Head-To-Head On Heritage: A New Opinion On Raising Turkeys

Joseph S. Moritz, Ph.D., Professor of Poultry Science and State Extension Specialist at West Virginia University, sent us the following letter about Milan Young's article on raising turkeys
raising turkeys

“…Mr. Young states, ‘heritage breeds have superior health compared to commercial breeds, and raising heritage breeds contributes to a feeling that you have done something to make the world a better place.’ I would challenge Mr. Young to demonstrate data that would show pasture-reared, heritage turkeys that are exposed to the elements, at risk of predation and consuming feed comprised of a mix of game bird and chicken formulated diets are more healthy compared to confined-reared, bio-secure, commercial turkeys that have oversight by a veterinarian, nutritionist, flock supervisor, service technician, and farmer whose livelihood depends on the production of healthy turkeys. …U.S. commercial poultry production provides the most abundant, safe and affordable animal protein supply in the world. I strongly believe that U.S. commercial poultry producers make the world a better place when this science-based industry increases health and growth efficiency of poultry to …feed hungry people. The U.S. population cannot be fed on the 50 turkeys per year that Mr. Young rears, and many in the U.S. cannot afford the premium price that I assume he charges for his product.

I would simply ask that in future articles the authors better appreciate that organic and pasture poultry production are niche markets and not imply that this niche production system is superior to the primary industry that feeds America.”

MilanYoungresponded: “Dr. Moritz observed that conventional birds raised in a biologically controlled environment are at least as healthy as heritage birds raised by smallfarm amateurs. Since I do not have experience with antibiotics or germ-free facilities, I must concede this point. I’ll maintain, however, that for the small farmer raising birds out in the elements, the difference in health between heritage and commercial varieties is pronounced. The most obvious factor is that the stronger legs in heritage breeds allow them to range and forage rather than sit by the feed trough in their own feces, which has been my experience with modern hybrids.

He took issue with my claim that raising heritage birds contributes to a better world. This dispute re- ally centers on the definition of a “better world.” If one believes an increase of low-cost animal protein will improve mankind, then the merits of the com- mercial approach gain importance. But if we limit our context to the developed world, then it’s hard to make the case that human health or well-being wouldimprovewithmoreanimalprotein. Infact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary.

In my view, our best step forward begins with a step back. The robustness of heritage production breeds makes it possible for everyone with a spare acre of land to raise their own poultry. Doing do would increase the fertility of the soil, decrease reliance on foreign energy and pull children away from media to spend more quality time with their parents. It’s true this would cause poultry to return to its relatively more expensive, pre-Industrial Revolution price, but that’s not an unhealthy prospect for the developed world.

I’d like to thank Dr. Moritz for his comments and scientific mindset. In particular, I agree that the “back to the land organic” movement is not a universal panacea. We, as small farmers, must step back from our dogma and critically ascertain the consequences of our methodologies. On our farm, for example, this exercise led us to embrace light chemical fertilizers on our cover crops and mild herbicides in crop transition zones. This change allowed us to significantly decrease fuel consumption and maintain profit margins. I’d love to hear the experience of other small farmers regarding these difficult decisions