By Les O’Dell, The Livestock Conservancy
Michele Sullivan Burns still shakes her head in disbelief.
It has been about a month since she turned the corner on the poultry exhibition floor at the Texas State Fair and saw – for the first time – that Rodrigo, her Black Turkey, had been named the state’s Champion Turkey.
She shook her head then, too. (And said a few select words followed by “I can’t believe what happened.”)
Michele’s unbelief is understandable when you learn the Texas State Fair was the first time she had shown a turkey in a competition. In fact, Rodrigo is one of just three turkeys in her flock; she has only been raising turkeys for about four years. He is her only Black, a breed ranked as Watch on The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List (CPL). Her two other birds are Slate hens, also in the Watch category.
“I’m not a breeder of these, yet,” she says about Blacks, hinting she hopes to expand her turkey operation alongside her established Crèvecoeur chicken flock, a breed also ranked as Watch on the CPL. Michele and her husband James – both U.S. Army veterans – have been raising poultry for about eight years near Mineral Wells, Texas, 45 miles west of Fort Worth. Other birds have won ribbons, too, but nothing compares to Rodrigo’s triumph in his first entry.
“This Black turkey came to me on a whim in 2021 and I fell in love,” she recalls, getting him at about four months of age as a replacement for a Slate tom that had died. “As Rodrigo was developing, I realized he was starting to look good. I have the (American Poultry Association) Standard of Perfection and I really started researching it and focusing on nutrition with him.”
Michele used her two years of experience showing other poultry to understand what judges look for in turkeys. When the Texas State Fair rolled around, it was time to test what she had learned by entering 40 lb. Rodrigo as the only Black Turkey in the poultry classes.
The results speak for themselves and Michele has the ribbons and championship belt buckle to prove it. For her, however, the experience is not just about winning competitions. Educating people about Black Turkeys and promoting their characteristics is her strongest motivation.
“People aren’t used to the traditional colors. When they see a turkey, they expect what I call ‘Rio Grande’ colors, the browns and things like that. Rodrigo and Blacks are not the norm. That’s why I show,” she explains. “I aim to educate people that turkeys don’t have to be brown.”
She tells her story – well, Rodrigo’s story – every chance she gets, even sharing photographs with customers at the local Tractor Supply Store where she works. “I show him and post him everywhere. I even post TikTok videos of him,” she says. “I’m still reeling over all of this.”
Michele says there may be more photos to come. She already has plans for Rodrigo to enter the prestigious Fort Worth Stock Show. “I’m going to keep going. The world needs to see him.”
Her tom will also be the foundation of a much larger turkey flock.
“I’m probably going to get a couple of Black females in the spring, after the shows. I don’t want him to get, um, distracted,” she adds with a smile.
Plus, Michele sees the importance of growing America’s population of purebred Blacks.
“I want to expand the Blacks as much as possible. Not necessarily because it is something I want, but because we need more people to see them,” she says. “We need more people to raise these beautiful birds.”