding flock of heritage turkeys takes time. We will be selective in which birds are kept for breeding. You only want the strongest, healthiest, most productive birds for breeding.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your family and friends. Share your thoughts and experience with us in the comments below. You can contact me personally if I can help in any way.
Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and The Pack