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Don Schrider, Communication Director
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New research confirms that several standard varieties
of naturally mating
turkeys are more disease resistant than industrial strains. These findings
show that standard turkeys, popularly known as "heritage" turkeys,
better suited for range production than their industrial Broad Breasted
What is a Standard Turkey?
The American Poultry Association (APA) has recognized standards for poultry,
just as the American Kennel Club has standards for dogs. The APA recognizes
eight varieties of turkeys. These varieties are naturally mating, not
requiring artificial insemination, have a specific body conformation and
feather pattern, and have names like Narragansett, Bronze, Black, Slate,
Bourbon Red. There are other color variations of naturally-mating turkeys
that have not been standardized.
As recently as 1997, standard varieties of turkeys were nearly extinct.
census conducted by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy found only
1335 breeding birds remained. (Breeding stock produces the next generation,
passing their genes on to their offspring.) Once common on the American
agricultural landscape, these turkeys had nearly vanished. These colorful,
inquisitive, and hardy birds seemed destined to become forgotten relics
the past. Fortunately, their fate has been turned through some powerful
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), Virginia Polytechnic
Institute & State University in Blacksburg (Virginia Tech), and eight
breeders and producers of standard turkeys collaborated to compare standard
turkey varieties and an industrial strain for immune function and in
range-based production systems. The hypothesis:
Standard varieties of turkeys have superior immuno-competence and perform
better in range-based production systems than industrial strains.
The project began with field trials conducted on eight farms situated
the country. Each raised two flocks of thirty birds: a mixed flock of
and females of the standard variety known as the Bourbon Red obtained
Privett Hatchery in Portales, New Mexico, and males only of medium sized
industrial line of broad-breasted white turkeys provided by British United
Turkeys of America (BUT), based in West Virginia. Birds had daily access
outdoor range, forage, shelter, and roosting locations. The participants
collected data on weather, health, feed consumption, morbidity, mortality,
weekly weight gain, harvest weight, and dressed weight, behavioral
observations and sales.
The farm participants reported some expected results
- faster weight gain
and improved feed conversion in the industrial line when compared with
Bourbon Red. The broad-breasted whites attained market weight in an average
of 131 days, compared to an average of 185 days for the Bourbon Reds.
Correspondingly, the commercial birds consumed an average of 5 pounds
feed per pound of weight gain, while the Bourbon Reds consumed 6.08 pounds.
Both flocks dressed out at about 75% of live weight. The average dressed
weight of the Bourbon Red hens was 7.4 pounds; Bourbon Red toms 11.3 pounds;
and commercial toms 17.5 pounds.
The industrial line, however, experienced greater
mortalities from shipping
stress, heat, and disease. Mortalities for the industrial line ranged
13 - 93%, averaging 46%. The Bourbon Red mortality rate ranged from 15
31%, averaging 21%. (Loss from predation is not included in these mortality
calculations since it can be argued that such a death is not related to
bird's immune response.)
The more active standard turkeys needed slightly
techniques to keep them in their pastures and closer to home. Lighter
Bourbon Red hens were well equipped to fly, often escaping the confines
the pens. Both Bourbon Red hens and toms began roosting at an early age,
while the industrial toms were not as inclined to roost, if at all. The
Bourbon Reds were active foragers, covering the pasture and readily eating
offered treats of melon and vegetables. The industrial birds were more
sedentary, especially as they got heavier, primarily seeking the feed
ration. The industrial birds suffered in the heat, panting and seeking
relief in the cool soil in the shade of the barn. While the Bourbon Reds
sought shade, they did not exhibit the same degree of discomfort and
physical stress from the heat.
Dr. Robert Gogal, Jr., a veterinarian, immunotoxicologist at Virginia
conducted a series of laboratory tests to assess immune function on five
varieties of standard turkeys (Black, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal
and Slate) and an industrial line provided by BUT. Results from laboratory
tests confirmed what the farmers witnessed.
Two measures of hematologic function were taken.
Packed cell volume measures
red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the cells of the body. Total protein
measure globulins and albumin, both of which are critical to immune
response. In both tests the higher the measure, the healthier the bird.
all instances the standard varieties had higher packed cell volume and
protein, and the industrial line had the lowest.
Two tests of immune response were conducted: non-specific
and pan-lymphocyte stimulation. In each instance the standard turkeys'
immune response was superior to that of the industrial line. Royal Palms
performed best, followed by Bourbon Reds, and Slates.
The standard varieties had significantly higher
survivability when directly
exposed to disease. Royal Palm, Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Slate, and
turkeys, and a commercial line of British United Turkeys of America were
challenged with Hemorrhagic Enteritis Virus when they were six weeks old.
