My first go at raising turkeys was at the age of twelve. I purchased a trio of Bronze turkeys from a local poultry show. I never got over the turkey bug and as soon as I was able I started building a turkey house at Moss Mountain Farm.
Due to their size and talkative disposition turkeys are not for everyone, but if you live in a rural area with room for them to roam I highly recommend adding a few to your backyard flock. Most turkeys are curious and sociable and a pleasure to have around the farm. They are also great foragers and will help manage insect pests in the garden.
TYPES OF TURKEYS
I think most of us can visualize the bronze, fan-tailed tom turkeys that we’ve seen in pictures and on television, but the turkey breed actually comes in several colors. The American Poultry Association (APA) recognizes eight color varieties: Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. These are all heritage varieties designated so by their ability to reproduce without artificial insemination, ability to thrive and be productive in an outdoor habitat and have a slow growth rate. Believe it or not, these characteristics are no longer common for the turkeys we serve at Thanksgiving or slice up for a sandwich.
THE IMPACT OF COMMERCIAL TURKEYS
Since the 1960s the broad-breasted white turkey is the variety most common on the American table. Its rapid maturity, large breast and low cost make it popular in the industry. Unfortunately the rise in popularity has been at the expense of the other colors. Within 30 some odd years heritage varieties had dropped to critically low numbers. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) the total number of breeding turkeys in the eight recognized colors was down to 1,335 by 1997. That’s when the ALBC kicked into high gear and started promoting the merits of heritage turkeys. As of 2006 the population of all varieties of heritage turkeys (including those not recognized by the APA) was 10,404. This was just about the time that my turkey house was ready for new occupants.
To help me decided what variety of turkey to raise I sought the counsel of heritage poultry advocates Marjorie Bender and Frank Reese. Their advice led me to the Slate turkey also referred to as Blue Slate, or Blue.
The APA accepted the Slate turkey in 1874, so the variety has had a long career. Unfortunately, that career has waned and the population has dwindled. An added concern is the size of the current birds, which is down 18 to 20 percent from what their weight was in 1874.
The stone wall at the farm serves as a catwalk for the turkeys to strut their stuff.
The coloring of Slate turkeys is variable and contingent on the genetics of the bird. They can be ash-blue with or without black flecks. Lavender Slates are pale blue-gray. These are also referred to as Self Blue.
As for size, young toms usually weigh about 23 pounds and hens weigh 14 pounds.
Frick and Frack are a pair of Tom turkeys at the farm.
I find Slate turkeys to be very gentle and they will gladly take up the role as farm pet if you are so inclined.
SLATE TURKEYS AT MOSS MOUNTAIN FARM
We keep about 30 birds at Moss Mountain Farm and we do process some for eating. Like other heritage turkey varieties the flavor is exceptional. I usually roast a few for Thanksgiving. The key is to brine the birds for 24 hours and cook them slow. Every spring about 100 poults (baby turkeys) are hatched that we sell and use to replenish the permanent flock.
To help improve the genetics of our Slate turkeys eggs are collected from only the most robust birds. Spanish Black turkeys also play a role in our breeding program. By introducing them back into the lineage every few years we hope to strengthen the genetics.
Slate turkeys are very personable.
Conservation was the motivating factor for me, but their unique coloring, good nature and flavorful meat are other reasons to add the Slate turkey to your flock. You can even use the eggs for cooking. They are quite flavorful and can be used just like a chicken egg.