Is A Heritage Turkey Worth It?

Last year we performed a taste test. We ordered two, 12 pound turkeys from our local yuppie-hippie market. Both were raised by Diestel, a large, independent, family-owned turkey ranch in California. By all accounts the birds had a good life and one bad day, living on pasture, free-ranging and eating vegetarian feed and whatever bugs they could grab until slaughter.

The turkeys were both purchased fresh and were prepared, brined, roasted and served the same way, and at the same time.

The only difference, really, was breed. One of these birds was a typical Thanksgiving gobbler, a Broad Breasted White (BBW) type bird, bred for lots of white meat, a high meat-to-bone ratio and quick growth.

The Broad Breasted White is the standard commercial breed, and every Butterball factory in the country is filled with these poor birds who, owing to breeder’s selecting for larger and larger breasts, suffer from health issues and an inability to mate naturally.

The typically soporific flavor of the Broad Breasted White is often blamed on the breed, but a boring diet and poor grow-out conditions in a commercial setting (big sheds where the birds get little exercise and can’t engage in their basic turkey behavior) is probably as least as guilty as the breed.

That’s why we didn’t include a supermarket Butterball in our taste test. We weren’t interested in confirming that a well raised turkey tastes better than a poorly raised turkey. That’s a question with, to us, an obvious answer. We wanted to see how much role breed plays in flavor.

So, the other turkey in our taste test was a heritage-type bird, an “Heirloom” bird, bred and grown slower, the old fashioned way, to give what promised to be more dark meat and a rich, old-fashioned flavor.

L: Heirloom; R: BBW

Beyond breed, there was one more difference: price. At $2.79* a pound the humanely raised BBW was spendy, but not heart-attack inducing. At $4.49* a pound the Heirloom was a serious wallet commitment. Both our small turkeys weighed about 11.5 pounds, and our bill for the two was right around $80.

The Big Heritage Turkey Controversy

In researching this article I’ve learned that there is a bit of a dust-up in the heritage turkey world about big name ranch Diestel marketing their not-exactly-heritage birds as “Heirloom” in what appears to be a total Whole Foods clientele marketing coup.

Heritage turkeys are purebreds that go back a long way. There are standards the breed has to meet, just like with purebred dogs or cats. It seems Diestel’s heirloom birds are bred from Auburn Turkeys and Bronze Turkeys. Everyone agrees that the Auburn is a true heritage breed. Bronze Turkeys have a heritage “Standard” line that is able to breed naturally, and an “Improved” Broad Breasted line that has a long pedigree but is unable to breed naturally and is therefore decidedly not heritage.

According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, Diestel’s Heirloom birds are bred from the Broad Breasted Bronze variety, an older variety but not a heritage breed, which the HTF describes as, “essentially a [Broad Breasted] White, but with brown feathers.” This makes the Diestel Heirlooms, “actually an organically raised crossbreed that incorporates both heritage genes and nonheritage,” according to Chow.

Although it is a bit hard to sort through all the information out there, the point is that just because it walks like a heritage turkey and gobbles like a heritage turkey and is marketed like a heritage turkey, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a true heritage turkey. So if you are looking for true pure-bred heritage cache and flavor, do a little research so you know what, exactly, you are buying. And be willing to pay for it, since $4.49 a pound is less than you will pay for a true heritage turkey. An 11.5 pound true heritage bird purchased from the highly regarded Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, for example, costs $136.99, or about $11.90 a pound.

The Results

So what does this all mean for our big turkey taste-off?

Once we got the birds out of their plastic shrink-wrap there were a few visual differences. The BBW was, as one would expect, larger of chest, and wider, but not by a shocking degree. The Heirloom bird had slightly longer, larger legs and thighs and narrower breast development but again the difference was not dramatic.

L: Heirloom, R: BBW

Neither bird was injected with a weight-enhancing and flavor-diluting chemical salt solution, and neither had one of those terribly obnoxious plastic red pop-up timers plunged into it’s breast. These things all by themselves are worth at least 75-cents-a-pound to me.

In the brine. Upper-left: BBW; Lower-right: Heirloom.

Total cooking shrinkage loss on the two birds was about identical, but the Heirloom bird reached 155-degrees, the temperature at which I pulled the birds from the oven and let them rest, about 25 minutes before the BBW obtained the same temp.

I never truss poultry because it just leads to flabby skin between the breast and thigh and does not, contrary to popular belief, result in “more even roasting.”

It may just be perception lining up with expectation, but 5 out of 6 of the adult tasters preferred the Heirloom turkey to the Broad Breasted White. The flavor was described as “richer” and “more intense” compared to the meat of the BBW.

