The Importance of Genetics: Assessing the Imunological Health of Standard Turkey Varieties vs. Industrial Turkey Stocks and Its Implications for Sustainable Turkey Production Systems

Final Report for LS01-122

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $18,052.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Donald Bixby
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
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Project Information


Poultry and conservation experts gathered to plan a research effort to compare the immuno-competence, productivity, and biological fitness in range-based systems of purebred Standard varieties and industrial strains of turkeys. Participants agreed that documentation resulting from such research would provide farmers with valuable information needed to make genome selection; conserve genetic diversity; and provide further evidence that genetic biodiversity is essential to prevent the catastrophic collapse of the turkey industry. A proposal was developed and submitted to SSARE to test the hypothesis that standard varieties of turkeys have superior immuno-competence and perform better in range-based production systems than industrial stocks.

Project Objectives:

The collaborators discussed and focused the scope of the research and began an initial discussion of issues by email & phone during the months of April, May & June, 2001. The group met at Virginia Tech on July 5-7, 2001, to further refine the research project and to begin to develop the relationships that would be essential for building and cohesive, engaged team and a successful research effort. The objectives for the project were, in large part, accomplished at this meeting. The following is excerpted in part or in its entirety from a full Research & Education Proposal submitted to SSARE in January 2002.

1. To define the questions to be answered by both the immunological research and the on-farm research.

1. Define range-based turkey production systems as the term will be applied in this project. (Complete, July 2001)
2. Identify similarities and differences of specific standard varieties and industrial turkey stocks in range-based, on-farm settings by measuring health status, weight gain, morbidity/ mortality, and feed conversion.
3. Identify similarities and differences of standard varieties and industrial turkey stocks by measuring response to immunologic tests and biochemical assays, including lymphocyte isolation, lymphocyte proliferation, and flow cytometric analysis. This information, when combined with production data, provide a measure of the performance capability of the genome.
4. DNA fingerprint standard turkey varieties. This information documents the genetic differences and similarities of the turkey genomes.
5. Correlate immune response, DNA fingerprint and production characteristics to support the promotion of standard varieties for range-based production.
6. Inform farmers interested in range-based turkey production, the poultry science community, and consumers about project results.
7. Evaluate project effectiveness at meeting each objective and define next steps.

2. To identify the methods necessary for both research components.
This project uses a systems approach to compare turkey varieties both in range-based, on-farm production systems and in a series of laboratory analyses. The two approaches are complementary and are synergistic sources of information.

The on-farm research is participatory, and draws extensively on the expertise and local working knowledge of long-time standard turkey breeders/producers in range-based production systems. Both farm-to-farm and flock-to-flock protocols are employed (SAN, 1999). Eight farmers, many of whom have worked with turkeys since childhood, will participate. Each brings a unique set of skills to this effort. Their farms are located across the country including North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico, and Massachusetts.

To compare standard and industrial turkey stocks, 30 Bourbon Red turkeys and 30 Nicholas or British Union Turkey poults, will be placed on each farm and maintained in separate flocks. Some farmers are able to manage additional birds, so 30 birds of additional varieties will be included on these farms for documentation and comparison. Farmers will use a production systems that meets the definition of "range-based", as defined by this collaboration. All production systems will have the following components in common: (1) birds will have daily access to outdoor range, (2) birds will have daily access to forage, shelter and roosting locations, and (3) systems will NOT be 24 hour, 7 day per week housing, the single yard model (implying no range), or field pens or “chicken tractors,” too small for normal turkey behavior such as roosting, spreading wings, and exercise. Farmers will describe their production systems in detail. Some participating farmers practice a strong holistic production philosophy utilizing on-farm feed and forage, and integrating their livestock and cropping systems. Farmers will describe their production systems in detail providing a clear picture of the similarities and differences between farms, enabling the collaboration to compile and appropriately compare data on a farm-to-farm basis.

Within each farm the investigation will be done on a flock-to-flock basis. All flocks on each farm will be treated identically. Documentation of each flock will be accomplished using a standard log book so that data will be consistent from farm to farm. Recorded data will include weather, health status, feed consumption/conversion, morbidity and mortality, weights at predetermined intervals, market and dressed weight, and behavior. This aspect of the study will enable us to determine how the different turkey varieties actually perform on range. At the end of the project, the farmers will market the turkeys and retain the proceeds as part of the return for participation in the project. Though not the focus of this project, the marketing aspect will begin to reveal the economic potential for range-reared turkeys. Following the completion of this phase of the project farmers will be interviewed for their observations and impressions of the behavior of birds they perceive as successful in range-based production systems.

