Beltsville Turkey

Photo by ALBC staff

There are several varieties of turkeys that are native to North America. Heritage breed turkeys retain all of the characteristics that made them able to thrive in a variety of different climates and under many different living conditions. In fact, Ben Franklin was so impressed with them that he wanted them to be the national bird!

Conventional, factory farm raised turkeys, the kind most of us have on our Thanksgiving table every year, have been bred to be nothing more than meat. Most of them have no idea about how to set their eggs and are unable to mate naturally anymore. You can read more about the pathetic state of commercial breed turkeys at Holmestead.

If you have a little space of your own, raising heritage breed turkeys is not a difficult matter at all. It can also be quite financially rewarding. Heritage breed poultry sells for quite a bit more than the 69 cent a pound turkey you will be finding in stores this holiday season. The superior flavor of heritage breed turkeys as well as the smaller ecological footprint of producing these breeds makes the increased price worth it to many consumers.

Heritage Breed Turkey Varieties

Although there are at least 13 varieties of heritage breed turkeys on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy watch list there are only seven on the critical and threatened lists.

Beltsville Small White

The Beltsville Small White turkey was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture in the 1930s to fill the need for a small, white feathered turkey for family use. White feathers leave no dark spots in the turkey skin when it is plucked and it looks cleaner.

The Beltsville Small White grows from 10 to 17 pounds, and requires less feed and range than the bigger turkeys, making it a good choice for the urban homestead. It became almost extinct in the 1970s when the conventional broad breasted breed began to be favored by commercial growers.

This breed is difficult to obtain and is listed on the critical list.

Chocolate Turkey The Chocolate is a very rare breed, named for the color of its feathers. It was popular prior to the Civil War in much of the South and is therefore still a great choice for the southern homestead. This heritage breed turkey is hard to find. You must beware buying dark colored turkeys that are not the true Chocolate. Jersey Buff The Buff is from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It was recognized in 1874 and was one of the breeds used for the development of the Bourbon Red. By 1900 it had fallen out of favor and was nearly extinct. In the 1940s the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station became interested in developing a buff colored bird in a medium size. They used the Bourbon Red to develop the Jersey Buff. Their smaller size (10-21 lbs) makes them an excellent choice for the hobby farm. Lilacs The Lilac or Lavender is an old breed that shows silvery blue colored feathers. It does not always breed true and you can get buff to red tones as well. Good breeders and the hens are broody. Midget White The Midget White was developed in the 1960s out of a need to create a smaller broad breasted bird. It has good fertility and brood qualities and is very healthy. The meat is more the flavor of the conventional broad breasted turkey than some of the other heritage varieties. These birds average 8 to 13 pounds, making them a good choice for the smaller homesteading family. Narragansett The Narragansett is named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. This old breed is a cross between the turkeys that were native to the North East and the European turkeys that the colonial settlers brought with them. This breed has been around since the 1600s and was officially recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1874. The Narragansett weighs 16 to 22 pounds. It thrives on very little commercial food, being adept at finding its own meals if allowed to free range. The meat is considered superior in flavor to most other turkeys. They have a calm temperament and are friendly. This is an excellent choice for the larger homestead that might want to raise turkeys for market as well as table. These birds helped early settlers survive in the wilderness. Bourbon Red The Bourbon Red turkey was developed in the 1800s in Kentucky. It has a richly flavored meat and a broad breast that is prized for table use. The Bourbon Reds are good foragers and do well on pasture with a little supplemental feed. Since the pinfeathers are light the carcass is clean looking when the bird is dressed. Slow Food Movement Makes Heritage Breeds Popular In 2001 the Slow Food Movement listed four heritage breed turkeys on their "Ark of Taste." These were considered the heritage breeds with the most flavor. They are: - Narragansett - Jersey Buff - American Bronze - Bourbon Red Buying Heritage Breed Turkey Poults If you are looking for heritage breed turkey poults for purchase you can find them at the following sites: - Sandhill Preserve - Cackle Hatchery - Ideal Poultry - McMurray Hatchery If you can't find the breed you are looking for contact the breeder's clubs for that bird and ask them. Breeders clubs and organizations are always a great place to start. New homesteaders as well as those with more experience can get lots of information and help from the various breeders. They are usually more than willing to help promote their favorite breeds.