by Herman Beck-Chenoweth, J. R. Smyth Jr. and B.C. Wentworth
Turkeys are so fascinating, fast and large that Benjamin Franklin suggested that the turkey would be suitable as our national bird. “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” Franklin wrote. “He is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
History of the Turkey
|WATT Publishing – Heritage turkey
breeds, such as these Bourbon Reds,
are an excellent choice for the homestead.
As early as A.D. 600, the people living in the area now known as the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico domesticated turkeys. They were an important source of meat. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both wrote how turkeys were driven into the fields to feast on tobacco hornworms.
After the tobacco harvest concluded, the turkeys would be penned and fattened for the upcoming holiday feasts. Even if you aren’t growing tobacco, turkeys are a great help in controlling nuisance insects. They are especially fond of grasshoppers, flies and other common summer pests.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, turkey production became specialized. In 1874, five varieties of “standard” turkeys were named in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection: Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Black and Slate.
By the 1920s, the Bronze, the largest variety, had garnered the attention of breeders who stressed characteristics that included body size and breast width. By the early 1940s, nearly all varieties in the commercial marketplace had been replaced by the Bronze.
Later, during the 1950s, turkey breeders became more interested on increasing the growth rate in white-feathered birds. The color of the feather dictates the color of the fluid inside a feather, so dark turkeys have dark fluid while white birds have whitish fluid.
During plucking, the tasteless fluid leaks out and stains the skin. Consumers preferred white dressed turkeys because they appeared to be cleaner. By the 1970s, the Large White turkey ruled the marketplace, and confinement rearing had become the accepted norm. These huge, 40- to 65-pound birds cannot breed by themselves, so artificial insemination is used. Today, five companies control more than 50 percent of the market: Jennie-O Foods, Cargill, Butterball Turkey Co., Wampler Foods Inc. and Carolina Turkeys.
Male turkeys are raised exclusively in confinement houses, containing as many as 10,000 birds each. Females are smaller and slower growing and are usually killed at a young age and used as livestock feed. Because of the crowded conditions, commercial birds are frequently fed antibiotics to prevent disease. Territorial toms are also given tranquilizers to keep them from fighting. These birds are fed high levels of protein because they’ve been bred to grow unnaturally fast. And more recently there’s even a “canolaball” turkey that has been injected with fats, stock and flavor enhancers to be self-basting as the meat cooks.
History of Midget White Turkey
|Herman Beck-Chenoweth – Turkeys love
to be up high, so they will congregate anywhere
they can find a nice high perch.
It’s cute, but manure accumulation
can become a problem.
Early in the 1960s, there was an interest in producing miniature versions (6 to 9 pounds) of the large white and bronze turkeys. These efforts failed due to immature fleshing and finish. The only turkey broilers in this weight range were the Beltsville whites.
The Beltsville whites were known for excellent reproductive abilities but their poor fleshing and body conformation were not popular with consumers. A few miniature turkey lines were developed, all suffering from poor reproductive performance. Many of these were developed from crossing broad-breasted large stocks with the Beltsville whites, with subsequent selection for smaller size.
At the University of Massachusetts, J. R. Smyth Jr. crossed a line of broad-breasted whites with a royal palm turkey he had obtained from Dr. Edward Buss of Pennsylvania State University. The royal palms, a small exhibition strain, possessed reasonably good breast fleshing. Beginning with the first generation crossbreds, Smyth selected on an individual bird basis for smaller size, good breast fleshing and total balance.
After three generations, unforeseen circumstances required Smyth to get rid of his miniatures. Reluctant to dispose of them, he gave the birds to a farm worker who had contacts with poultry exhibition breeders. The farm worker then swapped them for some show bantams to a breeder in Wisconsin. When Smyth gave them up, they were showing palm, silver bronze and white plumage patterns.
In 1971, B.C. Wentworth was contacted by an avian fancier in Wisconsin. He had two toms and four hens from a very small line, which he was unable to keep. When Wentworth picked up these birds, he found they had wing bands with numbers and the abbreviation “U of Mass.” These were the midget white turkeys Smyth had been developing earlier.
