The Importance of Genetics: Biological fitness and productivity in range-based systems comparing standard turkey varieties and industrial stocks

2002 Annual Report for LS02-134

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $182,386.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Marjorie Bender
American Livestock Breeds Conservacy

The Importance of Genetics: Biological fitness and productivity in range-based systems comparing standard turkey varieties and industrial stocks


Several standard varieties of turkeys (Bourbon Red, Black Spanish, and Blue Slate) and a commercial strain were compared in range-based production systems, in DNA analysis, and for immune system response. Although the commercial variety reached market weight in fewer days and grew to a larger size, the standard varieties had lower mortality and better immune response. DNA micro-satellite analysis showed some standard varieties are only distantly related to the narrowly bred commercial strains, providing valuable genetic diversity essential for the long- term sustainability of turkeys. Data analysis and interpretation is still under way in this two year project.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Objective 1: Define range-based turkey production systems as the term will be applied in this project.

At the planning meeting held in July 2001, participants agreed to the following definition for range-based turkey production: (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.

Objective 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.

Eight farmers from across the country participated in the project. Each brought a unique set of skills to this effort. They were:

  • Pam Marshall, Amenia, NY. A small scale turkey breeder & farmer; committed steward of standard varieties, with access to the New York City market.

    New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy, Richmond, MA, Heather Bean Ware, Associate Director of Agriculture Education. An educational facility dedicated to the conservation of rare breeds of livestock.

    Gail & Harry Groot, Hiwassee, VA. Small scale, multi species, farmers who strongly prefer standard turkeys that are naturally mating, brood own young, with good growth potential and economic return.

    Gerry Cohn, Snow Camp, NC. A small scale, multi species farmer who buys poults to raise for direct sales to consumers at Thanksgiving. He prefers standard varieties with good growth potential and economic return.

    Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolina State University, Goldsboro, NC, Paul Mueller, Professor, Crop Science, Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator. CEFS is research farm dedicated to sustainable agriculture, including multi-species and integrated crop & livestock systems. Scientists research and demonstrate production systems that are environmentally and economically self-sustaining.

    Glenn Drowns, Calamus, IA. A committed steward of hundreds of breeds and varieties of poultry, including fifteen varieties of standard turkeys, as well as hundreds of heirloom vegetables. He is dedicated to the rescue of standard turkey genetics from the brink of extinction and their long term conservation. He is a breeder and operates a moderately sized, seasonal hatchery. He does not raise birds for the processing market.

    Frank Reese, Jr., Lindsborg, KS. A committed steward of standard varieties of turkeys. He is dedicated to maintaining breed standard, carcass quality in naturally mating turkeys. A significant breeder and producer of standard turkeys for the Thanksgiving market.

    Paula Johnson, Las Cruces, NM. A committed steward and breeder of standard varieties of turkeys. She dedicated to the rescue of standard turkey genetics from the brink of extinction and their long term conservation.

Bourbon Red turkey poults from Privett Hatchery and a commercial strain of medium white turkey poults from British United Turkeys of America (BUTA) were shipped to each farm on either May 15 or 29, 2002. Glenn Drowns also had a combined flock of Black Spanish and Blue Slates turkeys that were from Privett. Paula Johnson had a flock of a commercial strain of large whites turkeys from Nicholas Hatchery. Each farmer received shipments of a few more than 30 poults of each variety, the extras to allow for some loss due to shipping stress. Gerry Cohn, Paul Mueller, Pam Marshall each received 60 Bourbon Red poults. Paula Johnson received 15 of each. While each farm was different, their production systems all complied with the definition of “range-based”, as defined by this collaboration.
Each farm provided the following, using forms developed specifically for the project:

  1. a detailed description of their production systems and a general overview of their farm;

    weights taken on a random subset of 5 birds once a week through slaughter;

    final live weights and dressed weights of all birds;

    morbidity and mortality information, with necropsy information provided when possible;

    weight of feed fed to each flock;

    weather data; and

    observations of behavior.

The farmers also did a carcass evaluation on 5 dressed birds of each variety, described how their turkeys were marketed, and their price per pound. A preliminary analysis of the data has been performed, with more do be done over the next few months.

Objective 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

Drs. William Pierson, Robert Gogal, and Cal Larsen of Virginia Tech conducted immunologic tests and biochemical assays on the following varieties of turkeys: Blue Slate, Black Spanish, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal Palm, and the commercial strain of BUTA medium whites. This was the second year of a three year study. The research focus and rationale for the study are that (1) due to rigorous industry selection criteria, the commercial turkey gene pool has markedly diminished; (2) commercial production traits are negatively correlated with immunocompetence, e.g. disease resistance; and (3) standard varieties of turkeys may prove valuable as a reservoir for disease resistance genes. There are varietal differences shown in such measurements as hatchability, packed cell volume, total protein, lymphocyte recovery, non-specific T-cell stimulation, and ran-lymphocyte stimulation.

