Raising Heritage Turkey Breeds
STORY BY REBECCA KREBS. PHOTOS BY REBECCA AND ANGELA KREBS.
HERITAGE TURKEY BREEDS ARE only beginning to recover from the severe population decline they experienced in the mid-1900s when commercial broad-breasted turkeys monopolized the market. Consequently, there isn’t much variability in the quality of heritage turkey breeds offered for sale today. Many strains, or distinct bloodlines, are small, bony, and unproductive — hardly living up to the heritage turkey’s reputation as an excellent, sustainable meat bird. However, through selection by dedicated breeders, some strains have again attained the distinction of their forbearers. Start your breeding flock by choosing a strain with the traits that will be a worthwhile investment of your time and money.
The Importance of Strains
Size is a defining characteristic of quality strains. If, on average, a strain meets the ideal weight for the variety, it is a strong indicator that the breeder has selected meaty birds. Undesirable strains frequently fall 30% below ideal weights. This discrepancy is largely due to a lack of fleshing that results in scrawny-dressed birds.
The American Poultry Association’s (APA) Standard of Perfection is the authoritative source for the weights, as well as the preferred coloration, of the eight APA-recognized heritage turkey varieties, the Standard Bronze, White Holland, Narragansett, Black, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. Prominent breeders or preservation organizations are the best sources for accurate information about varieties that aren’t found in the Standard of Perfection. It can be difficult to acquire strains meeting ideal weights, particularly among the rarest heritage turkey breeds that are in desperate need of preservation and advocacy. If one of these varieties piques your interest, start with the best strain you can find and continue to improve it through selective breeding.
Besides weight, the APA Standard of Perfection emphasizes that “Body conformation in turkeys is of great importance. The body should be broad, round, and the breast full; the legs and shanks must be large, straight, and well set.”
Narrow or shallow turkeys don’t have the frame to carry good fleshing. Such conformational faults are common in unselected heritage strains. Broad-breasted turkeys are on the other extreme; their massive breasts and short legs and keels hinder their movement and prevent them from natural mating. This highlights the need for both meatiness and structural balance in heritage turkeys in order to produce good table birds while preserving traits related to long-term health, reproductive success, and foraging capability.
Compared to front-heavy, broad-breasted varieties, the carriage of well-balanced heritage turkeys is notably upstanding. Their backs, carried at about 45 degrees, deepen into full, round breasts carried slightly above horizontal. Fleshing is more evenly distributed over their breasts, thighs, and legs. Their keel and leg bones are straight, stout, and relatively long, which allows heritage birds to support substantial meat production without it infringing on their freedom of movement. Heritage turkey breeds grow their frame before they put on flesh, so it is normal for juveniles to look gawky and unsubstantial. This desirable growth pattern allows the skeletal system and organs to develop before supporting the growth of muscle.
Ready to Butcher
Turkeys are ready to butcher when their breasts are well-rounded and their feathers finish growing in. With proper nutrition, quality young heritage toms reach this stage at around 28 weeks old, and young hens reach it a couple of weeks earlier. Avoid strains that need more than 30 weeks to mature. They are inefficient, requiring a lot more feed to raise without producing any more meat.
Turkeys as Egg-Layers
The rate of maturity also impacts turkeys’ productivity as breeding stock. Quality heritage turkeys begin mating and laying eggs as young as seven months and no later than their first spring as adults.
Turkey hens are seasonal layers, producing the most eggs in the spring breeding season. In their noteworthy book, Turkey Management, Stanley J. Marsden and J. Holmes Martin explain that young hens should have a minimum production rate of 50% during the breeding season. For example, a hen must produce at least 45 eggs within the 90 days between the beginning of March and June 1.
That being said, the best heritage turkey strains under management conditions conducive to year-round laying can produce 150 or more eggs per year. Hens should lay for 5 to 7 years, though egg production decreases with age.
Finally, rates of fertility, hatchability, and poult survivability are essential statistics for the assessment of a strain’s health, vigor, and value as a sustainable breeding flock. Young turkeys’ fertility should be 90% or higher in eggs laid during the breeding season. The percentage of those eggs that hatch can be even more indicative of vigor. Marsden and Martin stress, “High hatchability is a most important point to consider when purchasing breeding stock. In good flocks from 80% to 85% of the fertile eggs should hatch under satisfactory incubation conditions.”
At least 90% of the poults should survive when brooded and fed appropriately. For naturally hatched and reared poults, the strength of hens’ mothering instincts, which is encouraged in heritage turkey breeds, plays a significant role in the poults’ survival.
Ready to Start Your Flock?
So, how do you put this information to use when starting your flock? Ask questions. Competent breeders record all the statistics discussed here and are happy to share that information with customers. Just make sure the breeder obtained the statistics from their flock specifically. It is very common for sellers to quote generalized statistics about the variety, which may or may not describe the traits of their own strain.
It may take some searching to find a quality strain of heritage turkeys, but their superior table quality, efficiency, and productivity are worth the effort. And you’ll have a hand in preserving an important part of America’s heritage agriculture.
Good questions to start with include:
• What do your adult turkeys weigh?
• What do young turkeys weigh at butcher age?
• When are they ready to butcher?
• At what age do hens start laying?
• How many eggs do they lay?
• Average fertility and hatchability rates?
• You can either look at the breeding flock in person or procure photographs to see body conformation.
• American Poultry Association, Inc. American Standard of Perfection 44th Edition. Burgettstown: American Poultry Association, 2010.
• Marsden, Stanley J., and J. Holmes Martin. Turkey Management. 6th ed. .
Rebecca Krebs is a freelance writer who lives in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. She owns and operates North Star Poultry (northstarpoultry.com), a small hatchery specializing in Blue Laced Red Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, and four exclusive chicken varieties. She also participates in her family’s Bourbon Red Turkey breeding program.
Originally published in the April/May 2023 issue of Backyard Poultry.