Genetic Diversity Makes Aviagen Turkeys a Global Star


Aviagen Turkeys was pleased to kick-off the 80th NTF Convention program in Nashville with its annual breakfast presentation. This tradition started by Nicholas Turkeys decades ago, gives us an opportunity to provide insight into how the turkeys that are raised by farmers across the U.S. and around the world are bred to be more efficient, healthy, and robust.

This year’s focus was diversity. Diversity is not only important for an effective team, it is also important for an effective breeding program. To meet the range of needs of turkey markets around the world requires different genetic lines of turkeys. It also requires different pedigree selection strategies to ensure the turkeys continue to perform well in a range of environments.

Jihad Douglas, President of Aviagen Turkeys, Inc., opened the program with an overview of the company’s approach. Jihad confirmed Aviagen’s commitment to the industry and our investment in two breeding programs. The Nicholas breeding program has been in the US for over 80 years and was also part of the team that started the B.U.T. program in England over 50 years ago. Both programs have access to all of the technology that Aviagen brings to poultry breeding.

Aviagen is also committed to having multiple brands and we are happy that B.U.T. has returned to the U.S. market. This brand is the market leader in Europe and the B.U.T. 6 is a product that is a good fit for certain segments of the U.S. industry. The B.U.T. 6 is a good example of why it is important to have a diverse gene pool to meet current and evolving industry needs.

Between the two programs, Aviagen Turkeys maintains over 40 different lines of turkeys. We have turkeys that grow to various sizes with the smallest line weighing in at 14 pounds at 18 weeks, whereas the biggest will weigh 55 lbs at the same age. They also have a variety of shapes with breast meat yields that range from 25% to 34%. In addition to the performance differences, we maintain 14 different color variants. All of these populations are carefully managed to minimize inbreeding and to maintain the appropriate family structure.

How does the company maintain and develop this diverse gene pool?

In order to explain the process Aviagen Turkeys’ asked its two R&D Directors to talk about what they do. Paige Rohlf, manages the program and selects the pedigree lines in the U.S. and John Ralph does the same for the U.K. program.


Technology is the core of the pedigree process and it is the same for both programs. Aviagen has made significant investments in developing and implementing technology into poultry breeding. Both programs utilize this technology to capture and analyze data to make the best possible selection decisions. These tools are combined with the expertise of skilled selectors to score the birds for a broad range of traits. Both the US and UK programs have highly trained, tested and experienced people working together to ensure the consistency that is critical in scoring birds correctly.

The differences start with the environment in which the birds are raised and continues through how they are selected. Paige and John gave an overview of how the selection criteria are established and how they are different for the Nicholas Select and the B.U.T. 6. They then gave a demonstration of how they would choose different birds to be pedigree based on their different selection criteria.

In order to keep making progress, both breeding programs must evolve over time. Paige gave an example of how feathering was added to the selection process to improve hen grade and John introduced selection for footpad shape to improve footpad dermatitis. Both breeding programs benefit because once a process is established it is implemented in both places.

Collaborating with outside resources is another way the programs evolve. We are able to capitalize on expertise, avoid introducing risks to the programs, and gain access to innovative technologies by utilizing outside resources. One of our most recent collaborations is with the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg. Paige is working with their anatomy department to assess turkey mobility and leg strength. They are using a high speed camera to analyze gait and correlate bone angulation and density in our pedigree turkeys.

It is also important to measure performance, so global field performance shared by customers is reviewed for all products. Of course all of this information is kept confidential and is critical for understanding how the birds are doing in a commercial environment. Both programs also conduct research trials to evaluate performance in a more controlled environment. All of this information is analyzed to make sure we are meeting our targets and to identify areas where we might improve.

Paige and John both work hard to manage the turkey breeding programs to continue developing breeding stock that meets the needs of their diverse markets. They share ideas and information and work closely with Aviagen’s broader R&D group that includes geneticists and research scientists from around the world and across the poultry and fish industries. All of this is in the aim of ensuring each generation is better than the last, resulting in our “Scorecard” which identifies the expected improvement from one year to the next.

Maintaining two breeding programs and a diverse gene pool is instrumental in developing turkeys that meet the range of needs for today’s markets and also for those in the future. Aviagen Turkeys is committed to making the necessary investments to develop high quality breeding stock to provide the most efficient, healthy, robust turkeys for customers around the world.