Many of us have fond memories from elementary school of tracing our handprint and using crayons to color in the outline with oranges, yellows, browns, and reds to make a turkey. This classic image of a turkey in popular culture is, however, far from accurate. The turkeys that are slaughtered around holidays or processed into deli meat and turkey bacon are a uniform, stark white. The lives they lead before being slaughtered, stuffed, and served on our tables are also a far cry from what any of us would have imagined in grade school.
Turkey farming and animal welfare
The welfare of turkeys on factory farms is seriously compromised. Their genetics are poor thanks to generation upon generation of birds being bred to improve production with little focus on animal welfare. Further, the abysmal conditions on factory farms often necessitate that turkeys have their anatomy surgically altered in order to prevent harmful behaviors.
Artificial insemination is a process by which a farmer inseminates a female bird with semen that has previously been collected from a male. Virtually all turkeys slaughtered for food in the United States are artificially inseminated, as the large size of their breasts and thighs make it impossible for them to breed naturally.
The turkeys on factory farms are rotund due to generations of intensive breeding to maximize their growth and particularly the size of their breasts and thighs. This results in abnormal anatomy that can make it difficult for turkeys to walk or even stand as they approach the age of slaughter. The industry admits that genetic selection for fast growth and broad breast leads to difficulty walking, and notes that “gait evaluations in meat-type poultry flocks normally find between 30 to 65% of the population with gait patterns called ‘abnormal’ without having bone issues.”
Painful husbandry procedures
There are a number of husbandry practices that cause pain to turkeys, whether short-lived or enduring, including debeaking, desnooding, and detoeing.
Debeaking, also known as beak trimming, is performed to prevent the development of the feather pecking and cannibalism that frequently occur on factory farms raising birds, largely due to the stressful and crowded conditions in which they are raised. The beak of a bird is highly sensitive, and cutting it can result in lifelong pain and changes in behavior, such as guarding.
Removing turkey snoods from chicks is common practice on turkey farms. A snood is the fleshy, long appendage that drapes down from the top of a turkey’s head. Kansas State University recommends using either nail trimmers or simple thumbnail and finger pressure to remove the snood. The procedure is performed to prevent injuries from pecking by other turkeys later in life.
Detoeing, also called toe trimming and toe clipping, involves the removal of a turkey’s claws at an early age. Research has suggested that birds who have been toe clipped may walk less than those who have not had the tips of their toes removed.
The birds are often kept packed together by the hundreds or thousands in large sheds which prevent them from accessing the outdoors or displaying their natural behaviors such as perching, dustbathing and foraging.
Despite the fact that turkeys’ susceptibility to respiratory diseases increases at ammonia exposure levels of 10 parts per million, suggested caps for maximizing the efficiency of the birds are 25 parts per million.
Intensive indoor systems
Intensive indoor systems of farming place the emphasis on raising large birds as efficiently as possible in order to maximize profit. This leads to the use of light manipulation, as well as cramped housing that increases the risk of problems such as heat stress and lameness.
Catching and transport
Transporting turkeys from the farm to the slaughterhouse is an extremely stressful period for the birds. In order to be moved, several turkeys will be stuffed into a small crate and then loaded onto a truck. Throughout the journey they will be deprived of food and water, and vulnerable to weather conditions.
Confined and killed in vast numbers
Turkeys are raised by the millions and housed in barns with no access to the outdoors. After 20 weeks, they are shipped to slaughter along with the hundreds or even thousands of other birds that they have spent the last several months literally rubbing shoulders with.
How are turkeys farmed?
As with all industrialized farming, raising turkeys has become a science with farmers carefully monitoring how much feed and which supplements they offer to encourage growth and productivity. Everything about the environment the birds grow in is controlled to ensure that farmers get the best return on their investment.
How long does a turkey take to grow?
Industrial turkeys have been bred to grow abnormally fast, multiplying the weight at which they hatched by five times in just a month and by 50 times by the time they are five months old. With slaughter usually taking place between 18 and 20 weeks of age, the must birds gain weight very quickly. At the point of slaughter a male turkey, or tom, is likely to weigh 38 pounds, while a female, or hen, is likely to weigh 26.
How long do turkeys live?
A wild adult turkey is likely to live about three or four years. However, a domestic turkey is likely to be slaughtered between 18 and 20 weeks of age.
What do turkeys eat on a farm?
Turkeys are generally fed diets specific to their age to encourage maximum growth. This means feeding them a diet with more protein when the birds are younger and then switching to a diet with less protein but more calories to make sure that the birds continue to gain weight quickly in the period before slaughter.
How big is the turkey farming industry?
According to the National Turkey Federation, an industry organization based in the U.S., in the United States alone turkey farming is connected to over 380,000 jobs, with wages totaling more than $22 billion annually. Over 215.5 million turkeys were slaughtered in the United States in 2021. In 2022, over 5 million turkeys were depopulated, or killed on the factory farm and not in a slaughterhouse, due to the ongoing avian flu outbreak. These 5 million birds equate to 2.5 percent of all turkeys slaughtered for food in 2021. Due to avian flu, the number of birds successfully raised to slaughter age was far lower in both the second and third quarters of 2022 than in 2021.
What state is the biggest producer of turkey?
In both 2020 and 2021, the state that slaughtered the most turkeys was Minnesota. In 2020, 42,117,000 turkeys were killed in Minnesota and in 2021 the number was 44,776,000. In every month of 2021 except December, Minnesota slaughtered more than 3,000,000 turkeys. In December 2021, 2,889,000 turkeys were slaughtered.
No states come close to slaughtering as many turkeys as Minnesota. However, Illinois has slaughtered the second most turkeys in recent history with 23.8 million turkeys slaughtered in 2021 and 23.2 million in 2020. Next up is North Carolina which in 2021 slaughtered 21.1 million turkeys and in 2020 slaughtered 20.8 million.
Is a turkey farm profitable?
The average salary of a turkey farmer is just over $32,000 a year. This is under the median personal income in the U.S., which stands at $35,805. Though the wholesale price of a frozen turkey ran at about $1.55 per pound in 2022, turkey farmers see only a tiny percentage of that. The difference goes to the integrators that package and sell the birds.
How are farmed turkeys killed?
The actual moment of slaughter is not the only point at which turkeys suffer in the slaughter process. Every step of the way is likely to cause fear and stress, and further compromise the welfare of the turkeys.
Upon their arrival at the slaughterhouse, the birds are unloaded and the slaughter process begins. The process for all poultry is very similar and starts with the birds being hung upside down by their legs while fully conscious. They are then dragged through a bath of electrified water which, when all goes as planned, should stun them. After going through the bath, they are killed by having their neck arteries cut, and then their bodies are prepared, sliced, and processed.
Turkey farming facts and statistics
- According to a survey by the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of U.S. households eat a turkey on Thanksgiving. This translates to 46 million individual birds.
- The common belief that Benjamin Franklin wanted the S. national bird to be a turkey is a myth and stems from a letter in which he criticized the Great Seal.
- The crowding together of genetically uniform, immunocompromised turkeys on factory farms provides the perfect breeding ground for the spread of disease. To combat illness, turkeys can be given vaccines through their drinking water. To be sure that they consume the water containing the vaccine, they are not offered water beforehand so that they are dehydrated at the time of vaccination.
There are no winners on turkey farms. The birds endure painful mutilations and a short life in confined spaces where they are manipulated constantly for the sake of production. The farmers often only barely scrape by, making only pennies per pound of turkeys they produce.