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Your List of Heritage Turkey Breeds For the Homestead

Narragansett tom turkey with his tail fanned out.
Heritage turkey
Narragansett turkey hen raised on my homestead.

Heritage Turkey Breeds for the Homestead

Homesteaders looking to increase self-reliance and provide their own Thanksgiving meals are often interested in heritage breeds of turkey. There are a variety of different breeds to consider keeping and it can be confusing to choose just one! To help you decide if a heritage turkey breed or a broad-breasted hybrid is a better bird for you, check out my post, Broadbreasted vs Heritage… What’s the Best Turkey for Your Homestead?

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I’ve raised both heritage turkey breeds and broad-breasted hybrids and there are pros and cons for each. Here are some of the reasons to choose heritage turkeys…

  • Heritage turkeys like to forage for a lot of their own grub, cleaning up pests around the homestead.
  • They don’t need as much feed as ‘Broad Breasted’ (BB) turkeys. You will need to feed the breeding stock year-round, however.
  • Heritage turkeys reproduce naturally while BB turkeys must be artificially inseminated.
  • By raising a heritage breed, you are helping livestock conservation efforts.

If you decide that raising heritage turkey breeds is right for your homestead, you’ll want to choose the best breed for your needs. To help you with this task, I’ve compiled the following list of the breeds commonly available as day-old poults through hatcheries in the United States. You may also find local breeders with a wider selection.

Characteristics are listed below to help narrow down your choice.

Baby turkey poults on pasture
If you have a broody hen, she might hatch and raise some turkey poults for you!

Turkey Breeds I’ve Raised on My Homestead

I’ve raised Narragansetts and Black Slate turkeys, as well as the Broad Breasted White and Bronze turkeys that are commonly raised for Thanksgiving. I’ve had good experiences with most of these, although the Black Slate tom was aggressive.

I’ve also butchered all of these breeds and have found that the broad-breasted turkeys are my favorite for dressing out. I’ve read some reports of people who have successfully bred the broad-breasted hybrids before the toms reached full size. I’d like to try this someday.

The Narragansetts were my favorite heritage breed for a small homestead because they got along well with my other birds. They were docile to raise and the hens went broody. In the future, I hope to raise the Midget White breed.

Read all about raising your own turkeys! (#ad)

Photos comparing a Black Slate turkey to a Broad Breasted White turkey - dressed and ready to cook.
I also had a black slate turkey…you can get an idea of what a dressed heritage turkey looks like from this comparison.
Photo from Meyer Hatchery.

Blue Slate Turkey

The Blue Slate turkey is a medium to large-sized heritage bird with a wide variation in colors and markings. The tom is darker in color than the hen.

  • Size is variable
  • Several color variations (Black Slate, Blue Slate, and Blue Splash)
  • Genetic background of this breed is not well known and there is speculation about its origins.
  • Active foragers
  • Tend toward broodiness
  • Temperament is variable.
Midget White turkeys. Photo from Meyer Hatchery.

Midget White Turkey

The Midget White turkey is often confused with the Beltsville Small White. This is a small white turkey developed in the 1950s from crosses between the Royal Palm and commercial white turkeys.

  • Higher percentage of breast meat compared to other heritage turkeys
  • Lower feed requirements
  • Docile temperament
  • The hens tend toward broodiness and make good mothers
Narragansett tom turkey with his tail fanned out.
Narragansett tom turkey

Narragansett Turkey

The Narragansett turkey hails from the Narragansett Bay area of Rhode Island. It originated in the 1600s from crosses between wild turkeys and domestic turkeys brought from Europe.

They have markings similar to the Standard Bronze. The Narragansett turkey is a large bird that was favored for meat production before the development of heavier breeds.

  • Calm temperament
  • Good egg production
  • Fine flavored meat but less breast meat than some breeds
  • Active forager and somewhat flighty
  • The hens tend toward broodiness and make very good mothers
Choose the Best Turkeys for Your Homestead - The Self Sufficient HomeAcre
Bourbon Red turkeys

Bourbon Red Turkey

Bourbon Red turkeys are a large turkey with chestnut coloration and light-colored flight feathers. They were originally bred in Pennsylvania and later the Bourbon County area of Kentucky.

The Bourbon Red was popular in the early 1900s until they were replaced by heavier breeds.

  • The carcass dresses out clean due to the light-colored pin feathers
  • Decent amount of breast meat for a heritage breed
  • Are active but fairly docile in temperament
  • The hens tend toward broodiness and are good mothers
Royal Palm tom turkey with tail fanned out.
Royal Palm tom turkey

Royal Palm Turkey

Royal Palm turkeys are one of the most attractive turkey breeds, with a striking pattern of light and dark feathers. They are a medium-small breed that is generally raised for their ornamental appearance.

They originated from a mixed flock of turkeys in Florida in the 1920s.

  • Mainly an ornamental breed
  • Less meat than other breeds, but the flavor is very good
  • Actively forages and provides insect control
  • Flighty birds with variable temperament and broodiness.