Similar flocks of Bourbon Red turkeys and the selected industrial strain will also be tested at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPI) at the College of Veterinary Medicine using several standard biochemical assays. Tests to be included are lymphocyte isolation, lymphocyte proliferation, and flow cytometric analysis. These tests allow us to characterize, evaluate, and analyze lymphocyte response to each challenge. These are useful tests for both the researcher and the producer in that lymphocytes are the foundation cells of the immune system. If they become dysfunctional or depleted, then the immune system likewise is compromised. A bird with compromised immunity has a higher susceptibility to disease. Through the use of the above immune-based techniques we can get an appreciation of the immune status of the birds in each variety. This information can be combined with production data to give a measure of a bird’s performance capability. The immune panel of assays can be combined with other production parameters as a screening tool for evaluation and/or selection of turkey varieties for use in various production settings. A pilot study of the lab tests using six standard turkey varieties and one industrial variety was completed this summer. The standard varieties were more active and inquisitive as poults than industrial strain, which may be an attribute for successful foraging. Several standard varieties exhibited a better immune response than the industrial strain, while other varieties did not perform as well. More research is needed to confirm and to understand the differences.

In addition to the immune system investigation, DNA “fingerprinting” will be conducted enabling the research team to determine the genetic relationships among and within these populations of turkeys.

Information from the laboratory studies will be compiled and analyzed, then integrated with data from the farmers’ log books and farmer interviews. This rich combination of both qualitative and quantitative information, and both genetic and behaviorally expressed information will identify the characteristics of the studied stocks for their appropriateness in range-based production systems.

During the production phase of this project select farms will conduct farm tours and field days to engage others interested in range-based poultry production. After data analysis and interpretation is complete, the results will be presented at select fairs, trade shows, conferences and sustainable agriculture events that will enable the collaboration to reach poultry producers and consumers. (The success of the Slow Food movement is proving that more consumers value the heritage and culture of their food. (New York Times “The Hunt For a Better Turkey, the One That Nature Built”, Nov 21, 2001). Articles will be submitted to professional journals to share the results of this study with those in the poultry science community and the turkey industry. Other articles will be submitted to more popular publications.

In the early summer of 2003, after all of the data has been digested and interpreted, this research team will reconvene to discuss our experiences, the project outcomes, and identify necessary next steps.

What is success?
 Project data enables the collaboration to document the range-based production and immunological attributes and characteristics of Bourbon Red turkeys, the selected industrial strain, and other standard varieties incorporated at participating farms.

 Project results enable the collaboration to make reasoned recommendations to producers for appropriate genomes.

 Project attracts the attention and interest of pastured-poultry producers in the regions of participating farms, and of poultry science and industry professionals.

 Collaborators are enthusiastic about conducting similar research on additional standard varieties, and funding is available to support such research.

3. To identify the resources needed for both research components.
The resources identified included:

 Personal investment in and commitment to the project by researchers and farmers – Accomplished

 Farmers’ ability to participate in the project as defined - Accomplished

 Adequate funding – Proposal submitted to SSARE, awaiting decision. Additional proposals for complementary work is being submitted to the Lindbergh Fund.

 Availability of standard turkey varieties in adequate numbers to conduct the project

4. To identify and recruit additional expertise required to undertake this work.
The initial proposal included only two poultry researchers, and four farmers. We identified and added Cal Larsen, a researcher with direct experience with the turkey industry who could help the group better understand both the perspective of industry, and the difficulties they are facing. This information and potential liaison will help us to accurately address issues raised by industry and potentially demonstrate the essential value of maintaining the genetic diversity represented by the standard turkey varieties. Robert Gogal, a researcher with expertise in immuno-competence, was added to the group. While we lost two farmers because of changes in their personal lives, we added three more. Glenn & Linda Drowns own and operate Sand Hill Preservation Center, a small farm in Iowa where a vast store of agricultural bio-diversity is maintained, reproduced and distributed. Turkey conservation has been among their most important enterprises. Frank Reese, Jr., has been raising turkeys since his childhood and now maintains several flocks of standard turkey varieties with identifiable bloodlines from generations past. Both Frank and the Drowns hold a wealth of knowledge and experience about turkeys & their production on range that has all but vanished in todays production environment. Last, but not least, are Harry & Gail Groot. They have produced standard turkeys for the hormone-and-antibiotic free market with good success for several years. They bring an understanding of niche marketing to the group.

