A Comparison and Evaluation of Heritage and Broad-Breasted Turkeys on Pasture

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $5,933.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Wesley Hunter
Providence Farm

Annual Reports


  • Animals: poultry


  • Animal Production: general animal production
  • Crop Production: food product quality/safety
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study, agricultural finance

    Proposal summary:

    Project Description
    Evaluation of growth characteristics, feed consumption, healthiness, and overall profitability of heritage breed turkeys as compared to other heritage breeds as well as the broad-breasted variety, when raised on pasture.

    Description of farm or ranch and project coordinator background
    Providence Farm is a diversified, family owned and operated 25 acre farm located in Webster County, Missouri, near the town of Marshfield. Wes and Ame Hunter, along with our two children, moved to the farm in the spring of 2012. We have a small herd of Irish Dexter Cattle, from which we have produced pasture-raised veal for sale as well as milk for our own consumption. We raise Mulefoot hogs for pork, and in 2013 completed a SARE grant
    project comparing heritage breed chickens raised for meat. We have a fledgling heirloom apple orchard and raise a garden for our own produce needs. In general we are interested in heritage breed livestock and heirloom variety fruits and vegetables as well as historic farming methods and practices.

    Our aim is to maximize profit margin for each unit produced. As a small farm that cannot compete on volume we are constantly exploring enterprises to fill niche markets, such as heritage poultry, pasture-raised veal, and alternative livestock (such as rabbit, quail, pheasant, etc.). We had worked on farms full-time prior to moving to and beginning our own farm, and helped raise things such as pastured chickens, pastured turkey, pork, beef
    cattle, and produce of various sorts in the field as well as under season-extending greenhouses and high tunnels.

    Heritage breed turkeys are currently quite popular with consumers for a number of reasons. For one, their production increases genetic diversity, a necessity in the face of monocropping and concentrated livestock feeding operations. Two, they reproduce naturally and, unlike broad-breasted varieties, don’t have to be artificially inseminated for continuation of the breed. Three, they generally come with interesting histories and give a nice back story for consumers. Four, unlike chicken, which is a commonly consumed meat, turkeys tend to
    be special occasion fare, purchased and consumed during a festive period of the year. As a sort of culmination of these, heritage breed turkeys receive a lot of press around the Thanksgiving holiday as more and more consumers become better acquainted with their food and with products that differ from what is conventionally available.

    While many farmers raise heritage breed turkeys to meet this demand, there seems to be a consensus that they may not be worth raising from an economic standpoint. I have had local farmers who have raised these birds in the past tell me that “there is no money” in heritage breed turkeys, presumably because they were not happy with the profit margins these birds produced, but without any specific information beyond that. Of the farmers who raise heritage turkeys, most seem to raise only one variety and can provide no specifics as to how some of the different breeds compare. In short, farmers interested in beginning a heritage turkey enterprise have little hard data on which to base their own projections, and it is still very much a trial-and-error proposition.

    While there is a respectful amount of information available on heritage turkey production—most notably a manual titled “How to Raise Heritage Turkeys on Pasture” published by the Livestock Conservancy (formerly the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy)—there is little to no information available as to how the different
    heritage breeds relate to each other and to the newer broad-breasted varieties. And, indeed, the feed consumption data given in the above cited manual was adapted from a book published in 1955—nearly 60 years ago—and certainly reflects averages and cannot be accurately used when raising the smaller breeds of turkeys, if the data still applies even to the standard sized birds.

    I propose to address this problem by raising and comparing five varieties of heritage breed turkeys and one broad-breasted variety, keeping detailed records of weight gain, feed consumption, mortality and morbidity, and final carcass weight. With this data I will be able to determine cost of production per pound for each breed to accurately compare between breeds. With a thorough breakdown of associated costs for the raising of multiple
    heritage breeds as compared to the broad-breasted variety, other farmers will then be able to input their own production costs to determine their own estimated outcomes and will be able to choose the breed or breeds best for them.

