For More Information, Read My Article How to Raise Turkeys
What’s The Best Turkey For Your Homestead?
So you want to be more self-reliant by raising turkeys on your homestead? But you’re confused by all those tempting descriptions on the hatchery websites, am I right? Believe me, I’ve been there. But guess what…it’s not as difficult to choose the best breed of turkey for your homestead as you might think. So let’s get started!
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Broad Breasted vs Heritage Turkeys
The first question is: “Do I want a turkey like the ones from the grocery store, or do I want one that is more flavorful but has less breast meat?” The answer to this question will determine whether a Broad Breasted turkey or a heritage breed will suit you best. Want to know more? Here’s the important stuff…
Broad Breasted Behemoths
Broad Breasted (BB) White and BB Bronze turkeys are not technically considered standard breeds by the American Poultry Association (APA) or the Poultry Club of Great Britain. But that’s okay, you’ll find them in pretty much every poultry catalog. These birds are not genetically modified, as some people claim. But they have been genetically selected for fast growth and an abundance of breast meat.
The Broad Breasted White is by far the most common turkey raised for food these days. Hands down, this is the best turkey breed for a fast-growing, meaty bird with the table quality most people expect from their Thanksgiving bird. It’s pretty much the only turkey you’ll find at the grocery store…unless you pay a premium price for a heritage bird.
The Broad Breasted Bronze is the same size and meatiness as the BB White but looks much like the Standard Bronze heritage turkey. It’s the other fast-growing option for homesteaders who want to dress all of their birds at the end of the season. Some growers will raise and market them as heritage birds, but that’s false advertising! Note that the carcass will not look as clean as a white turkey.
Why Raise BB Turkeys?
The BB turkeys have a lot of good points:
- Less expensive to order as day-old poults (baby turkeys).
- More economical to grow out than heritage birds.
- Ready to butcher in 4 to 6 months, depending on how large you want them and how well they are fed.
- There is no arguing over the size of the finished carcass and copious amounts of white meat on these birds. They can top out at 40 to 50+ pounds for a mature tom…although you’ll want to butcher before that so he’ll fit in your oven!
- There’s no need to keep breeding stock to feed over the winter.
If the cost per pound of meat is your most important consideration…this is the bird for you.
So, what’s not to love about these buxom behemoths?
Yes, these birds check a lot of boxes on the ‘Pros’ side, but they also have their share of ‘Cons’:
- More susceptible to disease and deformities. (On my homestead I’ve had up to 12% of BB poults with physical deformities and up to 6% mortality from disease.)
- Shorter lived because their massive weight is too heavy for their skeletal structure and organs at maturity.
- Unable to mate naturally due to their shorter legs and overly large breasts. Because of these ‘impairments’, the mature males aren’t physically capable of, well, getting the job done. Commercial farms use artificial insemination.
- They will forage when young, but become sedentary as they age. (Hmmmm….this sounds vaguely familiar.)
Heritage turkeys are long-lived, genetically diverse breeds that are able to mate naturally. They are active foragers, often flighty, and may raise their own young. With the introduction of larger, meatier birds the heritage breeds have fallen out of favor, leading to near extinction and loss of genetic diversity. However, slow food aficionados and the local food movement have touted their advantages in recent years, bringing about a resurgence in their numbers.
Why Raise Heritage Turkeys?
Yes, the BB turkeys have their advantages in the areas of size and economy. So why would you opt for heritage birds? There are some very good reasons, such as:
- Preserve genetic diversity.
- More disease resistant and thrifty than their inbred cousins.
- Self-sufficient homesteaders like to keep breeding stock and raise their own turkey poults each year.
- Pasture-raised or free-range heritage turkeys will do a great job of eating pests and rustling up some of their own grub.
Whether you are interested in preserving heritage breeds or living a more self-sufficient lifestyle, heritage turkeys fit the bill.
So why wouldn’t you want to raise heritage turkeys?
Heritage birds can be a great addition to homesteads, but they aren’t the right fit for everyone. Here are the disadvantages:
- Higher cost of poults.
