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Heritage Turkeys for the Homestead Farm

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

a wonderful addition to the farm

About 15 years ago, and early into our quest of raising kids with the land, we started learning about Heritage Turkeys. In search of a bird that could breed naturally, was interested in foraging for their food, and could survive on less grain, we found some wonderful breeds that are very closely linked to their wild turkey ancestors.

All domesticated turkeys descend from the wild turkeys of North and South America, but most turkey breeds today are very different from their ancestors. According to The Livestock Conservancy, "heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised." 

Characteristics of a heritage turkey include:

* Naturally Mating Long productive outdoor lifespan - able to withstand the rigors of outdoor production systems * Slow growth rate - taking about 28 weeks to reach marketable weight, providing time to develop strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.

In the 1950's and into the 1960's, turkeys were selected for larger size, greater breast width, and lighter feather color, to finally arrive with the broad breasted white turkey that is most common in today's market. The modern turkey converts feed to meat at a much faster rate, but at the loss of the birds ability to successfully mate. They require artificial insemination to produce fertile eggs.

Our personal experience growing broad breasted modern breeds was not satisfying. These birds are not designed to live long productive lives, and we knew that if we continued raising these birds, that we would need to purchase turkey chicks from a hatchery every year. We wanted to raise a turkey that we could perpetuate on our farm through natural breeding. Closing the loop, if you will.

So, we purchased some fertile heritage turkey eggs from a friend, put the eggs in the incubator, and our adventures with these lovely birds began.

Our young turkeys (after 3 weeks of age) are kept in a movable hoop house, keeping them protected from predators and weather, while also  providing them with fresh new grass to graze (and fertilize) each day.
Young Heritage Turkey Pullets

Some things that we have learned about these birds are:

1) They can fly - which means that their yard needs a fenced roof if we want to keep them from roosting in trees at dusk.

2) They are rugged and love being outdoors in the winter. Even prefer to roost out in the elements - even on those cold nights.

3) They can live a LONG time. We have one hen that is at least 9 years old now. She is not laying anymore, but she is the wise Grandmother of the flock.

4) They taste delicious - so much more flavor compared to the broad breasted birds that we used to raise.

5) Market weight: The Toms will dress at 14-18 lbs and the hens will be 8-11 lbs; much smaller than the broad breasted turkeys, but very similar to what one would see in the wild.

In April we harvest fertile eggs from our breeding stock ( usually about 2 toms and 6 hens), and fill our two incubators with the hopes of having 40-50 turkey chicks hatched for the season. We sell the majority of our turkeys for Thanksgiving and have many families who come back year after year for their bird(s), raving about the meal from the previous year and sharing ways that they plan on preparing their turkey this time around.

Our mature turkeys roam the farm during the day; they prance and preen and socialize with the chickens and ducks and search around for bugs, plants and worms, mindful to return to their yard in the evening where they can roost and we can keep them safe from predators.

Yes, we love our heritage turkeys....can't imagine our farm without them.

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