Early in the 1960s, there was an interest in producing miniature versions (6 to 9 pounds) of the large white and bronze turkeys. These efforts failed due to immature fleshing and finish. The only turkey broilers in this weight range were the Beltsville whites.
The Beltsville whites were known for excellent reproductive abilities but their poor fleshing and body conformation were not popular with consumers. A few miniature turkey lines were developed, all suffering from poor reproductive performance. Many of these were developed from crossing broad-breasted large stocks with the Beltsville whites, with subsequent selection for smaller size.
At the University of Massachusetts, J. R. Smyth Jr. crossed a line of broad-breasted whites with a royal palm turkey he had obtained from Dr. Edward Buss of Pennsylvania State University. The royal palms, a small exhibition strain, possessed reasonably good breast fleshing. Beginning with the first generation crossbreds, Smyth selected on an individual bird basis for smaller size, good breast fleshing and total balance.
After three generations, unforeseen circumstances required Smyth to get rid of his miniatures. Reluctant to dispose of them, he gave the birds to a farm worker who had contacts with poultry exhibition breeders. The farm worker then swapped them for some show bantams to a breeder in Wisconsin. When Smyth gave them up, they were showing palm, silver bronze and white plumage patterns.
In 1971, B.C. Wentworth was contacted by an avian fancier in Wisconsin. He had two toms and four hens from a very small line, which he was unable to keep. When Wentworth picked up these birds, he found they had wing bands with numbers and the abbreviation “U of Mass.” These were the midget white turkeys Smyth had been developing earlier.
During 1972, these small turkeys were photostimulated (14 hours of light; 10 hours of darkness) to induce egg-laying. Wentworth artificially mated these Midget whites. In March, tom “A” was mated with two hens and tom “B” was mated with two other hens. The eggs were all set and poults from this April hatch were pedigreed. In April, the two toms were mated with the two opposite hens. These eggs were collected in May and the following hatch was gathered in June. The poults from the second hatch were pedigreed. The poults resulting from the second mating might not have been an accurate pedigree, because the May eggs might have been fertilized by the male from March.
Wentworth followed a rigorous pedigree approach to develop his flock of Midget white turkeys annually with every effort to avoid further inbreeding. The white color was fixed and he continued to improve fleshing over time. In the late 1970s, an embryonic lethal gene was expressed but over the next three years, Wentworth was successful and purged the stock carrying this unwanted gene.
Since the mid ’70s, selection was maintained to fix a tom body weight to around 13 pounds and hens to around 8 pounds. In every third year, in addition to body weight, breast meat volume was chosen as a selection index. Annually, Wentworth selected for fertility, higher egg production, and hatchability. The hatchability averaged around 80 percent when the flock was dispersed. The originally obtained stock did not lay well, averaging about 30 to 40 eggs during a breeding season.
Currently, midgets lay 60 to 80 eggs annually. The large eggs appear similar to eggs laid by the large broad-breasted lines of turkeys, weighing 3 to 5 grams less. The midget white turkey’s appearance is that of a miniature version of the large commercial white line, sporting a very broad breast. Commercially, this is not an economically important meat bird. Wentworth estimates the feed conversion is approximately 4 pounds of feed per one pound of weight gain.
For the record, the midget white turkeys have no direct genetic relationship to the Beltsville white turkey.
To learn more about the history of this fascinating breed, read "History of the Midget White Turkey" at Mother Earth News.