Raising Heritage Turkeys for Thanksgiving
There’s something special about gathering with friends and family for a traditional Thanksgiving feast, complete with roast turkey and all of the trimmings. I think that our society has, perhaps, lost a little bit of the spirit of Thanksgiving. With prosperity and an abundance of food in our country, many have come to take Thanksgiving for granted.
The supermarkets sell mass produced turkeys for a pittance to attract consumers to their store. Plump birds injected with saline solution and fitted with pop-up timers are sold by the millions in November and December, in preparation for the holidays. Most of these birds are Broadbreasted White turkeys, bred for such copious amounts of breast meat that the males are no longer physically capable of breeding naturally. The turkey industry uses artificial insemination to produce these birds and we gobble them up with little regard for their unhappy living conditions.
My family likes to have a nice turkey for Thanksgiving too. However, we would much prefer to dine on a bird that had a good life and a humane death. To ensure that my family is eating a bird that I feel good about serving, I began raising my own heritage turkeys this spring. If you would like to read more about raising your own turkeys, please visit my post How to Raise Turkeys.
I began with a trio of Narragansett turkeys, one male and two females. I’ve shared some of the ups and downs of my heritage turkey experience in my posts Bringing Home Heritage Turkeys, Heritage Turkey Eggs, and One Tiny Turkey. All three of my original breeding stock are now gone. One hen had a prolapsed vent, the other was taken by a fox, and I butchered the male. I was able to hatch six poults from their eggs this spring and all of them survived. Yesterday I butchered the oldest male, the subject of the post One Tiny Turkey.
Butchering a Heritage Turkey
If you would like detailed instructions, please visit my post How to Butcher a Turkey.
I had originally planned to butcher all of the tom turkeys just before Thanksgiving so we could have a fresh turkey for our table. However the male turkeys are becoming very agressive, especially at feeding time. So my plans changed and I butchered the largest one yesterday and sent him to freezer camp. The other males will follow soon but all three hens will be kept for breeding next year. A new tom will come to live with our flock after the turkey butchering is done for the fall. This will introduce new genetics, making next year’s poults stronger.
After decapitating the turkey, I scalded it to make plucking easier. The Narragansetts have dark feathers which make it more difficult to get a clean looking carcass for the table. I spent a lot of time removing the little black feathers. The dressed weight of my bird was approximately 13 pounds. There was quite a bit of fat around the neck and breast of this bird, which I attribute to the black oil sunflower seeds I’ve been feeding them for extra protein. I think I’ll feed the rest of the birds more split peas and fewer sunflower seeds to decrease the fat content.
What’s the Difference Between Heritage and Supermarket Turkeys?
The two biggest differences between the heritage turkeys and the broadbreasted breeds sold at the grocery store are the flavor and the amount of breast meat. A heritage turkey will look somewhat skinny compared to your supermarket bird. Since they have not been bred for huge amounts of fast growing breast meat, the heritage birds are smaller and have more dark meat than white meat. But the flavor! Oh my! I have never tasted such a delicious turkey before…including the broadbreasted turkeys I raised in the past. They were good, but they tasted pretty much like they came from the grocery store.
Should You Raise Your Own Turkeys?
Raising and butchering your own turkeys is definitely not for everyone. They need more space than chickens and, ideally, they should be raised in a separate pen from chickens. (I have mine together and haven’t had any disease problems, but this may not be your experience.) Turkeys are friendly, curious birds and I think they are smarter than chickens. It is harder for me to kill turkeys than chickens. Turkeys also need a higher protein feed than chickens do, making their feed more expensive than most chicken feed. If you want to raise them organically you will shell out a lot of dough to keep them. I have found that it is possible to raise them with the layer feed given to the chickens along with sunflower seed, scratch grains, and split peas. The sunflower seeds and corn should be kept to a minimum in warm weather.
No one but you can determine if raising your own heritage Thanksgiving turkey is right for your homestead. But if you do decide to take the plunge and purchase turkeys, I can say that you’ll get hours of entertainment watching their antics!