A Comparison and Evaluation of Heritage and Broad-Breasted Turkeys on Pasture
After receiving a no-cost one-year project extension, we decided to split our project into two smaller subprojects. For the first year (2015) we would raise two of the heritage breeds of turkey and the one breed of broad-breasted turkey, and in the second year (2016) we would raise the other three heritage breeds. This would allow us to reduce the number of salable birds each year (with a maximum of 36 turkeys per year, if they all survived to processing age), better ensuring that we would have sufficient market for the finished turkeys. While we were a bit concerned that the differences from one year to the next (in terms of poultry genetics, weather patterns, etc.) might compromise the accuracy of the data we would collect, we decided that since turkeys have such a long grow-out period (around 26 to 30 weeks) the effects would be minimized.
We initiated a Poultry CSA for the 2015 season and had positive feedback, which gave us hope that we would have better success marketing all of our finished birds. We put in our order with our local hatchery for 12 each of Bourbon Red, Blue Slate, and Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys. The two heritage breeds would arrive in mid-May, while the broad breasted turkeys would arrive in late June (the latest available hatch date–since they grow at a much faster rate, we wanted to start them as late as possible so as to have them at a reasonable size by the Thanksgiving holiday).
We picked up the Bourbon Red and Blue Slate poults the day after hatching, brought them home, and placed them in the brooder. Within four days all but five of the Bourbon Reds had died, while the Blue Slates were doing just fine. Since the care received was the same for both breeds, both being raised in the same brooder, we concluded that this must have been the result of some weakness in the particular gene pool for the Bourbon Reds, or some other factor from outside our own farm. By the time we moved the poults out of the brooder and into their pasture shelter, we were down to only three remaining Bourbon Reds.
With our number of Bourbon Reds thus diminished, we decided that it was impractical to continue keeping feed records. Three birds was simply not a sufficient number to give us any sort of reliably accurate results. (As it turned out, all three were toms, which would have skewed the average butcher weights to the high side.) Thus, we concluded that we should just keep records for the Blue Slates and the Broad Breasted Bronze, and just write off the Bourbon Reds as a total loss regarding this project.
The Broad Breasted Bronze arrived at the end of June, and did just fine in the brooder. We had two mortalities, which we found acceptable since turkeys are notoriously difficult to brood. With an extra poult included by the hatchery, this left us with 11 turkeys to move to pasture. The first move was into a sort of halfway shelter, smaller in size and situated closer to the house so that we could keep a closer eye on the birds during their first few weeks on pasture. We would eventually relocate them to one of the full-sized shelters in the pasture further from the house. They were doing great, until one night when a predator broke into the shelter and killed seven birds, leaving us with only four Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys.
At this point we were unsure what to do. Should we continue with data collection and try to pull something together with such a small data set? Or should we write off this breed as well? (2015, as it turned out, was a terrible poultry year for us. We faced unprecedented predation, lost two whole batches of chickens to rain and flooding, and had one batch of chickens arrive from a hatchery seriously compromised, none making it to our typical 16-week butcher age for heritage birds.) We were discouraged, but decided to try to make this one work. A few weeks later, settled into their new full-sized pasture shelter, a large predator struck (again?), breaking through the chicken wire and killing all four remaining Broad Breasted turkeys. That settled that question.
All we had left to provide us with any sort of reasonable data was the Blue Slates, but they, too, were subject to our newfound predators. They fared better than the others, but by the end of the project we had only seven remaining birds which, combined with our three Bourbon Reds, just barely allowed us to meet our 10 CSA customer obligations. In the end, we came to the conclusion that our numbers were just too compromised to give any sort of reliable information regarding growth rates, feed consumption, or butcher weights.
We are still uncertain what the remainder of this project looks like. Responses to the poultry we were able to provide in 2015 was consistently positive, so we are less concerned about having a sufficient market for our birds. Thus, we are considering restarting, doing the entire project–all six breeds–in 2016. Alternatively, the idea of washing our hands of 2015 and simply ‘finishing’ the project with the other three heritage breeds in 2016 is incredibly enticing. We hope that, either way, we will be able to finally arrive as some usable data that accurately reflects the growth rates, feed consumption, butcher weights, and overall production cost of raising a variety of heritage breed turkeys.