County was birthplace to the modern turkey
USDA research facility bred meatier, white-feathered birds in 1930s
As millions of U.S. families gather to celebrate Thanksgiving today, they might want to give thanks for the scientists at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, who 76 years ago pioneered efforts to make the holiday's signature dish tastier and more convenient to prepare.
Scientists at BARC the U.S. Department of Agriculture's largest research facility began breeding meatier, more compact turkeys in the 1930s in response to consumer complaints about traditional birds. Their efforts helped to increase year-round popularity and production of the Thanksgiving staple.
"All of the turkeys that we now eat can be traced back to that particular bird that we developed at Beltsville," said BARC scientist Rob Griesbach. "It opened up a whole new possibility."
Most turkeys before the 1930s had dark feathers, weighed 18 to 25 pounds and had a relatively narrow breast with less meat, said BARC poultry research physiologist Julie Long. A survey at the time showed many consumers complained that the dark feathers left brown spots on the bird's skin, and that store-bought turkeys weren't meaty enough and often were too large to fit into home ovens or refrigerators.
"At Thanksgiving, what you had to do was buy your turkey cooked already, because you couldn't cook it at home," Griesbach said, adding that many families also had to roast turkeys outdoors, buy turkey parts or attend dinners at restaurants or hotels.
BARC's answer was to develop a new white-feathered turkey that would weigh just 8 to 15 pounds and have a larger breast. They bred several species to create the Beltsville Small White turkey, which was first sold commercially in the 1940s.
Along with their convenient size, the birds reproduced more rapidly, with hens laying about an egg a day, similar to chickens, Long said. This allowed annual turkey production to keep pace with climbing demand, increasing from 18 million in 1929 to nearly 300 million today.
Companies developed a newer breed in the early 1960s, after restaurants and meat processors complained that the Beltsville turkey was too small for commercial use. The Broad Breasted White had more breast meat but can also be slaughtered at a younger age while still small enough for consumers.
The breed has since become America's most popular turkey, but as a breeding side effect, its larger breast size made the turkey physically unable to mate, requiring breeders to use artificial insemination.
Other breeds still are available to consumers, including heritage turkeys several breeds that have traditional traits, such as dark feathers, a slimmer build and the ability to mate naturally. Mike Kline, a turkey farmer and owner of Good Fortune Farm in Brandywine, said he prefers the Broad Breasted Bronze, a dark-feathered version of the white.
"I like it because it looks like a turkey. It's not a big white thing," said Kline, who sold all 40 of his Thanksgiving birds before Nov. 18. "And I think they taste a little bit better than the white."
While BARC scientists mostly have ceased turkey-breeding since the early 1970s the Beltsville Small White is now extremely rare, Long said they are working to improve the insemination process by prolonging the life of male turkeys' reproductive material prior to insemination. Long said a longer life for turkey semen could allow for increased turkey production without excessive costs.
"Once its fertility drops, it's really not economically viable," Long said, adding that the material can stay fertile for up to 10 weeks in the female's system. "If we can figure out the biology of how she does that ... that would make things a lot easier for the producers."