Monday, November 14, 2011

Heritage Turkeys

by Anita Mae Draper

Let's talk about heritage turkeys and no, I'm not talking about old men. (Inside joke to my hubby.)

Nelson and pair of Broad Breasted Bronze Heritage turkeys
I’m talking colorful, flavorful turkeys like the Broad Breasted Bronze in the photo above.

When we bought our farm a dozen years ago, we joined the Saskatchewan Bird and Small Animal Association (SBSAA) to learn about raising poultry and small animals like goats and sheep. One of the first things the SBSAA taught us was the importance of maintaining pure strains of heritage varieties for the future.

Royal Palm Heritage turkeys
Each breed – whether turkey, duck, chicken, goat, sheep, etc - has many varieties and when the varieties are allowed to run loose together and breed, the eggs could contain genes from whatever two varieties bred together. The results are called cross-breeds. While cross-breeds can be good, they no longer carry the pure strain of either parent. Sort of like a mongrel dog.

So let’s talk turkey. Everybody loves a big, wide breasted turkey sitting on their Thanksgiving table, right? Well, that turkey has been specially bred to have as much white meat on its breast as it can carry and thus it’s most likely not a Heritage turkey. I say most likely because some Heritage turkeys are making a comeback, but most don't fit today's schedule of fast-growing, clinical-reproducing turkeys.

Flickr Photo Courtesy of Ginger me

Although today's huge Thanksgiving table delight isn't exactly a eunuch, but he may as well be. He's been bred to satisfy all those white meat lovers, but his huge breast gets in the way when he's trying to mount the hens. So todays market turkeys are created using artificial insemination.

The American Poultry Association (APA) has listed 8 turkey varieties based on specific color patterns in its rule book, The Standard of Perfection.

Anita Mae's 1910 and 1945 copies of the Standard of Perfection

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) is an organization whose role is to conserve heritage breeds for future use. Their mission is "Ensuring the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry." They maintain a watchlist of all livestock and list them under headings. Here is their current watchlist for Heritage turkeys:

- critical (Beltsville Small White, Chocolate, Jersey Buff, Lavender/Lilac, Midget White)

- threatened (Narragansett, White Holland)

- watch (Black, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze)

- recovering

- study (Broad Breasted Bronze, other naturally-mating non-standards)

Narragansett tom Heritage turkey

In order for turkeys to be classified as Heritage, they must meet 3 criteria:

- Naturally mating: they must have been created naturally from pure strain parents and grandparents of the same variety and they must be able to breed naturally. (No artificial insemination.)

- Long productive outdoor lifespan: they must be able to thrive growing outdoors for a long time (5-7 yrs for breeding hens and 3-5 for breeding toms). (Not grown indoors for a few months then processed.)

- Slow growth rate: they must grow slowly so bone structure can keep up to their muscles and organ growth. (Not using growth hormones for large breasts where they suffer early heart attacks and can't walk due to lack of leg muscle support.)

That's why it's so important for groups like my own SBSAA to take a stand and only promote those varieties with pure strains. There are also individuals who keep from a few of one variety to many breeds and varieties because even small flocks contribute to future genetic diversity.

One such person is the Canned Quilter at Hickery Holler Farm in the Ozarks. She has a fascinating blog showcasing her love of family, quilting and canning including recipes. I found her because I was looking for a photo of a Bourbon Red pair and she had blogged about having 2 Bourbon Red hens and was looking for a tom. She found him and named him Fonzie.

Fonzie and his girls - trio of Bourbon Red Heritage turkeys

That's only one Heritage turkey trio. Yet, if they are kept in a healthy, stress-free environment, they can pro-create naturally, produce and brood dozens more of their kind.

A few years ago I heard about the plight of the common tiger. I never knew they were in any kind of danger. I mean, there are so many of them, right? But according to the article I read at the time, all the tigers in the world are now genetically the same. So if one tiger gets sick with a new virus, it can potentially kill every tiger on the planet with one swipe. Why? Because there aren't any tigers with slightly different genes to combat the new virus.

Another similar group to the ALBC is Rare Breeds Canada (RBC). The RBC motto is Genetic Diversity for Breed Security. It maintains a watchlist similar to the ALBC, but of Heritage breeds in Canada. It also keeps track of the varieties bred in Canada to withstand the Canadian climate. Both of these organizations deserve support for their efforts.

