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The breed of turkey you choose is a determining factor in whether or not it can naturally reproduce, whether or not it likes to fly, how fast it reaches maturity, and how easy it is to butcher. The most popular breeds may not be the best for a small farm, and bigger is not always better!
First of all, let's tackle the Heritage versus Production issue. There are basically two Production type turkeys:
Broad Breasted Whites, and Broad Breasted Bronze. These are available from most hatcheries in the spring. They grow very fast, and you can end up with an absolutely massive turkey. We are talking birds that dress out at 40+ lbs, and which have drumsticks the size of caveman clubs. Seriously.
Just one drawback... They can't breed naturally, their chests are so big they can't reach. So if you want to breed turkeys, avoid these, you DON'T want to know what it takes to "assist" them! Trust me... Having read about it once, I don't want to ever shake hands with someone who works in a Turkey breeding facility. For me, this is reason enough to NEVER order these birds - not even if I just want a quickie Thanksgiving bird that I order in the spring and butcher in the fall. I'll go for something that doesn't require anything so unnatural as part of its life cycle.
If you are ok with it though, those two breeds were bred to grow fast and big. They aren't bred to be self-sufficient either, or very smart. They may get stupid in bad weather, and they don't forage as well as Heritage birds. They don't fly either - those bitty wings haven't a chance of lifting their bulk.
I prefer Heritage breeds. These are breeds that can naturally reproduce, and will usually brood a clutch of eggs. I like ordering things once, and then perpetuating them, so they seem to me a good option for a sustainable farm, which is our goal. There are actually a lot of Heritage Turkey breeds - which makes sense when you realize they don't need the help of a person to get the job done. They come in all colors and sizes too, so you can just about custom order your ideal Thanksgiving Turkey, and it will most likely still fit in your oven after you've butchered it.
Here are a few breeds you might consider - I've not listed the Broad Breasted ones here, pretty much what I said covers it.
- Auburn - A large Heritage variety, similar to the Bronze, but more reddish in color. This is a breed that goes back a couple hundred years. This variety is auto-sexing, fairly good foragers. Possibly rare.
- Beltsville Small White - One of the smaller turkeys, bred to produce year-round turkeys. Smaller turkeys are generally more active. Very rare preservation breed.
- Black (Spanish Black) - Medium sized turkey, raised by early settlers. Somewhat rare breed.
- Bourbon Red - Excellent meat, and a very good utility bird. Good foragers, and a fairly heavy breasted carcass. Medium large size.
- Bronze - The breed that the Broad Breasted Bronze was taken from, but in the original Heritage variety. A large turkey, able to naturally breed. There is some confusion in the description of these, so make sure you are actually getting Standard Bronze, and not Broad Breasted.
- Buff - The only advantage this turkey has, is the Buff color - it is unique. Otherwise there is nothing special about it. The buff color is difficult to maintain in breeding lines also. This bird has already become extinct once, and was re-created, and is now sliding toward extinction again. A medium sized turkey, fairly pretty when in full display.
- Midget White - The smallest turkey, perfect for small families, or people who really like fresh turkey year round. Active birds, they fly a lot, and forage well. A critically rare preservation breed.
- Narragansett - Medium large turkey, calm disposition (an advantage when you don't want to be chased by an aggressive old tom), and a good brooder. Good foragers also, they do fly, though less so when they are very large. Considered an exceptional full sized turkey for small farms. Once critically rare, now much more prevalent.
- Royal Palm - A beautiful white and black turkey, often used as a show bird. Small sized dressed out bird, makes it a nice addition aesthetically and practically, for small family farms. If you want to have a decorative bird parading around, that you can still eat, these will do you proud.
- White Holland - A good Medium Large sized Heritage turkey, all white. Some confusion in some listings between White Hollands and Broad Breasted Whites, so make sure of what you are getting.
The information on foraging ability, flying ability, and behavior of Turkeys is incomplete, it seems most available descriptions center on color and size.
Turkeys represent to me, some of the major drawbacks to production breeding. The heritage breeds then, become something to preserve. It seems to me, when you raise turkeys and allow them to breed and raise their young, you have restored some dignity that has been lost.