The Life of a Turkey
by Bill Chameides | November 21st, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
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:
- Local Harvest Turkeys – www.localharvest.org/store/turkey.jsp
- Animal Welfare Approved Turkeys – find turkeys by state/locality – www.animalwelfareapproved.org
- Eat Well Guide – www.eatwellguide.org/localguide
- Eat Wild – www.eatwild.com
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 a heritage turkey
Local Harvest Turkeys – www.localharvest.org
Animal Welfare Approved – www.animalwelfareapproved.org
Eat Well Guide – www.eatwellguide.org
Eat Wild – www.eatwild.com
Most of the information gathered for this piece came from personal interviews with a range of turkey expertise.filed under: animals, faculty, food, health