Here's a video of 3 soccer-playing Royal Palm toms. Perhaps they could get a game together against the Bourbon Reds? Haha

God made many wonderful things for us to eat, use and enjoy. Man tries to improve on perfection - but at what cost to future generations?

Discussion questions for today:
- Were you aware of the roles the ALBC and RBC play?
- Have you ever looked a turkey in the eye? Touched one?
- Which variety do you think looks the nicest?
- Do you eat turkey for Thanksgiving/Christmas?
- Have you heard about the plight of the tigers?

Come on, talk to me...

Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and 2 of their 4 kids. She writes stories set on the prairies of Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Anita Mae has semi-finaled in the Historical Romance category of the ACFW's 2011 Genesis contest and finaled in the Inspirational category of the 2011 Daphne du Maurier, the 2011 Fool for Love, the 2011 Duel on the Delta and 2009 Linda Howard Award of Excellence contests. You can find her at


  1. Anita Mae, didn't you just tell me the other day that you couldn't help me with my biology? Sounds to me like maybe you could have. ;)

    No, I have never heard of those organizations, and no, I've never looked a turkey in the eye or touched one.

    I did, however, have two wild turkeys run across the road in front of my car near Concrete, WA one time. I didn't even know we had wild turkeys in WA. So that was an interesting experience.

    I don't like to buy food that has growth hormones in it. Yuck. I can't think of any reason why we should ingest growth hormones, and I always try to make sure I buy "growth-hormone-free" products.

    Fun post, kiddo.

  2. This is so cool Anita. I didn't know about the organizations and I can't pick one breed. They are all beautiful! I'm glad to know breeders are protecting the species and it's sad to think of these super turkeys created for our pleasure. Well I like the dark meat anyway.
    I havent seen our turkeys since last year. But we have more fox and coyote. I love to see and hear them. ( the turkeys) Another reason is that the fields used to be fallow but now they are in alfalfa. What do you think?

    Excuse the typos if you see them please.

  3. I knew about the heritage breeds with chickens, but not with turkeys. We have wild ones around here. The first time they showed up we had to call in the taxidermist kid to identify the ginormous birds in the yard! They look a lot different in the wild!

    And yes, we do eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and sometimes on Christmas, too. In fact, I roasted a nice 16-pounder Saturday. It's already gone.

  4. Suzie, when you asked that biology question, you weren't talking english. You asked, "Gg x gg - I this is a 1:1 ratio for phenotype, but is it a 1:1 ratio for genotype?"

    That made my eyes cross. I went to a technical vocation high school and took Business Education classes. Not biology, chemistry and all those other subjects needed for mankind to survive.

    However, if I want to find out why, if you breed a Black turkey to a Black turkey, you get another Black turkey, but if you breed a Slate to a Slate, you could get another Slate, or a Self-Blue or a Black, then I go to a site like Porter's Rare Heritage Turkeys where he describes that a black has a genotype of BBdd which is 2 Dominate Black genes and 2 recessive, while a Slate has a genotype of BBDd which means there is one Dominate mutation gene in there and thus you never know what you’ll hatch, then I might've been able to help you.

    You weren't talking turkey, though. And you didn't ask me the right question. :?


  5. Thanks for making Fonzie and the girls celebrities. They have actually already brooded 12 babies. We are starting to have quite a flock of these rascals and they are indeed quite spoiled. We love out turkeys.

    The Canned Quilter
    Hickery Holler farm

  6. Deb said, I'm glad to know breeders are protecting the species

    Yes, now. The ALBC was formed in 1977 and the RBC in 1987 although there were smaller individual organizations before that. They didn't have enough power though.

    Take the Buff Heritage turkey for example. (I think of it as the caramel variety.) It was listed in the APA's Standard of Perfection in the 1874 edition. And it was used to create the Bourbon Red variety in the late 1800's.

    However, if fell in popularity and was rare in the early 1900's, removed for the Standard of Perfection by 1915, and eventually became extinct.

    Yes, Buff Heritage turkeys are extinct.

    However, by 1940, interest was growing again, popularity increased and they started breeding for the buff coloring. What did they use? The Bourbon Red!

