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

2004 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 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 commercial strains, providing valuable genetic diversity essential for the long- term sustainability of turkeys.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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

Please see 2003 Annual Report.

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.

Please see 2003 Annual Report.

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

Please see 2003 Annual Report.

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

Please see 2003 Annual Report.

A report of the DNA analysis conducted in 2003 entitled “Molecular Analysis of the Relatedness of Five Domestic Turkey Strains” by Edward J. Smith, et. al. has been published in Biochemical Genetics, Vol 43, No 1 / 2, February 2005.

Additional strains and varieties were to be tested in 2004. The sampling window for these seasonally reproducing birds was missed. The sampling technique also needed to be modified to be able to acquire genetic material. Samples are being gathered during the spring of 2005 and will be analyzed in the summer of 2005. Samples are being gathered for additional strains of the six varieties previously analyzed (Black, Slate, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, Narragansett, and a commercial strain), and for several strains of additional varieties, including the Standard Bronze, White Holland, Midget White, and a number of non-standard color varieties.

Endogenous Production of Ascorbic Acid in Historic Turkeys (see 2003 Annual Report)

  • A manuscript was submitted to Poultry Science in the fall of 2003. It was rejected not on the merits of the work, but rather the reviewers felt that the manuscript would be more appropriate in a nutrition-oriented journal. The manuscript has been submitted to International Journal of Vitamin and Nutritional Research.
Objective 5: Correlate immune response, DNA fingerprint and production characteristics to support the promotion of standard varieties for range-based production.

The delay described in Objective 4 has prevented progress on this objective.

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

Please see 2003 Annual Report.

Inquiries are fielded throughout the year from farmers, media (radio, TV, newspaper, periodical), and consumers. All were interested in standard varieties of turkey, though the area of interest and the depth of information requested varies.

  • April 2004 ALBC staff visited Mike Walters Farm, Stilwell, OK Mike has been an active breeder and producer of standard turkeys. He has been an important outlet for poults and for dressed turkeys.

    April 2004 Renewing America’s Food Traditions. ALBC is collaborating with 6 other non-profits in a project called Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT). Other participants include Slow Food, USA; Chefs’ Collaborative; Seed Savers Exchange; Native Seed SEARCH; Cultural Conservancy; and the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. The purpose of the collaboration is to draw attention to and promote traditional food and food processes such at the turkey breeds ALBC has been studying and promoting. The Cedar Tree Foundation has recently funded the collaboration for $750,000 over three years. The first RAFT effort was the publication “Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Bringing Cultural and Culinary Mainstays from the Past into the New Millennium”, edited by Gary Paul Nabhan and Ashley Rood. The book features a handsome Narragansett Bronze turkey on the cover and includes listing of the ten most endangered foods and ten foods already making a comeback because of conservation efforts. The heritage turkeys are listed in the comeback group, in part because of the support of SSARE research to understand the characteristics of these varieties for sustainable production.

    July 2004 Seed Savers’ Exchange Conference. Don Bixby spoke at the Seed Savers’ Exchange summer conference in Decorah, IA, on integrating poultry into gardening. Information from ALBC research on turkeys was presented. A pairs of Narragansett turkeys was on display. Over 250 people attended.

    July 2004 National Animal Germplasm Program Poultry Committee. Don Bixby attended the National Animal Germplasm Program Poultry committee meeting in conjunction with the American Society of Animal Scientists in St. Louis, MO. Since the turkey is the most genetically compromised of the industrial livestock species ALBC has been advocating for developing technique for and long term storage of turkey DNA in the national gene bank. Technology has yet to be developed for cryopreserving turkey semen, ova, or embryos.

    July 2004 Elementary School Teacher In-service Training. Marjorie Bender presented information to 18 North Carolina teachers attending an in-service training on Noah’s Ark Today (NAT) conducted by ALBC in Pittsboro, NC. NAT is an educational program on biodiversity and livestock and poultry breed conservation developed for Kindergarten through fifth grade. Marjorie’s presentation on turkeys, based on SSARE funded research, helped to illustrate the value of genetic conservation among all livestock and poultry species.