5. To develop an educational outreach plan.
An outreach plan to was developed to reach several targeted audiences including scientists, industry professionals, and agricultural entrepreneurs. The plan is outlined in the attached proposal.

6. To write and submit a full proposal to SSARE and/or other potential funders for the 2002 funding cycle.
This was submitted in January 2002. We are awaiting a decision anticipated in March/April 2002.

Statement of Problem, Rationale & Significance

While plant genetics are nearly always an important consideration for both conventional and sustainable cropping systems, appropriate genetics are rarely considered in the decision for sustainable livestock and poultry production. Yet genetics cannot be overlooked as an important factor in the development of successful sustainable systems.

A breed or variety of livestock or a variety of a plant is the expression of its genome – the combination and configuration of the genes that it carries. Breeds and varieties often carry unique genomes which have been selected for specific habitats (e.g. pasture-based systems or confinement systems). Genomes cannot be reconstructed despite the wonders of current technology. Genes can be manipulated but they can not be created. If a genome becomes extinct an opportunity to increase and improve our food supply and to modify our production system also is lost.

There is little current research on standard turkey varieties, but anecdotal information from small scale producers indicates that they possess valuable attributes for range production. Before specific turkey varieties can be promoted for use in ranged-based systems the immunological health, productivity and biological fitness (hardiness, reproductive health, and foraging activity) of standard varieties compared to the industrial stocks needs to be assessed and evaluated in extensive production systems. With the support of a SSARE Planning Grant (RD309-036/1789727) a group of experienced turkey breeders, farmers, poultry scientists, an industry representative, program personnel from non-profit organizations with expertise in livestock conservation and in educational outreach met in July 2001 to establish a collaborative group. The group articulated the questions to be researched and the approaches to be taken for gathering the needed information on standard varieties of turkeys. Our hypothesis is that standard varieties of turkeys have superior immuno-competence and perform better in range-based production systems than industrial stocks. To test this hypothesis the project will document the immuno-competence of turkey genomes and their performance in range-based production, providing farmers with valuable information needed to make thoughtful decisions about genome selection, conserve the genetic diversity these varieties represent, and provide further evidence that genetic biodiversity is essential to prevent the catastrophic collapse of the turkey industry.

Range-based production is economically, environmentally, and socially far more sustainable than current confinement turkey production. Range-based production more closely resembles the turkey’s natural habitat making it a more humane system. It is not capital intensive as large, expensive housing is not required. Well managed, range-reared turkeys effectively spread their manure over the pasture, recycling consumed nutrients. Consumers are demanding more naturally and humanely raised poultry, creating an important niche for sustainable farmers. As recently as the 1960s range-reared turkeys were an important farming enterprise. Turkeys foraged for much of their own food at low cost to the farmer in both time and money, and served as an active partner in pest control. At season’s end turkeys often gleaned harvested fields before going to market. The purebred standard varieties used did not require artificial insemination, giving farmers the freedom to propagate their own replacement stock.

Modern farmers are increasingly interested in diversifying their agricultural enterprises, capturing the new and emerging markets, and rediscovering the benefits of integrated livestock and cropping systems. But finding purebred standard turkeys – production birds of their day – is no longer easy. The 1997 ALBC turkey census found only 8,212 breeding females of the seven recognized varieties of standard turkeys, (Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Black, and Royal Palm). A few additional varieties exist, but because of their limited numbers and closely held populations, they do not effectively participate in breeding programs and genetic conservation efforts. These historically significant genomes are disappearing before our very eyes.

The National Turkey Federation estimates that 270 million turkeys were produced in 1998. Several southern states, including North Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas, lead the nation in the industrial turkey production (USDA-NASS). Industrial turkeys have been selected for rapid growth, broad breasts, white feathers, and ability to produce in confinement systems. Intensive selection has resulted in a highly efficient and consistent production of meat. Toms can be ready for slaughter at 35-40 lbs at only 20 weeks. This strategy has, however, led to an increase in health problems such as compromised immune systems, skeletal failures, hypertension, and ruptured aortas. Survival characteristics such as disease resistance have not been a priority (Christman, 1999). As a result, significant resources are necessary to prevent disease through routine use of prophylactic antibiotics, anthelmentics, and other medications. Artificial insemination is a necessary standard practice since mature toms have such broad breasts and short legs as to be unable to mount the hens.

