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

Project Overview

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

Information Products


  • Animals: poultry


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, housing, free-range, grazing - multispecies, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: focus group, participatory research


    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.

    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.