    July 2004 ALBC Special Event. Marjorie Bender presented research, marketing and census information to 35 people at an ALBC Special Event hosted by Hamilton Rare Breeds Foundation, Hartland, VT. Attendees included the Vermont Commissioner of Agriculture, and a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. Ensuing discussion focused on how the turkey conservation efforts can and should serve as a model for conservation, and effective partnerships that promote niche market development.

    August 2004 Processing Forum. Processing continues to be the most tenuous link in the success of any independent poultry enterprise. A USDA inspected independent processing plant located in Chatham County, North Carolina, is the only one in a four state region. An area food company purchased this processing plant. The sale raised huge concerns for all independent poultry producers in the region. ALBC and North Carolina Cooperative Extention held a forum to inform farmers of changes in access and procedures. Without independent processors, all of the fruits of our efforts over the past several years would vanish.

    September 2004 “How-to Produce Standard Turkeys on Range” and “Selecting Breeding Stock” Workshops. Marjorie Bender, Frank Reese and Bill Yockey conducted a two day workshop for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Twenty breeders and producers attended this intensive clinic on range production of standard turkeys and breeder selection. This provided the template for ALBC’s recently funded Professional Development Program.

    September – December, 2004 Fielded calls from media seeking information on standard turkeys for the holiday market. Coverage appeared in local, regional and national publications, most accompanied by interviews with local producers and photos.

    November 2004 The Discover Conference in Cheyenne, WY. The Discover Conference is an intermittent gathering, by invitation only, sponsored by the American Dairy Science Foundation, for the purpose of uncensored intellectual exploration of livestock agriculture issues. The National Animal Germplasm Program of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service was implemented as a result of the 1999 Discover Conference. The 2004 conference marked the 5-year anniversary of the NAGP. Don Bixby’s presentation covered all the livestock and poultry species, and included discussion about the erosion of genetic diversity in the commercial turkey lines and the need for preserving turkey DNA.

    November 2004 ALBC’s Annual Meeting, was held in Florida. Turkey research updates were provided to the members.

    November 2004 Panzanella Restaurant held a benefit dinner for ALBC, in recognition of standard turkeys. Marjorie Bender and Don Schrider, ALBC’s communications director, attended and shared information about ALBC’s conservation efforts with attendees.

    January 2005 Quivira Coalition meeting, Albuquerque, NM. The Quivira Coalition is a collaboration of ranchers, environmentalists, and managers of public lands, all of whom recognize that they have more in common than in conflict. Their work has been recognized and applauded for the progress made in restoring degraded range to economic production. Don Bixby presented at the meeting on integrating other species into the managed grazing systems. Turkeys were emphasized. There is a strong historical precedent for turkeys in the native American culture of the Southwest.

    January 2005 Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch Summit, Tampa, KS. Frank Reese, owner of Good Shepherd, and the farmers he works with raised 5000 (4400 were salable) turkeys for the high-end Thanksgiving and Christmas market for 2004. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce the farmers, who are raising turkeys and chickens for Frank, to his team of advisors. Marjorie Bender and Chuck Bassett, ALBC’s executive director, traveled to the meeting. This was an excellent opportunity to share ALBC’s efforts and information about the turkeys with active producers, and researchers and extension specialists at the University of Kansas, and national marketers. Others are beginning to carry this work forward.

    February 2004 Pastured Poultry Conference, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Chatham County. ALBC and North Carolina Cooperative Extension – Chatham County, cooperated to present a full day conference on pastured poultry to farmers. Turkeys, chickens (broilers & layers), ducks and geese were all covered. Producers presented information on production how-to’s, ALBC staff presented information on appropriate genetics for outdoor production. The turkey research figured prominently in this conference. The capacity crowd of 130 included, as attendees, university extension specialists and agents, USDA and NCDA personnel, commercial producers, experienced independent farmers, and others exploring farming. (For many of the handouts and powerpoint presentations see Visit the sections on Web Resources/Small-scale Livestock and also the Grower Resource List/Livestock)

    February 2005 Virginia Biological Farming Association Conference. Don Bixby presented a workshop entitled “Beyond Pastured Poultry,” addressing the many issues of turkey and chicken production that is beyond the movable confinement cages. For example, and a primary lesson, was that confinement of turkeys to the low-profile, densely stocked “chicken tractors” borders on inhumane, not allowing the birds room to engage in healthy turkey behaviors.