L: BBW; R: Heirloom

Everyone tried some of each type of turkey.

Both were excellent turkeys, with very good flavor and texture. But, particularly for those of us who prefer dark meat, the Heirloom bird offered superior flavor. The one vote for the BBW came from a taster who prefers only white meat and appreciated its “milder” flavor.

Winner: Heirloom, though I would recommend any of the Diestel products over industrially raised turkeys based on our sample of these two whole turkeys.

Heirloom: the winner!

Now that I’ve learned all about the Great Heritage Turkey Controversy, I think we’ll have to do a true heritage taste-off one day! I’ll start saving.

Have you eaten heritage or heirloom turkeys? Did you notice a flavor difference? What will be on your plate this Thanksgiving?

*Prices given are local current year prices. When I purchased these turkeys in 2011, they were each about 20-cents a pound less expensive.

Comments

  1. Mary Carman says:

    They both look delicious. Now I can’t wait for Thanksgiving dinner…

  2. Oh, yes. When I hosted my first ever Thanksgiving dinner, my then-husband and I went looking for a smaller turkey, and were prepared to pay for it. We found a farm who was raising Bourbon Reds and bought one. We had no idea what we were getting into, just that the farmer promised it’d be smaller. And it was. He said nothing about how amazing it would be.

    Years later, I’d never seen one again. I’d begun to think I hallucinated the name. And then I went to a conference panel on heirloom plants & heritage livestock, and a farmer in my area was raising them. I bought two that year, and another one this year. So tasty. So lovely. But, yes, so expensive. It worked out to about $9/lb.

    So worth it.

    The irony being? In both years that we’ve purchased Bourbon Reds, our Thanksgiving guest list has swelled beyond what’s reasonable for the turkey I’ve purchased. I’ve had to do some last minute scrambling to make space in the freezer for the smaller birds and found well-raised BBWs for Thanksgiving. (Well, I’m in the process of finding one this year. I hope. Otherwise I’m serving 10 – 11/lbs for 8 – 9 guests!)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourbon_Red_Turkey

    • When I first purchased by “Heirloom” bird I was, for some reason, under the impression that they were Bourbon Reds (maybe misinformation at the meat counter, I don’t know). I look forward to being able to recreate this side-by-side with a true heritage bird!

  3. Ok, so cool post and taste test and everything… but I’m mainly impressed by your ability to save a post for a whole year before publishing it! I always think I can, but I’ve never made it. ;)

    And, yum, of course!

  4. I wouldn’t mind trying a heritage turkey as I enjoy dark meat more than the white meat, although at twelve bucks a pound, I’d better start saving too! We’ve eaten BBW almost every year as far as I know, the other years have eaten wild turkey. So, “technically” I kind’a sort’a ate a “heritage” turkey since it was wild, right?!?
    Anyways, the wild turkeys had more dark meat and definitely tasted more “turkey-ie”.

  5. I’ve raised both BBW and Orlopp’s BBB, free range style. As dark meat lovers we also prefer the BBB. One thing to note though, if allowed to reach maturity the BBW will easily reach 40 pounds, where as the BBB max out at about 25 pounds. At that stage (about 6 months old) the differences in the breast of the white and the legs of the bronze are astounding.

    • Wendy, maybe you can help me understand – I would think a 25 bird would dress out at about, say, 18-20 pounds, maybe? Where the 40 pound bird would be at least 30, right? Why is a huge-o bird considered better? From a cooking perspective, I am not easily intimidated but I wouldn’t want to attempt to roast a 30 pound bird and try to get it fully cooked but not dry. Thoughts?

      • It’s not necessarily better to have a huge bird, unless you’re planning to feed a small army or enjoy tons of leftovers, and some would say that the older bird is tougher, and thus less preferred. I do feed a small army though (4 sons) and like leftovers, so it works for me. Those were my dressed weights, btw.

        My comment was more about the lack of difference in breast/leg size in your birds. I would guess that your BBW was at least a month younger than your BBB, again really irrelevant in the oven. I just find it somewhat bizarre that these poor birds have been bred to develop these huge breasts at the expense of their inner organs and ability to breed naturally, and then we (as a society) kill them before there’s any noticeable difference.

        As for cooking, technically I stew my birds- lid on, sitting in water- so I’ve never had an issue with drying out.

      • If you had a truly heritage turkey it would have taken 7-8 months to reach slaughter weight. There would have been so much fat in that bird it would not be dry no matter what. And the dark meat would be DARK. You (and everyone else) have been duped into spending twice as much on a broad breasted bronze.

  6. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into making this a fair trial. Thanks for sharing!

