Which Turkey to Choose

A question recently asked on the Murray McMurray Hatchery facebook page was this, “I have never raised turkeys before, what is the best breed for me?”

While this question certainly can generate many valid opinions, it is almost too difficult of a question to answer with a breed type. In following the training of years gone by, I would ask several questions to better understand the needs of the customers: What do you want to accomplish with the turkey? What kind of area will the turkeys be raised in? Are you concerned or interested in hatching your own turkeys? How involved do you want to be with your turkeys?

While this can be unpacked in several ways, let me stick with the brief questions I posed above to give some perspective on the question that will hopefully help you determine what breed is “right” for you. The timing of the question could not be more perfect as I just returned from the Livestock Conservancy Convention held in Austin, TX this year. The Livestock Conservancy just published their book, “Introduction to Heritage Breeds” and I referenced it several times in the marketing talk I was giving. A lot of statements in the book were enlightening on discussing what the best turkey breed might be for you and I  reference several thoughts from reading the book in the below statements.

If you want a turkey that provides the most meat possible, the Broadbreasted Bronze or Giant Whites are the breeds to get. These turkeys provide, generally speaking, a 23 pound hen and around a 40-45 pound tom turkey. Birds of this size, and specifically these breeds, are artificially inseminated because their size does not allow for them to mate naturally and successfully. Birds of this nature are typically more inclined to being fed rather than foraging for themselves. These breeds are typically what has been featured in the grocery stores during Thanksgiving. While the demand for these breeds is high, because of the large size, they pose a problem for small farms to raise and sustain future flocks as most small farms are not positioned well to artificially inseminate. This practice may be more embraced by larger farms with more resources. When grocery stores and the large farms push these types of breeds, it can reduce the demand for some of the heritage breeds that our country was naturally inhabited by.

According to the Livestock Conservancy, heritage breeds, “are the animals that you’d find on your great-grandparents farms. Heritage is an umbrella term that embraces pure breeds of livestock and poultry with deep histories in the United States. These are animals that were bred over time to develop traits that made them suited to specific local environments. Because these breeds have been developed and selected over time, they tend to have better disease resistance, are well-adapted to their environments, and thrive in pasture-based settings.” Heritage breed turkeys include Chocolate, Midget White, Narragansett, White Holland, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm and Standard Bronze, among others.

While the above breeds may not get as big as the Broadbreasted Bronze or other commercially created breeds, they offer several advantages as they are typically better foragers, which means on the pasture they will thrive. Turkeys that you can put on pasture may offer you a little more freedom from having to hand feed them everything they need. As well, heritage breeds will tend to thrive in the various climates throughout the country better than some of the commercial breeds. One of the fun aspects of the heritage breed turkeys is tracing the history of the breed and finding one that would best fit your particular environment. The historical aspect of the various heritage breeds allows people to enjoy the same or similar breed of turkey that their past generations also raised on the family farm so the connection to history is achieved. Of course, heritage breed turkeys are also able to mate naturally and produce offspring. If you want to create your own flock of turkeys, a heritage breed is what you want to look for. Again, those that understand and appreciate the benefits of raising the heritage breeds also are taking an active role in ensuring the various breeds that our ancestors enjoyed will continue to be enjoyed by future generations as well.

Murray McMurray Hatchery is happy to offer several of the heritage breeds of turkeys if that is the route you choose to follow. For more information on heritage breeds and the work of the Livestock Conservancy, please visit their website at http://www.livestockconservancy.com.

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10 Responses to Which Turkey to Choose

  1. susan patterson says:

    Sounds like blackhead, the age of the birds is about right for when you have to really watch for the disease. It is the worst turkey disease ever and why many people keep turkeys off the ground. ( Spores stay in the soil for as much as 20 years. Chickens are resistant, so anywhere chickens have lived can be bad for it.) Get more info from your farm agent. Do not feed earthworms for treats as they carry the disease.

  2. Joe Shafer says:

    In response to Kathleen’s question. A blind taste test was conducted by a group of Chefs who are into natural or organic raised product and the Bourban Red was judged to be the best tasting of the heritage breeds. In response to Dan’s question, I raise several different fowl together, chickens and turkeys seem to do fine if you have enough space for them. However turkeys, guineas, and pea fowl have a tendency to fight (not kill, just harass) each other. I raise in a free range system with pasturage available to all. It’s when they are at the feeding stations that the ruckus happens.
    joe, ks

  3. Jack Speese says:

    Dan:
    I would say definitely “no” if blackhead is endemic in your region. This protozoan disease has a complex life cycle, with stages in caecal worms as well as (I think) earthworms and slugs and can persist in the soil for a couple of years. It doesn’t affect waterfowl and chickens won’t suffer any ill effects but will serve as carriers (I don’t think guineas will but I’m not sure). At any rate, it will make your turkeys sick and many will die (gamebirds are also susceptible). The medicines to treat it and eliminate the worms that vector it are now only available from veterinarians. I did hear of someone who did raise the two species successfully together, but he built a large, very sturdy raised coop and pen with a mesh floor to break the soil-feces contact necessary for the disease to complete its cycle. And I guess it’s also possible in regions where this disease is not endemic.

  4. Kathleen Gordon says:

    Of the heritage turkey breeds offered by McMurray Hatchery, can you provide some guidance on the best tasting?

    • Steve Heironimus says:

      We raised 20 broad breasted bronze turkeys this year for 16 weeks. We processed 16 of them for Thanksgiving. Every one that was in our turkey CSA said that they were the best that they have had. We raised them from 8 weeks on grass and feed, they weighted 21# hens and a tom weight 35# on average. They were very friendly and did well around our chickens until we moved them to the field. I was with them every day and touched each one every day I wanted them to be easy to handle when we processed them for Thanksgiving. We will rase them next year also and add the standard bronze also, for people that want a smaller bird.

  5. Dan says:

    Can you raise turkeys in with the chickens

  6. Janice says:

    Hello,
    I purchased several turkeys from you in the spring. A very expensive investment.
    We have raised turkeys and we AI them before . We had off spring of the Bronze. They survived. This batch started to die when they were one month old. They looked great in the morning and by evening another would die, day after day until they were all dead.. We purchased a make bronze from someone else and it survived. Can you tell use why your turkeys did not survive????? We are just upset to think a huge investment is gone.
    Blessings and Merry Christmas, Janice

    • Janice,
      At one month of age it would be really hard to pin down exactly what happened to the turkeys without doing a Necropsy (Autopsy) on the birds. Diet issues, environment issues, bad feed issues, acquired disease issues, ect. would most likely be more of reasons for death at one month of age it seems. I had a personal flock of chickens in which six or so died overnight which I later discovered was most likely to mold in the feed after some heavy rains…

    • Brent Brueland says:

      Another cause could be biosecurity. You did not state when you brought in the “outside” male you purchased but if it was prior to the death of those in question it may be that a disease was brought in that the outside male had immunity to but the “local” birds did not. This is why many operations quarantine and test outside animals before introducing them to the local population – in poultry, swine, and cattle.

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