Turkey genetics

Turkey producer Raymond Twiddle of Twydale Turkeys once boasted that turkey meat was the cheapest, healthiest meat on the market and suggested we eat more of it all year around.

Turkey producer Raymond Twiddle of Twydale Turkeys once boasted that turkey meat was the cheapest, healthiest meat on the market and suggested we eat more of it all year around.

That was in the 1970s when we ate around 21 million each year about half of them at Christmas. According to the British Turkey Federation we still eat around 10million birds at Christmas and two thirds of them are frozen.

Like most industries rationalisation came to the turkey business Ten years ago there were 24 major producers and processors of turkey in the UK. Today there are two, Cranberry Foods and Bernard Matthews. Two smaller companies are Lincs Turkeys and Cherry Ridge and then there is the third layer of 1500 or so independents the "Christmas turkey" producers.

While the big boys have consolidated , one of the independents, started in the 1970s, turkey producer and processor Derek Kelly and his family at Springate Farm Danbury in Essex have defied the odds and grown to become an international brand.

But it may be that it is London butchers Lidgate's in Holland Park might take some of the credit for one of the biggest revolutions in the turkey market since Yorkshire man William Strickland introduced the strange North American birds in 1526 selling them for tuppence each in Bristol market.

Nearly 25 years ago David Lidgate received some of the table-ready black and bronze birds from Derek Kelly who had relegated the parents of these slow growing birds to the family farm's private rare breed collection. David Lidgate's customers reported some of the best Christmas dining ever and said they would be back next year for the same.

Derek and his son Paul suddenly realised that the bronze and blacks should be taken out of retirement and be used in the breeding programme to boost the flavour and textural qualities of the white turkeys.

In the New Year, Derek set off to collect all the remaining flocks of this ancient breed to preserve separate blood lines to maintain the heterosis factor so important to keeping genetic integrity. Today, Kelly Turkeys use as many as eight pure lines of turkeys to cross breed within a unique breeding programme which produces the turkey now branded KellyBronze. Since then the breeding programme has been fine-tuned to improve the production economics and conformation of the old breed while protecting the original flavour of turkey.

The complexity of maintaining a breeding programme in which parent stock passed on a reasonable balance of viable traits including eating quality, carcase yield and growth rate led to the appointment of Dr John Jones formerly a government scientist at the Food Research Institute.

There are two main breeding programmes one for the white feathered birds which are reared to 20 weeks-of age when the Plumpie is 9 kg , the Wrolstad is 7kg , the Roly Poly 6kg and Super Mini 5kg. The same brands are used for the pedigree bronze birds which have a separate, unique and secret breeding formula. Fundamentally, breeding centres on white and bronze females crossed with different males to match the weight range required.

Complying with that old adage about the proof in the pudding , the company received a boost in 1990 when Delia Smith, 80 miles north from the farm in Norwich decided she liked KellyBronze and put it on her TV cookery programme.

Since then the list of chef-devotees of the turkeys has grown to include such TV performers as Brian Turner, Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall, Nigela Lawson and Rick Stein who listed the Kellys in his book of 'food heroes'. This summer Kelly's Farmgate Hatchery saw around 1.2 million eggs hatch. About 90 per cent of these are sold as day-old poults to that growing band of independent Christmas turkey producers. Another 40,000 are sold as live birds to processors at 16-20 weeks of age and 40,000 are reared by Paul Kelly and marketed as dry plucked oven ready for the Christmas table.