Monday, May 14, 2012

Our Heritage Black Spanish Turkeys

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by Jennifer Sartell

It was a difficult decision to decide to raise our own heritage turkeys. These nine little poults are the first animals that we've raised with the sole purpose of harvesting for meat. And while I'm not a vegetarian, I'm still having some emotional issues bridging the gap between cute fuzzy poults and Thanksgiving dinner. But as strange as it may sound (and I have to keep reminding myself this), I truly believe that we're doing this for the right reasons.

We've processed excess roosters in the past, and while butchering always makes for a hard day, I know those chickens lived a great life. For every animal that we raise humanely on our farm, there's one less that we have to purchase from a factory. So every time I get weepy, attached or sentimental, I remind myself of this and it helps ... a little.

It's also reassuring that we are raising a breed of turkey that I can stand behind. Financially, we can't afford to have pet turkeys. For turkeys to be a realistic part of our farm, they have to give back, earn their keep so to speak. By harvesting the turkeys, we are not only doing what we can to raise our food more ethically, but doing our part to help a heritage breed at a comeback.

What is a Heritage Breed?
Heritage breeds are the breeds of farm animals that existed before large farm operations started raising animals for bulk and quantity production. These large industries narrowed in on a select few livestock varieties, those that produced the most meat, eggs or milk. Over the years, the remaining breeds of livestock have dwindled. According to an article published by Sustainable Table, "Within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct." This is one of the reasons why it was important to us to raise a heritage breed.

In the turkey world, the big-scale breed is the Broad Breasted White. If you buy a supermarket turkey for Thanksgiving, chances are, you're eating one of these. The interesting thing about this variety is that they are not even recognized by the American Poultry Association as a standard breed of turkey. They are described as a "non-standardized commercial strain that does not qualify as a breed, only used for commercial meat production." Another interesting fact is that the Broad Breasted White cannot reproduce naturally. Humans must artificially inseminate the hens in order for them to lay fertile eggs.

Is it me, or does that just seem weird? Like maybe an entire breed of animal that can't reproduce on its own shouldn't be reproducing? Yet there are more of this variety of turkey in the United States than any other.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Local Farmers
Once we decided to raise a heritage breed of turkey, the next question was what breed to raise? I visited the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy page to learn about the different breeds of turkeys and what their endangerment status was. The ALBC has 4 categories of status that a breed can fall into, depending on the remaining population. Starting with the most endangered, there are: critical, threatened, watch and recovering. Our original goal was to raise a breed that was on the "critical" list, as these breeds need the most help and support in numbers. Our goal was soon disrupted. I know it might sound obvious to say, but one of the problems with raising rare breeds, is finding them.

I spent a good deal of time searching the Internet for a breeder of any of the turkeys that are on the critical list ... with no success. I found a couple of breeders of Narragansetts, which is a breed that appears on the "threatened" list, but for the most part, the turkeys were spoken for for the season.

It's also important to our farm ethics to support local farmers. I know the term locavore has been made popular by the movement to support farmers markets and community agriculture. This term can be applied to livestock enthusiasts as well. I believe that just as an heirloom tomato grown on a small farm in my own community is superior in quality and flavor to a store-bought hybrid, the same goes for most livestock. It is important for our farm to support local breeders, or at least small-scale breeders. Because I raise and sell chicks and hatching eggs, it means a lot to me to give my business to people who are trying to do the same thing. I also find a noted quality to the birds I get from most small farms. The attention to breed and individual care of the animals really shows.

photo credit
Why Black Spanish?
The Black Spanish is one of the oldest turkey breeds recorded. They were recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1874. The breed was popularized in Spain, where it was so named. They have a calm temperament and great reproducing abilities. They are a stunning bird with black shiny feathers that turn an iridescent green in the sun. They are also noted as one of the tastiest breeds, with juicy, self-basting meat and great flavor.

For us, the Black Spanish became a nice balance between the type of turkey we were looking to raise, and one that we could actually find. Our second choice was the Bourbon Red. Like the Black, it is also on the ALBC "watch" list. But I feel like every time I read a piece of literature about heritage turkeys, it's encouraging the Bourbon Red. It seems as though this breed is gaining popularity and becoming the "go-to" breed for those who want to raise heritage turkeys. We decided that because the Black is getting less recognition, maybe it needed our help even more.

We've had the poults a couple of weeks now and as it turns out, turkeys are not the "dumb animals" that I've often heard them described as. I find them very majestic and sort of graceful, even at this young age. They are not as flighty as chicks, they walk very deliberate and proud. They've already started their miniature "turkey strutting" to impress the jennies, where they march around with their wings displayed. It sends me into stitches! Sometimes two of the jakes will dance around each other in this slow motion competition of girth ... hilarious!

Now that the poults are here I'm so happy that we went forward and didn't let our emotions get in the way of making this important decision. It's comforting that we will be keeping a few hens and a tom to sustain the flock from year to year. Maybe in the future, others will come to us for poults so that they can raise this heritage breed as well.

Enter the Coop Story Giveaway! 

Do you have a chicken coop? I'd love to feature it in a Community Chickens post! Fill out the 10 question form by clicking here and submit at least 5 photos of your coop to my e-mail at The photos can include, the building process, a visual tour of the different elements, or anything else you'd like to share! If I choose your coop story, you will be featured on the Community Chickens website, and you will receive one of Iron Oak Farm's handmade Oak Leaf Key Chains valued at $23.00! Feel free to elaborate on any of the questions. I will feature 1 coop per month. The more information you provide, the better your chances of winning! For more information read my post A Coop Story Giveaway. 

To read more about our turkeys, chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats and bees, visit our farm blog at or our Facebook page.

1 comment:

  1. Very energetic blog, I loved that bit. Will there be a part 2?

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