Raising Heritage Turkey Breeds – Backyard Poultry


HERITAGE BREEDS OF TURKEYS ARE ONLY BEGINNING to recover from the severe population decline they experienced in the mid-1900s, when large-breasted commercial turkeys monopolized the market. Therefore, there is not much variability in the quality of the heirloom turkey breeds offered for sale today. Many strains, or distinct lines, are small, bony and unproductive – barely living up to the heritage turkey’s reputation as an excellent, enduring meat bird. However, through selection by dedicated breeders, some varieties have regained the distinction of their ancestors. Start your breeding herd by choosing a strain with the traits that will be a worthwhile investment of your time and money.

The importance of strains

Size is a defining characteristic of quality varieties. If, on average, a strain reaches the ideal weight for the variety, this is a strong indicator that the breeder has selected plump birds. Unwanted strains often fall 30% below ideal weights. This discrepancy is largely due to a lack of flesh which results in scantily dressed birds.

Bourbon Red Heritage poults.

The American Poultry Association (APA) standard of perfection is the authoritative source for weights, as well as preferred coloring, of the eight APA-recognized heritage turkey varieties, Standard Bronze, White Holland, Narragansett, Black, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White and Royal Palm. Leading breeders or conservation organizations are the best sources of accurate information about varieties that are not in the standard of perfection. It can be difficult to acquire strains that meet ideal weights, especially among the rarer heritage turkey breeds that desperately need to be preserved and defended. If one of these varieties piques your interest, start with the best variety you can find and keep improving it through selective breeding.

body shape

Besides the weight, the APA standard of perfection emphasizes that “body conformation in turkeys is of great importance. The body should be broad, round and the chest full; the legs and hocks should be large, straight and well attached.

Body conformation is important in keeping heritage breeds distinct.
28 week old Tom, showing good fit and a full chest.
Bourbon Red breeding age hen.

Narrow or shallow turkeys lack the frame to carry good meat. Such conformational defects are common in unselected heritage strains. Broad-breasted turkeys are at the other extreme; their massive breasts and short legs and keels hamper their movements and prevent them from mating naturally. 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 ability. foraging.

Weight gain

Compared to broad-breasted, front-heavy varieties, the bearing of well-rounded heirloom turkeys is particularly notable. Their backs, carried at about 45 degrees, deepen into a full, round chest carried slightly above the horizontal. The flesh is more evenly distributed over their breasts, thighs, and legs. Their keel and leg bones are straight, sturdy, and relatively long, allowing heritage birds to support substantial meat production without impinging on their freedom of movement. Heritage turkey breeds develop their boning before they take on flesh, so it’s normal for juveniles to look clumsy and not substantial. This desirable growth pattern allows the skeletal system and organs to develop before supporting muscle growth.

Ready to butcher

Turkeys are ready to be slaughtered when their breasts are well rounded and their feathers have finished growing. With proper nutrition, quality young toms reach this stage at around 28 weeks of age, and young hens reach it a few weeks earlier. Avoid varieties that need more than 30 weeks to mature. They are inefficient, requiring a lot more food to raise without producing more meat.

Laying turkeys

The maturity rate also has an impact on the productivity of turkeys as breeders. Quality heirloom turkeys begin mating and laying eggs as young as seven months old and no later than their first spring as adults.

Turkeys are seasonal layers, producing the most eggs during the spring breeding season. In their remarkable book, Turkey Management, Stanley J. Marsden and J. Holmes Martin explain that young hens must have a minimum production rate of 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 1.

That being said, the best strains of heirloom turkeys under management conditions conducive to year-round laying can produce 150 or more eggs per year. Hens should lay for 5-7 years, although egg production declines with age.

Fertility rate

Finally, fertility, hatchability and poult survival rates are essential statistics for evaluating the health, vigor and value of a strain as a sustainable breeding flock. The fertility of young turkeys must be 90% or more in eggs laid during the breeding season. The percentage of these eggs that hatch can be even more indicative of vigor. Marsden and Martin point out, “High hatchability is a very important consideration when buying breeding stock. In good flocks, 80-85% of fertile eggs should hatch under satisfactory incubation conditions.

At least 90% of poults should survive when brooded and fed properly. For naturally hatched and reared poults, the strength of the hen’s maternal instinct, which is encouraged in heritage turkey breeds, plays an important role in the survival of the poults.

Ready to start your herd?

So how do you put this information to good use when starting your herd? To ask questions. Knowledgeable breeders record all statistics discussed here and are happy to share this information with customers. Just make sure the breeder has got the statistics for their herd specifically. It is very common for vendors to quote general strain statistics, which may or may not describe the characteristics of their own strain.

It may take some research to find a quality strain of heirloom turkeys, but their superior table quality, efficiency, and productivity are worth it. And you’ll help preserve an important part of America’s agricultural heritage.

Good questions to start with include:

• What is the weight of your adult turkeys?
• What is the weight of young turkeys at slaughter age?
• When are they ready to be slaughtered?
• At what age do hens start laying eggs?
• How many eggs do they lay?
• Average fertility and hatchability rates?
• You can either watch the breeding herd in person or get photographs to see the body conformation.


• American Poultry Association, Inc. American Standard of Perfection 44th Edition. Burgettstown: American Poultry Association, 2010.

• Marsden, Stanley J. and J. Holmes Martin. Turkey Management. 6th ed. .

Rebecca Krebs is a freelance writer who lives in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. It owns and operates North Star Poultry (northstarpoultry.com), a small hatchery specializing in Blue Laced Red Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds and four proprietary 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.

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