Why does this matter? Such narrow genetics makes the whole population vulnerable to disease in much the same way that past blights were catastrophic for genetically uniform potato, wheat, and corn crops. Genetic resources were the solution to these crop disasters. The greatest problem facing the industry may be the narrow genetic foundation of industrial turkeys since only a few strains of the Large White turkey variety are used commercially. Only through the conservation of standard turkeys, “the natural resource upon which [turkey] production depends” (1990 Farm Bill), will diverse genetics be available to stem such a disaster.

Literature Review

Genetics & Turkey Production

The National Turkey Federation estimates that 276 million turkeys were produced in 2000. (National Turkey Federation). Several southern states, including North Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas, lead the nation in the commercial production of turkeys. (USDA-NASS). In spite of these numbers turkeys are the most genetically eroded of all livestock species. Modern methods of poultry production seek to isolate birds from disease and are antagonistic to the natural processes which enable genetic selection for disease resistance. In fact, such practices are likely allowing susceptibility to disease to increase in breeding populations (Lamont, 1994). This is compounded by the fact that only a few strains of the Large White turkey variety are used commercially and only three primary turkey breeder companies produce genetic stock for commercial use worldwide. These birds have been selected for broad breasts, white feathers, and the ability to grow rapidly in high-input confinement systems. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) conducted a census of turkeys in 1997. Only seven varieties of standard turkeys, (purebred, non-industrial turkey varieties), and a total of 8,212 breeding females were found. (Christman, 1999). Additional varieties exist but were not readily available to the public because of their very limited numbers and closely held populations. This isolation and anonymity only serves to perpetuate their decline. All of these genomes are disappearing while we look the other way.

For this reason, maintaining and characterizing a large gene pool and facilitating improved disease resistance through genetic selection is a desirable long-term objective. To this end we propose to characterize the immuno-competence and genetic diversity of several historic and commercial breeds of turkeys.

Why does this matter? As ALBC learned while researching turkeys, “The greatest problem facing the industry … may be the narrow genetic foundation of industrial turkeys. Intensive selection of a few strains of Large Whites has resulted in a highly efficient and consistent production of meat. At the same time, this strategy has led to the increase in health problems such as compromised immune systems, reduced fertility, joint and bone problems, high blood pressure, and ruptured aortas. Survival characteristics, such as disease resistance, have not been a priority.” (Christman, 1999) Artificial insemination is now standard practice since mature toms have such broad breasts and short legs that they are unable to mount the hens. These industrial strains are generally biologically unsuitable for small scale, sustainable agriculture ventures.

Such narrow genetics makes the whole population vulnerable to disease and infection, in much the same way that past blights were catastrophic for genetically uniform potato and corn crops. The turkey industry directs significant resources toward preventing disease and infection through the extensive use of vaccines, prophylactic antibiotics, anthelmentics, and bio-security. “With cheap and effective vaccines available for many virus diseases, there is little incentive for [commercial] breeders to become involved in complex selection programmes for genetic resistance to them.” (Hunton, 1993). Should industrial turkey strains experience an outbreak, disease not controlled through present genetic resistance or medical and management interventions, the consequences would be disastrous. “The extent of disruption which the industry might experience, as a result of a new disease with no solution other than the introduction of new genotypes, is almost impossible to calculate. Assuming that resistant genotypes existed among breeders’ stocks, a minimum of three to five years would be necessary for multiplication [of healthy stock], and distribution [of production flocks].” (Hunton, 1993). Sustainable systems would be safe from such catastrophe only if the immuno-competence, genetic diversity and production attributes of other genomes had been characterized, were readily available, and were already used by producers. In the end, the lack of genetic diversity among industrial strains may prove to be the undoing the turkey industry. For this reason, maintaining and characterizing a large gene pool and facilitating improved disease resistance through genetic selection is a desirable long-term objective. To this end we propose to characterize the immunocompetence and genetic diversity of several historic and industrial breeds of turkeys.

SARE has supported three other projects which explicitly evaluated turkeys in sustainable systems:

"Minor Breed Turkeys - Growth Rate and Eating Qualities" (Project number: FNE94-038) conducted in 1994 by Anne Bossi of Maine for $980. In Bossi's experience the "minor breed” turkeys were not good production birds but they were hardier and more disease resistant than the industrial varieties.

"Evaluating Hoophouses for Rotationally Grazed Turkeys" (Project number: FNE94-051) conducted in 1994 by John Hayden of Vermont for $705. Hayden found that the turkeys raised in hoophouses showed greater feed efficiency than those raised in conventional confinement warehouses.

