Turkeys, along with chickens and ducks, are one of the more common species of poultry farmed for meat. Domestic turkeys were originally bred from wild turkey stock native to North America. Over the past 50 years, breeding companies have been selecting for production traits such as fast growth, large breast and thigh muscles, and feed efficiency. Similar to meat chickens, this selection pressure has resulted in significant welfare problems for turkeys.
Turkeys raised for meat production are bred to grow and gain weight very rapidly, particularly to grow more muscle in the breast and thighs. This rapid growth rate can result in severe welfare problems, including leg disorders (e.g. lameness), a condition called ‘ascites’ (accumulation of fluids in the abdominal cavity resulting from a heart problem) and heart failure. Birds often become so heavy that they suffer from leg weakness, joint problems and bone fractures. Their legs may be unable to support them, leaving them unable to access food and water, and suffering from hock and foot burn due to increased contact with the litter (bedding in the shed).
Painful husbandry procedures
Turkey poults may be subject to a number of husbandry procedures such as desnooding, dewinging (or wing clipping), toe trimming (or toe clipping) and spur removal.
Desnooding involves the removal of the snood, which is the fleshy appendage on the top of the head of male birds, because it is considered a target for injurious pecking from other birds. Dewinging is the trimming of a turkey’s primary flight feathers (the feathers along the outer edge of the wingtip), to prevent or restrict flight behaviour which can minimise flightiness in the flock. Toe trimming is the amputation of the tip of the three forward facing toes to remove the sharp claws. Spur removal is the amputation of the long claw on the back of the leg on some birds. Both toe trimming and spur removal are performed to reduce the risk of birds scratching and injuring others.
Depending on the alteration and the method used, these procedures can cause both short- and long-term pain as well as restrict the birds’ ability to display normal behaviours.
The large size of turkeys also affects stocking density, i.e. space allowance per bird within the shed. Where birds are not provided with enough space, this can result in lack of exercise, which can increase the incidence of lameness. This, in turn, increases the birds’ contact with the litter, causing foot pad burn, hock burn and breast blisters if the litter is not well managed. Additionally, birds housed in cramped conditions are at an increased risk of experiencing injurious feather pecking and heat stress.
Environmental conditions inside the shed
Turkeys, when not provided with adequate lighting levels to encourage activity or a sufficiently long dark period to rest, can be negatively impacted due to reduced walking ability, reduced expression of comfort and exploratory behaviours, increased incidence of breast lesions, eye abnormalities, disturbed sleep patterns and overall higher mortality rates.
Turkeys may engage in injurious pecking which ranges from feather pecking to cannibalism.
Poor animal welfare occurs where the environmental conditions do not meet a bird’s needs to engage in natural and rewarding behaviours. Turkeys have behavioural needs to perch, forage and dustbathe, which needs to be accommodated by the provision of sufficient space, good quality litter, environmental enrichment, perches and visual barriers. Turkeys raised in barren environments can become bored and frustrated, which can result in birds engaging in injurious pecking towards other birds.
Catching and transport
Once the turkeys have reached slaughter weight, they are placed or herded into transport crates/modules on a truck to be transported to the abattoir. Both catching and transportation are stressful for birds due to the manual handling of birds at catching, as well as the deprivation of feed and water, and the risk of being injured or experiencing heat stress during transport.
Upon arrival at the abattoir, turkeys are removed from their crates/modules and shackled, upside down, by their legs on a conveyor system. Birds are most commonly stunned (rendered unconscious) in an electrical waterbath and then have their neck cut to allow bleeding out. They are then plucked, cleaned, processed and packed for further distribution.
Before slaughter, the birds may experience unnecessary suffering and pain, particularly due to turkeys’ heavy body weights. Shackling birds upside down is an abnormal posture for birds which causes fear and stress, and the compression of legs by shackles is painful especially for heavy birds.
An alternative stunning method to electrical waterbath stunning systems is controlled atmosphere stunning. This involves exposing birds to carbon dioxide or inert gas combination (such as argon or nitrogen) prior to shackling. Once unconscious, birds are then shackled and have their neck cut to allow bleeding out. Carbon dioxide gas stunning systems are widely used in Australia for meat chickens, but not currently for turkeys.
What can be done to address these welfare issues?
Significant welfare problems can be prevented by selecting for a slower rate of growth, providing more space in the sheds, providing adequate lighting, providing an environment and environmental enrichment that encourages natural behaviours, and good stockpersonship and handling.
The RSPCA is working to improve the welfare standards set out in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry, as well as the welfare standards for the transport and slaughter of turkeys.
Through the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme the RSPCA works closely with farmers committed to raising turkeys to higher animal welfare standards. Since releasing our first animal welfare standards for turkeys in 2010, more than 2.3 million turkeys have benefitted from better conditions on farm.