    Today you have the Jersey Buff which I'm sorry to say is on the ALBC's critical list. :(


  7. Ah, Anita, thanks for showing everyone my dumb question. You're so funny. :)

    I'm off to further humiliate myself by taking a four-chapter biology exam.... Could someone pray for me to at least score 80%?

  8. Deb also said, 'I havent seen our turkeys since last year. But we have more fox and coyote. I love to see and hear them. (the turkeys) Another reason is that the fields used to be fallow but now they are in alfalfa. What do you think?'

    You have fox and coyotes in NY??? We had wolves in Ontario, but I never saw a coyote until I moved west.

    Anyway, if the fox and coyotes are killing off the turkeys, where are the fox and coyotes natural predators?

    I think God created a natual order and if one species dies out it's because man has his fingers in there somewhere along the line.

    The fallow vs planted fields shouldn't make a difference. Well, unless you mean the fallow land was in its natural state as opposed to not being planted for a year or two.


  9. Hey there, Canned Quilter. Welcome to the Inkwell. Thank you for allowing me to use your photo.

    You brought up a point when you said your turkeys are spoiled. Turkey farmers are a rare breed themselves. Because eggs need attention, especially if you incubate in the house, many turkey poults end up in the house and then think they're humans. I've heard so many stories of people with turkeys in their houses. I'm not that kind of turkey lover. LOL

    However, I did have 11 goat kids in the house one holiday season when the weather dropped to -50C/-58F and the mommas got stressed and dropped their babies early. I kept them in 2 playpens and spend days trying to get their mommas to accept them in between bottle feeding. That unheated barn was cold! And then those kids thought they were human, too and kept trying to get back in the house. Ugh.

    Thanks for sharing with us, Canned Quilter. Love your website. :)


  10. Suzie - was that a dumb question? But if that's a dumb question and I didn't understand it... then... gulp... what does that make me?

    (Anita hangs her head.)

  11. Lol. It makes us the same, Anita Mae. Two otherwise intelligent Christian writers who need just a little more time to learn biology.

  12. Actually, no. I don't want to learn any more biology, but I go looking when I want or need the info.

    You, my dear, are studying it. You're out there furthering your education, taking courses while holding down a full time job. While writing. I'd say that puts you on a whole 'nother island.

    Let me use an analogy in a language I do understand... you are the equivalent of a natural cowboy.

    I am a pretender - an urban cowboy.

    Now watch - someone's going to quote me out of context. Hahaha.

  13. as always, interesting and informative post Anita! i've never really considered the breeding process for all farm animals, let alone turkeys. i'm happy that there are organizations out there looking to preserve animals as God created them to be. my mom's side of the family has farming heritage and i know they all would be appreciative of said efforts as well.

    is it bad that i try to buy the meat that is least expensive for my budget? i'd rather go for as close to nature as i can get it, but budget sometimes interferes. i've learned enough from my brother to know that just because the label says "organic" you have to do your homework because some people cheat on the "organic" concept because they want to make extra cash. *sigh*

    we definitely need to be good stewards of what God has given us. i try to do that as much as possible, but sometimes i think i fail more often than not.

    thanks for giving us food for thought Anita (pun intended *heh*)

  14. oh, forgot. i always loved the biology thing in college. we studied fruit flies. not that i really remember any of the information, but i enjoyed figuring out genome stuff - i think it has something to do with me being left handed and the only one on both sides of the family.

    i always wondered where that came from and could never figure it out. i'm also hoping Guppy goes lefty because i think it gives a body one more aspect that makes him/her unique *heh*
    so far, Guppy goes lefty when playing with mamma, and righty when playing with daddy. showing no favorite handedness at all.

    well, that's my biology input for the day. not the least bit intellectual or educational either. *heh*

  15. Good pun, DebH. Always nice to visit with you. You said, 'is it bad that i try to buy the meat that is least expensive for my budget?'

    Nope. It's a personal decision and don't let anyone tell you different.

    We raised organic chickens, ducks, turkeys and goats when we could. We love farm fresh eggs with their dark orange yolks. However, not everyone has access to them. And not everyone likes them.

    The main reasons we stopped:

    - city-bred hubby didn't like being a farmer. We live on the farm where I now write, he works in the oil field and we rent the cultivated land. :( We sold all our critters except for the Muskovy ducks and some rare Chantecler chickens bred in Canada for our harsh climate. (They have no combs that can freeze and render the roosters sterile. Yes, a fact of poultry life.)

