So, You Want to Raise Heritage Turkeys?
If you’re interested in keeping livestock that is more self-sufficient than the modern breeds, heritage turkeys are probably on your ‘must-have’ list. 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 the Broad Breasted (BB) varieties, and they can reproduce naturally. These were some of the reasons I decided to raise heritage turkeys. Plus, it was pure joy to watch them out scratching in their pasture!
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Here is a list of the heritage breeds of turkey that may be found for sale as day-old poults through hatcheries in the United States. Characteristics are listed to help narrow down your choice.
Which Heritage Turkey Did I Raise?
I have 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 rather aggressive.
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 did go broody.
Why I am Raising the Broad Breasted Turkeys
With the cost of feed for keeping breeding stock and my limited space, the Broad Breasted turkeys are a better choice for my homestead at this time. They may be raised and processed in about 4 to 5 months and I don’t have to feed them over the winter. However, I do hope to have heritage turkeys again in the future.
If you wish to raise heritage turkeys, here is some great information to help you get started!
Heritage Turkey Breed List
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 also variable. There are several color variations, including the Black Slate, Blue Slate, and Blue Splash. The genetic background of this breed is not well known and there is speculation about its origins.
They are attractive turkeys that are active foragers and tend toward broodiness. Temperament is variable.
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. They tend to have a higher percentage of breast meat for their size compared to some of the other heritage turkeys.
Their small size with meaty breast, lower feed requirements, and docile nature make them an attractive turkey for homesteaders. The hens tend toward broodiness and make good mothers.
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.
These birds are a good choice for homesteaders due to their calm temperament, decent egg production, fine flavored meat, and mothering instinct of the hens. An active forager and a somewhat flighty breed. However, they have less breast meat than some other breeds.
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. This breed 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 and they have a good amount of breast meat for a heritage turkey. These birds are active but fairly docile in temperament. The hens tend toward broodiness and are good mothers.
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.
This is an ornamental turkey that actively forages and provides insect control. They are flighty birds with variable temperament and broodiness. Although they don’t have a lot of meat, the flavor is very good.
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.
This breed has more breast meat and a clean looking carcass when dressed, due to the white feathers. They are variable in temperament and aren’t noted for being especially flighty.
Chocolate turkeys are not recognized as a standard breed by the APA. They are a large turkey 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.
There is a great deal of variation in this breed. They have more meat than some heritage varieties.
The Black Spanish turkey is also known as the Norfolk Black. They are medium to large turkeys of striking black 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.
They make a fine addition to the homestead for their fast growth and good meat production. Temperament is variable and they are decent foragers.
The Standard Bronze turkey was developed in Colonial America by crossbreeding wild turkeys with domesticated birds brought from Europe. They are slow-growing, 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.
The Standard Bronze is a large breed with less breast meat, but a delicious flavor. They are active foragers, somewhat flighty, with a variable temperament.
Beltsville Small White
The Beltsville Small White turkey was developed by the USDA Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland to fill the market demand for a small, meaty white turkey in the 1930s. They remained popular for home-cooked turkeys through the 1950s but demand declined with the production of the Broad Breasted White turkey.
It’s small size, meaty breast, and clean carcass make it a good choice for small homesteads. Temperament is variable.
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.
This medium to large bird has less breast meat but good flavor. These are very active birds, prone to flightiness, and are good foragers. They 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.
Not sure if you want heritage breeds or BB turkeys? Check out my post ‘Broad Breasted vs Heritage: What’s the Best Turkey for Your Homestead?’
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.
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Many thanks to Meyer Hatchery for giving me permission to use their photos in this post. I have no affiliation with their hatchery, but they were very kind to make these photos available.
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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