Thanksgiving — our favorite holiday of the year!– is still a few weeks away, but for our farmers,Thanksgiving is really the culmination of a year’s worth of planning and hard work, especially when breeding and raising heritage turkeys.
Heritage turkeys are turkeys that can naturally reproduce their same offspring. Most commercial poultry breeds are cross-breeds bred for specific characteristics – usually fast growth and large breasts. Traditional “market turkeys” have to come from a hatchery that controls the genetics.
In 2014, I invested in a program with the Sustainable Poultry Network. This network of heritage poultry breeders work together to preserve and improve the genetics of heritage chickens and turkeys. After some experimentation, we settled on the “Standard Bronze” breed. It resembles an Eastern Wild Turkey and is very hardy. I collected 75 hens and 5 toms for breeding.
Hardy is good. Turkeys aren’t smart, and one of the biggest struggles with hatchery birds is that they don’t do well in the wet or the cold, especially when young. They will tend to crowd each other and many suffocate.
The Heritage birds are a pleasure to raise. They are almost social in the way they are curious about you and, honestly, what food you might have. The downside to raising Heritage birds, though, is the time it takes and they don’t all hatch at the same time. Instead of fattening a turkey in 16 weeks, they take up to 28 weeks. The females, called Hens, rarely size up to a good market weight.
In addition to taking longer, we also have to keep a breeding flock year round. This means in March, we must provide artificial light to help their glands activate and produce the hormones that allow them to reproduce. In March and April we start setting eggs in the incubators, hoping to get a 50% or better hatch rate for birds that will then be raised out for Thanksgiving.
But when one perseveres through the 6 months it takes to raise one of these birds, the result is a very flavorful turkey, often with “backfat.” When I see the carcasses of a market turkey and a heritage bird on the table, I can tell the difference immediately by the amount of fat around the neck, the unique shape of the sternum, and the fat on the breast meat.
I’ll be taking home one of these unique birds myself this year for our Thanksgiving Dinner, and I’m already salivating thinking about the delicious meal ahead of me.