Dr. Pierson concluded that BUTA commercial lines clearly outperformed all of the standard varieties in weight gain, the BUTA’s were three times heavier than the standard varieties. However, this appeared to generally correlate with lower values for cellular/immunological parameters. Bourbon Reds, Royal Palms and Blue Slates had higher values for cellular/immunological parameters.

Objective 4: DNA fingerprint standard turkey varieties. This information documents the genetic differences and similarities of the turkey genomes.

Drs. Ed Smith and D. Philip Sponenberg of Virginia Tech conducted molecular analysis of DNA from red blood cells to determine the relatedness among five standard varieties: Blue Slate, Black Spanish, Bourbon Red, Narragansett and Royal Palm turkeys. (Unlike mammals, the red blood cells of birds are nucleated and contain DNA. This allowed us to use red blood cells as the source of DNA.) Preliminary results show that the Bourbon Reds are more distantly related to the other varieties and that the Royal Palm and Narragansett are genetically distinct from the commercial strains. This information provides a compelling argument for active conservation of the standard varieties. Further DNA studies are being planned to analyze the relationship of other varieties and strains within varieties.

Objective 5: Correlate immune response, DNA fingerprint and production characteristics to support the promotion of standard varieties for range-based production.

We are currently analyzing all of the data we have received and are correlating results from each of the different aspects of the study in order to draw appropriate conclusions.

Objective 6: Inform farmers interested in range-based turkey production, the poultry science community, and consumers about project results.

Planned for the fall of 2003 and the winter of 2003-2004.

Objective 7: Evaluate project effectiveness at meeting each objective and define next steps.

In March 2003, the collaborators met to share their experiences and what they had learned with each other, comment on the procedures, recommend changes for future iterations. The objectives that were expected within the first year were clearly met and data collected are rich and useful. The discussion revealed that some conclusions may not be made because of our research design, but the design was sufficient to clearly indicate trends and similarities.

The collaborators also discussed and debated the larger issues relating to turkey conservation and the different networks of turkey breeders and producers that play a role in the turkey industry. The discussion resulted in a preliminary list of “next steps”. Additionally, the discussion produced a more sophisticated understanding of the segmentation of the industry and each segment’s unique needs and potential contributions to genetic conservation in turkeys. In itself, this was a significant breakthrough which provides ALBC with some keys needed to develop successful conservation strategy.

The segments identified are: (1)Industrial turkey production which is well organized, using a narrowly selected and exquisitely productive bird. Artificial insemination is necessary for these birds. (2) Standard turkey production employing varieties recognized by the American Poultry Association. Subset of this group include (a)Standard Turkey production and show strains characterized by birds selected for a moderate broad breasted phenotype, but retaining a bird that is naturally mating. Occasional outcrosses are used, although this varies from strain to strain;(b) Standard Turkey Poult Producers exemplified by hatcheries that sell poults to the public. These hatcheries have multiplier flocks that do not undergo the extreme selection of the production and show strains; (c) End-producers of standard turkeys who buy poults and grow them out. These farmers do not retain breeding stock, and are dependent on others for poult production; and (d) Farmyard-based standard turkeys that are owned and raised by small-scale producers. For effective conservation to occur strategies need to be developed that address the challenges, needs, and objectives of each segment. More information on this will be forth-coming as the year progresses.


Accomplished work

July 2001. Range-based turkey production systems defined by collaborators.

Feb – April 2002. Log book which defines and organizes the data to be collected was developed and distributed to participants.

Jan 2002 Arrangements made with Privett Hatchery to supply Bourbon Red turkeys, and with British United Turkeys of America (BUTA) turkeys to supply a commecial strain.

May – June, 2002. Poults ordered in early May. Shipped on May 15 and June 1, 2002, as requested by farmers.

Nov 2002. Developed survey to census breeding stock of standard varieties of turkey and to monitor poult sales. Assembled contact list.

Jan – March 2002. A pre-study survey was not developed or conducted because we ran out of time. Attitude change was assessed through a post-study survey.

May – December 2002. Farmers collected data on the turkeys from date of placement through harvest. Data was recorded in the log books and sent to ALBC on a monthly basis.

