Breed Profile: The Beltsville Small White Turkey


Bonnie Meikle
Ponoka, Alberta

with permission from the STPA Gobbler

A Beltsville hen
Photo © Watt Publishing, courtesy Turkey World magazine, Dec. 1955 issue

Yes, Beltsville White could be considered a variety from the past, but there is still so much interest and discussion about it, that I thought it would be a good idea to profile it in this issue of the STPA Gobbler. Sheane and I were fortunate to have found a stack of old Turkey World magazines to purchase, and there are some interesting snippets of information about the Beltsvilles in them. There isn't a great degree of the historical information of the birds, but there is some interesting information there, all the same.

I'll briefly sum up their history here. The cover of the July, 1953 issue of Turkey World magazine shows a photo of Stanley Marsden holding a Beltsville turkey; the caption says, "Stanley J. Marsden, USDA, Father of the Beltsville White." In 1929 Mr. Marsden joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Industry staff as the poultry husbandryman at the U.S. Range Livestock Experiment Station at Miles City, Montana. Here, he researched flock improvement. Some readers may be familiar with the book called Turkey Management which he co-authored with J. Holmes Martin, and he also helped to establish the National Turkey Improvement Plan.

In the early 1930s there was a strong consumer demand for turkeys that weren't too large. Marsden conferred with Morley A. Jull, who was in charge of poultry investigations for the Bureau of Animal Industry, and the two men planned the development a smaller turkey. In 1935, experimental turkey work and the flocks were moved to the newly rebuilt research center at Beltsville, Maryland. Morley Jull, Theodore C. Byerly, and Charles W. Knox were all early contributors to the Beltsville White's development.

The actual development spanned over approximately 6 years of crossing several varieties of turkeys: bronze, midget bronze, White Holland, Narragansett, Black, wild, and White Austrian (a small-type turkey which was imported from Scotland). In an effort to increase the distribution of and interest in the new small turkeys, the Bureau contributed eggs, poults, and breeding stock to all of the cooperating state experiment stations and some other institutions. These stations, in turn, distributed stock to experienced commercial turkey breeders. The Bureau's efforts succeeded, and at the time the article was written, Beltsville Whites were being raised and sold for slaughter in almost every American state. In fact, there were 15 million Beltsvilles sold in supermarkets in 1952, and they had the distinction of being the only nationally sold turkey that was sold in stores by their variety name. Even now, people buy 'turkey' at the grocery store, and not 'broad breasted White' turkeys. Beltsville White turkeys became popular with the consumers, and they sold very well. 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, and at this weight their feed conversion was 2.5 to 2.8 pounds of feed consumed per pound of weight gained. The American Poultry Association accepted the Beltsville White turkey into the Standard of Perfection in 1953.

It is unfortunate that their popularity was short lived. In the latest of our Turkey World magazines (December 1955) there is a slightly sad, but enlightening article called, "Don't Count the Beltsvilles Out -- Beltsvilles never had a fair chance under the abusive exploitation that they have suffered." The huge increase in popularity made more producers want to buy breeding stock. The stringent standards which the Beltsvilles were bred to initially were not adhered to by most of these breeders. They didn't painstakingly select the most appropriate birds for breeding, and as a result, the quality of the carcasses that were most readily available began to deteriorate. Since there were so many of these types of breeders around, Beltsville hatching eggs often fetched only 15 to 20 each, compared to 40 to $1 per egg for large turkeys.

Beltsvilles took from 24 to 26 weeks to reach roaster weight, and the 'new' broad breasted white turkeys (BBWhite) that came into popularity could reach the weights at earlier ages. There still were consumers who wanted a finer boned smaller turkey, but the overall decrease in quality of the Beltsvilles and the appearance of the cheaper BBWhite were enough to drive the small white turkeys out of the popular market place.

There were other small turkeys developed to fill the "small turkey niche." The Jersey Buff, White Midget, and the midget Bronze are a few familiar varieties which experienced popularity, although never as strong as the Beltsvilles did. Unless there are a flock or two of Beltsvilles hiding somewhere, the only known flocks that are left in existence right now are closed experimental breeding flocks; none of these birds are available to the public, as they are being studied for the higher degree of parthenogenesis they posses (hens can produce some fertile eggs without exposure to a tom). ALL SMALL WHITE TURKEYS that are being shown and sold as Beltsville White turkeys can be traced to the flock of (Wisconsin) White Midgets. The Midgets are a good quality small turkey which are fine eating birds, but there are some slight differences between these and the Beltsville of old days (which were broader breasted, squatter birds).

It would seem that "Beltsville" has become a generic term for "small white turkey." If I were one of the people who developed the White Midget turkey, it might grate on my nerves to have them called "Beltsvilles" all the time by the well-meaning public. The APA's Standard description for Beltsville Whites doesn't make a distinction for the heritage of the small white turkeys being shown, so there is encouragement in the show ring to call any small white turkey a "Beltsville." Will this be likely to change in the future? Probably not. Speaking for myself, I will always call a Midget a Midget, and remind people of the Beltsville's proud, but brief history.

Beltsville carcasses
The bigger one is of a hen who is closer to the original Beltsville standard. The small one is a lower quality Beltsville hen -- the type that was largely responsible for the Beltsville's downfall.
Photo © Watt Publishing, courtesy Turkey World magazine, Dec. 1955 issue

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