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

2005 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. Increasing market demand over the past 3 years have supported increasing populations, rescuing standard turkey varieties from extinction, and providing new sustainable enterprises for farmers across the nation.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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

Please see previous annual reports.

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 previous annual reports.

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 previous annual reports.

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

Please see previous annual reports.

Liver tissue samples from several additional varieties were gathered for DNA analysis during the spring and summer of 2005. The varieties sampled were White Holland (Paula Johnson strain), Midget White (Paula Johnson strain), Standard Bronze, (Kardosh strain), Black (Williamson & Drowns strains), Bourbon Red (Sadie Lloyd & Drowns strains), Regal Red (Tom Walker strain), Chocolate (Drowns strain), Blue Palm, Blue Slate, Lilac, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Silver Auburn, Sweet Grass (all Drowns strains). A liver sample approach was chosen because it didn’t require rare turkey breeds to draw blood samples. Instead, poults that had died could be frozen and shipped. For some of the rarest varieties, like the Beltsville Small White, the producers had no losses. This was good news for the producer, but bad news for the project. This process took much longer than expected, so sampling was not complete until late summer of 2005.

Dr. Robert Gogal forwarded resected liver samples to Dr. Karen Mock, Assistant Professor, Conservation Genetics, at Utah State University. Dr. Mock has developed techniques identifying molecular markers needed to distinguish wild turkeys from domestic turkeys. Collaborating with Dr. Mock enhances the comparative work conducted on wild and domesticated turkeys, and the working relationships between scientists engaged in this field. A staff injury has prevented Dr. Mock from making progress on the DNA analysis. Completion of the analysis and subsequent paper is anticipated in July 2006.

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 completion of this objective, which is now expected by July 2006.

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

Please see previous annual reports.

  • Inquiries were fielded throughout the year from farmers, media (radio, TV, newspaper, periodicals), and consumers. All were interested in standard varieties of turkey, though the area of interest and the depth of information requested varied. Significant on-going advise, council, and moral support has been provided to breeders as they struggle with the challenges associated with being on the leading edge of a new and appealing enterprise, in the context of a highly industrialized agricultural and competitive market environment. The lack of an infrastructure, specifically processing, that is independent of corporately held systems threatens to undermine producers at every turn. Growers in Kansas and North Carolina are exploring cooperative models to meet their urgent need. Constraints due to processing alone could undermine this emerging market, and farmers slow return to diversified livestock, poultry and crop farms.

    January 2005 “Heritage Turkeys” defined. “Heritage turkey” has become the market identity for standard turkeys. Unfortunately, some producers have sold Broad Breasted turkeys, or crosses thereof, as “heritage,” getting premium dollar for their inauthentic product. Through the leadership of Frank Reese, a definition for heritage turkeys was developed that appears to have stopped this practice. It has also educated consumers. Heritage turkeys are defined as having long productive lives (5-7 years for hens, 2-3 years for toms), slow rate of growth (reaching market weight in 26-28 weeks), and reproducing through natural mating with a 70% or greater fertility rate. This definition has been embraced by the National Turkey Federation.

    April 2005 ALBC awarded a Professional Development Grant from SSARE to develop a series of pamphlets and educational programming for humane, range-based production of standard turkeys. The pamphlets are currently being written.

    July 2005 9th Continental Bioregional Congress, Black Mountain, NC Don Bixby was an invited speaker, providing information about integrating turkeys and other poultry and livestock in to an environmentally balanced agriculture.

    July 2005 American Society of Animal Scientists, Cincinnati, OH Don Bixby represented the ALBC at the annual meeting of the species committees of the USDA-National Animal Germplasm Program. The poultry committee held significant dialog on characterizing turkey genetics as well as the research needed for the preservation of turkey genetic materials.

    September 2005 Seeds and Breeds Conference, Ames, IA This conference was convened to develop a position statement for the upcoming farm bill. The goal is that the farm bill would include increased public support for the development of improved crops and livestock for feeding an increasing global population faced with a changing market, limited resources and environmental factors. Don Bixby was invited to present the issues of genetic characterization and conservation.

    October 2005 Pastured Poultry PDP Workshop, Perryville, AR. Marjorie Bender attended this educational event by invitation, serving as a resource person for pasture turkey production and genetic conservation.

    November 2005 ALBC Annual Conference, Greeley and Fort Collins, CO. Several varieties of standard turkeys were on display at the conference. Standard turkeys were served at the awards banquet. The keynote speaker was Dr. Vincent Amanor-Boadu, an assistant professor of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University. He has advised the nation’s largest standard turkey producer, Frank Reese, in the marketing and branding of his product. In his typical charismatic manner, he shared his perspectives on niche marketing, punctuating it with many turkey examples.

