Heavy-chested and meaty, today's turkey is a fine-feathered example of genetic engineering -- the product of decades of carefully controlled breeding. In the 1950s, consumers began demanding bigger, fuller-breasted birds. Scientists responded by selecting only the largest birds for breeding purposes. And so on, and so on.
To the mutual delight of hungry consumers and eager scientists, the turkeys blossomed. Actually, ballooned is more accurate. Soon, turkeys more than doubled in size. In fact, the male, or "tom," turkeys grew so large and clumsy that they were no longer able to mate naturally.
Turkey breeders searched in vain for a solution. They even made canvas saddles with wing holes for the hens. The saddles, however, were unsuccessful; the guy turkeys were too heavy to get up on the saddles, much less do anything once they were there. Plus, breeders were less than thrilled with the prospect of saddling hundreds of hens.
Once again, science saved the day. Poultry scientists recalled experiments by two USDA researchers in the 1930s, who had discovered that a certain manner of stroking a male bird caused him to ejaculate, a technique called "abdominal massage." The semen could thus be collected and injected into a hen -- in other words, artificial insemination. UC Davis professors Frank Ogasawara and Fred Lorenz pioneered the technique in California, and shared their knowledge with the state's turkey breeders. Ranches across the nation also enthusiastically adopted the method.
Today, virtually all turkeys are bred by artificial insemination, says Dr. Francine Bradley, an avian scientist at UC Davis. In fact, this method will produce most of the 300 million turkeys -- roughly 18 pounds per person -- that Americans will eat this year.
Both turkey breeders (farms that raise genetic stock) and turkey "integrators" (companies that raise birds solely as food, like Foster Farms and Con Agra, which produces Butterball turkeys) use the technique. Tom turkeys are kept on stud ranches and "milked" once a week. "Big semen machines is really all they are," says Con Agra hatchery manager and longtime turkey man Henry Peralta. Indeed, one tom's output can artificially inseminate 30 hens, each of which will produce about 90 eggs in the following six months.
Using artificial insemination, breeders have developed still larger birds. Today's average 1-month-old turkey weighs a little over 2 pounds -- nearly three times the weight of the same bird 70 years ago. "This technique really saved the turkey industry," Bradley says. "With AI, the industry has been very effective in producing a big, efficient bird."
Bradley offers a demonstration. She explains, somewhat apologetically, that UC Davis has no turkeys at the moment. With the university's main turkey expert on sabbatical in Scotland, she says, the department just can't afford to keep spare turkeys around. But the university has plenty of chickens, says Bradley. Abdominal massage works on all poultry, so a chicken would do just fine. She arranges a visit to UC Davis, for a close-up look at this technique.
Bordered by black walnut trees and dry blond grasses, Poultry Headquarters at UC Davis contains all the university's poultry. (During World War II, interned Japanese-Americans were housed in several of the barracklike buildings.) Outside "headquarters," Bradley steps into a pair of yellow coveralls and retrieves a black leather kit from the trunk of the car. She pulls what looks like clear plastic Christmas stockings over her shoes, and ties the tops.
Inside the first building, she steps in a plastic tub of disinfectant, to destroy any possible poultry-killing diseases, and then continues outside. Bradley stops at one of the buildings, and opens the door on an ear-splitting chorus of squawking, clucking, and crowing.
The door opens on a low-lit room where 1,000 chickens -- New Hampshires, silkies, and leghorns -- sit in back-to-back wire cages aligned in four long rows. A man in a blue smock and cap calmly works his way around the building, collecting eggs and carefully avoiding the piles of sawdust, feathers, and, yes, chicken shit on the floor beneath the cages.
Bradley reaches into one compartment, where WB 5540, a fluffy, white 3-year-old leghorn, is pacing back and forth. Gently but firmly, she removes the bird and rests his chest on the feed trough. "Brawwwck" is all WB 5540 has to say for himself at this point.