    As part of my previous SARE-funded grant project comparing heritage breed chickens I have sufficient shelters to raise the six breeds of turkeys proposed herein. In late winter to early spring I will make minor upgrades to the shelters to make them more suitable for turkeys, namely adding smaller mesh (to prevent predator attacks that occurred with the chickens) and new tarps (as the old ones were worn during the previous season). Day-old turkey poults will be purchased from a local hatchery around the first of May, with the exception of the broadbreasted turkeys which will be purchased in mid-July since they have a considerably shorter grow-out period (approximately 16 weeks as compared to 28). The birds will be brooded indoors for the first four to five weeks, at which point they will be moved to pasture pens and associated outdoor runs. They will be rotated across the pasture until they are to be processed. The turkeys will be processed at a local state-inspected poultry processing facility, to be determined. The exact date of processing will depend upon the processing facility’s
    calendar availability, but will likely be the weekend before Thanksgiving. In total I expect the project to take upwards of 30 weeks. Approximately one week before the ‘official’ processing date I will process one of each breed on-farm to be used in a tasting event held at a local farmers market, during a time in which customers are actively thinking about and planning their holiday meals.

    We intend to host an on-farm field day for local poultry producers near the end of the proposed project, at which point we will have a fairly accurate idea as to breed comparisons. We would also like to host a field-day for interns and apprentices participating in our local Ozarks CRAFT (farm apprenticeship) program, the date of which will depend upon the timelines of participating individuals but that could correspond with the event for local poultry
    producers. I will also host a blind side-by-side tasting event, partnering with a local chef and/or restaurant, to be held at Farmers Market of the Ozarks and open to the public. At the conclusion of the study I will write an article detailing my procedures and findings, to be submitted to a variety of farming magazines, including Acres USA, Small Farmers Journal, Small Farm Today, and Farming Magazine. Lastly, I would like to present my findings at
    the annual Small Farm Today conference held in Columbia, MO, for the consideration of a variety of farmers from across the region.

    Previous Research
    The aforementioned publication “How to Raise Heritage Turkeys on Pastures” comes closest to addressing the problem I have presented, but falls short in a couple of particulars. First, though Chapter 4 makes use of a feed consumption chart to give an estimate of feed consumption throughout the grow-out period for heritage turkeys, the information given is not particular to any breed and does not account for differences between breeds,
    especially as far as smaller breeds of turkeys are concerned. Also, the fact that the referenced book was published in 1955 raises concerns; I am skeptical as to the current relevance of the data, as much has changed in the poultry industry in the last 60 years. Second, Chapter 13 (concerning economics) gives a bit more detailed breed-specific information, but for only two breeds—a Broad-Breasted Bronze and a Bourbon Red—and for
    specific strains of each, strains that many farmers may be unable to procure in the first place. (This is not to fault the publication, only to explain its limitations as concerns this particular proposed grant project. It is a wonderful resource indeed.)

    Another SARE-funded project, LS02-134, was coordinated by Marjorie Bender of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and also partially addresses the problem I wish to solve. This was a multifaceted study that included a comparison of one heritage breed (Bourbon Red) with a commercial Broad-Breasted White variety in terms of health, weight gain, morbidity/mortality, feed consumption, feed conversion rates, and overall profitability.
    It was, however, concerned only with one breed of heritage turkey and provides no data for how other heritage breeds might compare.

    ATTRA has published useful information concerning raising turkeys on pasture, including some specific information on heritage and minor breeds, but again lacks any specific breed-to-breed comparison.

    During the course of this project I will collect data on live animal weight, processed animal weight (carcass weight), pounds of feed consumption, and mortality rates. The animal weights will be collected by weighing the turkeys at regular intervals during the season (approximately every two weeks) and after processing using a standard digital produce scale. Feed consumption will be tracked by noting every time a 50-lb. bag of feed is
    finished for each breed. These items will be recorded in a specially-designed enterprise log. At the end of the project I will then be able to use total feed consumption by breed measured against total final live weight and total carcass weight to determine feed efficiency rates. Using these figures along with associated costs (poult cost, feed price per pound, and direct costs such as processing, marketing, and shelter depreciation) I will then have a way of comparing cost of production per pound for each breed.

    I will know if my proposed solution works if it does what it aims to do, which is to provide data on growth rates, feed consumption, feed efficiency, and input costs per pound of marketable product for each breed studied.

    Other farmers will then be able to input their own costs to determine their own expected outcomes.

    Environmental benefits will not be determined by any particular measurements or data collection.

    Economic benefits also will not be directly determined by this project, nor will social benefits, but I think I can safely say that farmers who are interested in raising heritage breed turkeys will be able to use the results of this project to determine before they begin if they can expect to be economically viable, which has direct and indirect economic benefits. And further, as farmers ensure economic viability their families and communities thrive by proxy.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.