Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Some consumers prefer a ‘heritage’ turkey breed for holiday meals

By Elizabeth Bobenhausen Poultry Times staff

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GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The holiday season is here, and everyone is starting to get the perfect turkey for their holiday meals. While most people consider getting turkeys from their favorite grocery store for their dinners, some people purchase a heritage turkey.

Food Print describes these birds as “Heritage,” similar to “heirloom.” It “refers to breeds that have remained unchanged over many generations.” These “turkeys prized for their flavor and not necessarily their size. They’re completely different from Butterball and other commercially raised turkey breeds, which have been bred to produce the maximum amount of breast meat in as short a time as possible.” Heritage turkeys are also considered to be the most “pilgrim” authentic.

History of heritage turkeys

According to, wild and domestic turkeys were already in the United States in 1492. Many holes throughout the Tennessee landscape have the bones of turkeys. There is evidence that suggests that Native Americans highly depended on turkeys as a food source around 1000 A.D. Turkeys were introduced in Spain after being brought from the U.S. in 1498.

They were later introduced to Europe and England between the years of 1524 and 1541. The first domesticated turkeys to be raised in the U.S. came from Spain. They did not come from the wild turkeys already present within America. The turkeys had the coloring of bronze and black.

In Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, wild turkeys began mating with the turkeys brought from Spain and they became the forerunner of the Narragansett Variety. In the 1830s, another breed in Point Judith, Rhode Island. It was a cross between the Narragansett Variety breed and wild turkeys. The breed eventually became known as the bronze turkey. It would become a superior breed and the foundation of all heritage turkeys. The bronze turkey would also be mixed with current lines of commercial turkeys. stated, “the descendants of those original Bronze turkeys are still being raised on one farm in the United States: The Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch led by farmer Frank Reese.”

Fun facts

The Livestock Conservancy states there are several varieties of heritage turkey breeds. Some breeds that have been recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) in their Standard of Perfection in the latter half of the 19th century are Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. Other varieties that are not recognized by the APA standard, but recognized by the Live Conservancy are the Jersey Buff and Midget White.

The Livestock Conservancy demonstrates the criteria a turkey must meet to be considered a heritage turkey.

1. Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70 percent to 80 percent. This means that turkeys marketed as “heritage” must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.

2. Long productive outdoor lifespan: the Heritage Turkey must have a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years. The Heritage Turkey must also have a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.

3. Slow growth rate: the Heritage Turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.

Starting in the 1920s and going into the 1950s, turkeys were being chosen for larger size and bigger breast size. As a result, the Broad Breasted Bronze was grown. During the 1950s, turkey producers began to seek out turkeys that had larger breasts and less obvious dark pinfeathers. As the turkeys were dressed, the darker pinfeathers would leave a spot on the turkey as it sat in a grocery store. It was so unattractive that people thought the turkey was spoiled. In the 1960s, the Large or Broad White Turkey had been grown. People started purchasing the Broad Breasted White Turkey more than Broad Breasted Bronze Turkey.

Food Print says that a heritage turkey does cost more at the grocery store. However, if someone buys a heritage turkey, they will be contributing to a small to mid-size producer and a farm that is dedicated to preserving older breeds. A consumer can find a heritage bird at farmer’s markets, independent or natural stores and Heritage Foods USA. Heritage turkey can be brined and cooked the same way as other turkeys.

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