  7. In case you didn’t know (but I’m pretty sure you do) we breed raise heritage birds – Blue Slates and Self-Blues/Lavenders (same breed just different color variations) http://www.porterturkeys.com/slateselfblue.htm. I have yet to see birds reach the size this site says they get though. I’m glad you looked into the “heirloom-ness” of Diestel because when I saw the picture I immediately thought “that’s too big to be a heritage bird.” Then I saw what you paid for it and was like “no way that’s a heritage bird at that price.” Around here $10/lb is about as cheap as you’ll get for a real heritage bird. Even at that price the farmers are lucky to just break even on them. Heritage birds have a more pronounced keel bone, much, much smaller breast that kind of flop over like saggy boobs, and are altogether longer in form. Our largest tom gave us a 13lb carcass while the rest of the toms were about 11lbs. We haven’t processed the hens yet, but they’ll be a lot smaller. Hank, our 3 yo breeding tom, is 20lbs live weight to give you an idea of mature weight. They also have more fat and the meat is almost purple it’s so dark.

    As a side note, my husband also hunts turkeys and they look exactly the same as heritage birds. Wild turkeys are much tougher so we generally breast them out and the debone the bottom end of the bird and use the meat for sausage and then use the carcass for stock. We just had wild turkey stir-fry last night as it turns out.

    But yes, they taste sooooo much better. I prefer light meat, but even the light meat I felt was better tasting on our birds.

    • Thanks Rachel! I’m glad you weighted in on this since you know turkeys from the producer side and I only know them from the oven side. :)

    • Rachel, my bourbon red Tom weighed in around 20#s but he was over a year old. No way can you make money raising a turkey for a year! But he sired many babies so I did end up making money on him in the end. The others dress out around 15#s after 7ish months and wow are they tasty.

      • We don’t sell turkeys (though I’ve been asked many times and just don’t have the heart to tell people what they are worth just in the cost of feed from my side) or any other animal product. Actually we don’t sell any produce either because it’s illegal to do so in our area. I do have friends that are farmers and do sell turkeys and are planning on taking a loss on the birds but make it up elsewhere. They raise them because it’s what their customers want and if they can make the happy by raising them a turkey then they’ll be more likely to buy the stuff that they can make a profit on.

    • Hi Rachel, I raised Blue Slates and Narragansetts http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narragansett_Turkey the first year I had heritage breed turkeys. The Blues just were no where near as impressive in terms of performance and size finished out as compared the Narragansetts. I had Narragansetts that dressed out at 19 pounds in about 7 months time and the biggest Blue was only around 15. Same access to food and pasture for both. My chicks were a little late last year and the toms only topped out at 17. The disappointing thing is the discussion farther down about selling them for $25 per bird. There’s abosolutely no way you can cover your costs selling at that price. If I get someone to process them for me, it costs $18 per bird. Even if I process them myself, you can spend almost $5 just on ice to bring the temperature of the carcass down. $25 per bird just doesn’t even seem reasonable. The biggest problem any farmer faces is the complete disconnect with what the public thinks food should cost vs. what it actually costs to produce. Selling a pasture raised heritage breed bird in the current economy with costs for feed is a losing proposition unless you know people who know the difference in taste and realize the effort involved.

      • Don Files says:

        I agree with this regarding for the most part. There is a serious disconnect with consumers whether we’re talking about food or cars or homes. My primary business is home design. I’ve been a builder, so it’s a peeve when people compare price/speed of production builders with that of custom builders. The same is true for farming. Raising a heritage breed that takes longer to grow is a different thing entirely that the truckloads of Cornish Crosses heading to Tyson’s or Perdue.

        We’ve raised heritage breeds for meat and have found the Cornish Cross suits us better. That’s not a knock towards anyone who prefers the heritage birds. The CX’s give us good sized birds — big breasts, wings, things, drumsticks – in just a seven week growout. We process half of a batch of 49 CX’s last weekend. The balance will be done tomorrow. The birds last weekend were 51 days old and dressed out at an average of 5-3/4lbs. I’m amazed, and this isn’t our first batch of this breed.

        All that being said, I’ve had people ask me to sell them some of these but balk when I tell them the cost would be $4 per pound. Too many people WANT local-organic-feel good-type food but far too few are willing to PAY for it. That’s why Tyson’s and Perdue have x thousand birds in a chicken house compared to my 50 in a mobile tractor on grass everyday.

        Anyway…. here’s a link to one of my youtube videos of this growout: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aufefJ_waMo

        Take care all.

