How Turkeys Got So Big

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How Turkeys Got So Big

Selective breeding over the years brought about today's big-breasted turkeys.

Francine Bradley, extension poultry specialist in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis, has seen pictures of turkeys from the early 20th century. "They look small and scrawny even compared to chickens today, let alone turkeys," she says.

Those diminutive birds were Bronze turkeys, the most popular ones of their time. But they grew bigger and increasingly top-heavy through selective breeding that kept pairing up the biggest, top-heaviest birds.

By midcentury, Bronze turkeys had morphed into Broad Breasted Bronzes.

Broad Breasted Bronzes were very attractive as they strutted around on the farm -- or posed for their portraits for Thanksgiving cards -- but lying in the meat case, they weren't so hot. That was because of their pinfeathers, Bradley says.

Pinfeathers are tiny, undeveloped feathers, often just barely poking through the skin. Turkeys have tons of them -- it's impossible to remove them all. They're harmless, says Daniel Fletcher, head of the Animal Science Department at the University of Connecticut, but "they looked like blackheads." Customers found them unappetizing.

They complained. Breeders listened. And in the 1960s, one of them had an idea. Once in a blue moon, bronze-colored parents have an all-white baby turkey. Such a mutation is called a sport. The breeder started pairing up all-white sports and eventually developed a line of all-white turkeys.

They still had pinfeathers, but they were white so they didn't stand out against the turkeys' pale skin the way dark-bronze pinfeathers did.

Through their buying patterns, consumers are still telling the breeders what they want, says Murray Bakst, a research physiologist for the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., although it takes about five years to breed a line that will meet consumer needs.

One thing consumers always want, of course, is low prices, and breeders are working to keep prices down (and turkey growers' profits up) by minimizing the "feed conversion rate," a measure of how much feed it takes to raise a turkey. According to the Washington, D.C.- based National Turkey Federation, it takes about 75 to 80 pounds to raise a 30-pound tom turkey, which works out to a feed conversion rate of about 2.5 (the ratio of feed weight to turkey weight).

Fast-growing turkeys have low feed-conversion rates, and being sick slows down growth. So the health of the birds is always a prime consideration for breeders, too.

Most turkey breeding is now done by just two so-called primary breeders: Aviagen Turkeys in Lewisburg, W.Va., and Hybrid Turkeys, in Kitchener, Canada. The reproduction itself is done by artificial insemination.

Successfully breeding broad-breasted birds with lots of extra-nutritious white meat may have been a boon to consumers, but it did no favors for the turkeys. Their new physiques make natural reproduction impossible. Mature toms, which weigh upwards of 40 pounds, have such large breasts that they're unable to mount the hens. In fact, their legs are often too weak to bear up under their massive front-loading. And that doesn't help matters either.

(The turkeys may have the last laugh, though, at least on those assigned to collect semen from the toms -- a notoriously unlovely task that was featured on an episode of the TV show "Dirty Jobs.")

In any case, insemination is mainly an issue for the primary breeders. Turkey growers generally buy their stock from these companies -- either as hatching eggs or as day-old poults, the proper term for baby turkeys, not "chicks."


By Karen Ravn in The LA Times.

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