Though frozen turkeys reside in your grocery store all year, they become the main attraction during the final two months. Many like the idea of heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. But this also promotes questions: What is a heritage turkey? Where can I find a bird raised without added hormones? Why is antibiotic-free important? And why is there such a huge price difference between standard and heritage?
The Noble Turkey
A completely Western breed, the turkey originated within the forests of North America. They belong to the same bird family which includes pheasants, partridge, jungle fowl, and grouse. When Europeans first encountered turkeys in the New World, they incorrectly identified them as guinea fowl, a group of birds believed to originate in the country Turkey. The name of this new North American breed then became turkey fowl, which was soon shortened to turkey. The name took hold further as Europeans brought them back to breed in the Ottoman Empire, also known as the Turkish Empire or Ottoman Turkey. The bird gained popularity so early that William Shakespeare referred to them in the play Twelfth Night.
Turkeys have been domesticated in Mesoamerica for more than 2,000 years. Males are referred to as toms (stags in Europe), females are hens, and the chicks are called poults or turkeylings.
Incredibly social breeds, turkeys can die of loneliness if they aren’t kept with acceptable companions. Farmers have stories of toms that fluff and strut when human women walk past the coop or of hens that follow their humans around during mating season. Turkeys are also vigilant and vocal, chirping as young birds and gobbling as adults in response to loud noises. As with all fowl, males can be territorial and even violent, attacking intruders or newcomers with sharp claws.
Unless the label states differently, most industrially raised turkeys are broad-breasted. They grow quicker and dress out heavier than heritage counterparts.
Two types of broad-breasted turkeys exist: white and bronze/brown. Though we see stunning pictures of iridescent bronze turkeys with white banding, the most common color for commercial production is white because the carcass dresses out cleaner. Bronze pin feathers can be dark and visible. Often, a melanin-rich pocket of fluid surrounds the feather shaft, leaking like ink when the feather is plucked. Growing white birds eliminates this problem.
If you purchase turkey poults from a feed store and want to start a breeding project, first verify the breed. Mature birds cannot be used for breeding unless the farm has special equipment and training. This is because the breasts are so large that these birds cannot mate naturally and must be artificially inseminated. Most commercial turkey farms purchase poults from hatcheries, raise them within a season or two, process, and purchase again.
Labels may say, “young tom” or “young turkey.” Most commercial growers process their birds at seven to twenty pounds and freeze them until the holiday season. This is because a broad-breasted that is allowed to grow to maturity can dress out at over fifty pounds. More than 70% of that weight is within the breast. If they grow too fast or too large, they can injure joints, break legs, or have cardiac and respiratory problems. Poultry keepers who are new to turkeys soon learn this. After cutting their birds with band saws so they can fit in ovens, or processing on an unplanned weekend because the turkey has gone lame, the farmers decide to butcher within July or August if they do it again.
Unlike broad-breasted varieties, heritage turkey breeds can mate and fly in the same ways as their wild ancestors. They are smaller, rarely dressing out above thirty pounds, and must be kept with better fencing because they can escape and roost in trees. Because they haven’t been bred with the focus of producing a lot of meat within a short period of time, they grow slower and therefore can live for years without health problems. Food critics claim heritage breeds taste better and have healthier meat than their industrial counterparts.
Commercially, heritage breeds compose a small percentage, around 25,000 produced annually compared to 200,000,000 industrial (broad-breasted) birds. This has increased from the end of the 20th century when the broad-breasted white had become so popular that heritage breeds were almost extinct. In 1997, The Livestock Conservancy considered heritage turkeys the most critically endangered of all domestic animals, finding fewer than 1,500 total breeding birds in the United States. Along with Slow Food USA, the Heritage Turkey Foundation, and small-scale farmers, The Livestock Conservancy hit the media with advocacy. By 2003 the numbers had grown 200% and by 2006 the Conservancy reported that more than 8,800 breeding birds existed in the United States. The best ways to help the heritage populations are to join in the advocacy, to raise heritage turkeys if you have the farming space, and to purchase heritage turkeys for your meals if you cannot raise them.
Heritage turkeys are among the most stunning livestock around. The Spanish were the first Europeans to bring turkeys back, resulting in breeds such as Spanish Black and Royal Palm. Bourbon Reds originated in Bourbon, Kentucky, from crossing Buff, Standard Bronze, and Holland White. The beautiful Chocolate Turkey has been raised since before the Civil War. Excellent choices for smaller farms and families include the Midget White and Beltsville Small White. Competing in for the title of “eye candy” are Blue Slates and Narragansetts.