They were then exposed to E. coli seven days later. All but two of the
died the first day after infection with E. coli. The remaining two died
within three days. In contrast, a majority of the standard turkeys survived
past three days of bacterial infection, and lived to the study's
termination. None of the Black, Slate or Bourbon Red turkeys died. The
Narragansett and Royal Palm did not perform as well: most of them died
during the course of the study. (A paper is being prepared for submission
to the journal Avian Diseases.)
Unlike humans, most mammals and birds are able
to synthesize ascorbic acid,
commonly known as vitamin C. Ascorbic acid has been shown to enhance immune
function, modulate gene expression, act as a co-factor in enzymatic
reactions, and protect organisms from free radical damage during oxidative
stress. An assay measuring endogenous ascorbic acid levels in tissue and
plasma samples showed that the Black turkeys had the highest average plasma
ascorbic acid concentration overall. Bourbon Reds were a close second,
followed by Slates and Royal Palms. The Narragansett turkeys had the lowest
average ascorbic acid concentration - approximately half that of the
Blacks. (Submission of a manuscript of this work to a poultry nutrition
journal is planned for June 2004.)
Virginia Tech's physical evaluation confirmed weight
change, with the
industrial line being three times heavier than the standard varieties
nine weeks of age. Hatchability of all of the standard varieties was
excellent at 75 - 88%. The industrial line was not evaluated since only
males were available.
Dr. Ed Smith of the Comparative Genomics Lab, Department
of Animal and
Poultry Sciences at Virginia Tech, found DNA evidence indicating that
Royal Palm is genetically distinct from the other four varieties analyzed.
It is most closely related to the Narragansett. The Bourbon Red, Slate
Black are more closely related to one another.
Each of these studies is interesting and valuable on its own. As a group,
they are stunning. They clearly indicate that the Slate, Black, and Bourbon
Red turkeys, by virtue of their genetics, have more vigorous immune systems,
making them obvious choices for free range production. The only parameters
on which the industrial lines excel are feed conversion and rate of gain.
Standard turkeys varieties offer a robust immune
system and with it a lower
mortality rate, the ability to mate naturally, excellent hatchability,
active foraging, increased levels of endogenous vitamin C, intelligence
These are very exciting findings. They demonstrate
the value and importance
of the genetic resources embodied in standard varieties of turkeys,
supporting claims long made by breeders, and justifying turkey conservation.
Turkeys On The Rise
Since 1997, standard turkeys are making a comeback. The powerful combination
of ALBC's research and census work, the Slow Food USA's Thanksgiving
promotion in 2002 and 2003, and an increasing number of breeders, has
standard turkeys back from the brink of extinction. Pasture-raised standard
turkeys are a superb treat worthy of the place of honor on America's
While still endangered, the future of standard
turkeys looks promising. ALBC
conducted a census during the winter of 2002-2003. A population of 4275
breeding birds was reported, a three-fold increase since 1997. Hundreds
people have asked ALBC for more information about how to raise standard
turkeys. This increased interest is translating into demand for turkeys
that, in turn, supports turkey breeders.
ALBC and Virginia Tech will continue their collaboration over the next
evaluating several additional varieties not included in the initial study.
Breeders can select for production attributes in breeding flocks of standard
turkeys, but care must be taken to retain their ability to mate naturally
and promote the health and hardiness that come with immuno-competence.
Thoughtful stewardship of these agricultural treasures by today's breeders
will ensure their availability for generations to come.
For more information about the conservation of
standard turkeys contact the
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, PO Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312
919-542-5704, email@example.com, www.albc-usa.org
Note: Special thanks to the farm participants: Gerry Cohn of Snow Camp,
North Carolina; Glenn & Linda Drowns of Calamus, Iowa; Harry &
Gail Groot of
Hiwassee, Virginia; Paula Johnson of Las Cruces, New Mexico; Pam Marshall
Amenia, New York; Frank Reese, Jr., of Lindsborg, Kansas; Heather Bean
of New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy in Pittsfield, Massachusetts;
Brad Smith and Dr. Paul Mueller of North Carolina State University, Center
for Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Thanks
to Drs. Phil Sponenberg, William Pierson, and Cal Larsen of Virginia Tech
Blacksburg and to Lance Gegner of ATTRA in Fayetteville, Arkansas for
participation and support.
Established in 1977, The American
Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a
national, non-profit, membership organization based in Pittsboro, North
Carolina, dedicated to the conservation and promotion of endangered breeds
of livestock and poultry. ALBC's conservation efforts include research
breed status and characteristics; developing breed specific strategies
conservation; maintaining a gene bank of rare breeds; strengthening the
stewardship skills of breeders through various educational venues; and
educating the public through workshops, conferences and publications.
is the only organization in the United States that does this important
If you are not already a member, but would like
to help save rare,
endangered breeds of livestock and poultry, consider joining! Membership
only $30. To become a member, for information about breed conservation,
to contribute to ALBC's efforts, contact us at: PO Box 477, Pittsboro,
27312, (919) 542-5704 or on the web at www.albc-usa.org.