Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beltsville Small White Turkeys

Beltsville Small White Turkeys - Group of Toms

If one goes to Beltsville, Maryland, a town in the north-west corner of the state, you just might happen to come upon a little bit of poultry history.  It is here, at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC), that the Beltsville Small White Turkey was developed. 

U.S.D.A. - B.A.R.C. Main Building
Photos Source: U.S.D.A.

In 1910, the United States Department of Agriculture purchased land in Beltsville for its Agricultural Research Service. The first parcel acquired was 375 acres and eventually encompassed 14,600 acres (59 km2) becoming the largest and most prominent center of agricultural science research in the world.  It is now known as the Harry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (B.A.R.C.), named in honour of Henry A. Wallace, a former United States Vice President and Secretary of Agriculture. 

U.S.D.A. - B.A.R.C. Aerial View
Photo Source: U.S.D.A.

Prior to the 1930’s most commercially raised turkeys in the United States were various strains of what is now known as the “Unimproved or Standard Bronze”. They had dark colored plumage and pin feathers were medium to large in size.  Their breast was narrow and was not very meaty. 

Consumer surveys of the time indicated a desire for a meaty turkey without dark coloured skin; a smaller bird because as family sizes on the average were becoming smaller and apartment living, with its smaller ovens, freezers and refrigerators, was becoming more and more popular.

Turkey in Oven
Photo Source: Unknown

After industry consultation, Mr. Morley A. Jull, who was in charge of poultry investigations for the Bureau of Animal Industry and Mr. Stanley J. Marsden, who at the time was employed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Industry as the poultry husbandry man at the U.S. Range Livestock Experiment Station at Miles City, Montana, got together and planned the development of a smaller turkey which would fill this niche. It was an effort that would last approximately seven years, from 1934 to 1941.

Experimental work started in 1934 and in 1935 it was decided to amalgamate all the research for this new small turkey at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC). 

Beltsville Small White Tom
Photo Source: Unknown

On the left side of Poultry Road on the grounds of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, four three-story buildings were located; U.S. Department of Agriculture Buildings 262–265. It was here that Morley Jull, Theodore C. Byerly, Charles W. Knox, Stanley J. Marsden and others came together to conduct their research and experiments in the search for a smaller turkey.  Marsden led the work that produced the new bird and for this reason he later became known as the ‘Father of the Beltsville Small White’.

From what is known, the scientists started with the following combination of turkey varieties: Standard Bronze (2 strains); Broad Breasted Bronze (1 strain); Charlevoix Bronze, a Canadian small-type Bronze, (1 strain); White Holland (4 strains); Black (1 strain); Narragansett (1 strain); wild (4 strains); and White Austrian (1 strain) a small-type turkey imported from Scotland specifically for this project. 

Bronze Turkey Tom - Unimproved Bronze Strain
Photo Source: Unknown

Bronze Turkey Tom - Broad Breasted Bronze strain
Photo Source: Unknown

Bronze Turkey Tom - Charlevoix Strain
Photo Source: La Ferme de Lescaut

White Holland Turkey Flock
Photo Source: Mother Earth News

Black Turkey Tom
Photo Source: Ark of Foods

Narragansett Turkey Toms
Photo Source: Unknown

Eastern Wild Turkey Group
Photo Source: Unknown

"White Austrian"-Type Turkey Flock
Photo Source: Gennussland.at

Beltsville Small White Turkey Hen
Photo Source: Feathersite
Photo © Watt Publishing, courtesy Turkey World magazine, Dec. 1955 issue

Beltsville Small White Turkey Group
Photo Source: Black Feather Coop

Beltsville Small White Turkey Poults
Photo Source: Unknown

Even though darker feathered turkey varieties were used in the crosses, the ultimate goal was a white bird. Dark feathers usually meant a darker skin, something upon which consumers were not too keen. As well as being white and smaller than the commercial turkeys of the day, Marsden wanted the turkey to appeal to consumers year-round not just a bird for holidays.  This was very important to maintain and increase the growth of the U.S. commercial turkey industry. 

Dr. Ed Buss, a professor of Poultry Science who taught at Pennsylvania State University made regular visits to Poultry Road during the heyday of Buildings 262–265, when the turkey scientists formed a devoted, highly specialized fraternity. In 2004, while talking to freelance journalist Maurice Martin, Dr. Buss told about numerous times up the scientists would be up all night observing and taking notes on the bird’s behavior.  In 1941, the research team believed that they had attained their goal and the Beltsville Small White was introduced.

Beltsville Small White Flock,
Beltsville Agricultural Research Center
Photo Source: Unknown

The Beltsville Small White is a thick-bodied bird covered with snowy white plumage.  Its head is red to bluish-white with a horn-colored beak and dark brown eyes. 

Beltsville Head Close-up
Photo Source: Unknown

Shanks and toes are pinkish-white and the beard is a solid black. It is a turkey that had a greater percentage of white meat than other varieties of the time and was also known for its excellent egg-laying abilities.

