The modern turkey (the Broad-Breasted White) has been selected generation after generation for two main traits: white meat and fast growth. The oversized breasts of the Broad-Breasted White render it incapable of flight or natural mating. As it matures, it has difficulty walking. The heritage turkey, on the other hand, is closely related to its wild ancestors; it is heartier, healthier, and capable of natural mating, running, and flying. This enables farms raising heritage turkeys to raise them without drugs. It also makes them more work to raise.
Turkeys must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as a Heritage turkey:
1. Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%. 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.
Heritage Turkeys are the ancestors of the common Broad-breasted White industrial breed of turkey that comprises 99.99% of the supermarket turkeys sold today. But the Heritage Breeds still exist and are making a comeback.
More than ten different turkey breeds are classified as heritage turkeys, including the Auburn, Buff, Black,Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate,Standard Bronze, and Midget White.
Despite increasing interest in heritage turkeys, they are still a tiny minority, perhaps 25,000 raised annually compared to more than 200,000,000 industrial turkeys, and most heritage breeds are endangered in some respect.
photo by ExperienceLA