  8. We’re having the Butterball this year as I won a free one off a blog. Coupon arrived Monday. Everyone that come to my house only wants white meat, except my mother who eats the dark meat and goes home with the extra dark meat. I only need the smallest turkey as we have so many vegetarians and sometimes vegans. I have bought a pesticide free/AB free/free range turkey on occasion from the farmers market if happen to be there right day right time. Those average $45 for about an 11 pound turkey. NO ONE has ever told me oh this or that turkey tastes better. You eat a few slices along with all the other food, I save a few slice for my husband who will take a sandwich over the next day or two. My son the meat-eater takes the carcass and leftover meat to his house to make soup.

  9. We’re getting an apparently heirloom turkey from our local farmer. It better be good because it’s $7.50 a pound!

    • Renee, properly cooked, your bird will be juicy and delicious. Brine for at least 24 hours (all supermarket birds are salt water injected that takes the place of a brine) and pay attention to cooking temperatures (cooking and internal).

      Remember that your farmer has steadfastly raised the birds from chicks that need constant attention to protection from predators and incurred losses to bring the birds to market. Most farmers don’t include the cost of their time in the price they charge.

      Enjoy your bird and take care in your cooking. Your family will notice the difference.

  10. My husband and I have raised Bourbon Red turkeys for sale at Thanksgiving for a number of years and, frankly, we’re looking for a different heritage bird to raise next year in spite of the fact that they taste wonderful. By definition, heritage birds grow slowly and it’s very difficult to free range even with supplemented feed and grow a bird to a size most people want at during the holidays. Hens might dress out at 10 lbs and toms 12-15 lbs. Even by hatching our own eggs (chicks cost $10+ each) charging $5/pd (what our market will bear) plus processing fee we can’t break even. We could do the processing ourselves but my time is worth a lot, too. Knowing that any humanely raised direct from the farm turkey will taste much better than a supermarket BBW, it’s worth seeking them out but, as a consumer know that the birds will be smaller and they need to be brined for the juiciest meat. Producers do their best to educate their consumers and set up realistic expectations. It’s worth it to consumers to learn as much as they can about their food and I appreciate this column as the information helps us all.

    • I’m there with you, Debbie. We raised a few Narragansetts last year. It was rewarding to see them grow, but the cost to raise them was amazing. If you can keep them alive long enough, which takes a fair amount of luck, the cost of the feed they plow through will shock you. Even though we only raised them for our own consumption, it was an expensive proposition. I find many people who like the idea of a heritage bird, but they definitely don’t like the price. When you try to explain to them exactly why the cost is what it is, they tune you out pretty quickly. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to try to make a living raising and selling these. Even at $11/lb. the payoff isn’t there. Best of luck.

  11. We’re in our second year of raising heritage breed turkeys. Started last year with Bourbon Red/Midget White X. We harvested them at 8 months and both toms weighed 20 pounds dressed, which shocked me, since I had heard they would be smaller. They had more fat than I’ve seen on commercial birds, but it made them SO tasty! Brined (a la Dog Island farm), and slow cooked, the meat was falling off the bones! The dark meat was chocolate colored and I don’t even care for white meat after having that! Richer (or is it more rich?) is the perfect word to describe the flavor. This year, we had straight Bourbon Reds. Because of a hatchery error, we got them late and had to harvest at 6 months. These guys were 9 pounds dressed, long and lean. We’ll see how they taste in a few days. Since we just raise them for ourselves, I’m thinking that the combo we had last year was ideal! Twice the weight for the same amount of feed.! If I had to make a living selling them, I’d find a new line of work. It’s completely worth raising them to supply us for the year, though.

  12. A couple years ago I bought a turkey from our neighbors – or rather, swapped for him, providing buck service in exchange. It was a heritage breed, but I can’t for sure remember which one. Pasture raised, pretty much free range in fact. It was a delicious bird, but there wasn’t quite enough breast meat to go around to all the people who wanted one. Also, at fourteen pounds (as big as I could get) it was slightly too little for my big family. But man, it sure did make some awesome gravy.

  13. It’s kind of a frustrating issue for me–there’s no way I can afford the prices you’re talking about here, but the farmers are saying they can’t survive on any less than that. Sometimes it seems to me that we’ve got two parallel food systems in this country, one for those that don’t have much money, and one composed of Whole Foods, “artisan” bread, and heirloom meats. I’m trying to feed two adults three diabetic meals a day on $200 a month; I do belong to a mostly-organic CSA (that’s where my tax refund goes), but the rest of the latter system is closed to me.

    Not sure I have a point here, but I find the situation disturbing.

    • Sth, I feel for your situation and understand. We do have two food systems in America. One is subsidized by the government and the other isn’t. Each of us has to look at our own situation, budget and values and do the best we can with the hand we’re dealt. Small farmers are more likely to work with you in barter or trade, especially if they find they have enough other customers willing to pay the higher price to keep them in business.

