Our Turkey Journey
How we ended up raising the Turkey of our dreams
This year you’ll notice that we’re doing things a little differently. You’ve got 2 breeds of turkey to choose from. The Black Spanish (a heritage breed) and our usual Bronze Broad Breasted. As usual there's a bit of a story behind this addition.
When we first started raising livestock we were members of the Livestock Conservancy (we still are) and were determined to raise only heritage breeds, it was going to be our niche, our thing, our specialty. While we still raise mostly heritage layers, sheep, geese and funky breeds of hogs (mangalitsa), we no longer identify as a heritage farm. “Why?” you might ask, well…….I fell in love.
This love affair is like so many. It started with slight interest then blossomed into a lifelong commitment; it was a whirlwind romance. I blame it on my postpartum hormones (I had only just delivered our youngest). I’m not sure if it was the big brown eyes or that sweet wet nose or maybe it was the jersey cow’s willingness to give bovine kisses without hesitation (or invite). I’m not exactly sure what made me skip past the thoroughly nice heritage dairy breed options diving headfirst into the world of the jersey, but I’m glad it did.
With this romance came the complete reversal in the perception of our farm business, we had to admit, we had a commercial breed on the farm. We still kept a soft spot for doing our bit to save heritage breeds but we were open to the best species and breeds for our farm.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with turkeys. I’m just trying to give a little background so you can understand why in 2016, when we were planning our first batch of turkeys we chose to get back to our roots and choose a heritage breed for our initial foray into the world of the Meleagris gallopavo (AKA the domestic turkey).
I didn’t know what I wanted but I was pretty adamant about what I didn’t want.
*NO WHITE BIRDS. I don’t care how clean of a carcass they yield due to their pale feathers. They just don’t look very nice after a few months of NC red clay. This put the Royal Palms, White Hollands and the Broad Breasted out of contention.
*A HERITAGE BREED. We wanted to get back to our heritage breeds roots plus we wanted to fill a niche that wasn’t being filled at that time in our area (everyone was raising the white Broad Breasted birds). This eliminated the Bronze Broad Breasted.
*A CALM DISPOSITION. We hold camps and classes, the last thing I wanted was a bunch of wild birds thinking they run the place (we already have layers for that). This eliminated the Blue Slates and the Black Spanish due to their reportedly variable temperaments. We were left with the Narragansets, the Standard Bronze and the Bourbon Reds.
After careful consideration we settled on the pretty and calm Standard Bronze turkey. This bird ticked all our gobbler needs: Calm disposition, not white and on the Livestock Conservancy’s List of heritage breeds.
When our birds arrived we couldn’t have been happier. Their natural curiosity and lack of fear made them so much more fun to have in the brooder than our layers. We were also surprised at how fast they grew……a little too fast. As time progressed and our silly beasts grew we had to admit, they were much, much, much larger than they should’ve been with three more months to go.
At 12 weeks of age it became abundantly obvious that our heritage Standard Bronze must be the Bronze BROAD Breasted (a much faster growing bird which isn’t a heritage breed). A look back at the packing list and our invoice verified this fact, we had accidentally ordered the wrong turkey. So much for getting back to our roots, we had fallen in love with another commercial breed.
A quick change of marketing and processing dates (this was back in the days when getting a processing date on the fly was an option) and the mistake was smoothed over. But it was too late we were already smitten, well beyond caring one bit if our big birds were heritage or not, I’d found a new love!
The next year we didn’t even think about raising a heritage bird, it was the Bronze Broad Breasted all the way. The horror stories of small birds, disappointed customers and huge feed bills from our fellow heritage breed farmers made us sure we had dodged a bullet. Our birds were the perfect size at 16 weeks making sure our bottom line stayed in the black.
As we ticked off the years we found we had two problems with our sweet birds.
They are BIG, and I mean big. We rarely get a bird less than 13 lbs and only a handful at 13-14lbs.
They aren’t a heritage breed. Every year we turn away potential customers because they want a heritage breed. Very few farms are doing heritage breeds at any volume in our area. We were missing an opportunity.
This got us thinking back to our 20yr old selves die hard “Heritage All the Way” philosophy. Maybe there was a niche we could fill, heritage breeds are smaller….. Right?
As turkey ordering time rolled back around this year we started researching heritage breeds in earnest once again. This time we settled on the Black Spanish solely because that was the only heritage breed our preferred hatchery offered.
Soooo, back in March we welcomed the first 100 turkeys of 2022 and the first ever batch of Black Spanish turkeys. They were beyond cute with the sweetest white marking on their faces. Two months later and they looked more like turkey vultures than a turkey…I was a little concerned (remind me to tell you about our local vulture population mistaking them for kin). At four months they outgrew their adolescent phase starting to show some of the beauty that would define them for the next month.
As with every new venture we always take a long hard look at the enterprise, is it a hobby or a business, did it make money or cost money, did we enjoy raising them or not. We won't know for sure until after the holidays but so far we're pretty impressed.