March – November 2002. Each farmer documented their production system, changes that occurred as the season progressed. Each farmer described their farming operation in detail to provide a context for the turkey evaluation. This documentation was submitted to ALBC.

May – November 2002. Drs. Bob Gogal & Bill Pierson of Viriginia Tech conducted immunologic tests of five varieties of standard turkeys and an industrial strain. This second year of three years of testing. Dr. Ed Smith of Virginia Tech conducted molecular analysis, using DNA, of five standard turkey varieties. Differences were found. (More information will be available in future reports.) Additional work is clearly needed in this area.

December 2002- March 2003. Conducted census of breeding stock of standard turkey varieties and survey of poult sales. Those surveyed were unable or unwilling to share poult sales. The census of breeding stock showed that populations are continuing to climb, as a result of ALBC’s previous work.

Mid-summer – fall 2002. Sunrise Valley Farm held a field day. CEFS/NCSU and Matzah Rising Farms were hosts for the SARE national conference. All three presented the objectives of the project to visitors. The other farms were closed to protect them from increasing disease threats.

September – November 2002. Site visits were made to NEHBC (9/02), Paula’s Produce (9/02), Seldom Seen Farm (7/02), Good Shepherd Ranch (3/03), Sunrise Valley Farm (10/02), and CEFS/NCSU (10/02), and Matzah Rising Farm (9/02). Sand Hill Preservation Center provided excellent commentary and photos of the project.

January 2003. Conducted post-study survey to measure the farmers change in attitude about the standard and commercial turkeys on range.

January – June 2003. Data analysis of farm data began in January, 2003 Preliminary analysis was complete by March 3, 2003. Additional analysis is underway and is expected to be complete by June. Conclusions will be drawn based on both quantitative and qualitative data.

March 2003. Conducted a post-project roundtable. Participants shared their experiences with on another and reported their results; researchers reported their results; project protocol was evaluated and modifications suggested; and next steps discussed.

Work yet to be done.

Spring – Winter 2004. Conferences are being targeted, and invitations solicited. Results will be written up and presented to inform a range of audiences of the project and its results.

Spring 2003. Write and distribute press releases & articles for mass media and popular publications to promote project results.

Spring – Winter 2003. Write and publish articles for agricultural & scientific community to promote project results.

Spring – Winter 2003. Distribute project report using ALBC website & ATTRA to make project results easily accessible.

June 2003. Conduct survey to census breeding stock of standard turkey varieties and monitor poult sales to see if breeding populations have changed as a result of the project.

May 2003 and on. Develop projects and proposals based on results and roundtable discussion.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

This research will benefit producers by:
  • providing producers with information about the superior health and survivability of standard turkeys in range based systems. Drs. Bob Gogal & Bill Pierson of Viriginia Tech conducted immunologic tests of five varieties of standard turkeys and an industrial strain. This second year of three years of testing the evidence is confirming that commercial production traits are indeed negatively correlated with immunocompetence, e.g. disease resistance, and that several of the standard varieties of turkeys had higher values for cellular/immunological parameters. More information will be available as the study continues.

    providing producers with superior price per pound for range-reared standard turkeys when sold direct to the consumer. Participants sold their turkeys up to $3.50 per pound, dressed weight.

    providing producers with sources of turkey poults. A census of turkeys conducted in the winter of 2002-2003 provided updated information on sources of standard turkeys

    providing producers with information on feed conversion and management. Participants found that feed conversion for standard turkeys was significantly lower than for the commercial strain. This was expected, but was of concern because of the impact on their farm economics. (More on that in future reports.) Management is also different. The commercial strain was less active, especially as they gained weight, keeping them within the fence, and close to the feed troughs. The more active standard varieties were active foragers, taking advantage of bugs, grass, and food scrapes in addition to the commercial food. They were also more inclined to fly outside of the fencing, requiring either clipping the flight feathers or retrieving them at the end of the day.

    providing a network of experienced producers with whom consult. The participants in this project all commented on how much they learned from their participation. These producers are a valuable resource for other producers who are interested in range-rearing turkeys. Additionally, the round table meetings held as part of the planning grant and again in March 2003, connected the participants with one another, and engaged them in the big picture questions of effective genetic conservation and the varied production systems and goals of producers. Their conversation and opinions will inform our next steps.