During 1972, these small turkeys were photostimulated (14 hours of light; 10 hours of darkness) to induce egg-laying. Wentworth artificially mated these Midget whites. In March, tom “A” was mated with two hens and tom “B” was mated with two other hens. The eggs were all set and poults from this April hatch were pedigreed. In April, the two toms were mated with the two opposite hens. These eggs were collected in May and the following hatch was gathered in June. The poults from the second hatch were pedigreed. The poults resulting from the second mating might not have been an accurate pedigree, because the May eggs might have been fertilized by the male from March.
Wentworth followed a rigorous pedigree approach to develop his flock of Midget white turkeys annually with every effort to avoid further inbreeding. The white color was fixed and he continued to improve fleshing over time. In the late 1970s, an embryonic lethal gene was expressed but over the next three years, Wentworth was successful and purged the stock carrying this unwanted gene.
Since the mid ’70s, selection was maintained to fix a tom body weight to around 13 pounds and hens to around 8 pounds. In every third year, in addition to body weight, breast meat volume was chosen as a selection index. Annually, Wentworth selected for fertility, higher egg production, and hatchability. The hatchability averaged around 80 percent when the flock was dispersed. The originally obtained stock did not lay well, averaging about 30 to 40 eggs during a breeding season.
Currently, midgets lay 60 to 80 eggs annually. The large eggs appear similar to eggs laid by the large broad-breasted lines of turkeys, weighing 3 to 5 grams less. The midget white turkey’s appearance is that of a miniature version of the large commercial white line, sporting a very broad breast. Commercially, this is not an economically important meat bird. Wentworth estimates the feed conversion is approximately 4 pounds of feed per one pound of weight gain.
For the record, the midget white turkeys have no direct genetic relationship to the Beltsville white turkey.
|Illustration (color, woodcut plate) by Harry Cimino|
Homegrown Turkeys are Fun and Worthwhile
Turkeys first came to our southern Ohio Locust Grove Farm in 1991. After a year of living without animals I proclaimed, “Fences or not, I am going to get some livestock.” My wife, Linda, said to do what I wanted, but to count her out as she was busy.
One month later, my baby chicks arrived – and I knew as soon as she looked at those tiny baby birds that I was out of the chicken picture. I then ordered some day-old turkey poults and began my life with these beautiful, friendly birds of various colors.
After I first tasted the flavorful, homegrown roast turkey, I knew I would never return to bland commercial birds again.
Heritage poultry specialist Glenn Drowns of Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus, Iowa, explains the Traditional Bronze and White Holland varieties are great for small flocks under 20, and that Narragansetts and Bourbon Reds are beautiful, medium-size birds suited for foraging and pest control. I recommend the white-and-black Royal Palm for those desiring a smaller turkey.
Frank Reese, a turkey aficionado and breeder from Good Shepherd Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, suggests the Standard Bronze and White Hollands for meat production. He says that his Sadie Lloyd strain of Bourbon Reds is an excellent all-around choice – there’s no need to worry that the chicks won’t be looked after, as they mother extremely well. According to Reese, other good “setters” include the Black Spanish and small strains of the Narragansett.
If you are looking to raise turkeys to sell, my favorite is a medium-size strain of the Broad Breasted Bronze. This variety only became available several years ago from private breeders. This fast-growing modern bird has the abundance of breast meat that U.S. consumers think is ideal. A Broad Breasted Bronze traditionally has two to four times the amount of breast meat that a wild turkey does.
A Bronze reaches an approximate dressed weight of 16 to 25 pounds in around 24 weeks. A heritage bird could take up to two years to reach this weight, and some never will. This time period is significant because turkeys don’t add fat until the 22nd week. Fat is where most of the flavor is, so a good layer under the skin helps to self-baste the bird as it cooks.
|Herman Beck-Chenoweth – A wading pool with a
heat lamp makes the perfect first home for your poults.
The easiest way to get started with turkeys is to buy day-old turkeys (called poults) in the spring. Before they arrive, set up a brooder. At Locust Grove Farm, we brood our poults in a children’s plastic wading pool. We line it with approximately 1 inch of wood shavings and hang a couple infrared heat lamps to keep the birds warm. Warmth and dryness are of the utmost importance to baby birds.
The round pool design helps to keep the birds from piling on top of each other in a corner. The floor level temperaturefor the first week should be 90 to 100 degrees; after the first week, raise the lamps to reduce the temperature by 5 degrees weekly.
