Our Breeds: Blue Slate Turkeys

The Blue Slate Turkey is just one of a number of heritage turkey breeds. Heritage turkeys are domestic turkeys which retain historic characteristics no longer existing in most turkeys raised for mass consumption today. The taste of a heritage turkey is extraordinary - and will make you realize why turkey was once considered such a festive treat.

Heritage turkeys also have the advantage that they can be raised successfully in range-based production systems.

A turkey must meet all of the following criteria to qualify as a heritage turkey:

  1. Naturally mating: the heritage turkey must reproduce through natural mating, not artificial insemination.

  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 be hardy enough to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.

  3. Slow growth rate: the heritage turkey will 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, and we firmly believe, a better flavour. Some heritage turkey breeds will be small birds, even after 28 weeks.

Beginning in the 1920s turkeys were bred for larger size and greater breast width which resulted in the development of the Broad Breasted Bronze. In the 1950s, poultry processors looked for broad breasted turkeys with less visible pinfeathers, as 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 replaced 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. Clearly not for a range-based production system like ours!

More than ten different turkey breeds are classified as heritage turkeys, including the Auburn, Buff, Black, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Blue Slate and Standard Bronze. Most of these breeds were developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each of these breeds has its strengths and each of these breeds has devoted followers in North America.

Some chefs, farmers, and food critics say that heritage turkey meat tastes better and is more healthy. Heritage turkeys are also said have a more balanced ratio of dark meat to white meat, while the standard, a broad breasted turkey has more white breast meat. This is likely due to the immense size of the broad breasted turkey’s breast, compared to the larger legs of the heritage turkeys.

The difference in taste is not just because of genetics but also because of the varied diet of these heritage turkeys and their ability to graze, hunting and pecking for the grubs and bugs and grasses that make them taste good. The firmness of the meat is due to their exercise. They also appear to have a nutritional advantage over industrial birds: because they eat more grass they have higher levels of the good omega-3 fatty acids, which may protect the heart and bring down levels of unhealthful triglycerides.

Despite increasing interest in heritage turkeys, they are still a tiny minority, perhaps 25,000 raised annually in the USA compared to more than 200,000,000 "industrial" turkeys, and most of these heritage breeds are endangered in some respect.

With only a single small turkey house we knew we must restrict ourselves to a single heritage breed. We liked the colours of the Blue Slate – birds come in three colours – Slate (or Splash) which is ashy blue with darker spots across the feathers; Blue (also called Lavender), which has no spots but might be a slightly lighter colour than the Slate, and Black, which have all black feathers but, unlike the Spanish Black or Norfolk Black turkeys, have pink shanks and toes. An added benefit, which we didn’t appreciate until we culled several birds is that the Blue and the Slate coloured turkeys have light coloured pin feathers, less visible in the dressed bird.

As with all rare breeds it can be difficult getting genetic variety in our flock and culling is important to ensure the breed stays healthy, hardy with good reproductive rates and a reasonable size. Culling has a double benefit – it removes less than ideal birds from the flock but also confirms the quality of the bird for eating. It is not worth preserving a rare breed that doesn’t produce a superior product. We have found that the Blue Slate Turkey produces wonderful meat and are pleased to be a part of preserving this heritage turkey.

Our Other Breeds

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