Ahh, turkeys. The “original” American bird. Franklin wanted them for the national symbol, but of course we all know how that turned out. Now almost all of us experience turkey in all its glory once a year on Thanksgiving. Many of us, Lindsey especially, consider it their favorite meat and have it grace their sandwiches several times per week.
Sadly, though, the only breed of turkey that many of us have ever tasted is the broad-breasted white turkey, a bird bred for confinement farming that can no longer breed naturally nor resist parasites or disease without antibiotics. Additionally, and like in the Cornish X chicken, the broad-breasted white has lost a good deal of the “turkey-ness” in its flavor.
At Good Life Ranch, our turkeys will be raised out on pasture and in the woods without antibiotics. They will also be bred here at the farm. Therefore, we need a heritage breed that has retained its natural abilities to resist disease, evade predators, reproduce without “procedures,” and forage for its own food. The heritage breeds also have a much more pronounced turkey flavor that doesn’t bring “large chicken” to mind.
The turkeys will forage on the grasshoppers, seeds, and grasses they can find on the range and contribute their manure to the soil. We will free range them most of the year and then put them into larger versions of chicken tractors for several weeks during the spring to breed them and collect the eggs for hatching.
We are considering the following breeds, and we’ll let you know which breed or breeds we’re trying out during our first year.
Bourbon Red – How could we have a farm in Kentucky without raising the Bourbon Red? This breed was developed in Kentucky in the 1800’s and was a popular breed up until the advent of the broad-breasted varieties. It still retains the old-time superior flavor and is said to reach ~22 lbs for the toms and ~14 lbs for the hens. This breed is on the watch list of the American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC), but are gaining popularity in the last 10 years. The Bourbon Red is also listed on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. They are very pretty birds and we are definitely going to feature Bourbon Red turkeys at Good Life Ranch.
Royal Palm – In my opinion, this is the prettiest turkey breed around. They are also one of the smallest, with larger toms topping out around 20 lbs. I just think that makes them a good bird for people with smaller families to feed! Honestly, who doesn’t get tired of turkey by 3-4 days after Thanksgiving anyway? This bird is a more appropriately-sized bird for most of our families. They are beautiful, tasty, and also on the watch list of the ALBC as well as the Ark of Taste from Slow Food USA.
Narragansett – Until the development of the broad-breasted varieties, this was an important commercial breed. It has fallen out of favor in the last half century and is now listed as Threatened by the ALBC. The Narragansett is another heritage turkey breed on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. About the same size as the Bourbon Red, the Narragansett has excellent foraging and laying attributes. I’ve read that after the brooding stage this breed is particularly adept at finding its own food. We’ll put them to the test!
Our property has flocks of wild turkeys that will frequent the pastures as well. I might try to collect some eggs from them and see how the wild strain does in a pastured setting. Of course, that is all assuming that it is legal to do that. I’ll contact the wildlife department of Kentucky before I do anything like that, but it would be interesting to see how the taste and growth rates compare!
Wild Turkey Flock
I love the taste of duck! In my opinion it is the best tasting poultry. We have several ponds that ducks can make their own as well as a large garden in which ducks can be invaluable assets in the never-ending battle with slugs and snails. Some duck breeds can also produce prodigious amounts of eggs as well.
Ducks will be brooded like the chickens and turkeys. Our meat ducks will be used to improve pasture fertility while our egg layers will take care of the gardens and ponds.
The breeds we are considering are:
Indian Runner – Very good layers, producing around 200 eggs per year! They are also very active in their search for slugs, snails, and other undesirables in the gardens. They walk very upright for a duck, and are on the Watch list of the ALBC.
Campbell – Another breed on the ALBC’s Watch list, and another fantastic layer. Many reports list this breed as laying 250-340 eggs per year! They are also extremely adaptable climatically, which will be good in a temperate place like Kentucky.
Cayuga – This is a black duck that (at least early in the laying season) lays black eggs. The meat is reportedly of excellent quality, but the black feathers make processing the birds into a presentable carcass quite a challenge. They are a Threatened breed according to the ALBC and the only duck on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.
White Pekin – The world’s premier commercial meat duck. They can reach 8 lbs in 9 weeks, according to many sources. Their white plumage also makes them relatively easy to clean, at least as far as waterfowl go, and presents a clean carcass. I just have reservations about them because in my mind I have made them the Cornish X of duckdom.
Geese will weed our gardens and food forest, provide fertilizer where we want it, and actually deter some of the predators in our ecosystem with their defensive displays. Geese also respond to unfamiliar people, vehicles, and animals with loud honking, and so make good watch animals. Of course, in the end, roast goose is amazing!
American Buff – Developed from the very beautiful wild Greylag Goose, this breed was indeed produced here in the States. It has fallen out of favor and is now listed as Critical with the ALBC. They are calm and docile as far as geese go, and make good parents. It has light-colored feathers that help with presenting a good carcass to customers and is a pretty large roasting bird. The American Buff has made Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.
Cotton Patch – Another American breed descended from the Greylag, the Cotton Patch got its name from its original function – weeding the cotton fields of the southeastern United States. Now listed as Critical by the ALBC, it may find a home at Good Life Ranch performing its originally intended function of weeding our food forest and gardens. They do have light plumage, but I have found no information on them as table fare. They do fly better than most geese, though, which is a trade off for us between having them more easily escape predators and keeping them home on the ranch. The Cotton Patch is one of three goose breeds placed on the Ark of Taste by Slow Food USA.
The guinea fowl will be our tick assassins! Their job on the ranch will be to eradicate ticks that might normally bother us or our livestock. Guineas also make good watch animals as they start a ruckus whenever anything unfamiliar wanders into their sight. Some people allow them to roam wildly over their property, but they seem to lose a lot of birds this way. We’ll try to try ours to come back to a coop at night so that we keep as many members of our flock intact as possible. We’ll keep a deep layer of composting material and worm beds in the coop as well to utilized the nitrogen and spilled feed of the guineas. I’ve heard that guineas taste excellent as well, but I have never had one myself and we’ll probably be utilizing them primarily for their tick eradication skills rather than as roasting birds. I’m not sure which color we’ll get – I may defer to Lindsey on the colors. Well also have to find some way to keep them away from our planned beehives, as I’ve seen the guineas at Heifer Ranch just stand in front of the hives and pick off the bees as they come and go.
Well, that’s about all for the Poultry Planning Posts for now. We’ll move onto hogs, ruminants, rabbits, and fish in future posts and keep you posted on the varieties we’ve chosen once we launch.