What’s the difference?

As you went shopping for your Thanksgiving turkey this past November, you probably noticed a wide range of pricing. There were turkeys labeled “farm-raised”, “free-range”, “Heritage”, “Heirloom”, “water-injected”, “broad-breasted”, “organic”, and “all-natural”. What do they mean and does it make a difference?

These words describe three different aspects of turkey (or any food product) production.

First of all is breed or type. From the producer’s perspective, there are just two types of turkeys: Heritage (or Heirloom) turkeys, and broad-breasted turkeys. This is a genetic difference. Broad-breasted turkeys (BB) are exactly what their name describes: they have been selectively bred and hybridized (but not genetically modified) to grow an enormous amount of meat on their bodies in a very short time. There are no hormones or chemicals involved; they simply grow very fast. In fact, growth hormones are banned in the production of turkeys. A BB turkey takes just 4 months to reach 20 lbs (carcass weight).

Heritage Turkeys

In contrast, a Heritage turkey takes at least 7 months to reach an eatable size of 14-18 lbs, has a trimmer profile when “finished”, and tops out at about 32 lbs (live weight) at its very largest. I have enclosed photos, but the visual differences are subtle. Perhaps the easiest difference to see is the comparative size of their leg bones. The BB turkey grows on the same bone-structure as the heritage bird, but puts on more muscling.

A Heritage turkey can fly, mate, set on its own eggs, and live to a ripe, old age of 14 or 15 years. A BB bird grows to over 50 lbs at 26 weeks. They cannot fly. They grow too large for their own legs to support them. The toms crush the hens if they try to mate; the hens crush their own eggs if they try to set on them. They cannot naturally reproduce. In humaneness, a farmer is not supposed to allow them to live past 26 weeks of age.

Management Methods

“Free-range” just means poultry are uncaged; some have access to outdoors. The reality is that as soon as you pen poultry, whether indoors or outdoors, they proceed to eat all of the vegetation and insects within their pen. Some farmers have innovated and developed moveable pens so that the birds have fresh grazing every day. This requires muscle or machine because the structures are tall and heavy, and is more practical for chickens. “Pastured” means a larger space with grass. The standard guidelines are 75-100 turkeys per acre, or about 400-500 sq ft per bird (20 x 20).

The wild turkey diet is about half grass, the rest seeds and insects. My Heritage birds keep my lawn nicely trimmed, and I have no crane flies. The BB turkeys also enjoy grass, but they can’t be bothered to walk very far to get it. They will eat any unfortunate insect that comes within their reach, but they would really rather hang out at the feeder and, well, feed. I place their water as far from the feeder as I can to encourage them to get some exercise.

Heritage turkey hens can raise their own baby turkeys (poults), but I find that they step on too many in the excitement of new motherhood to be cost effective. Much to their displeasure, I take their hatchlings away from them, raise the poults in a safe, warm box for a week and a half, and then give them back when the babies are bigger and sturdier.

Poultry Feed and Supplements

Heritage and BB turkeys are fed exactly the same, except that the BB birds eat more sooner. “Organic” defines the source of the feed, but not necessarily its quality. Organic meat has been fed organic grains from organic fields. Organic fields may or may not have been adequately supplemented with lime, minerals, and your basic NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) to produce nutritious grain. An organic feed mix may or may not have been balanced by a nutritionist. It may or may not have toxic molds in it. But it will certainly have no pesticides, antibiotics, or genetically-modified varieties.

From a farmer’s perspective, the broad-breasted turkeys are easier to raise. They do not try to roost in trees, they do not fly over their fence and come to visit you on your deck (and leave large calling cards!); the hens do not disappear into the woods to try to hatch out a clutch of eggs in secret (and become coyote food). The BB turkeys grow quickly, and give a nice finished product in 16 weeks. The poults are hatched out in July and August, the two warmest months, requiring less electricity to keep their little world at the 95°F required for their first two weeks. In contrast, Heritage poults for Thanksgiving are hatched in April and May, when it is chillier. It costs more to keep them warm.

BB turkeys are harder to raise organically. Because they eat fewer leafy greens, and leave more droppings around their feeder and water, they are more likely to get diarrhea and need medication. Heritage turkeys have robust immune systems and are pickier about what they eat. BBs are always hungry and eat whatever is put in front of them. BBs have bland, uniform dispositions, unlike their quirky, personable cousins. Heritage turkeys cost more and can be more work, but they form personal relationships and are much more interesting to raise.

On the dinner table, the BB Thanksgiving turkey will have noticeably more breast meat, larger thighs, and more meat on the carcass overall than any Heritage turkey. The juices will make lakes of gravy. You will be able to feed all of your cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors. From the same farm, its flavor will be milder than that of the Heritage birds. The Heritage turkey has a full breast and dark meat that is dark from actually walking around. Its flavor will be distinctly turkey, and not mistakable for chicken. A Heritage turkey easily serves eight, with left-overs. It will make the most marvelous broth afterwards.

In 2008 Hidden Meadow Ranch will have both Heritage and broad-breasted turkeys available for Thanksgiving, and a few Heritage turkeys available for Christmas. We will begin accepting deposits on turkeys in January. To be certain of reserving a Heritage turkey for your 2008 Thanksgiving, your turkey deposit must be in by April 1.

Used by permission © Laura Faley: “Hidden Meadow Happenings”, Dec, 2007. Mount Vernon, WA