    - another reason we don't farm is that my store-nurtured family didn't like the taste of the stronger flavoured poultry. The free range poultry ate all sorts of insects, greens and seeds which translates to a flavourful bird.

    - and also, our open range poultry were always on the run which meant strong muscles - tough muscles - not succulent like poultry that have been raised in cages and not allowed to move through their short lifespan. In my ignorance, I didn't know I was supposed to keep them penned 2 wks prior to processing to relax their muscles. :(

    So Deb, you have to feed your family with what's available, what you can afford, and what they like.

    The thing is to shop judiciously and not grab the first thing you see because of the price. Sometimes farmers markets' prices equal the supermarkets, but you have to know when.

    "because the label says "organic" you have to do your homework because some people cheat on the "organic" concept because they want to make extra cash"
    Unfortunately, that's true. While researching for this post, I ran across some articles where farms that were touted as raising 'free-range' turkeys were actually raising them in a barn - thousands in one building where they could barely move and without much fresh air intake.

    Again, it comes down to doing your homework in your own area. And yes, praying for guidance always helps even when it comes to buying food. :)

    The purpose of this post wasn't to condemn modern turkey raising methods, but to show alternatives.

    And mainly to bring awareness of older varieties - before their genetic diversity is lost forever.

  16. DebH, as for being left-handed... my mom is a leftie and hoped some of her grandkids would be as none of her kids had that distinction. Nope. My 4 switched back and forth until they entered school but not a southpaw in the batch.

    It's definitely a gene, though. Back in the 40's when my mom was in grade school, they used to punish her for writing with her left hand. For years she struggled but never felt natural writing any other way. I can't imagine the pain she went through in school. It's hard enough learning without a stigma attached to it. :(


  17. I've seen a handful of wild turkeys. They were so lean and dark!

    Friends of ours belong to a Poultry Fanciers group (they raise chickens). Once we visited them at a show at the fairgrounds, and a gorgeous tom turkey got agitated and escaped his pen. My son was little at the time and he was freaked out by the fluffing, squawking beast! (He was one big turkey. The bird, not my kid.)

    Never touched one. We eat them for Thanksgiving, and we also eat ground turkey, etc. I don't like eating meat with hormones, either. Bleah.

    Thanks, Anita!

  18. Yes, Susie, Poultry Fanciers is another name for people who raise rare breeds. I've been to several shows but never felt my stock was good enough to enter. I usually entered in the local fairs though. Less competition. LOL

    And yes, turkeys are very high-strung and become agitated easily, which is why there are so many YouTubes out on hordes of them going 'Huh?'. I was going to use one, but couldn't find one with the quality I wanted. And then the soccer playing one is more unique.

    But turkeys are all puffy chests and expect you to back off in fright.

    Geese on the other hand - watch out! Geese are used as guard dogs on some farms because they attack visitors. No guff. They honk and flap their wings and chase after anyone who looks at them sideways. Not for me. Uh-uh.

  19. The fox and Coyote's natural predator is the internal combustion engine. I see dead foxes all the time.

    We sometimes don't see Eastern Cottontails for months.

    We also have wolves and bears here in NY. and a deer overpopulation. As for turkeys, they just look plain brown to me. Nothing exciting like your photos!

  20. Anita, I'm totally a product of my generation. A shame really, I guess, but I prefer not to know where my food comes from. The grocery store is as nitty gritty as I want to get.

    But we do have turkey for Thanksgiving! Have you ever tried frying a turkey. Joel did that last year and it turned out really good!

  21. Deb, the plain brown ones are the wild turkeys mentioned earlier. They have a leaner body, taller like the bronze Heritage variety. They also puff out when threatened or want to show off for the ladies, but they certainly aren't broad breasted.

  22. Hey Lisa, you sound like my hubby. He used to think I was trying to poison him when I was canning. Said if it didn't come from the store he couldn't trust it. Ugh. You can see why we weren't farmers very long.

    No, I've never tried frying a turkey although I do have a huge turkey smoker I bought at a garage sale. Can't work up the nerve to ask hubby to use it just in case he thinks I'll put something in the woodsmoke. Argh.

    And yet he'll take synthetically produced drugs when he's sick instead of herbs. Can't figure the man out.


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