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Can you help me choose a breed for pastured turkey production?

Answer: In conventional turkey production, the Broad Breasted White is the most commonly used variety. The Broad Breasted White is a fast-growing bird, able to reach a marketable weight in about 12 to 14 weeks. However, they have trouble reproducing naturally without the aid of artificial insemination and may have health problems stemming from rapid growth. Although the Broad Breasted White can thrive in pasture-based systems, many consumers are more interested in purchasing heritage-breed turkeys. Reasons cited for this interest include taste differences, genetic conservation, or interest in something different than the perceived norm. Unlike heritage breeds, Broad Breasted Whites can be purchased as poults and produced year-round.

The Livestock Conservancy defines a heritage breed turkey as one that meets the following criteria:

  1. Must be reproduced and maintained through natural mating.
  2. Must have a long productive lifespan in outdoor production systems.
  3. Must have a slow growth rate, reaching a marketable weight in approximately 28 weeks to allow for healthy growth (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 2007).

Heritage-breed turkeys take longer to raise on pasture and will often have a smaller dressed weight than the Broad Breasted White. The Broad Breasted White can reach a live weight of 36 pounds for toms and 24 pounds for hens in 20 weeks (Hulet et al., 2004). Toms and hens of the breeds Black, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, and Slate will reach 23 pounds live weight for toms and 14 pounds for hens after 20 weeks of age (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 2007). Conventional broad breasted turkeys are often processed after 14 to 18 weeks, but heritage breed turkeys will need up to 30 weeks to reach a marketable weight.

Even with the extra time and cost required to produce heritage turkeys, consumer demand still exists. In blind taste tests, consumers often prefer the taste of meat from a heritage-breed bird (Bon Appétit, 2011). However, because of the size and body-composition differences, meat from a heritage bird may cook more quickly. This can lead to dry meat if not prepared correctly, and consumers should be informed of this difference.

Poults may be purchased from a private poultry breeder, hatchery, or may be hatched on-farm from a breeding pair of turkeys. If buying from a hatchery, ensure that it is part of the National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP). Poults that come from NPIP-certified hatcheries will come from breeding stock proven to be free of pullorum-typhoid, mycoplasma gallisepticum, mycoplasma synoviae, and avian influenza. Starting with a flock of healthy poults not only ensures that your flock will get a good start in the brooder, but will also protect any other poultry on the farm from disease transmission.

When buying from hobby breeders, producers should gather information on different traits such as feed conversion, body composition, feather color, and behavior. Turkeys with black or dark brown pinfeathers will leave marks on the carcass that may be unappealing to potential customers. Producers should check with the breeder to get a better understanding of what the final carcass will look like, and if it is something that their customers will buy. Furthermore, some varieties may thrive in specific climates. Producers should ask about these differences to find the bird that will work best for them. Poults are often more expensive than chickens from a hatchery. Broiler chicks may cost $1 to $3 each, whereas poults will generally run $6 to $10. Producers should be prepared to pay more upfront and build this cost into their final pricing.

Check out the ATTRA publication Pastured Turkey Production to learn much more on this topic. It introduces producers to the concept of raising turkeys on pasture and the many considerations related to breed selection, housing, nutrition, welfare, processing, and marketing.

References:

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ed.). 2007. How to Raise Heritage Turkeys. American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Pittsboro, NC.

Bon Appétit. 2011. Does heritage turkey taste better than conventional in a blind taste test? Bon Appétit. November 2.

Hulet, R. Michael, Phillip J. Clauer, George L. Greaser, Jayson K. Harper, and Lynn F. Kime. 2004. Small-Flock Turkey Production. Penn State Extension, College Park, PA.