      • Debbie is totally right. I know a lot of farmers that are more than happy to trade a box of food for a few hours of work helping out on the farm. There are ways but you just have to look for them.

    • It’s not just frustrating, it’s obscene. The US has legislated a subsidies program that rewards the largest agriculture open field factories – calling them farms is a stretch – and allows giant food processors to buy commodity derivatives for a small percentage of what the fair market cost to produce them would be. This undermines small scale farmers, making it very difficult for them to compete when the thumb of subsidy is on the industrial side of the scale. The food safety legislation also favors giants in processing, and there are cases of outright intimidation and aggression against small farmers responsibly raising heirloom and non-commercial breed animals under the guise of “biosecurity” or “invasive species” actions. Meanwhile, these same subsidies make make nutritionally-questionable and ethically-dubious “food” – everything from Snicker’s bars to feedlot beef – cheap and the official nutrition advice of the US government is based more on getting rid of cheap subsidized wheat and corn than on any actual scientific proof as to what constitutes “healthy.” People in your situation are doubly screwed because (and I’m assuming this is a Type 2 diabetes situation) those foods most likely to raise blood sugar levels are also the foods most likely to be cheap. My point with this is that everything that touches food policy in the US isn’t so much a can of worms as an olympic pool full of snakes.

  14. We have been using the Diestel Heirloom birds for several years now. I can’t imagine going back the cardboard taste of a factory bird. I do agree that a free range Diestel BBW beats a standard factory bird cold. I would love to have access to a small (less than 10 pounds) true heirloom, we might have turkey once a month instead of only once a year. Do you hear that turkey farmers? You could sell year round if you concentrated on smaller birds.
    We brine, smoke, and finish in the oven. The flavor is unbelievable.
    When I bring leftovers to work after thanksgiving I am surrounded by folks who want to taste some. The smell of the smoked bird is just that good after a reheat in the microwave. Remember this is after thanksgiving when most folks feel ill at the thought of eating more turkey.

    • Turkeys, heritage varieties atleast, normally only lay eggs in the Spring. Hatching for year round production would be hard to accomplish.

    • Don is right, heritage turkeys (like chickens) don’t lay eggs year round. If I have a very determined turkey hen meaning she’s laying on a nest she created and we steal her egg every day before predators get her or the eggs, she might lay into mid-summer but that’s rare. In my experience most heritage birds need a good 9 months to reach a 12 lb butchered weight.

      • And that’s a good 9 months with them eating 28% Protein Turkey & Game Bird Starter that costs $18 per 50# bag right now. It will SHOCK you how much feed even a few turkeys will go through. If you don’t keep them on high protein feed, you’ll see the difference. We just picked up two six month old Royal Palm/Narragansett Cross Toms to process for the holidays. They clearly weren’t fed a high protein feed as the are smaller than our birds from last year at the same age.

        • Fair enough, but I would still buy one in the early fall and another for Christmas. By focusing on these ridiculously large sized birds that a couple or small family can never consume you are limiting your market.

          • Our nine month old Naragansett Tom dressed out at 14lbs. It was a great feeling to sit down to Thanksgiving Dinner staring over a bird that we raised, processed, and cooked. The wife and I and our two kids all had a part in the entire process. Hopefully, these will be good memories for all to keep.

  15. We’ve been raising heritage turkeys for a few years now, just for us, not on a commercial level, and I’m honestly not sure, given the choice, that I could ever go back to procuring commercially raised birds.

    I personally don’t subscribe to the ‘must wet brine’ theory of preparation. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just personal preference, and you’ll find even professional chefs arguing for either side of that debate. Brined is good, not brined is good too, if prepared right. I’d never even heard of brining turkeys until I moved to America. For us, most of our birds are either dry brined with herbs and spices, or simply barded (which is how I grew up preparing lean game meats) and the meat is always moist, juicy, and most of all, flavorful.

    Roasting temperature is more important than the method of pre-roasting preparation in my opinion, as it’s easy to overcook a heritage bird. I do avoid high-heat roasting methods, and I usually recommend to people that if you’re going to spend $140 raising/purchasing a heritage bird, it’s worth the extra $15 for a thermometer to ensure it doesn’t get overcooked. I also ALWAYS rest the bird, covered, for at least 20 minutes after pulling it from the oven.

    I recognize that these birds aren’t for everyone. They’re smaller, the flavor of the meat can be quite strong compared to market birds, which I prefer, but isn’t to everyone’s taste, and of course, we clearly don’t raise them to save money. Are they worth it? For us, yes they are, and besides, we get a lot of blog mileage out of the poults when they hatch ;) Quite honestly, they’re a lot of fun to have around the farm!

