Turkeys are sociable, curious, and quirky creatures. Domesticated turkeys today are descended from several turkey subspecies originating from Mexico. A turkey’s natural lifespan can be up to 10 years, however in commercial turkey meat production they will be slaughtered at 10-18 weeks.
There are two breeds available for commercial production in Australia known as the Hybrid and the Nicholas.
There is no commercial egg industry in Australia so turkey eggs are imported from the USA (Nicholas) and Canada (Hybrid) by the two companies that hold the largest number of breeder stock in Australia (Baiada and Ingham’s). Turkey breeder hens are 7 months old when they start laying eggs. Because these birds are genetically selected and bred to grow very quickly, the weight of breeder birds is controlled by restricting or formulating a special feed, meaning breeders birds may be left chronically hungry. Male birds (called ‘toms’) still become too heavy (due to the large area of breast muscle) to mate naturally, so females (or ‘hen’) are artificially inseminated.
Breeder hens can produce up to 105 eggs over a 28-week laying period, when hens are no longer profitable they are then slaughtered. The normal life span of a turkey is 10 years. Breeding hens are vaccinated for common diseases such as haemorrhagic enteritis, cholera and fowl pox, this provides immunity to the poults which are normally not vaccinated. Eggs from the breeder birds (or ‘parent flock’) are transported to the major hatcheries, where eggs are incubated for a period of 28 days.
Within hours of hatching, poults are sorted by sex and may be subjected to various husbandry procedures at the hatchery.
Beak trimming is routinely done to prevent injurious pecking on farm, using an infra-red laser the tip of the beak is lasered causing it to erodes away as the bird eats. Toe trimming may also be done also using an infra-red laser to remove the tip of the toe to prevent regrowth of the nail.
Day-old turkeys, known as poults are transported from the hatchery to the growing facility within a period of 72 hours after hatching.
At this stage, they weigh between 40 to 60 grams. Depending on the location of the growing facility, poults are either transported by road or by air. Both male and female birds are grown out for meat.
For the first four weeks or so, poults are usually kept in a ‘brooding area’ within a shed. This is a confined area of the shed where they can be kept warm under brooding lights and easily find food and water. At the end of the brooding period, birds are given access to the entire shed.
In the shed birds are usually kept with bedding on the floor such as wood shavings, chopped straw or rice hulls. The lighting, temperature and ventilation of the sheds are controlled to promote growth. One shed may house 8 – 14,000 birds, with male and female birds usually separated by a barrier in the shed. Birds remain in the shed until they reach slaughter weight.
Conventional farming methods of turkeys have several associated welfare issues including rapid growth rate, high stocking densities and barren environments. To read more about these welfare issues, click here.
Catching and transport
Turkeys have been selected to grow more muscle in the breast and thighs and reach slaughter weight very quickly. Hens reach slaughter weight at around 10 weeks old (5-6 kg), whereas toms will grow to around 18 weeks (7-11 kg) or more. The weight in which birds are slaughtered depends on customer requirements.
Birds are caught by ‘pick-up crews’. Catching usually in darkness as birds to help keep birds calm and involves catching birds by hand and placing them in transport crates or modules. The transport crates or modules are loaded on to trucks for transport to the processing plant.
At the processing plant, turkeys are rested for up to 2 hours to allow them to settle from being transported.
After this time, turkeys are removed from their crates and stunned (rendered unconscious) before slaughter. Turkeys in Australia are stunned using electrical waterbath stunning. This process involves birds being shackled upside down while they are conscious and then passing through an electrical water bath which renders them unconscious. Once unconscious, birds have their necks cut and are bled out to cause death prior to regaining consciousness.
Electrical waterbath stunning in particular has associated animal welfare issues including the need to shackle birds while they are conscious and a higher risk of ineffective stunning than other systems. To read more about the animal welfare issues of turkeys at slaughter click here.
Once they are dead, turkeys are plucked, cleaned and further processed either as whole birds or cut into pieces such as drumsticks, breasts, wings and thighs. They are then packaged for sale.