Several years ago, Philip and I decided to raise turkey as a replacement for chicken, with the idea we would get more bang for our buck raising larger birds. We purchased our very first trio of Narragansett heritage turkeys locally. We discovered first and foremost that we don’t care for turkey as a replacement for chicken. However, we also learned that there are differences in the meat produced by heritage breeds in comparison to the supermarket turkeys we have grown accustomed to. Today’s commercial turkeys are a production breed of turkey. How should you choose what to raise, heritage breed turkeys versus production breed turkeys?
We originally purchased the Narragansett turkeys because it was important to Philip to raise heritage turkey breeds. What does the term “heritage breed” mean?
According to The Livestock Conservancy a heritage breed is defined as the following:
“Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by our forefathers. These are the breeds of a bygone era, before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. These breeds were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture. Traditional, historic breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.”The Livestock Conservancy
As you can image, as a homesteader, animals that possess these qualities would be highly sought after. Hardy animals that forage and easily reproduce on their own and rear their own young are an asset to any small farm working towards sustainable agriculture. Over the years we raised Narragansett, Royal Palms, Slate, Chocolate and Black Spanish turkeys all of which are heritage breeds. Our turkeys were healthy and abundantly reproduced! We had more turkeys than we knew what to do with! Pictured below is just one of the three turkey runs we had at that time.
The three main characteristics that a turkey must possess to be considered a heritage breed are:
- Naturally mating
- Long productive lifespans, hens typically live 5 to 7 years, while toms live 3 to 5 years.
- Slow to moderate growth rate. This allows for proper skeletal growth and organ development for healthy animals.
Production breeds are animals that are bred for high yield meat production. They grow faster in a short period of time and have higher meat yields than heritage breeds. Production breed turkeys are not genetically modified, they are bred through selective breeding for the desired characteristics of fast growth by cross breeding other fast-growing breeds.
As a results, they don’t meet the three requirements of a heritage breed. They can not breed naturally on their own and typically have shorter lifespans. Broad breasted white turkeys are bred through artificial insemination since they are unable to mate naturally due to their sheer size. They also have a shorter lifespan due to the strain on their body that fast growth causes. Since the goal of large corporations is fast meat production, the shorter lifespan is not a concern in the commercial food industry.
As a homesteader, I carefully watch my production breed animals for health issues. They are prone to issues with their legs, hearts and lungs since the fast-growing skeletal system and organs makes them susceptible to health issues. While we like the benefit of raising meat quickly, we are still mindful to provide a positive quality of life for our animals. Meat animals are also a financial investment. We tend to act more quickly to process animals that fail to thrive because we don’t want to lose the investment.
Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys and Broad-Breasted Giant White turkeys are examples of common production breed turkeys. We are raising Broad-breasted white turkeys for the first time this year. Broad-breasted turkeys are ready to harvest in 16 to 22 weeks of age, whereas their heritage counterparts require 26 to 28 weeks. They also won’t be near as large, no matter how much time you give them. While broad breasted bronze turkeys are an excellent choice, the broad-breasted whites are the most commonly raised domestic turkeys in the United States.
Differences in Meat Quality
When it comes to nutrition, both heritage breeds versus production breed turkeys are similar. However, many people feel that the flavorful meat of heritage turkeys is superior. This likely comes from the food that is provided to the turkeys. Heritage birds are natural foragers. If they are allowed to free range, turkeys will have a more diverse food source than birds that are fed grain alone.
It is common practice to raise mass-produced birds of the poultry industry inside large barns. They do not have access to forage at all. Our production birds have limited access to foraging, due to our space constraints. However, they actively forage in their yard. I have noticed that they don’t tend to eat the vegetable treats I provide to them, while their heritage neighbors tend to eat them up. Since these are our first production turkeys, we will see how that continues as they get older. I have read that production turkeys become more inactive as they get older and larger.
The meat from heritage birds tends to be more tough. Heritage birds are active, they build strong muscles that can produce tough meat. There are a few things that you can do to help, properly aging meat prior to freezing it, just like you would larger animals and/ or brining the meat can also help.
Heritage birds tend to have less white meat and long legs with darker leg meat. I have to say the most disappoint part to me is the smaller breasts of true heritage breed turkeys. This type of turkey looks disappointing in the roasting pan for Thanksgiving dinner. Almost like they did too much leg work at the gym, and not enough chest workouts. They have much less white breast meat than found in the broad breast turkeys.
Which Should You Choose?
How do you deicide which to choose, heritage breeds versus production breed turkeys? It really depends on your goals and preferences. Philip desires to be prepared. Considering commercial food shortages around the world, he wants to be as self sufficient as possible. While raising production breeds of turkeys can fill the freezer much faster, the inability to breed on their own makes them a less self-sufficient option.
Likely we will continue to raise a minimum number of heritage turkeys for sustainable turkey production . However, I have to say, I prefer the meat quality of the production breeds best, as we have experienced with broiler chickens. The rapid growth, of these large turkeys, easy butchering, and quality of meat is our personal preference. For now, we will continue to raise production breeds as long as they are readily available.
Your choice may also reflect your ability to overwinter animals. If your climate is harsh, heritage turkeys would require a suitable shelter to overwinter. Possibly that’s outside of your financial means, or possibly not your goal for meat production. The best turkeys are the ones that best meet your needs and goals for your homestead.
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.