Hatcheries offer many turkey varieties. Once you’ve decided you want to raise turkeys, choosing the right breed starts with deciding between broad-breasted and heritage turkeys. If you want to raise a few large turkeys to roast for the winter holidays, you might consider a fast-growing broad-breasted type. However, if you wish to raise turkeys in the future from your own flock, the heritage breeds will naturally produce fertile eggs. In contrast, broad-breasted turkeys require artificial insemination, because their enormous weight and outsize chests make them too awkward to mate naturally.
Compared with broad-breasted turkeys, the heritage breeds have greater disease-resistance and are better foragers, making them suitable for keeping on pasture. On the other hand, heritage turkeys grow at a much slower rate, finishing in six to seven months, whereas the broad-breasted types are ready to harvest in four to five months. Even though a heritage turkey meat project requires an extra two months, the reward is juicier, more flavorful meat. But if you’re strictly into white meat, the breast of a heritage turkey is only about half the size of that of a broad-breasted turkey.
Raising a heritage breed for meat might seem like a contradiction, but doing so helps support the efforts of those who maintain the genetic lines of minor and endangered breeds. And face it: The primary purpose of any turkey is to produce meat. Although turkey eggs taste wonderful, the hens lay only seasonally, making egg production uneconomical as a main reason for keeping turkeys. Other reasons for raising turkeys are to help preserve the genetics of the rarer breeds or simply to enjoy these beautiful birds strutting around your farm.
Almost any hatchery that sells chicks also sells poults (baby turkeys). Place your order early in the year, especially if you want one of the less common breeds, to ensure the hatchery doesn’t sell out. Ordering well in advance also gives you plenty of time to set up your brooding facility.
8 Turkey Breeds to Consider
For the turkey-raising novice, the following eight breeds are worth considering.
- Black: Calm, rapid growing and early maturing, the Black turkey originated in Mexico, was taken to Europe by early explorers and brought to the U.S. by settlers. The breed remained popular until dark-feathered poultry fell out of favor for meat production because of the difficulty of removing dark pinfeathers. Young toms (male turkeys) weigh around 23 pounds when ready for harvest; hens, 14 pounds. At maturity, toms weigh about 33 pounds; hens, 18 pounds.
- Bourbon Red: Among the older breeds developed in the U.S., the Bourbon Red (pictured below) is named after Kentucky’s Bourbon County. This handsome heavy-breasted bird has chestnut-colored feathers accented in white and pale pinfeathers. The Bourbon Red is an active forager and good for pest control. Young toms weigh about 25 pounds; hens, 16. Mature toms weigh 35 pounds; hens, 20.
- Broad Breasted: Selectively bred by industrial producers for fast growth and large breasts, broad-breasted turkeys don’t have the same strong immune systems as heritage breeds, but the lower price of poults somewhat offsets the potential for losses. Broad-breasted turkeys have placid personalities and are either white or bronze. Of the two, the Broad Breasted Bronze is more hardy, but its multicolored copper tone feathers result in a less clean-looking dressed bird. Broad Breasted Whites account for some 90 percent of all turkeys grown for meat. Young broad-breasted toms weigh about 30 pounds; hens, 18. Mature toms weigh 45 pounds; hens, 25.
- Bronze: The Bronze turkey was developed by early American settlers by crossing Black turkeys brought from Europe with local wild turkeys. The Bronze turkey is an ancestor to the Broad Breasted Bronze, and it looks similar but is smaller and able to reproduce naturally. It has a calm personality and coppery bronze plumage. Young toms weigh about 25 pounds, hens 15; mature toms weigh 30 pounds, hens 19.
- Midget White: Developed in Massachusetts as a small turkey for backyard production, the friendly Midget White is the smallest turkey breed—an ideal size for a small family with limited freezer, refrigerator and oven space. With its broad breast, the Midget White looks like a miniature Broad Breasted White, but because it’s much lighter it can fly really well—an important consideration when designing facilities intended to enclose turkeys. Young toms weigh 13 pounds; hens, 8. Mature toms weigh about 18 pounds; hens, 10.
- Narragansett: Like the Bronze turkey, the Narragansett (pictured below) was developed by early settlers as a cross between Black turkeys brought from Europe and local wild turkeys. It is similar in color to the Bronze but has a steel-gray tint in contrast to the Bronze’s copper cast. It’s known as an excellent forager with a calm disposition, a good egg producer and brooder, and early to mature. Young toms weigh about 23 pounds; hens, 14. Mature toms weigh 28 pounds; hens, 16.
- Orlopp Bronze: This breed (pictured at the top of this article) comes from the original bronze line. The Orlopp family purchased 400 bronze line eggs from a farm in Washington state in 1935. Mature toms of this broad-breasted breed weigh about 39 pounds; hens, 23.
- Royal Palm: This docile breed, developed in Florida, has white plumage attractively trimmed in black. Royal Palms have not been selectively bred for fast growth and heavy muscling, so they are considered primarily ornamental, but they grow to a nice size for a small family. They are active foragers and excellent flyers. Young toms weigh 16 pounds; hens, 10. Mature toms weigh about 20 pounds; hens, 12.
Potential Turkey Troubles
Turkeys are only slightly more difficult to raise than chickens. For starters, they are a little less calm, and they chill more easily. When young turkeys are cold or frightened, they tend to pile on top of each other, smothering those unfortunate enough to find themselves at the bottom.
They are also more curious; while investigating something of interest, a turkey might wedge its body into a tight spot from which it can’t back out. Because turkeys take longer than chickens to reach maturity, they have more time to become injured, get sick or die.
Once turkeys are fully grown, the trickiest management issue is persuading hens to lay their eggs in a safe place—an especially challenging feat with breeds that can fly out of the poultry yard. With slightly more attention to detail, though, raising turkeys isn’t much different from keeping chickens.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.