[Dr.] Buss remembers seeing Beltsville Small Whites at the spot they were created. He recalls it as Marsden’s greatest professional accomplishment, and a handsome bird as well. “It had a beautiful round breast and made an attractive presentation,” Buss says. “It didn’t hang over like today’s birds. It stood like a turkey.” - Martin
Four Month Old Beltsville Small White Group
Photo Source: Black Feather Coop

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy quotes the weight of young Beltsville turkey hens at 10 pounds and young toms at 17 pounds. Bonnie Meikle, in her breed profile of the Beltsville Small White for the STPA Gobbler, states:  

“Prime market weights were 10 or 11 pounds for hens, and 17 to 20 pounds for toms. Some were slaughtered at lighter weights as 'fryer' turkeys at 5 to 7 pounds live weight.”   

Beltsville Small Turkeys
Photo Source: Planet Green

However, according to Julie Long, a research physiologist for BARC’s biotechnology and germplasm laboratory, 
“… a Beltsville Small White hen weighed between 6 and 8 pounds, a tom between 12 and 14. “That’s about 10 pounds lighter than the other breeds [of that time],” she says.”   - Martin

The Beltsville Small White became a success almost from the minute go.  Because the primary goal of its development was for it to be commercially mass-produced, the U.S.D.A. sent stock to its various centers and to its counterpart state experimental research stations throughout the United States. These centers then distributed the Beltsvilles to commercial turkey breeders. As well, stock was sent to various universities and institutions that ran poultry programs. 

Flock of Beltsville Small White Turkeys,
Beltsville Agricultural Research Center
Photo Source:  Photo Unit, Agricultural Research Service

In 1947, the Beltsville Small White made its commercial debut, marketed not as just “turkey” but as a “Beltsville White”, the only turkey that has ever been sold in stores by its variety name.  This marketing ploy helped the Beltsville attain an almost celebrity status.  It quickly became very popular with consumers, so much so that in 1952, only 5 years after its commercial introduction, over 15 million were sold in supermarkets across the U.S.

The Beltsville Small White turkey’s success was short lived; the height of its popularity came in the mid-1950s.  Unfortunately for the Beltsville, another more meaty white turkey, the Broad Breasted White, was cornering the marketplace.  It was the beginning of the end for the Beltsville Small White. 

There were a couple of factors that led to the Beltseville White’s downfall and subsequent near extinction.  First, the commercial turkey breeders didn’t keep the Beltsvilles up to standard to which they were first bred. Often it was crossbred with other turkeys resulting in a much more inferior bird.  Consumers were then presented with an inferior carcas, perhaps not having as much good tender meat as was expected from the Beltsville Whites. Another factor is that Beltsvilles take a longer time to reach their mature roasting weight – approximately 24 to 26 weeks – whereas the new “avian SUV’s” can reach their weights at a much earlier age.  They also average over three times the slaughter weight of the Beltsvilles, with one company (Tyson Foods Inc.) actually having reported a slaughter weight of over 100 lbs. (Kucharski, 2004)
As well, although the Beltsville Small Whites fit the niche for the family market, the hotel and restaurant trade never really accepted them.  They wanted bigger birds – more slices of meat for the buck so to speak.  Add to this the shift away from the family farm and small producers to the growing monopoly of the industry by a few players. So, once again the turkey industry shifted its focus, this time back to a bigger bird, one that could still be slaughtered at a young age and have a reasonable amount of meat on the caracas and yet could also be raised to a larger size for that particular market.  The new Broad Breasted Whites were the answer for the industry and by 1965, they had cornered a large portion of the turkey market.  In 2004, Broad Breasted Whites accounted for over 90% of the estimated 263 million plus turkeys sold commercially in the United States.

It is interesting to note here that the Beltsville Small Whites themselves played a part in the creation of the Broad Breated Whites.  As well, they contributed to the genetic makeup of other strains of commercial turkeys, but none of these would ever gain the popularity of the Beltsvilles or the Broad Breasted Whites. Nor were these strains  a breed in the same sense as the Beltsville Small White, because creating and maintaining a purebred standard would return no profit.

The following are two quotes showing how the commercial industry has changed:

 “Today, three companies control the commercial breed—Nicholas Turkeys, British United Turkeys, and Hybrid Turkeys,” says Long. “Each company’s birds have different characteristics, and the exact mix of breeds used to create them is highly confidential, proprietary information.” - Julie Long (2004)

Broad Breasted White Turkey strain - Young Birds
Photo Source: Unknown

“... only two international companies own most commercial turkey genetics, Aviagen, based  in the United Kingdom, and Hybrid, based in Canada. Aviagen now owns the genetic resources of two previously significant commercial companies, Nicholas, from California, and British United Turkeys (BUT) from the United Kingdom. BUT had an American operation, including a breeding farm based in West Virginia. Both Nicholas and BUT offered multiple strains. When Nicholas bought BUT of America in 2004, the American breeding stock was destroyed. Aviagen subsequently purchased Nicholas. As of February 2009, the Aviagen website only offered two strains from each company for sale. This story is of great importance because it shows just how quickly genetic resources can be lost.” – A.L.B.C. “Selecting Your Best Turkeys For Breeding” (2009)

By the early 1970’s, when the researchers and scientist at the United States Department of Agriculture Beltsville Agricultural Research Center dispersed of their flock, the “pure” Beltsville was nearly extinct. It was mainly found in the flocks of a few individual breeders, poultry exhibitors and a couple of universities.