    November 2005 ALBC Special Event at Ayrshire Farm, Upperville, VA. Approximately 70 people gathered to celebrate rare breeds of livestock and poultry through creative cuisine, understanding that “we have to eat them to save them.” A fast-emerging trend in food consumption is the eating of rare and hard to find foods that have been sustainably raised. Epicureans are finding that meat flavor and texture varies by breed. This event demonstrated the wonderful and complex flavors represented in rare breeds of livestock and poultry. Standard varieties of turkeys are quickly being discovered for the rich flavor they bring to the table.

    February 2006 Pastured Poultry Workshop, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, State College, PA. ALBC organized and implemented a full day workshop on pastured poultry. Most were from Pennsylvania and surrounding states, but the conference drew people from across the country. 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. A marketing panel, that included chefs, a retailer, and a market developer, shared their experiences and needs when buying poultry directly from producers. The state veterinarian for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture reviewed biosecurity, an especially important topic as concerns for highly pathogenic Avian Influenza are increasing. The capacity crowd of 100 included university extension agents, PDA personnel, experienced independent farmers, and others exploring farming. A manual of the presentations and supportive material was distributed. A poultry listserv was established by PASA, at the request of ALBC to serve the attendees.

    February 2006 Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference, Lynchburg, VA. Marjorie Bender coordinated a workshop on the production of standard turkeys. Again, this research was presented. Harry Groot, a collaborator in the SSARE on-farm research, provided how-to production information. Harry and his wife, Gail, breed and raise Narragansett turkeys. They are selecting for survival attributes and broodiness. Dr. William Pierson, a research collaborator, presented information on diseases of turkeys, disease management and prevention. Biosecurity featured prominently. An enthusiastic 40+ farmers attended.

    February 2006 Virginia Professional Development Program Annual Meeting, Lynchburg, VA. At the invitation of state sustainable ag coordinator Andy Hankins, Marjorie Bender & Dr. William Pierson presented research results on standard turkey comparison, and diseases of turkeys, disease management and prevention, and biosecurity. Approximately 20 extension and natural resource personnel attended.

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

Please see previous annual reports.

Standard turkey populations continue to rise. A brief preliminary census of hatcheries and large breeders shows a 12% increase in the total breeding population of standard varieties. Both the Black and the Standard Bronze moved to a lesser degree of endangerments. The Black now boasts over 800 breeder birds and moved from Critical to Threatened, and the Standard Bronze increased to over 1300, moving from Threatened to Watch. However, standard turkeys’ hold on this recovery remains tenuous. Narragansetts, which demonstrated a strong comeback in 2004, were set back dramatically with the loss of one significant flock. They once again teeter on the brink of Critical status.

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. Frank now works with several other farmers to raise standard turkeys for the holiday market. He has been contacted by major food stores interested in carrying his product. He is developing additional products, including parts and sausage, capturing value from birds that cannot be marketed whole. He remains unswervingly committed to humane treatment of the turkeys, and has served as the model for production standards developed by the Animal Welfare Institute.

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, a 50% increase;

    In 2004, through a cooperative venture with a group of Kansas farmers, sold 4400 birds, a 260% increase, and

    In 2005, 8900 birds, 102% increase.


Accomplished work

Spring 2005 – Winter 2006 Provided interviews to press. Coverage continues to be broad.

Spring 2005 – Winter 2006 Provided support and advice to heritage turkey breeders and producers.

Summer 2005 Developed a definition for “heritage turkeys”

Spring 2005 Initiated work on Turkey Husbandry Manual and Educational Workshop (SSARE PDP Project)

Winter 2006 Presented results at focused agricultural events.

Winter 2006 Documented increasing breeding populations, demonstrating reduced level of endangerment and increased availability.

Pending Publications:

Vitamin C study, by Dr. Robert Gogal, Virginia Tech. Being rewritten, to be resubmitted.

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.

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 funding received in 2005.

Work with hatcheries to recover production attributes of the strains within the varieties to secure genetic diversity. Presently, Frank Reese’s lines are the only ones known to meet both growth expectations and meet breed standards. Hatcheries, producers and consumers would benefit from this activity.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Please see previous reports.

Breeder population for standard varieties of turkeys are significantly increased. This project has effectively conserved this valuable genetic resource.

Market opportunities are increasing and stablizing.

Market demand continues to outpace supply. This has been managed well so that consumers haven’t lost interest. The high quality of the product, and its current promotion as a special holiday item have supported its success.

Farmers are able to make a reasonable profit from holiday turkey sales.

These efforts have continued to reveal new issues that need attention. The lack of independent processing facilities across the country continues as a significant impediment to many producers, and results in significantly slower growth. More strains need to be selected for production attributes to support their long term survival.


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