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)
- 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 www.anitamaedraper.com