Story by Rebecca Krebs. Pictures of Rebecca and Angela Krebs.
Heritage turkeys are beginning to recover from the sharp population decline experienced in the mid-20th century when broad-breasted commercial turkeys dominated the market. Thus, there is not much variation in the heritage quality of the turkey breeds for sale today. Many of the breeds, or distinct bloodlines, are small, bony, and unproductive–hardly living up to the Heritage Turkey’s reputation as an excellent, sustainable meat bird. However, through selection by dedicated breeders, some breeds have once again achieved the distinction of their forebears. Start your breeding herd by selecting a breed with traits that will be a worthwhile investment of your time and money.
The importance of breeds
Size is a defining characteristic of quality breeds. If, on average, the breed meets the ideal weight for the breed, this is a strong indication that the breeder has chosen a meaty bird. Unwanted breeds often drop 30% off ideal weights. This discrepancy is largely due to the lack of meat, which results in fragile birds.
American Poultry Association (APA) standard of mastery It is the certified source for the weights, plus preferred color, of the eight APA-recognized Heritage turkey varieties Standard Bronze, Holland White, Narragansett, Black, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. Notable breeders or conservation organizations are the best sources for accurate information on cultivars not found in standard of mastery. It can be difficult to get breeds that meet ideal weights, especially among the rarest of heritage turkey breeds that are in desperate need of keeping and calling. If one of these varieties piques your interest, start with the best breed you can find and keep improving it through selective breeding.
Besides weight, APA standard of mastery He asserts that “the conformation of the body in turkeys is of great importance. The body must be broad, round, and full-bodied. The legs and shins must be large, straight, and well set.”
Narrow or shallow turkeys do not have the frame to hold good meat. These harmonic errors are common in unselected heritage strains. Wide-breasted turkeys are on the other extreme. Their huge breasts, short legs, and girders hinder their movement and prevent them from natural mating. This highlights the need for both meat and structural balance in heritage turkeys in order to produce good table birds while maintaining traits related to long-term health, reproductive success, and foraging ability.
Compared to the front-heavy, broad-breasted varieties, well-balanced heritage turkeys haul remarkably well. Their backs, held at an angle of 45°, deepen into full, rounded chests and borne slightly above horizontal. The meat is evenly distributed across their breasts, thighs, and legs. Their cheekbones and legs are straight, strong, and relatively long, allowing patrimonial birds to support large meat productions without compromising their freedom of movement. Heritage turkeys grow in structure before they don the flesh, so it’s only natural for juveniles to seem sloppy and insubstantial. This desirable growth pattern allows the skeletal system and organs to develop before supporting muscle growth.
Ready to butcher
Turkeys are ready to butcher when their chests are well-rounded and their feathers are finished growing. With proper feeding, high-quality baby drums reach this stage at about 28 weeks, and young chickens reach it two weeks earlier. Avoid breeds that take more than 30 weeks to mature. They are inefficient, and require a lot of feed to raise without producing more meat.
Turkeys like egg layers
The rate of maturity also affects the productivity of turkeys as breeding stock. Heritage quality turkeys begin breeding and laying eggs as young as seven months and no later than their first spring as adults.
Turkey hens are seasonal layers, and produce most eggs in the spring breeding season. In their noteworthy book, Turkey administrationand Stanley J. Marsden and J. Holmes-Martin explain that the minimum production rate for young chickens should be 50% during the breeding season. For example, a hen must produce at least 45 eggs in the 90 days between the beginning of March and June.
However, the best inbred turkeys under management conditions conducive to year-round laying can produce 150 or more eggs per year. Hens should lay eggs for 5 to 7 years, although egg production decreases with age.
Finally, fecundity, hatchability, and survival rates of birds are key statistics for assessing a breed’s health, vitality, and value as a sustainable breeding flock. Fertility of young turkeys should be 90% or higher in eggs laid during the breeding season. The percentage of those eggs that hatch can be more indicative of activity. Marsden and Martin assert, “High hatchability is the most important point to consider when purchasing breeding stock. In good flocks 80% to 85% of fertilized eggs should hatch under satisfactory incubation conditions.”
At least 90% of huskies should survive when brooded and fed appropriately. For naturally hatched and raised poults, the strength of the chickens’ maternal instincts, which are encouraged in heritage turkey breeds, plays an important role in the poults’ survival.
Ready to start your herd?
So how do you use this information when starting your flock? ask questions. Competent breeders record all of the statistics discussed here and are happy to share this information with clients. Just make sure the breeder gets the stats from his flock specifically. It is very common for sellers to quote generalized statistics about the variety, which may or may not describe their particular breed’s traits.
It may take some searching to find a high-quality breed of heritage turkey, but their superior table quality, efficiency, and productivity are well worth the effort. And you will have a hand in preserving an important part of America’s farming heritage.
Good questions to start with include:
• What do adult turkeys weigh?
• What is the weight of young turkeys of butcher’s age?
• When are they ready to butcher?
• At what age do chickens start laying eggs?
• How many eggs do they lay?
• Average fertility and hatchability rates?
• You can either look at the breeding herd in person or take photographs to see what the body looks like.
• American Poultry Association, Inc. American Standard of Perfection v44. Burgstown: American Poultry Association, 2010.
• Marsden, Stanley J, and Martin J. Holmes. Turkey administration. Sixth edition. .
Rebekah Krebs Freelance writer living in the Rocky Mountains, Montana. She owns and operates North Star Poultry (northstarpoultry.com), a small hatchery that specializes in Blue Laced Red Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, and four exclusive chicken varieties. She also participates in her family’s Bourbon Red Turkey breeding program.
Originally published in the April/May 2023 issue of Backyard poultry.