"Evaluate Standard Turkeys for the Small Scale Producer" (Project number: ENE01-374) was funded in 2001. David Fritz, the project coordinator, resides in Maryland and received $751. Fritz evaluated the Wishard strain of the Standard Bronze turkey. He describes these birds as "smart, self-sufficient, good foragers and pleasant to work with. At 8 months birds dressed for the holiday market ranged from 15 - 20 pounds and were very tasty, though slightly tough because of high level of activity. He was very pleased with the result and intends to evaluate other varieties.

Genetic resources were the solution to crop disasters. Only through the conservation of standard turkeys, “the natural resource upon which [turkey] production depends” (1990 Farm Bill), will diverse genetics be available to stem such a disaster.

Range Production

Until the 1950s all poultry were raised outdoors. Turkeys were raised on range into the 1980s in some areas. In a 1983 Poultry Science article the economics of raising turkeys in confinement and on range in Georgia were compared. It was found that both tom and hen turkeys could be raised to heavier weights more efficiently on range during the summer, fall, and early winter (Lance, 1983).

Today’s poultry industry is vertically integrated, with only a few large companies owning most stages of production, processing, and marketing. By contrast, range-based production is a grassroots movement that focuses on farm-scale production and direct marketing. It has been developed from the ground up by hundreds of family farms, and is driven by consumers seeking an alternative product. Some producers use standard turkey varieties but most use industrial strains developed for confinement rearing. Marketing is usually direct to customers and advertising is often word-of-mouth. Producers report more demand than they can supply (Fanatico, 2001).

The U.S. pastured poultry movement was begun by pioneer Joel Salatin and his book Pastured Poultry Profits (Salatin, 1996). Other leaders in pastured poultry include Andy Lee (The Chicken Tractor, 1998) an early advisor to this project, and Herman Beck-Chenoweth (Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing, 1996), a participant in this project. SARE has supported several projects by pastured poultry producers as well as some landmark initiatives by nonprofit organizations including:

A partnership between Heifer Project International (HPI) and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) that helped limited-resource farmers in the South test small-scale pastured poultry field pens (Polson, 1996). NCAT published a booklet, Pastured Poultry: An HPI Case Study Booklet (Fanatico, 1999).

Another HPI/NCAT partnership is helping farmers interested in expanding range poultry businesses by developing mobile processing units that meet government inspection (Muntz, 1999). NCAT is developing a range poultry entrepreneurial toolbox (Fanatico, 2001).

The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin led a project to examine economics and quality of life for small pastured poultry producers, nutritional qualities of the meat, sensory/microbial analysis, and marketing analyses (Stevenson, 1997).

Current outdoor poultry production systems include both “contained” and “uncontained” systems. In contained systems, the foraging of the birds is contained - and protected - by a fence, pen, or netting, allowing a high level of management. Contained systems include yarding, field pens like the "chicken tractor" (Salatin, 1996, Lee, 1998) and moveable or stationary net range systems. In uncontained systems, the foraging of the birds is not contained. Birds range during the day — usually in a pasture — and return to a portable house at night. The house is moved regularly to a fresh site. Uncontained systems include portable houses on skids, colonies (Fanatico, 2001), and herding.

Immunology & DNA Fingerprinting

In avian species, antibody-mediated immunity has been studied extensively (Dunnington , 1992; Hovi , 1978; Kaspers, 1993; Scott, 1991; Thiel and Burkhardt, 1984). By comparison, much less is known about the avian cell-mediated immunity. Like mammals, it is believed that the cell-mediated immune response plays a prominent role in the ability to resist/survive an infectious insult. In order to better understand the immunological potential of turkeys, we have developed tools that enable evaluation of cell-mediated immune function (Barta , 1992; Gogal , 1997, Caldwell , 2001). Combined with existing humoral function tests, it is now possible to compare on a quantitative basis, multiple immunological traits.

DNA fingerprinting i.e., Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism analysis (RFLP) has been shown to be useful in determining the genetic relationships among and within populations of chickens (Dunnington, 1991; Dunnington , 1994; Kuhnlein , 1991; Siegel , 1992). Although not new technology, the technique is sensitive enough to distinguish between breeds, selected lines within breeds, and selected lines and their F1 crosses (Dunnington, 1991) as well as highly divergent populations such as jungle fowl and domestic chickens (Siegel, 1992). The relationship between RFLP pattern and quantitative morphological / physiological traits has also been demonstrated (Dunnington, 1990; Kuhnlein, 1991). This technology has only recently begun to be exploited in turkeys (Ye, 1998; Zhu, 1996).

