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Profiles of turkey: Heritage breeds and environmental stewardship

As you dig into that plate heaped with turkey, stuffing and all the other traditional Thanksgiving trimmings, whether or not you want giblets in your gravy may be the first thing that comes to your mind.

But, a lot goes in to that meal that, later in the day, will hopefully land you a lazy spot on the couch afterwards. There's a lot to be thankful in today's turkey industry -- changes underfoot are both opening new market opportunities and improving the environmental stewardship of the business for turkey farmers, for whom production costs have increased, on average, by more than six times in the last three decades (20 cents per pound in 1977 to $1.25 per pound this year, according to USDA-NASS).

Just like in other crop and livestock sectors, some turkey farmers are today looking to niche markets to sustain their operations in the face of such rising production costs. One way the market is segmenting is through the production of heritage breeds, or those that were once the industry standard. Heritage breeds -- those that have been raised in the U.S. for centuries -- were slowly abandoned by farmers in favor of larger, heavier-breasted birds that yield more meat per head.

"The turkey business has turned commercial because of the high demand for turkeys each year," says Kansas State University poultry researcher Scott Beyer. "That has left many of the original breeds of turkeys, or heritage turkeys, close to extinction."

As consumer demand has changed in recent years, heritage breeds have seen a resurgence in popularity. The largely free-range birds, according to Beyer, are considerably more expensive to produce, sometimes by up to 20 times, Beyer says.

"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," Beyer says in a university report. "They do not receive any growth promoters in their feed, and they produce fewer offspring because they mate naturally, compared to most commercial breeds of turkeys, which are produced via artificial insemination."

But, factors other than consumer demand -- which is rising -- are driving the move toward heritage breeds, like the Beltsville Small White, Jersey Buff, Narragansett and White Holland, Beyer adds.

"Heritage turkeys might be making a comeback, perhaps because of concerns about animal welfare and the treatment the animals receive during the breeding process," he says.

At the same time heritage breeds -- an element of turkey production past -- have gained momentum in today's industry, so too has a move toward new more environment-friendly production practices. New technology, for one, can help more closely monitor nutrients at a large-scale farm and, when needed, allows the farmer to make changes to help protect his or her natural surroundings.

"One of the newest projects...utilizes computer technology to track ammonia, carbon dioxide and other compounds in and around the barn," says Gary Thurnau, president of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. "Such measurements and what they mean for the air we breathe are critical to the process of being -- and staying -- good neighbors."

Another way today's modern turkey farmers are able to meet consumer demand, yet maintain the needed level of environmental stewardship is through the use of turkey litter for crop nutrients. The result of this type of technology isn't restricted to just environmental friendliness; it's also boosting the bottom line for crop farmers.

"Turkey producers have several options for disposing of litter from the barn. Land application is the most widely used -- and perhaps the most widely misunderstood," Thurnau says. "Turkey producers carefully manage land application of litter, keeping in mind the nutritional needs of crops, so that contamination of groundwater and surface water is eliminated."

As you dig into that plate heaped with turkey, stuffing and all the other traditional Thanksgiving trimmings, whether or not you want giblets in your gravy may be the first thing that comes to your mind.

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