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.
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.
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.
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.