In conclusion, scientific investigation employing the aforementioned tools will be of help in determining the usefulness of historic breeds in sustainable agriculture and their value as a genetic repository for immunologic traits.


(* indicates a related SARE funded project)
American Poultry Association. (1997) Standard of Perfection. Lincoln, Nebraska: Jacob North Publishing Company. APA, 133 Millville St, Mendon, MA.
Barta, O., V. Barta, C.H. Domermuth, and F.W. Pierson, 1992. Optimum conditions for the turkey lymphocyte transformation assay. Avian Diseases 36:386-394.
Beck-Chenoweth, Herman, Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing, Back Forty Books, Creola, OH. 1996.
*Bossi, Anne, 1994, Minor Breed Turkeys - Growth Rate and Eating Qualities. Northeast Region SARE grant #FNE94-038.
Caldwell, M., R.M. Gogal, D.P. Sponenberg, C.T. Larsen, and F.W. Pierson, 2001. "Immunologic function of historic vs commercial turkey breeds." Poster Presentation, Minority Academic Opportunities Program, August 2001, Blacksburg, VA.
Crawford, R.D. (1984) “Turkey,” in Evolution of Domesticated Animals, edited by Ian L. Mason (London: Longman).
Christman, Carolyn J., and Robert O. Hawes. Birds of a Feather: Saving Rare Turkeys from Extinction. Pittsboro, NC. American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. 1999.
*Daranyi, Tony, 2001, Pastured Poultry as an Alternative and Enhancement to a Traditional Livestock Agricultural System. Western Region SARE grant #FW01-010.
Dunnington, E.A., O. Gal, P.B. Siegel, A. Haberfeld, A Cahaner, U. Lavi, Y. Plotsky, and J. Hillel, 1991. Deoxyribonucleic acid fingerprint comparisons between selected populations of chickens. Poultry Science 70:463-467.
Dunnington, E.A., C.T. Larsen, W.B. Gross, and P.B. Siegel, 1992. Antibody responses to combinations of antigens in White Leghorn chickens of different background genomes and MHC genotypes. Poultry Science 71: 1801-1806.
Dunnington, E.A., L.C. Stallard, J. Hillel, and P.B. Siegel, 1994. Genetic diversity among commercial chicken populations estimated from DNA fingerprints. Poultry Science 73:1218-1225.
Fanatico, Anne. 2001. Sustainable Poultry: Production Overview (draft). ATTRA, Fayetteville, AR. 40 p.
Fanatico, A.A., 1999. Pastured Poultry: A Heifer Project International Case Study Booklet. NCAT, Fayetteville, AR. 39 p.
Fanatico, A.A., H. Born, D. Redhage, 2001. Growing Your Range Poultry Business: A Toolbox for Feasibility and Business Planning (draft). NCAT, Fayetteville, AR.
*Fritz, David, 2001, Evaluate Standard Turkeys for Small Scale Producer. Northeast Region SARE grant #ENE01-374.
Gogal, R.M. Jr., A. Ahmed, and C.T. Larsen, 1997. Analysis of avian lymphocyte proliferation by a new, simple non-radioactive assay (Lympho-Pro). Avian Diseases 41:714-725.
*Hayden, John, 1994, Evaluating Hoophouses for Rotationally Grazed Turkeys. Northeast Region SARE grant # FNE94-051.
Hawes, Robert O. 1998. “The Perilous State of Turkey Varieties,” The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy News 15 (1), Jan/Feb.
Hovi, T., J. Suni, L. Hortling, and A. Vaheri, 1978. Stimulation of chicken lymphocytes by T and B cell mitogens. Cellular Immunology. 39: 70-78.
Hunton, Peter, “Genetics and Breeding as They Affect Flock Health” in The Health of Poultry, edited by Pattison, Mark, Longman Scientific & Technical, Essex, England. 1993.
Johnson, Paula, Heritage Turkey Census Report, 2000. Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, Calamus, IA.
