While the turkey is a well-known bird (due to Thanksgiving dinner), few folks raise them and even fewer understand the difference between broad-breasted and heritage breeds. Let me explain the difference!
Broads vs Heritage
The broads are a human-dependent species. Toms are unable to mate on their own. Hens will prove themselves poor (and useless) mothers. An incubator is necessary to propagate these birds! Broad-breasted turkeys were created for meat production and (frankly put) have had brains and natural instincts bred out of them!
The heritage turkey is rare; some breeds are even on the endangered list. Fortunately, farming folks are re-discovering the benefits of raising these birds! With natural instincts intact, they are well-suited to a low-maintenance poultry yard.
If interested to learn about specific breeds, you can read about them at the livestock conservancy website. An then, let’s talk about why folks are returning to this beautiful backyard bird!
Heritage Birds are Self Sustaining
While many of our modern meat birds are unable to reproduce without human intervention, the heritage turkey stands out like a shining light. Similar to their wild relatives, toms will mate as a bird should, without help! Not only does he do his job well, but he’s a gentle and discreet. Though you’ll see plenty of strutting and puffing, it’s rare to catch him in the act.
Hens faithfully go broody every spring and reproduce well, taking up to 21 eggs per clutch. Not only will they set in early spring, but will patiently wait the full 28 days, then proceed to care for their young. If predators appear, hens will defend their brood with a rush of outspread wings, accompanied by a warning hiss.
Poults are hatched with long legs and tiny flight feathers. Like the wild game bird, they are prepared to survive! Though they prefer to run, poults can fly at a very young age. In warm weather, some attempt to roost early as 2-3 weeks after hatching.
They Have Long Producing Lifespan
A heritage tom will remain ‘intact’ until 3-5 years of age, a time during which he will grow heavier and heavier. After 5 years of age, he should be butchered and replaced by a young, fresh tom. Heritage hens will continue producing eggs for at least 5 years. Often, it’s the older ones who make the best mothers.
Excellent Free Ranging Abilities
Heritage turkeys were meant to live on the land. Not only are they capable of 100% free ranging, but they thrive on it. These birds are not scavengers (like the chicken). In fact, they won’t eat table scraps! For this reason they are not recommended for those who can’t offer them foraging.
Much like the goose, they prefer to graze on living greens and bugs. A wild turkey’s diet is made up of only 10% protein. The heritage turkey follows closely behind.
If allowed to free range, the heritage turkey will canvass your property in search of worms, bugs and grasshoppers. If concerned about tick control, consider these birds (instead of the noisy guinea). Not only will they help control the pest population, but will also feed themselves for free!
Heritage turkeys do produce eggs. From early spring-early fall hens lay approximately every 2-3rd day. While this isn’t regular enough to justify raising turkeys for eggs, its a nice side bonus while raising them for meat! Eggs are large, richer than that of a chicken and milder in flavor. Folks who have issues digesting the chicken’s egg can sometimes consume these large alternatives without complications.
Natural Growth, Natural Meat
If you are concerned with the quality (or healthiness) of abnormally fast growing meat birds, the heritage turkey may meet your standard! Not only do they mature at a natural rate, but are active, busy birds. If you’ve ever been alarmed by the strange-colored organs of the meat chicken, consider raising heritage turkeys! Butcher these free-ranging birds at 16-20 weeks of age. Hens will weight 4-6 lbs while toms range anywhere from 8-12 lbs.
Rich Flavor & Bone Broth
Heritage turkey meat is unlike any you’ve ever tasted before! Due to slow and natural maturation, these birds develop incredible flavor. Not only is the meat delicious, but broth made from bones is incredibly packed with nutrients. Want a good ‘gel’ in your broth? It’s impossible to avoid when using a young heritage turkey/s!
An Unusually Relational Bird
Shy but inquisitive, the heritage turkey is capable of bonding with humans in a dog-like manner and often, to the point of annoyance. Don’t tame your birds too well, or the flock will be waiting at the back door in the morning, follow you about the property or tag along while you attend to morning chores.
While you should tame your breeding stock for ease of handling, it may be wise to hold back on the meat birds! They just might win your heart…or drive you crazy by constantly being underfoot!
Nurturing the Natural Bird
How does one go about finding these birds? What does a suitable setup look like? What is included in natural mothering? And propagating a flock on the land? How does one care for a heritage turkey? All these questions and more are answered in my e-book, “Nurturing the Natural Bird, A Guide to Raising Heritage Turkeys.” Within the pages you’ll also find 12 links that direct you to real life videos of our system and how we practice bird care!