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Kansas State University
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Manhattan, KS 66506
785-532-2535
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Source: Scott Beyer, 785-532-1201, sbeyer@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Sheila Ellis, 785-532-6415, media@k-state.edu

Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007

K-STATE POULTRY EXPERT SAYS TURKEYS HAVE CHANGED

MANHATTAN -- The type of turkey that is on sale at your local grocery store is not the turkey your grandma used to buy -- but her "old-fashioned" bird may be making a comeback, according to a Kansas State University poultry researcher.

Because of the high demand for turkeys each year, the turkey business has turned commercial, leaving many of the original breeds of turkeys close to extinction, said Scott Beyer, associate professor of animal sciences and industry at K-State.

In the United States, there are 300 or fewer small-scale heritage turkey farms. These farms are breeding traditional -- or heritage -- birds that have been here for centuries, including Beltsville Small White, Black, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, Slate, Standard Bronze, White Holland and White Midget turkeys, according to Beyer, who has a research interest in heritage turkeys.

These breeds make up less than 1 percent of the 265 million turkeys produced in America last year, Beyer said.

"Many of the heritage breeders focus on showing their turkeys at county and state fairs, while still fewer run small businesses that focus on growing Thanksgiving turkeys," Beyer said. "Heritage farmers lost their market share with the development of the heavier-breasted turkeys found in supermarkets today."

Heritage turkeys are not easy to come by, Beyer said, as they are mainly sold in specialty stores such as Whole Foods Market.

But Beyer thinks heritage turkeys are making a slow comeback. He said there seems to be increased consumer interest in heritage turkeys, perhaps sparked by concerns about animal welfare and the treatment the animals receive during the breeding process.

Good Shepard Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, one of the largest heritage farms in the nation, donated heritage turkeys to K-State for research to find out ways to more effectively and less expensively produce heritage birds, Beyer said.

Heritage turkeys can be more expensive to raise. Because the birds are fully free range, they can fly and tear up pastures. They eat three to four times more feed than commercial turkeys; they take longer to breed because they mate naturally; and they do not receive any chemicals to hurry their growth, unlike commercial turkeys whose farmers often times use artificial insemination, Beyer said.

"A commercial bird will be processed at 12 to 20 weeks, depending on desired body weight," he said. "Heritage birds typically take 36 to 50 weeks."

As far as price, Beyer said heritage birds can cost up to $20 per pound for the really nice heritage breeds, while commercial varieties can cost as little as 75 cents per pound -- and lower.

"The price of the commercial bird varies a lot at this time of year due to store promotions," he said.

Since heritage birds grow more slowly and have access to space to move around, Beyer said the meat of the turkeys is more tender and has a different texture than the commercial birds.

"They taste different," he said.