Kaspers, B., H.S Lillehoj, E.P. Lillehoj, 1993. Chicken macrophages and thrombocytes share a common cell surface antigen defined by a monoclonal antibody. Veterinary Immunology & Immunopathology., 36: 333-346.
*Kleinschmit Rembert, Julia, 1999, Heirloom Poultry: Cash and Genetic Conservation. North Central Region SARE grant # FNC99-238.
Kuhnlein, U., D. Zadworny, J.S. Gavora, and R.W. Fairfull, 1991. EXS 58:274-282.
Lamont, S.J., 1994. Poultry immunogenetics: which way do we go?. Poultry Science 73:1044-1048.
Lance, G. Chris. 1983. "Economic evaluation of total confinement and open range turkey production systems in Georgia." Poultry Science. Vol. 62, No. 7. P. 1142-1154.
Lee, Andy and Patricia Foreman. 1998. Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil. Straw Bale Edition. Good Earth Publications, Buena Vista, VA. 320 p.
Lee, Andy and Patricia Foreman. 2001 Day Range Poultry: Every Chicken Owner’s Guide to Gazing Gardens and Improving Pastures. Good Earth Publications, Buena Vista, VA.
*Lee, Andy, 2000, Developing a Producer's Cooperative and Market for Free-range Poultry. Southern Region SARE grant # FS00-119.
*Lee, Linda & H. Beck-Chenoweth , 1999, A Comprehensive Educational Program to Teach Farmers and Other Agricultural Professionals How to Produce and Market Free-Range Poultry. North Central Region SARE grant #LNC99-147.
Mercia, Leonard, Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys, Storey Books, Pownell, VT. 2001
*Muntz, Steve. 1999. Enhancing Feasibility for Range Poultry Expansion. Southern Region SARE grant #LS99-105.
*Polson, Skip. 1996. Integration of Pastured Poultry Into the Farming Systems of Limited Resource Farmers. Southern Region SARE grant #LS96-076.
Salatin, Joel. 1996. Pastured Poultry Profits. Polyface, Swoope, VA. 330 p.
Scott, T., E.A. Dunnington, and P.B. Siegel, 1991. Research Note: T-Cell Activity of White Leghorn Chickens Selected for High and Low Antibody Responses to Sheep Erythrocytes. Poultry Science 70: 1831-1834.
Siegel, P.B., A. Haberfeld, T.K. Mukherjee, L.C. Stallard, H.L. Marks, N.B. Anthony, and E.A. Dunnington, 1992. Jungle fowl – domestic fowl relationships: a use of DNA fingerprinting. World’s Poultry Science J 48:147-155.
*Stevenson, G.W. 1997. Evaluating Pasture-Based Poultry Systems: Potential Contribution for Farm Diversification, Human Nutrition, and Marketing Alternatives. North Central SARE grant #LNC97-121.
Sustainable Agriculture Network, 1999, How to Conduct Research on Your Farm or Ranch.
Thiel, H.J., and E. Burkhardt, 1984. Development of optimal conditions for the stimulation of chicken peripheral blood lymphocytes by phytohaemagglutin (PHA) in the microculture system. Veterinary Immunology & Immunopathology. 6:327-340.
USDA.1977. Turkey Production.(Reprint edition.) Garden Grove, CA: Marsh Farms Publications.
USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS), Ag Census USA. U.S. National Agricultural Statistics Service Census Ranking of States and Counties Table 54: Turkeys Sold.
USDA 1990 Farm Bill
Ye, X., J. Zhu, S.G. Velleman, and K.E. Nestor, 1998. Genetic diversity of commercial turkey primary breeding lines as estimated by DNA fingerprinting. Poultry Science 77:802-807.
Zhu, J., K.E. nestor, R.A. Patterson, D.J. Jackwood, D.A. Emmerson, 1996. Measurement of genetic parameters within and between turkey lines using DNA fingerprinting. Poultry Science 75:439-46.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Herman Beck-Chenoweth
  • Marjorie Bender
  • Glenn & Linda Drowns
  • Anne Fanatico
  • Robert Gogal
  • Harry & Gail Groot
  • Paula Johnson
  • Cal Larsen
  • William Pierson
  • Frank Reese, Jr.
  • D. Phillip Sponenberg


