The turkey is native to North America. In many places, these wild birds still roam the countryside. In spring, the tom’s call can be heard in the woodland. In fall, flocks scour harvested grain fields in search of remaining seed.
Though the native birds were domesticated and even quite popular before WWII, turkeys are no longer a common part of the farm flock. Think about it: most of us access our holiday turkeys via the grocery store, birds that were raised on a commercial scale!
Have you ever stopped to ponder this fact? What happened to the turkey? Why isn’t it a popular choice anymore?
The turkey is known for its stupidity. Talk to those who have raised the bird. It will be one of the first things they make mention of.
How could this be, if before 1939, the turkey was a popular choice? A time when special feed, pristine living conditions and incubation wasn’t readily available?
Today, there are two turkey varieties available to us. The bird that was popular before WWII is currently known as the heritage turkey. The bird that emerged after WWII is currently known as the broad-breasted turkey.
What most folks don’t know is that the difference between these two birds is drastic!
Meet the Rivals
Its likely this is the bird you’ve had interaction with! Because of fast growth they are the popular choice, readily available from most hatcheries and also the grocery store come Thanksgiving and Christmas.
So popular is the broad-breasted turkey that many farm folks don’t know there’s another alternative!
The heritage turkey is the lesser-known option, truly what our ancestors pictured when they thought of the noble bird. Heritage turkeys are rare, some even on the endangered list. With a natural growth rate and the skills God originally gave them, these birds are everything the broads are not.
Each is different and has its place. We’re going to compare the two for you today!
Cost and Shipment of Poults
When purchasing from a hatchery, broads are slightly cheaper than rare heritage breeds. Prices range from $7-$12 (USD) per poult. Because these little birds often re-act to the stress of shipping, locally purchased birds afford the lowest mortality rate.
Due to the heritage bird’s reproduction skills, you may be able to source a local flock. However, it’s rare to find a small farmer who raises broads on their land, for reasons outlined below.
Being bred for meat only, this bird has a weakened immune system. Poults are susceptible to various diseases and need pristine living conditions. Due to fast maturation, some may develop physical disabilities.
Heritage poults are hardier than the broads, but still do require care and relatively clean living conditions. Unlike the broads, they have proportionate, agile bodies. They are capable of high speed running and flying when necessary.
Food and Costs
The broad breasted turkey must be given high protein feed throughout its lifetime to support fast growth. Food that consists of 24%-28% protein is recommended in the beginning and eventually decreases to 16% in the bird’s last weeks of life.
While (almost) everyone wants fast meat production, it will cost you! Among the largest breeds, a single tom can consume close to 120lbs of feed (source) before butchering day! Depending on your location and the cost of feed, it can quickly add up!
Heritage turkeys also need a diet with protein. However, they resemble the wild bird whose diet consists of a mere 10% protein. Heritage turkeys are capable of foraging and even 100% free-ranging. They do well with protein-rich cover crops consisting of legumes, clover or alfalfa. If this isn’t available, the birds will substitute a large portion of their diet with greens if kept on grass in moveable pens.
Breeding stock can be overwintered on a grain-legume mix with an occasional bag of game bird feed if the weather is cold or the winters, long.
The White Broad Breasted turkey (one of the largest) is ready for butchering at 20 weeks of age. If given a high-protein diet, they can tip the scales between 30-40 lbs.
The largest breeds are the Standard Bronze (note: this is different than the broad-breasted bronze) and the Chocolate. They mature much slower, taking 32 weeks to reach full size. At this age, toms may reach 30 lbs. However, most folks prefer to butcher sooner, when birds smaller.
Heritage turkeys can replace meat chickens on the farm (see Heritage Turkeys vs Meat Chickens). Not only are they capable of 100% free-ranging, but when butchered at 18-20 weeks of age, hens dress out at 4-8 lbs while toms reach 8-12 lbs.
If free ranging, remember that pasture raised animals are always leaner than the over-fed, inactive alternative!
Broad breasted hens will lay their second spring at 1 yr of age. Frequency depends on the breed. Because hens are large, prone to health issues and consume high volumes of expensive feed, most are butchered before they reach laying age.
Heritage hens lay their second spring (1 yr of age). Frequency is dependent on their diet and breed. Birds will produce early spring-early fall. Eggs can be expected every 2-3 days, a total of 120+ eggs per summer, per bird. Among the large heritage breeds, eggs are 2-3x the size of the chickens’.
Natural Reproduction: Mating
Due to his weight, the broad-breasted tom is unable to mate! Indeed, if you wish to keep an ongoing flock, you must practice AI on your hens. A troublesome task at that!
If keeping a broad-breasted flock past 1 year of age, there are dangers to be aware of! Incapable as he is, the tom will still attempt to mount hens, often injuring them with his fruitless and clumsy attempts to mate.
The heritage breeds are capable of mating without help. While the tom is often seen strutting and puffing himself to an unusual size, the couple is gentle, quiet and discreet while going about their business.
Natural Reproduction: Mothering Skills
If looking to raise broads on your land, not only will you have to practice AI on your hens, but will need an incubator to hatch their eggs. Broad breasted hens are poor mothers and are well compared to the fast growing meat chicken. Good for what they were intended and little else.
Heritage hens go broody in the spring. They (most often) make good mothers, the mediums-sized breeds in particular! Not only are they protective, but are also large enough to ward off smaller predators.
What Do You Think?
Are you happy purchasing a new flock every year? Do you want raising meat birds to be a one time ordeal? Perhaps you aren’t ultra-concerned with how your meat grows? Or have a large family and like 40 lb birds? If so, broads are a perfect choice!
Do you want to keep a self-propagating meat bird? One that can free range on your land and give ultra-healthy meals? Perhaps you like the thought of getting summer eggs from breeding stock? If so, heritage breeds are the perfect choice!
It depends on your time, health criteria and needs!
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