Turkey Census

According to the 1999 SPPA Turkey Census Report:

“Beltsville Small White:  Only two flocks have been located, one in the U.S. and one in Canada. The U.S. flock is owned by the government and has been housed within a biologically controlled building. They have not been exposed to any common environmental germs or diseases since 1961 and may not be able to survive in a normal farm setting. The Canadian flock is similar in that it is not available to anyone other than the educational facility that owns them. I have been told that the Canadian flock has hens that lay fertile eggs even when no toms have mated with them, producing all male offspring. When toms are mated with the hens the 50/50 sex ratio occurs as normal.** All of the turkeys listed in breeder catalogs as Beltsville Whites can be traced back to the University of Wisconsin which has White Midgets [Midget White].”

The U.S. flock was subsequently sent to California where they were studied for their superior fertility that would ocassionally produce a poult via parthenogenisis. They were also crossed to Cornish and Rhode Island Red roosters and produced several live hybrids that lived for quite some time. Subsequently, the last pure flock of Beltsvilles remained, not in the United States, but in Canada, where they were kept and studied at the University of Guelph. (Shuck)

Beltsville Small White Turkey Hens
Photo Source:  Unknown

Bill Braden, an Ontario Poultry fancier, was able to obtain stock from the University of Guelph.  Most of the lines currently raised in Canada can be traced back to his stock. Another breeder in Quebec also received stock from the Univeristy of Guelph and this is supposedly unrelated to what I refer to as the Braden Strain.

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in this variety. Efforts are underway to locate and conserve any remnant flocks in the United States and Canada.  Designated as "critically endangered" by Rare Breeds Canada and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Beltsville Small White turkeys are the ideal choice for the small or hobby farm.  They are a recognized exhibition turkey variety by the American Poultry Association having been admitted to the Standard of Perfection in 1953.  They are said to be gentle and friendly, hence perfect for 4H projects or the younger crowd.

Beltsville Small White Flock
Photo Source:  Black Feather Coop

More Information About U.S.D.A. Harry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center:

According to the U.S.D.A. website (http://www.ars.usda.gov/main/main.htm), the Harry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center is “The World’s Largest Most Diversified Agricultural Research Complex”. It is world reknown as the home of impressive turkey pioneering.

Research in the Beltsville Area is carried out through programs in the Plant Sciences Institute, the Animal and Natural Resources Institute, the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, and the U.S. National Arboretum. The Abraham Lincoln Building of the National Agricultural Library is also located there.

A list of innovations that have come out of the 7,000-acre facility includie the Roma tomato, the aerosol spray can, and DEET insect repellent. Yet one development outshines them all: the creation of the Beltsville Small White turkey.

In recent years and of interest to poultry men worldwide is the fact that it is here that Geneticist Hans Cheng and colleagues at the ARS Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory used the DNA of the Red Jungle Fowl line combined with that of a White Leghorn chicken to create a genetic map of the chicken.

Gallus gallus - Red Jungle Fowl
Photo Source: Discover Life

White Leghorns
Photo Source: Chickens By Design

Chicks atop a picture of a genetic map of a chicken. The chicken genome has 39 pairs of chromosomes, whereas the human genome contains 23 pairs.
Photo Source: U.S.D.A.

Special thanks to Mr. Maurice Martin and Mr. Dean Shuck for providing additional information.

**“Observations on ploidy of cells and on reproductive performance in parthenogenetic turkeys” - by G. Cassar, T.M. John and R. J. Etches;
Department of Animal and Poultry Science, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada published in Poultry Science


  1. I just ordered hatching eggs for this turkey breed. I am very excited that I may help to contribute to its continuation as a breed. I wanted a smaller type of turkey, since most families are smaller today. I have had many of my friends ask me about birds this size to purchase for holiday meals. In fact they contact me because I already raise Black Jersey Giants and they want to buy one to set in place of a turkey because it is a bit smaller than a turkey and yet larger than the average chicken.

    Thank you so much for the article. I learned more about them from it.

  2. Just to do a tiny bit of correction. Beltsville is in the center of the state, not in the Northwest corner(which is mountains and is surrounded by Pennsylvania and West VA). Its in PG County Maryland which borders Washington DC. Its a few miles away from the Greenbelt Metro stop. I used to work in the Livestock Sciences Institute there.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. I am looking for a starter flock of Beltsville Small White. Fertile eggs would work too. My email address is quiverfull.gardner@gmail.com

  6. Hi there I am also seeking beltsville white small white poults to my flock. Poults or eggs would be eggstatic lol animamundiempress@gmail.com is my email also please reach out :) thank you

  7. Hi there I am also seeking beltsville white small white poults to my flock. Poults or eggs would be eggstatic lol animamundiempress@gmail.com is my email also please reach out :) thank you

  8. Hi there I am also seeking beltsville white small white poults to my flock. Poults or eggs would be eggstatic lol animamundiempress@gmail.com is my email also please reach out :) thank you