Though I grew up on a farm with ducks, chickens and turkeys, we never raised broilers. Not once. What was a broiler? Beyond seeing a photograph of a yellow legged, white plumed bird in the Murray McMurray poultry magazine, I had no idea. We always purchased a mix of heritage breeds and had oh-so-much fun figuring out the type of each round ball of fluff! We did butcher our birds, the young roos and old hens going to the stew pot whether they were meaty or not!
It wasn’t until I struck out on my own that I saw broilers (aka meat chickens) on other farms. I have to confess, I was a wee bit disturbed. Why wouldn’t their legs work? Why didn’t they move about? Certainly they must have been sick to sit on the ground that way?!
A Country Gal Never Stops Learning!
I received an education that day! These were the same birds so many folks purchased from the grocery store freezers. Fat. Hardly capable of moving. Eating, eating and eating! I had a further reason for contemplation as I heard more stories about these plump fowl.
Stories of broilers dying when carried by their feet, a friend attempting to sustain them on food that wasn’t high in protein and as a result lost the flock, another neighbor who lost half her order without reason, warnings that birds ought not be raised in places over 5,000 ft in elevation. The tales were so strange.
I didn’t know what to think?! Chickens? The same species of wild, squawking birds that roamed all over our farm? The birds that were capable of outsmarting the dog, of roosting high up in the barn? The birds that flew over their 4 ft high fence on a regular basis, that ran so very fast and were difficult to catch when the occasion demanded it? Surely not!
But the tales went on. Something wasn’t right! How was it possible for chickens to be so fragile? I’d heard stories from my grandpa about the frailty of turkeys, but these birds sounded just as bad!
First Experience & Impressions
Fast forward several (or perhaps a few more) years. Living in the beautiful valley we call home, we had an offer from the generous folks of the community farm. They were purchasing broilers and did we want to join their order? We primarily had wild game in our freezer and it would be a pleasure to have chicken! So we paid for ten, Jumbo Cornish X Rocks.
The birds arrived, were give the traditional feed and grew to a plump size. Butchering day rolled around and so did everyone who purchased a share in the birds. Together, we had a grand old time! Visiting with a neighbor while removing innards is a great way to ignore the unmistakable odor of butchered chicken.
Due to my own battle with liver issues, I always observe this organ every time I butcher an animal. Sounds strange? I know! But by observing the liver a person can learn lots about an animal’s health!!!
For example, folks often examine the liver of a just butchered hog for white spots. If present, this indicates that the animal had roundworms. More spots equals heavier infestation. According to this habit, I took note of each bird. With some, the organ was rich and even in color, but in some, there was a discoloration. White and green appeared not infrequently. It caused me to sit back and wonder.
With a compromised immune system, I try to be careful and give my body as little “filtering work” as possible. Don’t get me wrong! I was glad we did chickens as part of our farm share. I was grateful for the generosity and willingness to let us join. And I’m sure those birds, being raised on the ground and in the sunshine were a much better option than those raised commercially.
But it got my wheels turning. How healthy is the meat of an animal that is unable to move about? One that grows too fast for its own good? And was there a better option, particularly for those of us whose bodies are fighting to function well on a daily basis?
The Answer to my Question
Shortly after the aforesaid butchering day, we found 6 full grown heritage turkeys for sale at a very good price. The owner was desperate to move them and having grown up with the birds, we jumped at the chance. No, we don’t own land, but our landlord of the time (who lived on the same property) did. After making a quick phone call and receiving the confirmation needed, we began setting up a place for the birds. And shortly after, we brought them home!
I had found the answer to my question. It lay not in broad-breasted turkeys who have been through the same selective process as broilers, but in the original heritage birds. When compared to the broads, they are lighter in weight, longer in skeletal structure and are incredibly strong, agile and active. They are wonderful foragers and have a clean diet. Shy and yet curious, capable of bonding to a human in a dog-like way, they are one of my favorite birds.
Not only are they pleasant to have around, but are also a wholesome and delicious source of meat. When butchered at 18-20 weeks of age, though different in body structure, they come out the exact weight of…broilers. Because they are much longer than broilers, they must be baked in a very large roaster. And my oh my! Are they ever delicious!
Should You Go With Broilers or Heritage Turkeys?
As always, its worth doing a comparison between the two birds. Maybe you want a meat bird that can reproduce on your land, leaving you with a one time purchase?
Or perhaps your interests lie in a one time raising and butchering of birds? As always, it pays to buy and live within your means and desires. So let’s do a bit of side-by-side evaluating together!
Cost of Ordering Birds
- Broilers average $2.50 per chick
- Heritage Turkeys average $11-$12 per poult
Grain Fed or Free Ranged
- Broilers must be grain feed with high protein feed throughout their lifetime in order to support mass growth
- Heritage Turkeys: poults do well on game bird feed (16% protein) until 5-6 weeks of age. During this time, they will do well with partial ranging, after which they are capable of 100% free ranging if land is available.
Need for Space
- Broilers are low key birds, well suited to small pieces of land due to their lack of ability to move.
- Heritage Turkeys are very energetic birds and do best when allowed to roam and move about. They also help with bug control!
- Broilers need only a 2-3 ft high fence with very little space per bird.
- If contained often, heritage turkeys ought to have a fence no lower than 4 ft high and have approx 40-50 sq feet of space per bird.
- Broilers will dress out at 3-4 lbs when 6-8 weeks of age.
- Heritage turkeys will dress out anywhere from 4 lbs (a jenny) to 12lbs (a jake) in approximately 20 week’s time.
- Broilers will not produce eggs before the butchering date.
- Heritage turkeys will not produce eggs before the butchering date, but your breeding hens (or any jennies you overwinter to the following spring) will lay up to 100 large eggs throughout late spring-early fall. Their productive lifespan is 5-7 years of age.
- Broilers are a human-dependent species. Due to weak legs and heavy bodies, roosters are incapable of mating.
- Being relatively quiet birds, heritage toms are gentle and discreet while going about their business-which they tend to most faithfully.
- Broiler hens have no interest in mothering because the instinct has been bred out of them.
- Heritage hens have incredibly strong mothering instincts and are protective of their young. A brood of 15-18 poults is not an uncommon sight.
For the folks who have small parcels of land or want one-time meat birds, I’d recommend the broilers. If you are looking for a self-propagating meat bird to raise, I’d recommend heritage turkeys! They come with many benefits! If these large birds have piqued your interest, you may want to check out my e-book HERE on raising heritage turkeys.
Written in an easy-to-read style, this book contains photos, real life experiences and will equip you to raise your birds naturally on the land.
Learn of the best ways to find these semi-rare fowl, of bird care, feed and free ranging methods, egg production, natural brooding, of butchering and cleaning techniques, recipes, trouble shooting, making side-money from your heritage turkeys to help cover costs and more!