Animal Welfare

Raising Turkeys

Technical advances in turkey genetics, production and processing have helped create turkeys that produce a pound of meat using a smaller amount of feed and in less time than most other domestic meat-producing animals. The National Turkey Federation (NTF) and the American Meat Institute (AMI) have released a video presentation of a turkey farm and processing plant hosted by leading animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Grandin guides the viewing public with an expert eye on the growth and delivery of 253 million turkeys each year. In the video, the viewer gets an up-close look as Grandin interacts with a flock of 15,000 birds roaming easily down the football-field length of a climate-controlled turkey house. When readied for market, those turkeys ride up into conveyor loading trucks and to an orderly delivery at the processing plant. There, the process of humanely stunning the birds renders them unconscious before processing under the watchful presence of USDA government inspectors enforcing safe and sanitary preparation. At each step along the methodical movement of rinsing, cleaning and separating the meat from the carcass, Grandin provides context and common sense explanations. The reality of raising and preparing turkeys for market is revealed in the video for what it is: a modern process that is humane, safe and efficient.

America’s turkey farmers have developed the standards for raising healthy birds in a safe environment to produce wholesome, nutritious, affordable food for people around the world.

Environmental Stewards

Protection and proper use of natural resources is an important objective for the turkey industry. Farmers as responsible stewards of the land, air and water, use modern agriculture methods to provide safe, affordable, healthy foods to feed our families and a growing world. Because of the intensive nature of modern turkey husbandry, very little land is actually devoted to production. The biggest potential impact is from the use of the bedding material (“litter”) used in the turkey houses. Litter is rich in nutrients such as nitrogen and is recycled as an organic fertilizer on farm fields.

Careful management ensures that litter is used in accordance with the nutritional needs of crops so that nutrient enrichment of groundwater and surface water is eliminated or minimized. 

TLC for Turkeys

Turkeys are raised in scientifically designed, environmentally controlled barns that provide maximum protection from predators, disease and bad weather. Turkeys are not raised in cages, instead, they roam freely around the barn. No one cares for a turkey more than the turkey grower. Research has shown that to mistreat a turkey would be economically detrimental to the grower. A well-treated turkey will grow to its full potential and provide consumers with a low-fat and high-protein source of nourishment. The National Turkey Federation does not condone the mistreatment of turkeys.

From Birth

To maintain production continuity, laying turkey hens are artificially inseminated. The use of light induces them to lay eggs under a controlled environment. During a 25-week laying cycle, a hen normally lays 80-100 eggs. At the end of this cycle, the hen is “spent” and is usually processed. Some breeders find it economically feasible to molt the hen (give her a resting period) for another production cycle. It takes 90 days to molt a turkey hen, and her second laying cycle will produce a slightly lower number of eggs (75-80). The incubation period to hatch a turkey egg is 28 days.

…To Maturity

Turkeys are fed mainly a balanced diet of corn and soybean meal mixed with a supplement of vitamins and minerals.

Fresh water is available at all times. On average, it takes 75-80 pounds of feed to raise a 30-pound tom turkey.

Today’s more modern turkey production methods have shortened the time it takes to bring turkeys to maturity. The hen usually takes 14 weeks and weighs 15.5 pounds when processed. This compares to the tom, which takes 18 weeks to reach a market weight of 38 pounds.

Hens are processed and usually sold as whole birds, while toms are further processed into products such as cutlets, tenderloins, turkey sausage, turkey franks and turkey deli meats. All turkeys are both hormone and steroid free. No hormones have been approved for use in turkeys. Genetic improvements, better feed formulation and modern management practices are responsible for the larger turkeys produced today.

Antibiotics have been safely used in animal agriculture for half a century to treat and control disease in animals and to improve the animal’s overall health allowing for greater productivity. Antibiotics are an important reason the U.S. food supply is one of the highest quality, most nutritious, safest and most affordable in the world. The use of antibiotics helps maintain an affordable food supply and makes it more healthful and safer for human consumption.

The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) is required by law to approve all antibiotic drugs for safety and efficacy. Specific regulations govern their safe use and proper withdrawal period. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) monitors residues of antibiotics or other medications. FSIS samples flocks of turkeys at random to test for violative residues. 

The cost of raising a turkey involves many factors. Fixed costs include buildings, equipment and interest on loans while variable costs are labor, feed and poults. Feed ingredients account for about 2/3 of the cost of raising a turkey. Geographic location, financial situation, farm size and production efficiency all contribute to cost differences in turkey production. Improvements in genetics, feed and management practices have made domesticated turkeys more efficient at converting feed to protein than turkeys in the wild.

Domesticated turkeys are also bred to have more breast meat, meatier thighs and white feathers. Turkeys have been bred to have white feathers so they leave no unsightly pigment spots under the skin when plucked. 

The Anatomy of a Turkey

The Caruncle – a red-pink fleshy growth on the head and upper neck of the turkey

The Snood – a long, red, fleshy growth from the base of the beak that hangs down over the beak

The Wattle – a bright red appendage at the neck

The Beard – a black lock of hair found on the chest of the male turkey

A large group of turkeys is called a flock. A baby turkey is called a poult and is tan and brown.

Turkey eggs are tan with brown specks and are larger than chicken eggs. Toms are male turkeys. Hens are female turkeys.