Six Heritage Turkey Breeds on the Farm

A Side-by-Side Comparison of Heritage Turkeys

By Steve & Sharon Ashman – We thought you would enjoy a side-by-side comparison of the six heritage turkey breeds that we raise on our heritage turkey farm. We have been raising heritage turkey breeds for quite a few years now. We started with a pair of Midget White and are now onto our most recent addition, the Standard Bronze. At any given time we have approximately 100 on the farm.

We raise Midget White, Beltsville Small White, White Holland, Standard Bronze, Royal Palm Turkey and Bourbon Red Turkey. The original plan was raising turkeys for meat in a small, self-supporting flock, but we were so taken with them and we have the space to raise them that one variety was not enough. Also, the more we researched and gained information the more we wanted to help preserve some of the rare varieties of heritage turkey breeds.

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Here is just a brief history of the varieties that we raise on our heritage turkey farm, listed by size small to large. Much more information can be obtained from the ALBC, SPPA or doing a search on the varieties’ names.

We also compare the birds by size, taste, egg laying, temperament, broodiness and raising turkey poults. (The weights listed are for mature breeding birds.)

Midget White – Developed by Dr. J. Robert Smyth at the University of Massachusetts in the 1960s as a smaller meat turkey, unfortunately for the Midgets they never really caught on and the flock was dispersed. The Midget White and the Beltsville Small White were the only two varieties specifically bred for the modern poultry market; the others are much older and were developed on a more local or geographic level. The Midget White was never accepted into the APA.

Midget White toms weigh 16 to 20 pounds; hens 8 to 12 pounds. Taste-wise the Midgets are the hands-down favorite at our table and we rank them number one. They lay a surprisingly large egg for a small hen, which can cause prolapse problems with young hens on the first laying cycle. They tend to be early layers but go broody quickly, are good sitters and do well at raising poults. In temperament, they are calm natured. The hens can be fence jumpers due to their lightweight.

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Midget White Heritage Turkey

Beltsville Small White – Developed in the 1930s at the USDA research station in Beltsville, Maryland by Stanley Marsden and others. At the height of popularity, the BSW was the number one selling turkey in the United States, outselling all the other varieties. Its success was short lived. As the Broad Breasted type turkey became more popular, with its shorter growing time and larger size, the BSW declined rapidly in numbers. They were recognized by the APA in 1951.

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Beltsville Small White Heritage Turkey

Beltsville Small White size is basically the same as the Midgets plus a few pounds and wider in the breast. A very nice table bird, they dress well and have the “classic turkey” appearance; however, we rank them fourth in taste as they have a more bland flavor than the others. They are the most prolific layers and outlay all our other varieties combined. The younger hens show little interest in sitting but the more mature hens are more inclined to sit and hatch eggs and do well. Temperament-wise they are the most standoffish; they show little interest in us except at feeding time.

White Holland – is the oldest heritage turkey breed we raise on our turkey farm. White feathered turkeys were brought to Europe by the early explorers and were in much favor. They were bred in the country of Holland where they were given their name; from there they returned back to the colonies with the early settlers. Also, a popular meat bird that was pushed out by the Broad Breasted, they were recognized by the APA in 1874.

White Holland toms weigh in the 30-pound range and hens in the upper teens. We rank the White Hollands number three on our taste scale due to the size and shape of the dressed bird; they show their history of being a popular meat bird in the past. White Holland’s are the calmest of the varieties we raise and would make a great “starter” turkey. Very good sitters and mothers but they sometimes break eggs by stepping on them due to the size of the hen.

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White Holland Heritage Turkey

Royal Palm – The only turkey we raise that is not specifically raised as a meat turkey but more of an ornamental type dating back to the 1920s and 30s. With the black and white color pattern, they are a very striking bird. They were recognized by the APA in 1977.

Royal Palm toms weigh 18 to 20 pounds; hens 10 to 14 pounds. The Royal Palm is the only variety we have that wasn’t bred for meat production. Taste-wise they are a fine table bird, we rank them sixth not by taste but by the less filled out breast. For the most part, they are calm natured, but the hens tend to wander and can clear most fencing with ease. They are prolific egg layers and tend to go broody quickly. Once broody they are solid sitters and do well raising the poults.

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Royal Palm Heritage Turkey

Bourbon Red – Named for Bourbon County in Kentucky where J. F. Barbee developed them in the late 1800s. Due to their size, they were a popular meat bird. An interesting note: the Bronze, White Holland and Buff turkeys were bred together to develop the Bourbon Red. The color came mostly from selection from Buff. They were recognized by the APA in 1909.

Bourbon Red toms are in the upper 20-pound range and hens are 12 to 14 pounds. The Bourbon Red is ranked number two on our taste scale. They are a very curious turkey to say the least; one person has described them as “very interested in their surroundings.” Anything in their area is subject to close examination by them, they are calm natured and often are underfoot during feeding time. Good sitters and mothers, however, they also tend to go broody early.

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Bourbon Red Heritage Turkey

Standard Bronze – Has always been a very popular turkey and what most people will describe when asked, “what does a turkey look like”. Another old variety dating back to the 1700 and 1800s. They were recognized by APA in 1874.

Standard Bronze are very large turkeys with toms in the mid 30-pound range and the hen 20 pounds. Bronze rank number five on our taste scale but only because of the dark feathers, they don’t dress as cleanly as a white feathered turkey. Even though the size makes some visitors nervous, they are very calm natured and docile. They are good layers but tend to be less broody than the others. Also, they tend to break eggs in the nest due to size. They are very protective mothers when raising poults.

In conclusion, is one variety better than another? When it comes to heritage turkey breeds, each variety has its own strength and weakness, even quirks and what the individual growers are looking for. Big birds, small birds, table or eye candy there is a turkey for everybody. Here at S and S Poultry we always say, “Everybody loves a turkey.” The more time you spend with them you can see traits that come out in each one. There is a lot of misinformation out about turkey breeds, for example, they don’t look up and drown in the rain. They are not that hard to hatch and raise but they are very sensitive to clean and proper brooding and raising techniques. A little research on turkeys and turkey breeds, and planning goes a long way toward success with turkeys. There are quite a few knowledgeable people available to help in any way they can. We are very passionate about the heritage turkey breeds and want to see them preserved.

Additional information and links on turkeys you’ll find on a heritage turkey farm is available at http://heritageturkeyfoundation.org/. For a comprehensive, free manual on heritage turkeys, see the American Livestock Breeder Conservancy website: www.albc-usa.org, choose the educational resources button, choose /turkeys.html. An internet search of heritage turkeys will bring up many other options.—Ed.

Published in Backyard Poultry October / November 2009 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

What is your favorite heritage turkey breed found on a heritage turkey farm?

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