  16. Really interesting post and comments. The turkey market is not a large one in Australia and mostly people here only think about it at Christmas time. The usual offerings are the stock standard commercially raised (like your butterballs), usually frozen and on average $4/lb. As a result my turkey experiences for years have left me cold. Last year I found a whole new world of turkey. Someone not far from us had 2 hens and a tom as “pets” and they were free ranged contentedly in a backyard but it all got too much and too big. They asked if we wanted to “take them off their hands”. When we dispatched them they had acorns, basil and cherry tomatoes in their crops ( very free ranging and I can see why it was getting a bit much for a backyarder!) They tasted amazing and the meat texture was divine. I cooked them in different ways including slow cooked in milk. Being ignorant here, we just roasted (dry) one like a chicken and it was perfect. Anyway that’s just my little story and experience but thanks Erica and commenters for an interesting post.

  17. It took me until Kevin’s comment to place my order. Thanks everyone and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  18. Do want!

  19. Wow just like America’s Test Kitchen! What I always think of is my CSA farmer’s comment about how one of his (not sure which term he used) turkeys escaped just before slaughter time and flew up into a tree. After failing to catch it, he offered it free to any subscriber who was able to capture it. To my knowledge, no one took him up on this ;-)

  20. I’ve never tasted either of them because it is hard to find turkeys here in Italy but I do get a young rooster at this time of the year (as it is the natural season for roosters/chickens to be ready for consumption) from a local farmer and it tastes heavenly. I just cut it into pieces and freeze it for the occasional roast and soups, and that is the only time I buy poultry :)

  21. Erica (and others),
    Can you suggest a lower sodium option to brining? Adding a bunch of salt is a not an option for us.
    Thanks.

  22. Great post, lady!

    I picked up and have now butchered two heirloom turkey hens from the Poultry auction – One was a mottled black and the other a royal palm. I am anxious to see how they dress out and taste come Christmas Eve (the holiday I am putting on this year).

    The BBW does have quite the reputation for being dry, tasteless and not worth the effort. Thanks for this great post!

  23. Erica,

    How do you brine your turkey?

    Thanks for posting this. I can’t afford a Heritage turkey so I get free range one each year but at some point I how to grow my own heritage turkeys for our use.

  24. It’s ALL in how you raise them. Most people stuff their BB turkeys so they grow quickly and don’t move around as much. We let our’s free-range, feed only so much and let them grow out much more slowly. While I haven’t eaten any of our turkeys (I’ve realized that it’s impossible for me to butcher my sweet “puppy dogs”), I HAVE raised cornish cross (the commercial chicken) this exact same way and came out with a chicken that was tastier than what would be considered “heritage” chickens, raised the same way as well, and also MUCH meatier. While I haven’t tried the white meat on them plain, the boyfriend says that they provide much more flavor than the commercial breasts.

    BRONZE turkeys are “heritage” birds. Broad breasted bronze are not. As for heritage standards, they’re a bunch of phooey to me, because a BB variety of turkey can certainly meet the requirements to be a “heritage” turkey if raised properly. They CAN breed without AI, even the toms, if raised as we raise them. My dominant tom here now is actually the product of a broad breasted bronze tom who covered a royal palm hen. :)

    • Another thing… $136 for a heritage turkey? No, THOSE are the people who are ripping you off. For that price, you can purchase a trio of a rare breed of turkeys, LIVE and breed your own. A dead 11.5lb bird is not worth $136, unless it comes stuffed with truffles and a chef to cook it for you.

      • It’s always cheaper to buy ingredients, especially early in the purchasing cycle. This doesn’t mean it’s only worthwhile to buy ingredients or in the earliest stage(s). To compare to something more mainstream; it’s always going to be financially cheaper to cook that meal for yourself, but sometimes there’s good cause to hit up that restaurant.

        So, a dead turkey is not worth ~$12/lb to you, and that’s fine. You can raise your own poultry, and it sounds like you do an awesome job of it. Your situation & values make this both a viable option AND one you choose to take.

        I don’t want a turkey poult, much less a trio. You couldn’t *give* them to me, much less convince me to buy them, as they would have negative value for me. This is because I live in a sixth floor apartment in a very big city, and couldn’t even raise enough tomatoes for my family of two this year, much less a turkey. Thus, as I mentioned above, I am quite happy to pay $9/lb (slightly less than what Erica mentioned for a true heritage breed in her neck of the woods) for my yearly Bourbon Red turkey(s). I don’t feel ripped off by the farmer who charges me that; I’m a repeat customer. And, frankly, after having spoken to that farmer and several others about what it takes to raise various critters in a way that I value, I find it offensive for someone to imply that I’m a rube or that they’re rip-off artists. Sometimes, even if we value some similar things (and it sounds like we do, at least in how critters are raised), circumstances change how we place value on related things.