This research will benefit consumers by:
  • providing them with information about standard turkeys, the need for their conservation, the role standard turkey varieties can play in sustainable production systems and in creating a healthier food product for themselves and their families.

    providing them with direct access to producers who raise standard varieties of turkeys. In 2002, Slow Food USA collaborated with ALBC to provide consumers with range reared, standard turkeys for Thanksgiving dinners on tables across the US. Over 3000 birds were sold and distributed this way. This effort enhanced public awareness of heritage turkeys and the need for their conservation. It also increased demand for standard turkeys at all levels, including breeders and poult production; turkeys that were raised humanely on range, hatcheries who supplied turkey poults to producers, producers raising turkeys for this specialty market, and consumers who were able to enjoy the fruits of these efforts.

The research will benefit the turkeys by:
  • increasing demand for them. In a census of turkeys conducted from December 2002 to April 2003, the breeding populations of standard varieties of turkeys is increasing. Since 1997 the Bourbon Red turkey breeding population has increased to 1498, an increase of 98%. The Black Spanish has increased from 62 to 391, an increase of 530%. Others are showing similar gains. While this is very positive news, the number of hatcheries breeding and selling turkeys is declining. In 1997 25 hatcheries participated in the census. Of those 25, 6 (24%) are now out of business or no longer breeding turkeys. For the 2002-2003 survey, we contacted the original 25 hatcheries, plus 19 additional hatcheries and individuals we learned were selling, or had sold, turkeys. Of those 19, 6 (over 33%) could not be reached because of non-functioning addresses or phone numbers. Several suppliers of turkey eggs and /or poults do not breed their own stock, but drop-ship from other hatcheries.

    documenting the standard turkeys’ genetic value to the turkey industry and the public. The industry is struggling with a narrowing genetic base as selection continues to be for production attributes (efficient feed conversion, rapid weight gain) to the exclusion of disease resistance, and biological fitness. The genetic differences being demonstrated through molecular analysis, using DNA, is indicating that the Royal Palm and the Bourbon Red, are genetically distinct from other varieties, including the commercial strains. Further evaluation is being conducted to determine how distinct these are, and it is hoped that additional varieties and strains can be studied. The results of this study further emphasizes the importance of conserving standard varieties turkeys, as they can provide valuable resources for a changing agriculture and a threatened industry.

The research will benefit the hatcheries by:
  • increasing demand for their product, thereby enhancing their business, and their potential for survival in this very difficult time.


Paula Johnson
Paula's Produce & Farm
2442 Mayfield Lane
Las Cruces, NM 88005-5108
Office Phone: 5055263105
Edward Smith
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Comparative Genomics Lab
Department of Animal & Poultry Sciences
Blacksburg, VA 24601
Office Phone: 5402316797
Lance Gegner
Agricultural Specialist
PO Box 3637
Fayetteville, AR 72702
Office Phone: 8003469140
J. Paul Mueller, Ph.D.
Professor, Crop Science
North Carolina State University
PO Box 7620
Raleigh, NC 27695-7620
Office Phone: 9195155825
Heather Ware
Associate Director of Agriculture & Education
New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy
PO Box 20
Richmond, MA 01254
Office Phone: 4134438356
Harry & Gail Groot
Sunrise Valley Farm
4615 Mountain Pride Rd.
Hiwassee, VA 24347
Office Phone: 5406393077
Frank Reese, Jr.
Breeder, farmer
Good Shepherd Ranch
730 Smoky Valley Rd
Lindsborg, KS 67456-9553
Office Phone: 7852273972
Glenn Drowns
Breeder, participant
Sandhill Preservation Center
1878 230th St.
Calamus, IA 52729
Office Phone: 5632462299
Pam Marshall
Breeder, farmer
Seldom Seen Farm
PO Box 351
Amenia, NY 12501-0351
Office Phone: 8453737207
Calvert Larsen, DVM, MPH, Ph.D
Associate Professor, Large Animal Clinical Science
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Veterinary College
Blacksburg, VA 24601-0442
Office Phone: 5402317179
D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD
Veterinary Geneticist & Pathologist
Virginia Polytechnic & State University
Veterinary College
Blacksburg, VA 24061-0442
Office Phone: 5402314805
Robert Gogal Jr., DVM, Ph.D
Research Assistant Professor of Immuno-toxicology
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Veterinary College
Blacksburg, VA 24061-0422
Office Phone: 5402315733
F. William Pierson, DVM, Ph.D
Associate Professor of Avian Medicine
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Veterinary College
Blacksburg, VA 24061-0442
Office Phone: 5402314529
Gerry Cohn
Matzah Rising Farm
1105 W. Greensboro-Chapel Hill Rd
Snow Camp, NC 27349-9599
Office Phone: 3363768765
Donald Bixby, DVM
Research & Technical Program Manager
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
PO Box 477
Pittsboro, NC 27312
Office Phone: 9195425704