- Higher feed cost and longer time to grow out.
- Less meat, not as much white meat. Not what most people expect from a Thanksgiving turkey.
- Can be flighty.
- Toms may be aggressive. (This varies by breed and individual.)
- Keeping breeding stock adds to the expense.
- Difficult to keep breeding stock on small homesteads.
Still not sure whether you want BB or Heritage turkeys? Let’s take a closer look…
Growing Rates and Dressing Weights
In the comparison photo above, the Black Slate heritage turkey on the left was butchered at approximately 18 months and weighed 18 pounds. The Broad Breasted White turkey on the right was butchered at 4.5 months and weighed 25 pounds. They received the same feed and pasture conditions. This gives you an idea of what to expect for carcass size when raising these turkeys for meat.
Quality of Your Dressed Bird
Are you concerned about the appearance and flavor of that turkey once it’s dressed? Whether you choose BB or heritage, white birds will dress out cleaner because they don’t have the pigment from the dark feathers. And yes, there is a heritage turkey for that! If you plan to skin and cut up or grind a lot of your turkey meat, this won’t be a big deal. I do find the flavor of a heritage turkey to be superior to a BB turkey. However, since you’re raising them yourself, the BB turkeys won’t be pumped full of saline and preservatives, so the flavor will be different from the store-bought.
Self Sufficiency vs Efficiency
This is the big question…you want to be self-sufficient, but you also like having a meaty turkey for Thanksgiving. I’ve tried both heritage and BB and I really do like both. So what’s a modern homesteader to do? Let’s start by recapping the pros and cons…
|Heritage Turkeys||Broad Breasted Turkeys|
|Mate naturally||Artificial insemination|
|6 months + to butcher weight||4 to 5 months to butcher weight|
|Good foragers||Will forage for some food|
|May go broody and raise young||Broody instinct mostly bred out|
|Flighty||Flighty only when young|
|May be aggressive||Usually docile|
|Long lived||Butchered young|
|Feed breeding stock year round||Order poults each year|
|Variety of breeds||White or Bronze available|
|Largest heritage toms may reach 30+ pounds as adults||Broad Breasted toms may reach 40+ pounds in 5 months|
|Higher cost per pound||Most economical|
|More flavor||More meat|
So Tell Me Lisa…Have You Actually Done Any Of This Yourself?
Yes…yes I have. Thanks for asking!
I’ve raised BB White, BB Bronze, Narragansett, and Black Slate turkeys. And yes, I’ve butchered them myself! Most of the time I did the deed all on my own…with turkeys weighing up to 25 pounds. Is it easy? Heck No! But homesteaders aren’t really known for picking the easy path, are we? I didn’t think so.
Our family enjoyed eating the meat from all of these varieties and it was a great experience. (I did have one Black Slate tom that turned into an attack bird. You’ll see him on the left of the Dressed Turkey Comparison graphic. Ahem.)
If you are concerned about the cost of feeding breeding stock over the winter, and you would like a fine Thanksgiving turkey, the Broad Breasted White is your bird.
If you are interested in being self-sufficient and keeping breeding stock to raise a new generation of turkeys each year, a heritage breed is what you want.
Still can’t decide? Why not place an order for a few of each! You’ll have some for the holidays and some to breed next year…Win Win!
Please leave a comment and tell me what kind of turkeys you raise on your homestead!
Want to read a side by side, blind taste test? Check out this article by Bon Appétit. (Just to be clear, I don’t think heritage turkeys taste gamier…unless maybe they are raised only on pasture with no feed? Which I haven’t tried.)
If you would like to read more about some of the heritage breeds, here is a handy list to check out. You may also be interested in this article by Steve and Sharon Ashman, owners of S& S Poultry. They share their thoughts on the flavor and size of 6 different heritage breeds.
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In addition to writing for her own websites, Lisa has contributed articles to The Prepper Project and Homestead.org.
The author lives outside of Chicago with her husband, son, 2 dogs, 1 cat, and a variety of poultry.
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