Bradley holds his pale, twiglike feet together with one hand. She runs the other hand from his neck to his tail feathers, with four fingers on his back and her thumb on the bird's side, until his tail stands straight up. Four short strokes is all it takes. Bradley squeezes the area around his "vent," and collects the results in a small glass vial. "That's a good boy!" She returns WB 5540 to his cage.
It's one of those things, says Bradley, that gets easier the more you do it. Perhaps. But it's also a specialized skill that requires training and practice. Handlers develop relationships with their toms, as both parties get acquainted and grow accustomed to the routine. "Turkeys definitely recognize people," Bradley says. "And they respond better to people they're familiar with."
Poultry, like people, have preferences too. Bradley recalls some experiments she and an assistant ran on male chickens. "Looking at the volume data, I could tell right away if my assistant was sick or on vacation. The chickens knew who was picking them up."
Novice turkey-massagers must learn how to handle the birds correctly. "It's important to be gentle with the bird," says Bradley. "If you're really rough and you don't handle him nicely, you get defecation."
Turkeys don't take kindly to being manhandled, and are notoriously fierce when improperly aroused. The average breeder tom weighs 40 to 50 pounds, and has tremendous power in his feet and wings. With one powerful flap, a turkey can break an inept handler's arm.
Female turkeys are lighter and generally calmer, but inseminating hens is tricky too. Inseminators use a syringe, or a rubber tube attached to the end of a thick plastic straw to blow the semen into the hens.
Back at Poultry Headquarters, Bradley takes a small syringe from her kit, explaining that she will only simulate an insemination. She lifts Hen 1074 from her cage, and rests her chest on her feed trough. There is no stroking this time, only squeezing around the bird's vent -- "breaking the hen," to expose her essential parts. Bradley positions the syringe, injects the hen, then sets the bird back in her cage.
Clearly, this task is best left to the experts -- as it has been for some time.
In the 1950s, artificial insemination companies would travel through California servicing (as Mayor Brown might say) the turkey industry. The going rate: 10 cents a hen, plus mileage and meals. But turkey ranchers feared that the crews might carry poultry diseases between farms, so they decided to do their own inseminating. Today, turkey operations have their own inseminators, who earn between $5 and $12 an hour and work in teams.
Orlopp Turkey Breeding Farms President Ron Orlopp says the inseminators must be extremely careful. Fewer than 12 companies -- including Orlopp's -- own the world's entire turkey gene pool. A reckless inseminator who accidentally mixes semen from different turkeys could undermine generations of careful breeding and ruin a pure genetic line. "Those lines are very, very valuable to us," says Orlopp, who produces about 125,000 pedigreed turkeys each year. "We have some turkeys that are descended from birds my grandfather raised in the 1930s."
The world's top three turkey breeders -- Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms of California; British United Turkeys, based in Virginia; and Hybrid Turkeys in Ontario, Canada -- are even more fanatical about protecting their "foundation" stock from avian diseases.
"Biosecurity" is tight at Nicholas Farms in Santa Rosa, which produces the parent stock for roughly 80 percent of the nation's turkeys. The few visitors permitted on the premises must shower and change into standard-issue coveralls, boots, and hairnets. All vehicles must be steamed, washed, and sanitized before they are allowed to drive onto Nicholas territory.
The heavyweights of the turkey industry guard information about their enterprises almost as closely as the breeding facilities themselves. Nicholas Farms said "no" to a visit, and would not even discuss their operations. "We just don't do Thanksgiving stories," their receptionist said apologetically but firmly.
The meat turkey people were equally reluctant. Foster Farms, in Livingston, immediately referred calls to their legal department. They declined requests for an interview unless a list of questions was faxed in advance. Even when Brad Nelson, manager of "live turkey production," finally called back, he seemed reluctant. "Some of your questions could be construed as odd by the public," he said.
Odd indeed -- but not nearly as odd as the tale of how the once long, angular turkey became the ungainly, balloon-chested bird you'll eat next week. Happy Thanksgiving.