Thursday, December 30, 2010

Talking Turkey

Broad breasted bronze turkey

     This year we ended up with three types of turkeys on our farm – our heritage Black Spanish that we have had for several years, and some unclaimed 4-H poults of the White and Bronze Broad Breasted varieties. The Black Spanish were raised as naturally as possible. They mated naturally, nested in the woods, hatched out and raised their own babies. They ate seeds, bugs, berries, walnuts and grass, and receive some whole grains in the winter months. Black Spanish originated in North America from the wild turkey, and were taken to Spain by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. In the 1600s, the turkeys were reintroduced to North America, bred with wild turkeys, and selected for different feathering traits. These heritage turkeys, once very popular, were on the verge of extinction when the Broad Breasted Bronze and White grew in popularity. In recent years, heritage breeds have been increasing in numbers and ours are part of a living gene bank.
Broad breasted white turkey
      The commercial white and bronze turkeys we raised this year were acquired as poults, or chicks, from a hatchery in Alberta. They arrived by mail at the Pender Island post office. They were raised under a heat lamp with a diet formulated especially for turkeys. As the commercial turkeys grew, their diet changed slightly to a finishing diet, with a final sweet diet of crush grains, molasses and cracked corn. Once feathered, they were let out in the orchard during the day where they ate grass and fallen apples, with walnuts that fell to the ground in the fall.
Physically the white and bronze broad breasted turkeys were different from the Black Spanish, too. They grew much faster – especially the white ones. Most of the turkeys raised commercially are the white broad breasted variety. Commercial turkeys are mostly white because the pin feathers on the processed turkey aren't as noticeable. The white turkeys were originally selected from Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys, which came over from England to BC with Jesse Throssel in 1926. His Broad Breasted Bronze became the foundation of the modern turkey industry in North America.
      Some of the difference in growth rate was due to diet, but I have also raised the Black Spanish under similar conditions in the past– with heat lamps and formulated diets – and they still grew slower and matured later. Most of the difference is due to genetics. Over the years, turkeys have been selected for increased feed efficiency and rate of gain. At one point, turkeys became more inclined to eat without becoming full, increasing their growth and fat content unless their feed is restricted. I noticed the white turkeys want to clean up every bit of food, and the bronze types will eat until full, then go exploring. Turkeys are now doubled in size from the turkeys of 1929. They have reached such an increased body weight that natural mating is virtually impossible, and since the 1960's it has become necessary to use artificial insemination with commercial turkeys. They hadn't lost all their instincts to mate. They still flirt and prance about, but they aren't successful at mating.
They haven't lost other instincts or behaviours also. All turkeys are naturally curious and gentle. Curiosity without a lot of intellect spells trouble, and turkeys can get into lots of mischief. The broad breasted turkeys raised at MacDonald Farm have been known to visit the Nu to You and the playschool next door, upon hearing people's voices. They have jumped the fence and followed people down the road. 
Black Spanish at the home farm in the Grimmer Valley
     The Black Spanish at home are no better – they have visited up and down the valley, making unwelcome visits to gardens and the golf course. For all the turkeys, if you crouch down they will come and investigate, picking and poking, ever curious. They communicate through vocalization, and will come if called. A few years ago I kept a female broad breasted bronze because she had mated in an apparent monogamous relationship with my oldest Black Spanish tom. She surprised me by nesting and hatching thirteen poults, but lost them due to an inability to talk to them, so they scattered and some followed the Black Spanish mothers. We hope to try a crossbreeding program again, if there are any female Broad Breasted bronze turkeys left after Christmas this year.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating article, Barb! I think my turkey knowledge just tripled (at least). The Black Spanish bird we had from you this year was the best turkey I can ever remember. Oooh, the taste! Thanks again. theresa