        As for the post that spawned this all, I don’t know the exact extent of Erica’s yard, nor the laws in Seattle (turkeys are definitely illegal in Chicago, as is any kind of slaughter), so a well-raised, but dead, turkey may well be worth a lot more to her than a live one she can raise herself. Or maybe not, and she ought to get on raising them. ;)

        • It is illegal in city limits in Seattle to raise turkeys and for good reason. They are VERY loud.

          I raised white broad breasted alongside Bourbon Reds this year and it is NOT all in how you raise them. I had 3 WBB and 13 BRs. One WBB died right away. I had to slaughter another two months (out of a 4 month lifespan) early because his legs gave out. The third made it to processing weight but her legs were also beginning to fail. They were raised on pasture their entire lives, alongside the BBR who nightly fly over the fence to roost on top of the 10′ tall chicken coop.

          My breeding pair of BBR are able to fertilize eggs until they reach around 15 months of age and then they become so heavy that the hens will not let them continue servicing any longer, instead opting for the younger toms. It is my guess that in the wild these bigger toms would have been long picked off by now since they are the largest and slowest of the bunch, leaving the younger and slimmer toms to take their place.

          After this experience I will never again raise WBB turkeys. In taste comparisons every time (and we did about 6 this year since we had so many turkeys) the heritage BR turkeys were succulent and flavorful, even last year’s tom which I expected to be tough. Raised in identical settings with the same feed and access to pasture the meat from broad breasted and heritage birds is nothing alike. The dark meat on the Bourbon reds was frighteningly dark but had the most amazing flavor.

          In regards to price it’s not cheap to raise a turkey that takes a good 7-9 months to get up to table weight with access to clean and fresh pasture the entire time. Even pricing out hatching eggs they begin at $7 each but go up to $14 from more reputable breeders. And then the fail rate on incubating turkey eggs is quite high compared to chicken eggs. And then not one that hatches will turn into a healthy chick.

          We all value food differently – the only thing I find insulting about spending more for good food is when some dishonest distributer sells commercial varieties raise in nasty, minimal spacial constraints as pastured heritage birds for top dollar. That should be illegal. But if you don’t know your farmer, you won’t truly know what you are getting.

        • Actually, I’m talking about a POL adult trio of birds, which you can purchase to breed or purchase to butcher into three meals. You can get a 11.5lb turkey, raised “right” for much cheaper than that, and even covering butchering fees if you don’t want to butcher, you’d still come out way less than $136 for a bird.

          I’m all for humanely treated, free-range (or pastured) who are fed all organic, no soy, no corn feeds. I do it myself for my birds, and I still wouldn’t charge $136 for a 11.5lb bird. I raise heritage breeds along with my “commercial” breeds, and I wouldn’t charge that price for any of them, not even show quality birds.

          I’m not at all insulting anyone here, I just feel that some people have a tendancy to rip others off, especially people who live in a city and cannot raise their own homegrown foods. I feel that it’s unfair to charge someone an arm and a leg just because they cannot raise their own, they should be able to have access to the very best as well, without giving up their first born son to obtain it! I’m fully aware of the cost of eggs, the losses you take in turkeys especially, the slower growth rate when free-ranged (and again, more losses), the cost to feed them, and I still heartily disagree with anyone charging $136 for the carcass of a 11.5lb turkey.

          • It really does sound, then, like align in more than we disagree. Getting excellent food at appropriate prices is motivating all around.

            So, I guess what comes next is an honest request for what you think IS a reasonable per pound price on turkey? Specifically turkey that is already killed, cleaned, butchered and ready to put in my roaster? Also, picked up in a reasonable location (in my case, one of the local farmers markets), not at a farm or slaughterhouse or similar. I ask only because this is the reasonable comparison for most people; most folks will walk into a grocery store or to a farmers market or specialty market/their butcher and walk out with a ready-to-cook turkey. Does the price change for raising breeds that can fly (such as my beloved Bourbon Reds) vs breeds that cannot (Broad Breasted Whites – or so my BBW guy told me when he told me why he doesn’t raise BRs anymore)?

            Clearly, $11.83/lb ($136 for 11.5lbs) strikes you as unreasonable. I’m unclear if $9/lb (actually, having gone back & done the math, $8.44/lb) is also unreasonable. My guess is yes, given my previous comment, but I could be wrong. As I really do live in the city, this sort of exchange matters quite a bit to me. In essence, I have every reason, right now, to believe these prices are fair. If I am wrong, please tell me how.