The Price Divide
Why do heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving cost more per pound than standard birds? Mostly because of the nature of the bird.
Farmers who have raised chickens for meat have probably acknowledged that a Cornish Cross dresses out within six weeks while a Rhode Island Red is ready within four to six months. All that growth time equals money spent on feed and the Cornish Cross produces much more meat. Though the meat variety eats more per day than the dual purpose breed, the total feed to meat ratio is much lower. The same principle applies to heritage breeds. In addition to growing slower, a heritage turkey is also more active, which results in less fat.
A secondary factor to price is how turkeys are raised. Large-scale farming operations pack in birds that can thrive in such confined quarters, allowing more production for the space. Heritage breeds don’t fare as well in small spaces. Consumers who purchase heritage turkeys also tend to hold a higher standard to their meat, eschewing additives or antibiotics, which can extend the life of a bird raised in confinement. They want birds that have been raised naturally and humanely. That means packing fewer birds into a larger area, resulting in less profit per acre. Learn more about pastured turkeys from Acres USA.
Antibiotics and Raising Turkeys
Keeping turkeys can require more care than keeping other poultry. They can contract many diseases such as blackhead, avian influenza, aspergillosis, and coryza. Because biosecurity is so crucial in a bird that can get so sick, many growers resort to adding antibiotics to daily feed. Others manage biosecurity by maintaining a clean and completely secure farm, refusing to allow visitors and keeping turkeys in comfortable barns to keep wild birds away from the flock’s food and water supply. Organic turkey farms use neither antibiotics nor feed that has not been certified organic.
Turkeys may start out antibiotic-free, but farmers may medicate an entire flock if a few birds get sick. Some growers keep separate flocks, raising turkeys without antibiotics until problems occur then moving sick birds to another pen if they have to medicate. Others must euthanize sick birds to keep the rest of the flock safe.
An ongoing argument exists regarding the ethics of using antibiotics. While many farmers have announced that they will stop adding medication to daily feed, they hold that treating sick animals is the most humane way to raise meat. Eschewing all antibiotics means suffering of the animal, spread of disease, and euthanasia of sick animals before the other livestock can contract the illness.
No matter which method the farmer chooses, all reflect in final purchasing prices in heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. Meat from a farmer who feeds antibiotics daily will probably be less expensive because it results in fewer veterinary visits, lower labor costs, and fewer dead birds. But avoiding antibiotics in your family’s meat may be worth the added price.
Debunking the Hormone Myth
Most of us are willing to pay more for a bird raised without added hormones, right? We want that thick, juicy breast meat but don’t want biological repercussions within our own bodies.
Most consumers don’t know that it has never been legal in the United States to use added hormones to produce anything except beef and lamb. All of our poultry is raised without added hormones. That thick breast meat is the result of selective breeding. The juiciness is because of how the turkey lives, at what age it is butchered, and which additives have been injected before the meat is wrapped in plastic.
In 1956, the USDA first approved hormone use for raising cattle. At the same time, it banned hormone use for poultry and pork. Even if it was legal, most growers wouldn’t resort to hormones because it’s too expensive for the grower and too dangerous for the bird. It’s also ineffective. Beef hormones are administered as a pellet behind the ear, a part of the animal which is not consumed. There are few places on poultry which are not consumed, and implants within those places would probably result in the death of the animal. If industrial poultry grew faster than it already did, it would suffer more health problems and mortality than it already does. Hormones administered through feed would be metabolized and excreted in the same way that corn and soy proteins are, without causing noticeable growth. Since muscle is built as the animal moves, hormones would be ineffective because broad-breasted turkeys and Cornish Cross chickens rarely do more than flap around a little.
Added hormones within our poultry is something we will probably never have to worry about.
Secondly, anything labeled “hormone-free” is already fallacious because all animals are raised with the hormones existing within their own bodies. All animals and humans have hormones.
When you choose your turkey, keep in mind that industrial growers add labels such as “raised without added hormones” because you are more likely to choose that bird over others without the label. With a little education, you will realize that labels such as “heritage” or “raised without antibiotics” mean much more than one based on a widely accepted lie.
When you choose your next turkey, what factors will you take into consideration? Do you want more meat or would you rather preserve an endangered breed? Does antibiotic use determine whether you are willing to pay more for heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving? And now that you know the differences between breeds, would you consider raising a heritage breed versus broad-breasted?
What is the connection between raising turkeys and what ends up on your own plate?
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.