Heritage Turkeys


All domesticated turkeys descend from wild turkeys indigenous to North and South America. They are the quintessential American poultry. For centuries people have raised turkeys for food and for the joy of having them.

Many different varieties have been developed to fit different purposes. Turkeys were selected for productivity and for specific color patterns to show off the bird’s beauty. The American Poultry Association (APA) lists eight varieties of turkeys in its Standard of Perfection. Most were accepted into the Standard in the last half of the 19th century, with a few more recent additions. They are Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. The Livestock Conservancy also recognizes other naturally mating color varieties that have not been accepted into the APA Standard, such as the Jersey Buff, Midget White, and others. All of these varieties are Heritage Turkeys.

Heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised. Turkeys must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as a Heritage turkey:

1. Naturally mating: the Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%. This means that turkeys marketed as “heritage” must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.

2. Long productive outdoor lifespan: the Heritage Turkey must have a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years. The Heritage Turkey must also have a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.

3. Slow growth rate: the Heritage Turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.

Beginning in the mid-1920s and extending into the 1950s turkeys were selected for larger size and greater breast width, which resulted in the development of the Broad Breasted Bronze. In the 1950s, poultry processors began to seek broad breasted turkeys with less visible pinfeathers, as the dark pinfeathers, which remained in the dressed bird, were considered unattractive. By the 1960s the Large or Broad Breasted White had been developed, and soon surpassed the Broad Breasted Bronze in the marketplace.

Today’s commercial turkey is selected to efficiently produce meat at the lowest possible cost. It is an excellent converter of feed to breast meat, but the result of this improvement is a loss of the bird’s ability to successfully mate and produce fertile eggs without intervention. Both the Broad Breasted White and the Broad Breasted Bronze turkey require artificial insemination to produce fertile eggs.

Interestingly, the turkey known as the Broad Breasted Bronze in the early 1930s through the late 1950s is nearly identical to today’s Heritage Bronze turkey – both being naturally mating, productive, long-lived, and requiring 26-28 weeks to reach market weight. This early Broad Breasted Bronze is very different from the modern turkey of the same name. The Broad Breasted turkey of today has traits that fit modern, genetically controlled, intensively managed, efficiency-driven farming. While superb at their job, modern Broad Breasted Bronze and Broad Breasted White turkeys are not Heritage Turkeys. Only naturally mating turkeys meeting all of the above criteria are Heritage Turkeys.

Prepared by Frank Reese, owner & breeder, Good Shepherd Farm; Marjorie Bender, Research & Technical Program Manager, The Livestock Conservancy; Dr. Scott Beyer, Department Chair, Poultry Science, Kansas State University; Dr. Cal Larson, Professor Emeritus, Poultry Science, Virginia Tech; Jeff May, Regional Manager & Feed Specialist, Dawes Laboratories; Danny Williamson, farmer and turkey breeder, Windmill Farm; Paula Johnson, turkey breeder, and Steve Pope, Promotion & Chef, Good Shepherd Farm.

A Brief Timeline of the Domesticated Turkey

2000 years ago Domestication of the turkey by Aztecs in Mexico and Mayans in Central America

Early 1500  Cortez and Spanish explorers find both wild and domesticated turkeys

1500 – 1519   Turkey first taken back to Spain

1500s    Several European varieties were developed including:
• Norfolk Black
• Cambridgeshire Bronze
• White Austrian
• Buff
• Blue
• Ronquieres (a small variegated Belgian variety)

By 1600   Turkeys were found throughout Europe. Turkey was widely used in celebrations and holiday feasts and was well regarded for its sumptuous meat.

Early 1600 European varieties of turkeys return to North America with colonists.

1621 First Thanksgiving is celebrated at Plymouth Colony. According to folklore wild turkey was served as a main course.

By 1700   Domesticated turkeys were plentiful in the mid-Atlantic region and through the Coastal South.

October 3, 1789 George Washington declared a day of Thanksgiving.

October 3, 1863 Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday.  (This has been traditionally celebrated on the last Thursday of November.)

1874 The American Poultry Association (APA) was formed. They established and adopted Standards for five varieties of turkeys:
• Bronze
• Narragansett
• White Holland
• Black
• Slate

1909   Bourbon Red was accepted into the APA Standard of Perfection

1951   Beltsville Small White was accepted into the APA Standard of Perfection

1971   Royal Palm was accepted into the APA Standard of Perfection

1900s  Breeders in Washington and Oregon produced larger birds with broader breasts. These were called Mammoth Bronze.
1927  Jesse Throssel, an immigrant England to British Columbia, Canada, imported two lines of turkeys (a Bronze and a White) that had been selected for greater breast width. These were known as the Cambridgeshire lines.

Late 1930s  Cambridgeshire Bronzes had been crossed into the Mammoth Bronze population, including the renowned Wagon Wheel Ranch strain.

1938   Mrs. H. P. Griffin coined the term “Broad Breasted Bronze.” This was a commercial term that meant double-breasted in which mounds of muscle were on both sides of the keel bone.

1950s  Fertility troubles began to occur. Broad-breasted conformation brings with it a shorter keel bone and shorter shanks in addition to the bulkier muscle mass on the breast. This conformation prevents males from effectively mounting females, resulting in lower fertility rates. Industry began to perfect artificial insemination techniques to compensate.

1950s  Large, white feathered varieties were developed. These dressed-out more cleanly. Breeders competed at shows based on side-by-side comparisons of productivity. Breeders include: Amerine, Browning, Gozzi, Jerome, Jones, Keithly, Kimber, Lovelace, Lyons, Nicholas, Rose-a-Linda, and Wrolstad.

1960s  These large white turkeys began appearing in the market. At this time, most consumers purchased dressed birds based on carcass appearance. The white varieties were preferred because they lacked the dark pin feathers and melanin that remained in the carcass of colored feathered birds.

1960s  Artificial insemination became common practice among commercial breeders.

1997 The Livestock Conservancy conducted a census of Standard varieties of turkeys maintained by hatcheries. The total number of breeding birds of all Standard varieties was1,335. The Livestock Conservancy began actively promoting Heritage Turkeys.

2003 The Livestock Conservancy conducted a second census, including a survey of individual breeders. The total breeding birds of all standard and non-standard varieties was 4,412.

2004 – 2006 The Livestock Conservancy and Virginia Tech conducted research that demonstrated that Heritage Turkeys have more robust immune systems than industrial strains.

2006 The Livestock Conservancy conducted third census. The total breeding birds of all standard and non-standard varieties was 10,404.