    March 2004 ALBC hosted two Swedish visitors who traveled to North Carolina to learn about the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, NCSU’s research and education related to sustainable agriculture, and their partners. These two professors were specifically interested in ALBC’s successful turkey research and conservation efforts.

    March 2005 The American Grassfed Association is a maturing organization of producers dedicated to raising all livestock on pasture and forage, with ruminants raised on 100% forage. Field and laboratory research continues on the health and nutritional benefits to humans of eating grassfed meat and dairy products. Don Bixby conducted a workshop on the integration of turkeys and chickens into ruminant grazing systems with an emphasis on the seasonal production of high value turkeys for the holiday market.

    April 2004 The Lantern Restaurant of Chapel Hill hosted a benefit dinner for ALBC. While the focus of the meal was the Ossabaw Island pig, the ALBC staff had opportunity to present short educational pieces needed to help this group of consumers understand the value breed conservation. Because of the success of the turkeys, this story was told to help people understand how conservation is done from the ground up.

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

Please see 2003 Annual report.

The following is from a recent ALBC press release reporting the progress made in standard turkey conservation.

“Heritage turkeys” made a significant step forward as consumers once again made them the centerpiece of Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday. Preliminary census data gathered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) this winter show breeding populations of “heritage turkeys” are up 25%. Both the Standard Bronze and the Narragansett have shown exceptional progress, each moving to a lesser degree of endangerment on the ALBC Conservation Priority List.

In eight short years these colorful birds are making a comeback that is nothing short of amazing. As recently as 1997, “heritage turkeys” were in danger for extinction – remembered only by the aged and nostalgic. At that time, only 1335 breeding birds, of American Poultry Association recognized standard varieties of turkeys (a.k.a. “heritage turkeys”), were found. (Breeding birds are those that produce the next generation, thereby passing on their genetics.) There were so few of some varieties that ALBC feared they were all but lost: 6 Narragansetts, 77 Slates, 81 Blacks. Only the Bourbon Red, with 714 breeding birds, while endangered was not critically so.

By the winter of 2003, populations had increased by 220% totaling 4272: the Narragansett populations had increased to 368, Slates to 437, Blacks to 478, there were 441 Standard Bronze reported, 818 Royal Palms, and 1519 Bourbon Reds. While these increases all demonstrated significant improvement, all but the Royal Palm and Bourbon Red remained critically endangered with breeding populations of fewer than 500. (For a complete report and all of the data, see “Heritage Turkeys in North America”)

This winter ALBC contacted a number of hatcheries, the first stage in a census to track population trends. Preliminary data show a 25% increase in the total breeding population to 5363. Narragansetts have increased 86% to 686, and Standard Bronze by 117% to 957, moving both of these varieties out of Critical status (fewer than 500 breeding birds) and into the Threatened category (fewer than 1000 breeding birds).

“Heritage turkeys” are enjoying renewed popularity thanks to the ALBC and other conservation partners. ALBC’s research and census work, initiated in 1997, were the first steps in their recovery. In 2001 Slow Food USA added a number of American varieties of turkeys to their Ark of Taste. In 2002, Slow Food USA took the additional step of coordinating production of heritage turkeys for distribution to their national membership. The demand created by this exposure, plus the very positive eating experiences of food editors like Marion Burros of the New York Times, and articles in other food magazines has supported the increased breeding by hatcheries and production by entrepreneurial farmers. This burgeoning niche market has attracted small- and large-scale producers alike.

Hatcheries and breeders have increased breeding stock in an effort to meet demand. Two merit particular mention.

  • Privett Hatchery has been a leader amongst the hatcheries, maintaining the largest breeding flocks of standard turkeys and making poults readily available to the public.

    Frank Reese, Jr., Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch has been breeding standard turkeys for more than 40 years, and has sought to conserve color pattern as well as conformation and productivity. With the renewed interest in these birds, Frank recognized the opportunity presented to both rescue the standard turkeys from extinction and reacquaint discriminating consumers with the wonderful qualities in taste, texture, and history embodied in these birds.

