Whenever you go to the grocery store to pick out your Thanksgiving turkey, you are choosing a bird that was raised in an intensive indoor environment, over-fed and under-exercised, many of these birds become very unhealthy. The idea of buying these sickly birds for your family for the holidays has become unappealing to many. A new trend has started and many farmers and homesteaders are beginning to raise Heritage Breed Turkeys, such as Narragansetts and Midget Whites, as an alternative to the commercially raised Broad Breasted Whites. One of the benefits of raising Heritage breeds is that they tend to be healthier than the commercial breeds and produce a very flavorful meat. However, their meat is more flavorful because they take much longer to grow than the Broad Breasted Whites. On average, they may take up to 3 months longer to reach butchering age. The heritage breeds also have a lower feed to conversion ratio, which means you will be feeding them more, but getting less weight on the bird. This can be problematic for some homesteaders because raising Heritage breeds can be a long-term and slightly more expensive commitment when compared to raising a commercial breed.
A new alternative is to raise commercial breeds of turkeys in an extensive or free-range environment much like most Heritage Breeds are raised. A lot of the problems that a commercial breed suffers from, can be avoided simply by not raising them as a commercial breed. Broad Breasted Whites were bred to pack on the weight quickly, and in the intensive environment they are normally raised in, they may pack that weight on a little too quickly. Their joints and bones do not develop quickly enough to support this weight and these birds begin to suffer from leg deformities. Also the barns they are raised in, are jammed packed with other turkeys, giving them little room to walk and exercise their legs. The ventilation is also rarely adequate in these barns which leads to respiratory problems. If we raise these turkeys outdoors, in the fresh air, ration their food and give them shelter to get out of the whether, what we find is we end up with healthy birds, that produce flavorful meat and are also very fast growing.
A Broad Breasted White Tom raised on a modest ration of 20% poultry feed can go from a poult (baby turkey) to a 25 pound bird in about 4.5-5 months. A Broad Breasted White hen of the same age could be anywhere from 15 to 20 pounds.STart one in the beginning of July you can have a bird ready for the table by Thanksgiving Now this is with a modest ration of food. If you’d like a larger bird, just increase the amount of food you would give them as they grow. Allow them to free-range less and they will also grow larger faster as they will be expending less calories but the free-ranging aspect is an important part of the health of the bird and flavor of the meat so you wouldn’t want to limit it too much. The meat becomes more flavorful because there is more blood running through the muscles as they move around. Breast meat(white meat) is always less flavorful than leg meat(dark meat) because it does not have as much blood running through it. This goes for most breeds of domestic poultry. The gamey taste of wild birds comes from the fact that they fly so their breast muscles need a more adequate blood supply and they are much more active than domesticated birds. So they have more blood flowing through their muscles and hence a stronger flavor. Free-Ranging Broad Breasted Whites will produce a bird that is a middle ground flavor-wise and appeals to most people who are used to eating the commercial variety from the grocery store.
So why not try picking up a few Broad Breast White turkey poults next year and trying your own free-ranging experiment? You may like the results and you may never go back to that frozen grocery store bird again.