The plump, big-breasted turkeys that will appear on millions of American kitchen tables this Thanksgiving are far different than the smaller, much rarer turkey breeds that once made up the majority of the nation’s commercial turkey flock.
Now known as “heritage turkeys,” many of the ancient breeds almost went extinct in the late 1990s. But those colorful, playful and spritely bird breeds are on the rebound as a small group of niche farmers in South Dakota and beyond are once again breeding, raising and selling heritage turkeys as part of a growing farm-to-table agricultural movement.
Breeding stock of heritage turkeys such as Auburn, Buff, Black, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze, and Midget White totaled just 1,335 in 1997, according to a census taken by The Livestock Conservancy of Pittsboro, N.C.
Conservancy program manager Jeannette Beranger said recently that the alarming decrease in birds sparked efforts to preserve heritage breed turkeys, whose total had climbed to 14,000 by 2016, the year the last census was taken. Specific breeds like Black turkeys remain rare; Chocolate turkeys have vanished.
The concern now is whether a new generation of farmers dedicated to preserving heritage breeds will step forward to replace those now retiring.
“Some of the old timers, the big-scale producers, have bowed out,” Beranger said. “We need more people breeding these birds.”
Only a handful of South Dakota producers raise heritage breed turkeys to sell. The do it out of a desire for preservation, to tap into a growing base of highly selective consumers, a preference for sustainable agriculture or because the heritage breeds are known for higher fat content and greater juiciness than the mass-produced birds.
The vast majority of the more than 200 million turkeys that Americans consume annually descend from a single breed — the Broad-Breasted White.
Modern Broad Breasted White turkeys reach market weight in 14 to 18 weeks, compared with 28 weeks for other breeds. In heritage breeds, the extra weeks allow for more skeletal development and greater fat production, affecting juiciness and flavor.
Raised in large indoor pens, today’s commercial turkeys cannot defend themselves from predators, rear their young or reproduce without artificial insemination. They are too top-heavy to mate without assistance, with up to 70 percent of the bird’s weight concentrated in the oversized breast. They have weaker immune systems.
South Dakota is a significant producer of Broad Breasted Whites, with about 5 million turkeys raised annually almost exclusively in concentrated animal feeding operations runs by Hutterite colonies in East River. The Hutterite-owned Dakota Provisions turkey plant in Huron processes about 200 million pounds of turkeys a year and makes up a significant portion of the state’s $300 million annual poultry industry.
Promoters of heritage breeds worry that over-reliance on just one heavily modified breed creates vulnerability, said Beranger, who raises heritage breed chickens, which have characteristics similar to heritage turkeys. The problem extends beyond poultry to include other species.
Heritage breed promoters say a growing number of consumers will pay more for slower-growing, free-ranging birds.
Heritage turkeys roam freely about Bear Butte Gardens, an organic farm east of Sturgis operated by Michelle and Rick Grosek.
Raising heritage turkeys to sell publicly wasn’t the goal when Michelle first ordered Bourbon Red poults -- hatchlings -- from a small Iowa breeder in 2012.
Heritage breeds work well with old-school farming, where producers must manage manure for fertilizer, rotate crops, and raise a variety of crops to balance the ecology. Historically, turkeys once filled the role now played by pesticides by consuming massive quantities of insects.
For the Groseks, the first year raising turkeys at Bear Butte Gardens came with sticker shock. Each poult costs $10, and expedited shipping added $25. Poults, meanwhile, are extremely susceptible to drafts until feathered. Some died in transit and more died soon afterward.
Eventually, heritage breeds become hardy, and some breeds can easily withstand harsh South Dakota winters, but those first weeks and months are critical.
The turkeys always sell out, Michelle said. “We don’t go into anything there isn’t a market for,” she said.
April Waldner, owner of Royal Tom Turkeys of Mansfield, South Dakota, south of Aberdeen, did research on animals facing extinction, which led her to the Livestock Conservancy and its mission to preserve critically endangered or threatened breeds. She had raised ducks and chickens in the past, so she figured it couldn’t be that hard to raise heritage turkeys.
Her farm started as a traditional Angus and Hereford cow-calf operation, Walder said.
Further research led her to select the Royal Palm turkey breed, a largely white bird with bands of metallic black. Royal Palms can fly to escape predators, but they don’t fly away, she said.
“They like human company,” she said. “They’re never aggressive.”
Sales from her 120-head cattle operation stabilize her income, and she said people are willing to pay more for slow-growing breeds, although the market isn’t necessarily local to her region of South Dakota.
“If you want to sell and buy your animals, you have to travel,” Waldner said. She typically visits North Dakota and sites in the West River region of South Dakota.
Waldner said she plays a small role in creating a better world by protecting species that may be in danger.
“Kids won’t see as many species as we have now if we don’t keep them alive,” she said. “Once that breed is gone, they’re gone and gone forever.”