The Life of a Turkey

by Bill Chameides | November 21st, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

The majority of turkeys destined to grace America’s dinner tables next week are raised on industrial farms. Organic, heritage, and free-range birds (like those in the picture) are available, though. Check below for some links.

Thanksgiving approaches. As most of us look forward to celebrating our blessings with family and friends, putting a turkey front and center on the dinner table, I thought it might be interesting to learn about the life of the average American turkey.

But let me start with a challenge — if you are willing to take the time to do some research, you can find a turkey that has been raised organically and/or cage-free (see here and here for a leg up on your search, and see the links just below).

The fact is that most of us will be carving turkeys next week that were raised on industrial farms in one of five states, and most of those 271 million turkeys are of one variety: the broad-breasted white (BBW). This bird, which has bountiful breast meat, will have been fed a steady diet of growth-enhancing antibiotics and pumped with flavor enhancers during processing — and it will not have lived on your grandfather’s farm.

The Industrial Factory-Farmed Turkey

Most industrial turkeys are produced by a vertically integrated company, which owns the hatchery, feedmill, and processing plant, and contracts with a grower. Two companies (Nicholas and Hybrid Canada) control the genetic material for all BBW turkeys.

Day 1 – Hatched. Our chick is put into a harness. Toenails and beak tip are zapped off with high-intensity light (essentially sunburned). The birds are vaccinated with aerosol spray and sorted by sex. Then they are shipped to a nearby contract farm (up to 6 hours away from the hatchery), 100 birds to a box.

At the Farm. The chick goes to a brooder barn where it is placed in a so-called brooder ring — 1,000 birds per ring and 10 rings to a barn. Their feed is a corn-and-soybean meal mash/crumble that is fortified with vitamins, minerals, low-level growth antibiotics, and, for a time, an additive that controls common parasitic disease.

The barn floor is covered with wood shavings, rice hulls, or other local materials to absorb waste. Lights extend daylight hours to keep birds eating.

Day 4 or 5. Brooder ring is removed. Our bird, now a hen, will remain inside until processing, where it is given about 0.7 square feet to strut its stuff — that’s a little more than a 6”x6” space. This will increase to about 1.5 square feet over its lifetime.

Week 12-13 or 16. Slaughter time depends upon size. A relatively small hen (around 14 lbs.) will be slaughtered in 12–13 weeks, a large one (18 lbs.) in about 16 weeks. The hens are rounded up, eight to a cage, and taken to be processed.

The Slaughter House. Our bird is shackled upside down to an automated conveyor where it is stunned, slaughtered, processed, and inspected. It is then placed in a chilled bath with disinfectant, some of which the turkey will absorb. The bird is then injected with saline solution, vegetable oils, and other additives to improve taste and texture. These plump the bird’s weight by about 7.5 percent.

That’s the life of the typical Thanksgiving turkey.

Some Leads for a Different Kind of Turkey

If you are game (ahem), however, you can find a turkey that is grown more sustainably and with more regard for the bird’s quality of life. Any of these four sites might be a good starting place:

Here’s a quick rule of thumb. To determine whether you’re getting a modern or heritage turkey, just ask how long it was raised. If it matured in 12-18 weeks, it’s a modern bird. If it took longer, it’s a heritage breed. Those are the two choices.

Raising a BBW Turkey in Pasture – A Controversy

When factory farm took off in the 1960s, BBW turkeys were selectively bred to grow at accelerated rates, essentially turning them into sentient crops. Growing these creatures faster and more uniformly cuts costs and meat prices, and maximizes profits.

When put on a farm where they are allowed to pasture, BBW birds still mature at the same accelerated pace as on industrial farms since their growth rate and physiology are predetermined by their genetic makeup. Modern BBWs have been bred to mature in half the time it took just 50 years ago. But this speed comes not without costs to the animal. Were they not slaughtered for meat, they would not live past two years. Their cardiovascular and exoskeleton systems cannot keep up with their growth rate, so their organs and bones are overtaxed. As for sex? BBWs are unable to reproduce naturally, and without artificial insemination would be wiped out in a generation.

In a free-range setting, where birds are not snipped or clipped or fed antibiotics or vaccinated, their existence is generally less than pleasant. Though they run around and jump up to roost during their first three weeks, by about week five or six, their quality of life plummets. Studies have found that compared to heritage turkeys, BBW birds raised in pasture tend not to roost, dust bathe, run well, or walk normally after about a month or so.

According to Margie Bender, research and technical program manager of American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, raising a BBW on pasture may not be the most humane path, as these birds were not designed to range and need ready access to food and water as well as shelter.

Note: This post has been changed to correct the name of the program manager at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.



Definition of an organic turkey (more info here)

Definition of a heritage turkey

Local Harvest Turkeys –

Animal Welfare Approved

Eat Well






Most of the information gathered for this piece came from personal interviews with a range of turkey expertise.

filed under: animals, faculty, food, health


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  1. Daniel Wedgewood
    Nov 26, 2008

    Dr. Chameides, About 6 years ago I decided to raise some turkeys for food. I ordered 15 from a breeder, and got them in the mail – the clerk at the post office called me asap to pick them up. The first few days of raising them were the most time consuming. The baby turkeys are cute, but pretty clueless. They will look around in a dazed fashion, or take off running at high speed only to stop suddenly, or change to a new random direction at full speed again. They often fall down. They’re fun to watch, and sometimes make cute little sounds. As they started to get bigger I put them outside into a fenced-in area for them to live, eat, and play (I’m not really sure what they played, but they obviously did). They were always hungry. They got to be huge after about 5 months. They did learn to fly – ever try to catch a turkey that has mastered that skill? I should have just kept them as pets, but as I was determined to complete my plan, I gathered them up and took them to a local butcher (this was in a small, rural town in Maine). They did NOT like to be picked up and put into a crate for transport. When I say they did not like it, I mean they would flap their large, bony, heavy wings up against my head until I put them down. After number 15 was put away, I felt like a boxer who just lost a long fight… brutal. Not fun for anyone involved. They tasted much better than store bought turkeys, and lasted for about 9 months in the freezer. The total experience certainly cost more in feed, electricity, and time than commercial turkeys. I’m pretty sure they had a better life than the industrial-raised turkeys you described. It seems that raising the turkeys that way was better for them and maybe me, but more costly in terms of energy efficiency (compared to the turkey factories). So, if I were only going by environmental cost, I guess the commercial turkey growers would be better for the planet? My bruises healed, but I could never quite get over the raise-kill experience. I haven’t raised turkeys since then. – Dan” title=”Don’t try this yourself

    • erica
      Nov 26, 2008

      from DR. CHAMEIDES – Dan, Thanks for the confessions of a turkey raiser. You should probably get it recorded for that StoryCorps program on NPR. ” title=”StoryCorps fodder?

  2. Caitlin Luderer
    Nov 21, 2008

    Dear Dean Chameides, I am so glad you discussed this topic – I think alot of Americans would be surprised to learn our food is processed this way! ” title=”Origin of Turkeys

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