Of the 200,000,000 turkeys that are raised annually, only about 25,000 are heritage breeds. The reason for this is economics. The modern hybrid variety (Broad Breasted Bronze or Giant White) grows much more quickly. It is ready for market at 14 to 16 weeks compared to 25 to 30 weeks for a heritage breed. That means less time and money is spent on getting the hybrid birds ready for market. Hybrids are also larger, and were bred to have more white meat than its wild or heritage cousins. That means less time and money is spent on raising it and it caters to the majority of Americans who prefer white meat to dark meat.
All that is to say we don’t eat heritage turkeys because they’re rare, they grow more slowly, and their meat is more evenly split between dark meat and white meat. But, for those of us who come down on the “dark meat is better” side of the scale, and for those of us interested in pasture raised birds, heritage breeds have a lot of potential benefits. One of those comes in the very definition of heritage breeds. They are able to breed on their own, in contrast to the hybrid varieties that have gotten so large they can only survive though artificial insemination. Other heritage breed pluses are that many chefs say they are more flavorful thanks to the fat that comes with growing more slowly, and the meat is higher in CLAs.
If you think you might like to eat one of these tasty birds, or raise them for your customers, here are some varieties to consider:
This bird gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. A cross of the Standard Bronze and White Holland turkeys, it was first recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1909. This breed is very rare now, due in part to a lack of selective breeding to preserve the breed. It is known for its unique reddish plumage. At 28 weeks males weigh 23 pounds and hens 14 pounds.
Black/Black Spanish/Norfolk Black
This breed was developed in Europe from the Aztec turkeys Spanish explorers brought home from Mexico. It is considered the oldest turkey breed in the United Kingdom. They were brought back to North America in the holds of ships bringing colonists to the New World.
This is probably the turkey that was eaten at the first Thanksgiving. They are part of the foundation of the Narragansett, Slate and Bronze breeds of turkey. They were commercially farmed until the 20th century when the commercial hybrids took over. Though they are still fairly common in Europe they are considered an endangered turkey variety in the United States.
This cross of the eastern wild turkey and the Black Spanish has black, gray, tan and white feathers. It was neer as popular as the Bronze Turkey, but commercial flocks of up to 200 birds in the northeast and mid-atlantic states were common in the 1870s. They were good at foraging for insects and could do well with little supplemental feed. It’s popularity faded as the Bronze turkey became more popular.
This is the kind of turkey most of imagine we’re eating. It’s the one in all the pictures when we learned about the first Thanksgiving. You can see its Black Spanish heritage in it’s plumage, but the Bronze’s feathers have an iridescent bronze-like sheen.
The American Poultry Association recognized this breed in 1874. Over time, birds were selected for larger size, growing to become the Broad Breasted Bronze hybrid which is so large it can no longer breed on its own. The Bronze and Standard Bronze are listed as “critical” on the catalog of heritage foods in danger of extinction.
This turkey is considered an ornamental bird because of it’s small size with Toms weighing 16 to 22 pounds and hens at 10 to 12. According to Wikipedia, they first appeared in Lake Worth, Florida and were likely a cross between Black, Bronze, Narragansett and native turkeys. Selective breeding then stablized their coloring, which is largely white with bands of metallic black. Toms are non-agressive and hens are very good mothers. Hopefully this will help them survive as they are considered endangered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Their are two genetic mutations that created the plumage on this bird and since one of those mutations is dominant and the other recessive, the colors of this breed can vary from an ashy grey to a blue to a lavendar grey color. Accepted by the American Poultry Association in 1874, Toms weigh in at 23 pounds and hens at 14. It is popular as an exhibition bird and is growing in popularity poultry production because of consumer interest in its superior flavor.
This is the newest of the heritage breeds. It was developed in the 1960s from the Royal Palm and mostly white commercial turkeys to be an alternative to the Broad Breasted White. The demand for a smaller bird never surfaced, so this breed is now on the decline as well. It was reported as extinct in 2014 until about 90 of them were found in Alabama. It is supposed to be a friendly bird good for small farms and homesteads.
These are only some of the heritage birds available for folks to raise. If you’ve raised some of these or know of others, or even where people might buy poults, do share below!