Materials and methods:

Farm-based research introduces a whole range of new variables and complexities that are difficult to control: management approaches, skills, and facilities that vary from farm to farm need to be carefully considered in the research design. To address these complexities, ALBC assembled a diverse team of people with turkey expertise to plan the farm-based component. We began our work with a series of email discussions focused on specific research questions. This was very useful for beginning to explore the different perspectives of the collaborators, for developing an agenda for the meeting. In early July, we met at Virginia Polytechnic & State University (VPI) for two and a half days. During that time we clearly defined our objective and outlined the research questions to be addressed. We explored the methods of overcoming challenges presented by a multi-farm research model and obtained the commitment of all collaborators as participants in the research.

The proposal writing was headed by ALBC staff, with input and review by the collaborators. The meeting materials may be found in Appendix A.

Research results and discussion:

This was a planning project. The results of the project included the submission of a full proposal to SSARE in January 2002 entitled “The Importance of Genetics: Biological Fitness and Productivity in Range-based Systems Comparing Standard Turkey Varieties and Industrial Stocks.” The proposal is attached as Appendix B.

Additionally, ALBC is using remaining funds to develop the log book called for in the full proposal. The log book will be used by each farmer to record data on the flocks and on individual birds. This method will enable the data to be compiled for the comparison of one turkey variety to another, and for flocks on raised the different farms to be compared. The log is slated to be complete by mid-April, 2002.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Three publications have emerged either directly or indirectly as a result of this project.

First, the Full Research & Education Proposal submitted to SSARE in January 2002 documented the efforts of the collaboration and the research to be pursued. (See Appendix B)

Second, a log book to be used by each farmer to record data on the flocks and on individual birds is in development. The log is slated to be complete by mid-April, 2002. (To be submitted upon completion)

Third, a poster showing the “Immunologic function of Historic vs. Commercial Turkey Breeds” was produced as a result of a small grant received from the Bernice Barbour Foundation for pilot work of the immunologic research outlined in our full proposal.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This planning project brought together a rare and important group of people: the turkey breeder collaborators inherited an extensive oral history of turkey breeds and production systems is all but lost from our agricultural memory. These breeders also maintain flocks of rare genetic value which potentially contain the keys that safeguard turkey production in the event of an industry catastrophe. This was the first time that many of these people had personally met one another, and the first time that they had focused their attention on this issue as a group. Combining that deep experience-based knowledge with the expertise of the poultry scientists made for a meaty and powerful meeting. The result was a clear and strong research objective and strategy.

The relationships have continued to develop and are directly and indirectly feeding an interest in standard turkeys by breeders and consumers. The networking among many standard turkey breeders that had begun in the late 1990s has begun to blossom. Subscriptions to The Snood News, and ALBC turkey publication, have increased steadily. The Slow Foods Movement has inaugurated four standard turkey varieties to the Ark of Taste, and initiated a Thanksgiving turkey program that will provide turkeys directly from farmer-to-consumer. This is resulting in a surge in production of standard varieties of turkeys by sustainable farmers, which is good for turkey conservation and for the farmers.

The implementation of the project will provide objective information about how standard turkeys will perform on ranged-based systems, superceding the anecdotal information currently used.

Economic Analysis

Not applicable.

Farmer Adoption

Five farmers participated in the planning grant. For the full research proposal four more farmers have been recruited and they are very excited about potential of the project. In addition, three more farmers have approached us about participating should we need back-ups.

ALBC work with historic turkeys has resulted in a significant response, that while not all directly related to the efforts associated with this planning grant, still warrant inclusion here:
In 2001 four turkey varieties (American Bronze, Bourbon Red , Buff & Narragansett) were inaugurated into Slow Food’s Ark of Taste as a direct result of ALBC’s conservation work. Slow Food is “an educational organization dedicated to stewardship of the land and ecologically sound food production;…. to the invigoration and proliferation of regional, seasonal culinary traditions…” On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, 2001, the New York Times published a feature article on standard turkeys in their food section. The Food Editor prepared three turkeys for evaluation, provided by project collaborator Frank Reese. This has generated a broader awareness of standard turkeys. ALBC began organizing a list of standard turkey breeders who sell birds for the holiday market. Then, in early 2002, Slow Food initiated a distribution network of standard turkeys to consumers for Thanksgiving 2002. Frank Reese & Mike Walters alone will be raising 3000 turkeys for this market. While this may seem a small number when compared to the national market, it is a huge leap in demand for this historic production birds. Concurrently, Privette Hatchery, reported doubling their breeder flocks of heritage turkeys to 2000 hens. Their breeding flock of Bourbon Red hens was nearly doubled to 800. This is very positive news for turkey conservation.


Areas needing additional study

Addition varietal studies like that proposed in our research and education project are essential.

Research & development of viable processing plants for poultry throughout the countryside. ATTRA and Heifer Project International developed a prototype of a mobile unit in Kentucky. Without such facilities access to the market is extremely limited.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.