The Beltsville Small White was developed to fill a clearly identified consumer need. In the early 1930s most turkeys raised in the US had dark colored plumage, were medium to large in size and had a narrow breast without substantial meat. A 1936 survey found that 87% of home consumers wanted a New York-dressed bird (blood and feathers removed) weighing between 8 and 15 pounds. They also wanted a bird that was meaty, well-finished and free from dark pin feathers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture research center at Beltsville, Maryland, therefore, began a breeding program between 1934 and 1941 to create a bird that would answer the consumer demand for a bird that would fit apartment sized refrigerators, small ovens, and small families. Researchers developed the new Beltsville Small White variety from a genetic foundation that included the White Holland, White Austrian, Narragansett, Bronze, and Wild Turkey.
The Beltsville variety came into use in the 1940s and was recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1951. The height of its popularity came in the mid-1950s and, in addition to its use as a purebred, the Beltsville Small White also contributed to the development of other strains of medium and small white turkeys though these populations were never very well defined as breeds.
The Beltsville Small White turkey’s success was short lived and by the 1970’s it was nearly extinct. Although considered a fine bird for family use, it was less well received by the hotel and restaurant trade or by processors that desired a larger bird from which they could obtain more “slices.” The Broad Breasted White (or Large White) turkey, therefore, came to overshadow the Beltsville because, when slaughtered at a young age, the Broad Breasted White fit the processor’s niche for a smaller turkey but had the ability to grow substantially heavier weights for the commercial food trade. By 1965, the new Broad Breasted White had nearly taken over the turkey market. Despite this, the Beltsville Small White still had advantages. Beltsvilles had good reproductive qualities, including the ability to mate naturally, and so could be selected, bred, and maintained by small-scale producers. In contrast, Broad Breasted White turkeys generally required artificial insemination for reproduction.
Young Beltsville turkey hens weigh 10 pounds and young toms weigh 17 pounds. The plumage is white, with the head red to bluish white. The beard is black, the beak is horn colored, and the eyes are dark brown. Shanks and toes are pinkish white.
Today the Beltsville Small White is quite rare and primarily by few exhibition breeders. Research flocks exist at both the Iowa State University and the University of Guelph, however, public access to these flocks is almost non-existent. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in this variety. Efforts are underway to locate and conserve any remnant flocks in the United States and Canada.