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How to Choose Turkey Breeds

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Heritage turkeys.

Heritage turkeys.

Photo © ExperienceLA.

There are not nearly as many turkey breeds as there are chicken breeds, but there are still enough varieties of turkeys to warrant a decision about which breed or breeds of turkey you will raise as a small farmer or homesteader.

Broad-Breasted Whites

These are the "modern" turkey breed that are raised in factory farm settings across the United States. They maximize the conversion of feed to white breast meat in the shortest possible time. But this efficiency is not without problems. Broad-Breasted Whites can't walk or fly, are prone to disease, and can't reproduce without artificial insemination. They don't taste too great, either.

Heritage Turkey Breeds

So, you might be thinking, "What about a heritage breed?" If you want to go the more natural route, which most small farmers and homesteaders do, steer clear of the Broad-Breasted Whites. There are quite a few heritage turkey breeds to choose from. These are the most popular and common of the thirteen recognized heritage turkey breeds.

Bourbon Reds

Bourbon Red turkeys are noted for - yes, you guessed it - their beautiful red plumage. The "Bourbon" comes from their origin in Bourbon County, Kentucky, where they were first bred in the 1800s. They're also known for a delicious, full flavor and are considered one of the best-tasting heritage turkey breeds. Bourbon toms can get to 23 pounds and hens can reach 12 pounds.

Narragansett

Originally from Rhode Island (as you might surmise from the name), Narragansetts were the staple of the New England turkey scene before factory-farmed turkeys became the norm. Typical sizes are 18 pounds for hens and 30 pounds for toms.

Midget White

Midget Whites are a relatively new heritage breed developed in the 1960s by researchers at the University of Massachusetts. They are a cross of Royal Palm and Broad-Breasted Whites. Although small, Midget Whites are known for their deep, delicious flavor. Toms weigh 16 to 20 pounds and hens weigh 8 to 12 pounds.

Midget Whites are calm and do well raising poults. Because the hens are small, they can become good fence-jumpers.

Beltsville Small White

Developed in the 1930s, these birds are roughly the same size as the Midget Whites, but with wider breasts. They make a nice table bird but are blander than Midgets or some other heritage birds. However, they are prolific layers. Mature hens can be good sitters and hatch eggs well. They're not very social compared to other heritage breeds.

White Holland

White Hollands were, yes, originally bred in Holland. They migrated with early settlers to the colonies and were a popular meat bird in the United States in the 1800s. Toms can weigh up to 30 pounds and hens, up to 20 pounds. They are calm, good setters and mothers, but sometimes break eggs because the hens are so heavy.

Standard Bronze

One of the largest breeds of heritage turkeys, Bronzes have also been the most popular turkey variety in American history. Bronzes were originally a cross between the turkeys brought to the colonies by Europeans and the native wild turkeys they discovered in America.

The Broad-Breasted Bronze is a variation that is more commercial and most have been bred by artificial insemination since the 1960s. However, the Broad-Breasted Bronze was replaced by the Broad-Breasted White at that time because white feathers led to a cleaner-looking, more commercially acceptable turkey.

Toms can reach 25 pounds and hens can reach 16 pounds, although birds available today may be smaller than this.

Black

Sometimes called Black Spanish or Norfolk Black turkeys, this breed was domesticated from Mexican wild turkeys brought back to Europe by the first Spanish explorers who visited the New World (America). Their plumage is, obviously, black, and they have been around since the 1500s.

Royal Palm

Royal Palm turkeys were bred for their good looks: black and white plumage was all the rage, I suppose? (No, seriously, these are beautiful, striking birds.) In any case, these birds are small and don't have the commercial potential of most other heritage varieties, being mostly raised for exhibition. Still, they are suitable for home production of meat, and are active turkeys that forage extensively. They are also good flyers and control insects well. Standard weights are 16 pounds for toms and 10 pounds for hens.

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