One feeder and waterer will suffice for every 25 birds. We start our turkeys on Purina Game Bird Starter, containing 30 percent protein. After a week, remove the pool and offer the birds a larger area to roam; for the next three weeks, an 8-by-8 space will work well. Your birds will begin perching on top of the waterer or on window sills: They’re signaling that they’re ready to roost. You’ll then want to mount a 1- or 2-inch round branch 1 foot off the floor.
Birds 6 weeks and older can start to go outside for a while each day when temperatures reach 75 degrees. When rainy and cold, keep them inside. By eight weeks, your birds can go on pasture. If you allow your birds free access to the outdoors, they might not want to come in at night until you make them.
|Herman Beck-Chenoweth – Movable roots will keep
the pen sanitary and your turkeys safe and content.
Another plan is to create a movable roost and have your turkeys live outside on range, in a large, fenced pen. Range is a short-grass pasture (4- to 6-inches long), and turkeys do fine on any range; I prefer the mixture of Kentucky bluegrass and medium red clover. If possible, select a site without trees. Turkeys will fly into trees, and when the trees are inside your pen, manure will build up under them.
Treat your large, intelligent birds as humanely as possible. Provide enough space, places to dust bathe and roosts to fly up to at night. A dozen turkeys can be supported nicely in a yard or fenced pen of one-eighth acre (75 feet by 75 feet). Use woven-wire field fence, such as 1047-12-11, to keep predators away from your birds. If you don’t want a permanent fence, partially drive in some metal T-posts or use electric poultry netting.
Keep your birds on fresh range all the time by weekly moving the portable roost to clean ground. You can also relocate the feeder and waterer daily to prevent the surrounding area from becoming trampled or too heavily manured. Mow to keep the grass 4- to 6-inches long.
|WATT Publishing – Narragansett turkeys
are attractive, and some strains are
particularly good at hatching eggs.
Save chore time by connecting a 4-foot-long automatic waterer to your homestead water supply. You could install a 5- to 8-gallon poultry fountain instead, but you’d have to carry 2 gallons of water daily for every twelve mature turkeys. A range feeder will hold about 100 pounds of feed and it takes 3.25 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of live turkey weight. Your feed consumption will rise as your birds grow and reach maturity.
Turkeys love to be in the company of people. Visit your turkeys at least twice a day, as an old farm book I have says that turkeys can die from loneliness. Be careful as they may follow you into the house for company.
As fall approaches, if you haven’t already, decide if your turkeys are pets or dinner. Luckily, by raising heritage breeds, you can have your turkey and eat it, too. If you wish for a perpetual breeding flock of heritage birds, harvest some of the toms, maintaining a ratio of one tom to 10 hens. Either offer your extras for sale or slaughter them.
In the spring, your birds can mate to expand the flock – and you can sell turkey poults or trios (a tom and two hens). Encourage others to join a growing network of turkey lovers who are protecting the biological diversity of this interesting, useful bird – and the flavor and purity of holiday dinners.
Watching and Hunting Wild Turkeys A Challenging Task
|National Wild Turkey Federation – To locate
wild turkeys, try to find their food source.
Ask anyone who’s seen them, wild turkeys are fascinating to watch and challenging to hunt or photograph. The procedure for both activities is the same, only the tools needed are different. It’s not easy to find these wary birds. Start by looking for what turkeys themselves look for: open woodlands or forests with scattered natural or artificial clearings.
Whether you are hunting or watching, a good pair of 10×50 binoculars is necessary. Don’t scrimp: A nice pair is worth its weight in gold because your best observation time for turkeys is near dusk or dawn. One key to locating turkeys is finding their food source. During the spring and summer, grasses and insects are abundant, and turkeys can normally be found at forest edges and in open pastures or meadows. As it gets closer to fall, you can find turkeys in the woods eating wild grapes, nuts and even dogwood berries.
If you have no wild turkeys on your own land, a good plan includes scouting out an area by vehicle. If it’s private land, get permission from the landowner before scouting. When you find an area containing turkeys, quietly sneak into the area early in the evening and listen for turkeys going to roost: Turkeys prefer the tallest trees and ridges. Listen carefully for the sound of wings beating the air and hens cackling. You might also hear a gentle assembly call made by the older hens. Once you have decided on a comfortable location, remain very still and, most importantly, quiet. For more information on wild turkeys:
National Wild Turkey Federation
P.O. Box 530
Edgefield, SC 29824-0530