When planning our farm, the thought of sitting down to lunch with a fresh roast heritage turkey sandwich or celebrating a holiday feast with a tasty home-raised bird was too good to pass up. In addition to keeping chickens on our little homestead, we decided to raise turkey. There are many breeds of turkey to choose from, so picking the type we wanted was a lot of fun. Like commercial meat chickens, commercially available turkeys are genetic freaks. They were developed to convert feed as fast as possible, and are harvested very young. They can’t breed naturally, and because of their proportions are prone to health problems. The alternative to these meaty monstrosities are ‘heritage’ breeds. There’s a great intro to several of these breeds on Mother Earth News. Heritage birds grow slower, and take a longer time to reach maturity. I think this extra time is what allows heritage turkeys to develop the rich flavor that makes their meat such a delicacy. Since they grow and breed naturally, even hobby keepers can selectively pair their birds, take pride in the turkeys they produce, and maintain a sustainable flock.
We decided to keep the Bourbon Red, an American breed developed in Bourbon County, Kentucky. They’re a meaty, mahogany-colored bird with white-tipped wings and tail. The breed was developed for it’s flavorful meat and was, for a time, the popular choice for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s said their brown feathers don’t leave spots of pigment in the skin, making for a beautiful appearance on the table. Their personality is calm and inquisitive. Ours are a lot of fun.
Starting as we have with our other flocks, we purchased 6 fertile hatching eggs of different bloodlines from a reputed seller on eBay. 4 poults hatched (more about that here), and one young bird was lost early on to injury. Luckily we still had a trio: 1 young male (called a jake) and 2 hens. We hatched them rather late in the season and it became apparent by the end of September that they would not be the size we had hoped for by the Holidays. So, we kept those birds to be breeders and decided to time our next hatch better.
We raised the poults in a 2’x4′ cardboard brooder for the first 2 weeks, before moving them to an 8’x8′ Salatin-style tractor to grow out. Finally, around 3 months, we constructed a 12’x16′ covered pen for our breeder trio, allowing them to day-range on our property. As young birds, they were prone to flying, picking high perches, and occasionally going over the fence into the vineyard next door. As adults my birds rarely fly. They do like to roost high up at night, but it’s been months since I’ve had to help one back over the fence. I say ‘help’ because they show no intention of wanting to flee, they’re not afraid of me, and when an escapee is discovered they’re typically trying to come back through the fence. They stay in our yard now, and seem content peering into our windows, and munching on bugs and forage.
Originally I had intended on hatching the birds, raising them quickly on our little pasture, and supplying our friends and family with some tasty heritage turkey for the holidays that year… but my math was bad, and I’m glad it was. The turkeys have really become a favorite. Their size and color are impressive, and their gentle, inquisitive nature makes them a joy to keep. We free-range our trio with our chickens, and I think their size is a deterrent for most arial predators. They come running when they see us, but keep a wary eye on hawks and other large birds. They sound the alarm for the others when they sense danger. So far we haven’t had any losses to hawks.
And they’ve been productive! In February I optimistically built a lay box with two compartments, 18inch x 18 inch each, and they’ve put it to good use. Since hatching last summer, our birds matured by early spring, and at 31 weeks old gave us our first egg. Both hens have been laying just about an egg per day since. Of the first 10 eggs collected and set, 8 hatched. The poults practically burst from their shells on day 27, healthy and vigorous. We’re rearing them with some chicks, and they’re doing great. They’ve even learned to use the automatic drinker system. Another batch of eggs is on schedule to hatch soon and we’re on track to have some tasty pastured heritage turkey this holiday season!