          • There’s really no “right” or “wrong”. For broad breasted, grown birds, I charge $25 per bird. If you take it to a processor, it’s going to cost about $5 to have the bird processed. For a heritage type bird, I typically charge about $30 for a full grown bird. An 11.5lb bird is not full grown, and would run closer to $20. If picking up from a processor, it’d be about $25, if delivered to our city here, about $30 for my gas, $35 if it’s a little further. If I were selling at a farmer’s market in the city, I’d probably go about $35 as well, to help cover the vendor fee and gas. The farmer can actually “cut corners” and not use a USDA butcher, by selling the bird outright to the customer, then butchering the bird themselves, after the bird is technically the buyer’s bird. I haven’t done this myself, because without a plucker, I don’t mess with butchering other peoples’ birds, it’s not worth my time, in all honesty, to pluck to perfection (not to mention that I cannot kill a turkey in the first place).

            You can certainly expect to pay more for a homegrown turkey than a commercially grown turkey. There’s no doubts there, and yes, you will pay more for a heritage turkey than a broad breasted variety, but the $136 price tag just ruffles my feathers.

          • It really depends on where you live. Friends of mine who are farmers raised pastured turkeys on organic feed purchased at wholesale and they took a loss at $10/lb. Why? Because here, feed and land are expensive. Wholesale organic feed runs about $24-26 per 50lbs. Farm land costs are astronomical. I’m the crazy person that keeps track of everything we spend and harvest from our property. Raising our turkeys worked out to an average of $10/month per bird just in feed (again, organic feed at wholesale cost). Which doesn’t sound like much at first glance, but when you raise them for 7-9 months it adds up. That didn’t account for land, equipment, our time or the cost to raise our breeding stock. The price of the birds should allow the farmer to make a profit but unfortunately that’s not the case here. Pastured poultry farmers have a very difficult time making it due to feed and land costs. It’s also important to mention that we don’t get rain from June-September so pastured birds must have supplemental feed.

          • Lindsey I am curious how much it costs you to feed each turkey and how old they are when you butcher them? Because here with a farm exemption certificate an organic bag of turkey feed at wholesale price is $23 for 44 pounds of feed (which probably wouldn’t get one turkey to slaughter weight). If you are raising a heritage bird to 9 months of age how are you charging $35 for a slaughtered bird that you spent time caring for 9 months and still paying yourself anything for your time? I would love to know your secret. Many farmers can only afford to farm because they have a spouse working off of the farm. Most of them do not charge enough to make a living already. I’d love to see your business plan that pays for the farm mortgage and other living expenses at $25 per heritage turkey. But maybe you aren’t actually making your living by raising turkeys?

          • Lindsay, I have to say, those numbers are mind-blowing. I couldn’t get my BBW from any of my farmers directly OR my butcher (who uses different “good” farmers) for that price, much less the BR turkey I bought. The BBWs are $3 – $4/lb. So the first one I ever bought in Chicago was $69 – $92. (It was a monster at ~23 lbs – we ordered too late to get smaller). The other two BBWs I’ve purchased have been $60 (this year, long story) and $48 (last year, 16 lbs).

            Though, as I type it out, my last year bird comes out to nearly your “if I sold at a farmers market” bird. Just $13 different. So maybe feed is less for your area than around Chicago, and you’re butchering around 16 lbs?

  25. These comments are very helpful! I was hoping to get more information on raising turkeys (in my backyard) does anyone have any resources (books, sites, details,etc) they would like to share?

  26. Courtney says:

    Hi there,
    Just came across your site and LOVE reading your posts! I’ve been buying heritage turkeys from local farmers for about 8 years now (though a couple of years I have ordered one through Heritage Foods USA) – huge difference in taste from a commercially raised bird, I think. I also did a similar side-by-side ‘taste test’ with whole chickens last year…one from a local organic farm here in Virginia (Ayrshire Farm) and one that I purchased from Wegman’s grocery store that was kosher raised and processed on a farm in PA. My ‘before’ pic looks exactly like your turkeys on the trays! Huge difference in the way they were processed just by appearance, and while the taste of the kosher chicken was very good, it still didn’t compare to the local chicken. I also paid almost the same price for both of them – guess which chickens I’m still buying? :)

  27. We are farm newbies (three months into our adventure). Someone is giving us seven heirloom turkeys (5 months old). Apparently, they had pets who had a romantic interlude, and they don’t have room for the babies, nor could they eat them. I was wondering how long to keep them before slaughter. Your article was helpful. Thanks!

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