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Raising heritage turkeys on pasture

Updated: 12/21/2012 @ 1:18pm

Heritage turkeys are standard breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association's Standard of Perfection guidelines. The North American wild turkey is the common ancestor of these breeds. English settlers bred this bird with a black Spanish turkey, emerging with the Standard Bronze, which weighs in at a young tom rate of 25 pounds and is a favorite among producers who want to market a larger bird.

Other popular heritage breeds include:

  • White Holland - 25 pounds
  • Bourbon Red - 23 pounds
  • Black - 23 pounds
  • Narragansett - 23 pounds
  • Slate - 23 pounds
  • Jersey Buff - 21 pounds
  • Beltsville Small White - 17 pounds
  • Royal Palm - 16 pounds
  • Midget White - 14 pounds

Heritage breeds were the most popular holiday dinner choice through the mid-20th century, but rapidly declined in numbers after the mass production of the common Broadbreasted White. Consumers are rediscovering these legacy breeds because they have additional fat and muscle over the Broadbreasted, resulting in a more tender, juicy, flavorful bird. And as the Broadbreasted continues to lose survival characteristics, more producers are looking for options. Because many heritage breeds originated in certain regions of the U.S., there might also be an advantage in local marketability of these birds.

There are several marks of a heritage turkey:

  • It must reproduce naturally, with expected fertility rates of nearly 80%. This includes both parent and grandparent stock.
  • A true heritage hen is productive for up to 7 years, and a breeding tom up to 5 years.
  • It has to have a vigorous constitution to withstand outdoor production.
  • It's required to have a moderate growth rate. Market weight is achieved in 28 weeks, allowing for proper skeletal and muscle development.

Pasturing turkeys provides them with quite a varied diet, as they eat a wide range of plants, grasses, nuts, seeds, tubers, and insects. They also do well in waste grain fields of corn, wheat, soybeans, and oats.

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