The marketplace plays an increasingly important role in the success of standard turkey conservation. Since 2002 the market for “heritage turkeys” has approximately doubled annually, based on reports from producers and distributors in the ALBC network. For example, Good Shepherd sold:
  • In 2002, 800 birds

    In 2003, 1200 birds and,

    In 2004, through a cooperative venture with a group of Kansas farmers, sold 4400 birds.

Distributors have been essential for providing access to these delicacies. Here are a few to illustrate the point. Heritage Foods, which developed out of Slow Food USA’s turkey project, has been a primary distributor of Good Shepherd turkeys, distributing fresh turkeys nationally in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, reports demand has doubled each year. has connected small-scale growers directly to consumers through its internet site. They also brokered sales of $34,000 in heritage turkeys in 2004. Local purveyors, like Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, North Carolina, and Local Harvest in Kansas City, Missouri, have also played a valuable role, making heritage turkeys available to customers through their meat counters.

There is more to this complex puzzle. Breeders, small and large, experienced and novice, have come on board. Producers, those who raise the birds from day-olds to harvest, have rediscovered the economic and farm-system value of raising standard turkeys. These producers, however, have had a steep learning curve: much of the information on producing standard turkeys on range is no longer in print, and therefore hard to find. Reacquainting producers and breeders with this knowledge through workshops and publications is becoming a new area of focus. ALBC was recently awarded a grant from the Southern regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program to support these educational efforts, and further secure the future of standard turkeys.

Of course, none of this would be possible without processing plants. Independent poultry processing plants remain few and far between. With growing demand, a few more are coming on-line to serve the family farmer, but of all aspects of this project, processing remains the weakest link in this conservation story.


Accomplished work

Summer 2004 – Spring 2004. Presented results at three focused agricultural events. Information was included in other presentations at many more agricultural and consumer events.

Summer 2004 – present. Wrote articles and press releases, provided interviews. Coverage has been broad and often front page and feature length. Producers from across the country have been featured.

November 2004. Submitted full proposal to SSARE PDP, entitled “Sustainable Production Systems for Range-Reared Standard Turkeys.” Funded.

January 2005. Breeding populations of standard varieties of turkeys continue to increase, moving the Narragansett and the Standard Bronze up from the “Critical” category to the “Threatened” category. (Please see press release quoted in Objective 7)

February 2005. “Molecular Analysis of the Relatedness of Five Domestic Turkey Strains” by Edward J. Smith, et. al. has been published in Biochemical Genetics, Vol 43, No 1 / 2, February 2005.

Pending Publications:

Vitamin C study, by Dr. Robert Gogal, Virginia Tech. Submitted to scientific journal for consideration.

Immunologic Evaluation, by Dr. Robert Gogal, Virginia Tech. Being written.

Disease Challenge study, by Dr. Robert Gogal, Virginia Tech. Being written.

Summary article drawing together the results of the on-farm research & the laboratory work by Marjorie Bender, ALBC. Being written.

Pending research:

Genetic analysis of additional varieties and strains not included in the recent research.

Census standard varieties to assess progress.

Next steps with further funding:

Continued promotion of standard turkeys to potential breeders and the discriminating consumer.

Develop a “How-To” manual and educational program on range-rearing standard turkeys for the holiday market. SSARE PDP funded beginning in 2005.

Perform F1 crosses with the top three standard lines and an industrial strain and evaluate their production and immunologic performance. This might lead to the development of genetic strains with competitive production attributes that are suitable for range-rearing.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Please see 2003 Annual report. Also…

This research is benefiting producers by:

Providing a contemporary body of knowledge about the attributes and husbandry of standard varieties of turkeys. Producers need this information to make sound, rational decisions about adding a turkey enterprise to their farming system.

Providing additional researchers a base of information from which to explore additional questions. Kansas State University has begun related investigations.

This research is benefiting consumers by:

Validating producer’s claims about the standard turkeys and building consumer understanding and confidence.

This research is benefiting the turkeys by:

Increasing breeding populations, making this genetic resource more secure.

The research is benefiting hatcheries by:

Increasing demand, justifying both keeping and increasing breeding flocks, and justifying more rigorous selection for improved production, conformation, and color pattern.

The research will benefit industry by:

Assuring that the breadth of genetics will remain available well into the future to be drawn upon as needed to address genetically based issues, like immune response.


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