Heritage turkeys, sometimes called heirloom or historical farm turkeys, are like the birds that existed in the early 1900s before broad breasted turkeys were developed. They are very hardy and have better immunity than present day commercial varieties. The American Poultry Association (APA) lists 8 varieties in its Standard of Perfection. They are Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White and Royal Palm.
Heritage or Standard turkeys must be able to mate naturally and have a long productive outdoor life. Hens should breed for 5-7 years and toms for 3-5 years. They have a slow growth rate, reaching market weight in 28 weeks or more.
What do I need to know about raising them?
Turkeys need access to added heat (by heat lamp or a turkey hen) until fully feathered at about 6 weeks. They thrive on a lower protein feed than commercial turkeys. 22-24 % protein mash is a suitable starter, and should be a gamebird or turkey mixture if possible. An 18-20% feed is suitable after 10 weeks or so. They do not need medicated feed.
Turkeys like to roost from about 2 weeks old, and tend to choose high places. For practical reasons it is helpful to keep them in covered pens for about the first 4 months until they are too heavy for hawks and eagles to pick up. Movable pens will allow them to have access to fresh pasture at all times. If allowed to range freely they will start roosting before dusk, so should be returned to safe predator-proof overnight housing before the light levels drop. In dull weather in winter this may be in mid-afternoon.
Turkeys are susceptible to Blackhead, caused by a protozoan parasite called Histomonas meleagridis. This can be fatal to turkeys, but not usually to chickens, so it is not recommended to raise both species on the same ground if there is any possibility of the organism being present.
Where can I find heritage turkeys?
Some Canadian hatcheries sell heritage turkeys. Some Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland breeders have stock to sell. Eggs are available in spring from breeders further afield. Rare Breeds Canada has a Breeders’ List on their website at www.rarebreedscanada.ca.
For more detailed information see the Livestock Conservancy (formerly the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) free downloads, “Raising Heritage Turkeys on Pasture” and “Selecting Your Best Turkeys for Breeding” at http://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/resources/internal%20/turkey-manual .
This leaflet was prepared by Margaret Thomson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Marjorie Bender of ALBC for permission to quote from the online Turkey Manual.
Revised May 2015