turkeys in a field
Photos by Sally Colby

There has been a surge in small-scale poultry production, usually among those who want to raise birds for their own use or as part of a farm enterprise. While many farm owners have found profit in raising broilers on pasture, others are interested in raising heritage turkeys.

Turkeys are traditionally raised for the Thanksgiving market, which means the production season is consistent from year to year. Heritage breeds are becoming popular among consumers who want a unique and flavorful turkey for the holiday table, and farmers can often sell turkeys well in advance of the holidays.

If modern poultry production can give us a broad-breasted bird that gains efficiently and is easy to raise, why are people interested in heritage breeds? One reason often cited is the superior flavor, which is likely the result of the heritage turkey’s close kinship with its wild counterpart.

According to The Livestock Conservancy, a heritage turkey breed is one that can be maintained through natural mating (no artificial insemination), has a long productive life span, and has a slow to moderate growth rate.

The Standard Bronze (or Bronze) turkey is the result of crossing early domestic turkeys with eastern wild turkeys. It retains many of the traits of the wild turkey.
The Standard Bronze (or Bronze) turkey is the result of crossing early domestic turkeys with eastern wild turkeys. It retains many of the traits of the wild turkey.

Heritage turkeys must be able to survive in a pasture/range system and be fit for foraging. On average, breeding hens are productive for five to seven years, and toms are normally reliable breeders for three to five years. Heritage turkeys grow and gain weight similarly to the commercial turkeys that were available in the early 1900s. With good feed and care, heritage turkeys reach market weight in about 28 weeks.

The first domestic turkeys were raised by the Aztecs in Mexico and by Mayans in Central America. Spanish explorers who ventured to new lands also found wild and domestic turkeys and took them back to Spain. In the 1500s, several European turkey varieties were developed, including Norfolk Black, White Austrian, Buff, Blue Slate and Ronquieres. By the 1600s, turkeys were being raised throughout Europe and widely used for celebrations and holiday meals. Colonists took European varieties with them as they traveled to America, and by the 1700s, domestic turkeys were present throughout the mid-Atlantic region and along the southern coast.

The American Poultry Association was formed in 1873 and established standards for five turkeys: Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Black and Slate. Eventually, breeds such as Bourbon Red, Royal Palm and Beltsville Small White were added.

Although the efforts of the APA were aimed at protecting the standard-type turkey breeds, the demand for broader-breasted birds grew, and breeders started to select birds for that trait. The more modern birds had more heavily muscled breasts and were efficient at feed conversion, but the heavy breasts prevented normal mating. While improved turkey genetics produced birds that reached market size quickly and became popular for holiday meals, there was still a demand for the old-fashioned, or heritage, breeds.

One popular heritage breed is the Standard Bronze, which traces back to the first turkeys brought to the country by colonists. The Bronze is a cross between early domestic birds and the eastern wild turkey. At one time, Bronzes were crossed with fast-growing commercial varieties, which resulted in the Broad Breasted Bronze. This bird had the rapid growth and broad breast needed for commercial production, but conformation changes made it impossible for the Broad Breasted Bronze to mate naturally. The Broad Breasted White eventually replaced the Broad Breasted Bronze for commercial production, but small-scale breeders retained the original, slower-growing lines of Bronze turkeys and started to reinvigorate the breed to preserve its survivability and deep flavor profile.

The White Holland, a white-feathered bird, is a mutation of the Bronze variety. Although it looks much like the standard white turkey used in commercial production, the White Holland is a true heritage breed. Toms mature at around 25 pounds, while hens reach market weight at approximately 16 pounds.

The unique red and white plumage of the Bourbon Red makes it easy to recognize. This variety has a deep breast and rich flavor that's popular among consumers. Photos by Sally Colby.
The unique red and white plumage of the Bourbon Red makes it easy to recognize. This variety has a deep breast and rich flavor that’s popular among consumers. Photos by Sally Colby.

The Black, which is also known as the Norfolk Black or Black Spanish, was developed in Europe and later arrived in early America. Colonists continued to raise the Black, and it’s widely thought that it may have been the variety served at the first Thanksgiving. The Livestock Conservancy would like to see this breed continue to thrive and encourages fans of heritage breeds to consider raising Blacks.

In Bourbon County, Kentucky, in the late 1800s, J.F. Barbee developed the Bourbon Red from crosses between Buff, Bronze and White Holland turkeys. It started in Pennsylvania with the breeding of dark red Buff turkeys, which were taken to Ohio and Kentucky and became the foundation for the Bourbon Red. Toms can reach close to 30 pounds, while hens usually mature at around 14 pounds.

The Narragansett turkey has black, tan, gray and white feathers, and may look like a wild turkey to those who aren’t familiar with the breed. It’s named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, which is where the breed was created as a cross between the native wild turkey and the domestic turkey that the early colonists brought to America in the 1600s. This breed has undergone significant improvement over the years and is especially popular in New England. Those who favor heritage breeds appreciate the calm, quiet disposition of the Narragansett. Mature toms weigh up to 30 pounds, and mature females average around 16 pounds.

The Silver Narragansett is a subvariety that appears within the Narragansett breed. It has predominantly white plumage, but is otherwise similar to the standard-colored Narragansett.

Farmers who are interested in adding heritage turkeys to a poultry operation should determine which breed is best suited for their farm and market. Those who have no experience in raising poultry can obtain information from The Livestock Conservancy at