White Holland Turkey

White Holland turkeys were bred in Holland from turkeys brought from Central America in the 1500s. This is a large white breed with a fast growth rate for heritage breeds. They were commercially important until the development of heavier breeds in the 1900s.

  • Decent amount of breast meat
  • Clean looking carcass when dressed, due to the white feathers.
  • Variable in temperament but aren’t noted for being especially flighty
Chocolate Heritage turkey. Photo from Meyer Hatchery.

Chocolate Turkey

Chocolate turkeys are not recognized as a standard breed by the APA. They are large turkeys with chocolate-colored feathers.

Chocolates were popular in the Southern United States prior to the Civil War and were almost wiped out during the conflict. They may be difficult to find, as numbers are limited.

  • Decent amount of meat
  • Large breed
  • Doesn’t dress out as clean due to dark-colored feathers
  • Temperament is variable
Black Spanish turkey. Photo from Meyer Hatchery.

Black Spanish Turkey

The Black Spanish is also known as the Norfolk Black. They are medium to large turkeys of a striking black color with a greenish sheen.

This breed was developed in Europe from turkeys brought back by early explorers. Early colonists in America used these birds in developing the Bronze Standard, Narragansett, and Slate breeds.

  • Fast growth
  • Good meat production
  • Doesn’t dress out as clean due to dark-colored feathers
  • Temperament is variable
  • Decent foragers.
Standard Bronze turkey.

Standard Bronze Turkey

The Standard Bronze was developed in Colonial America by crossbreeding wild turkeys with domesticated birds brought from Europe.

They are long-lived birds with beautiful coloration that make a popular image for Thanksgiving decor. This was a popular turkey in the United States until meatier birds were developed and favored by commercial growers.

  • Large breed with less breast meat, but a delicious flavor
  • Active foragers that are somewhat flighty
  • Variable temperament
Beltsville Small White turkey. Photo source – Agricultural Research Service, USDA found here.

Beltsville Small White Turkey

The Beltsville Small White was developed by the USDA Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland to fill the market demand for a small, meaty white turkey in the 1930s.

This breed remained popular for home-cooked turkeys through the 1950s but demand declined with the production of the Broad Breasted White turkey.

  • Small size
  • Meaty breast
  • Carcass dresses out clean due to the white feathers
  • Temperament is variable
Choose the Best Turkey for Your Homestead - The Self Sufficient HomeAcre
Wild turkeys.

Wild Turkey

Wild turkey populations declined due to overhunting in the early 1900s. Conservation efforts, including hunting seasons and bagging limits, sparked an increase in their numbers.

Wild populations peaked in 2001 but have been in decline since then, due to habitat loss and other factors.

  • Medium to large bird
  • Less breast meat but good flavor
  • Very active birds, prone to flightiness, and are good foragers
  • Tend to have a nervous temperament
  • Hens are generally good mothers.

There may be regulations in your area regarding raising wild turkeys, so check before ordering.


Raising Heritage Turkey Breeds

Heritage turkeys may be kept year-round as breeding stock to raise your own meat birds each year. They tend to lay just a few eggs over a short period in the spring. You may take the eggs and put them under a broody chicken hen or in an incubator to encourage turkey hens to continue laying.

Heritage turkeys are more likely to fly short distances to escape pens, so give them extra space and clip the flight feathers on one wing to help contain them.

In general, turkeys need a higher protein feed than chickens, so make sure you can provide the proper feed before you order poults.

They can also have some disease issues. Check with your local Agricultural Extension Office to see if Blackhead disease is prevalent in your area.

For a more thorough look at what turkeys need, check out my post How to Raise Turkeys.

Planning to process the birds yourself? I’ve got a post for that too…How to Butcher a Turkey!

For more detailed information about heritage turkeys, visit The Livestock Conservancy. They give an in-depth history of each breed.

Your List of Heritage Turkeys for the Homestead - by The Self Sufficient HomeAcre
Heritage Breeds and Their Characteristics

4 Comments on “Your List of Heritage Turkey Breeds For the Homestead

  1. Nice article. I breed Black Turkeys (aka Spanish Black, Norfolk Black). One error I see in your above description is that they have a greenish sheen. This is incorrect. The black is a metallic black.

    1. Thanks, Christopher! In hindsight, it is possible that mine were mixed with another breed. Thanks for the input. 🙂

  2. That’s funny, Todd! Turkeys are fun to keep! I miss having heritage turkeys and hope to add them back in the homestead plans someday. We have just been away too much lately and my son isn’t super excited about more birds to care for when we travel.

    Best wishes with keeping turkeys in the future and thanks so much for featuring my post!

  3. Good Morning Lisa!
    You always seem to have your finger on what I’m thinking of adding to our livestock collection;) Turkeys are a consideration for next year, so now I have a solid resource for choosing which breed.
    By the way, congratulations for being a featured writer on Farm Fresh Tuesdays this week;)

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