General

Turkeys and turkey farming: what you need to know

Image: AdobeStock / shishiga

When we think about turkeys, certain things are likely to come to mind: November, Thanksgiving, and a big celebratory meal, and, in some parts of the world, Christmas. While turkey is a traditional centrepiece of most families’ Thanksgiving dinners in the United States, turkey meat is also regularly consumed in many countries and cultures. In this article, we try to better understand these highly social animals and take a look at the unethical practices of turkey farming.

Origin and cultural Importance

Wild turkeys are native to North America and are mostly found in the East of the United States.1 They were first domesticated in ancient Mexico by the Maya and Aztecs, where they played an important symbolic and cultural role. They were rarely eaten but were used for rituals and even depicted as gods.2 3

Biology and behaviour

On average, the lifespan of turkeys in the wild is estimated to be 1.3 to 1.6 years, but they can live for as long as 13 years.4 5 In an industrial context, however, they grow to full maturity in around four to five months.6

Turkeys are social animals – they use at least 15 different vocalisations to communicate with each other, and display a variety of social gestures.7 Domestic turkeys, which are morphologically similar to wild turkeys, exhibit the following social behaviours: blushing, paling, pecking, parallel striding, mutual chasing and fleeing from each other, impersonating, hacking, and jumping. They also express submission through head-pulling, dodging, and ducking.8

Wild turkeys have a hierarchical social structure. They establish their ranks through fighting, which usually occurs in autumn. These fights take place within male sibling groups, as well as with other male groups and within hen flocks. However, there is no fighting between males and females. The fights often last for over two hours, during which time they each try to grab the snood or other skin areas of the head with their beak and pull the head down.9

In spring, the hens breed and live with their chicks, together with other families, until autumn. In autumn, sibling groups of male turkeys form, while females congregate in larger flocks. In winter, wild turkeys remain in sex-segregated groups and do not come together for courtship and mating until late February.10 Wild turkeys grow to sexual maturity when they are about a year old.11

Wild turkeys are active during the day. They can fly, but, especially with advancing age and weight, they prefer to walk or run. They rest at night and seek out elevated areas such as trees to protect themselves from predators. (Humans are the primary predator of adult wild turkeys.) In the first few weeks of life, turkey chicks cannot reach these areas and seek shelter under their mother on the ground. At 14 days of age, they can already perch on low branches, and by the time they are six weeks old, they can sleep with the adults.12 13

Over 600 million turkeys are slaughtered for meat every year, more than 70% of them in the US (223 million animals) and the EU and UK (203 million animals).14 They are slaughtered after about four to six months of growth, with a weight of approximately 20 kg.

Husbandry Conditions

A study commissioned by the Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs of the European Union states that the major welfare problems of turkeys are a consequence of the aggression of turkeys, a result of keeping them at high stocking density.
While the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) states that stock density should not exceed 25 kg/m2,15 none of the countries and regions listed below meet this welfare standard.16

Country Stock density legally binding?
Austria 40 kg/m² yes
Switzerland 36.5 kg/m² yes
UK 38.5 kg/m² no, only a recommendation
Germany 45-50 kg/m² no, only recommendation
Denmark 52 kg/m² yes
Sweden 30 kg/m² yes
USA 5.9 – 73.2 kg/m² no, only a recommendation

 

In an industrial setting, the birds often suffer from injuries or are affected adversely by the measures used to minimise their aggression. They are often unable to exhibit normal behaviour due to low light levels. They also suffer pain and functional disability as a resulting of their beaks being trimmed. Farm turkeys have an abnormal body conformation due to their large pectoral muscles that are a result of breeding. (Due to crossbreeding, the body mass of toms (male turkeys) has quadrupled compared to that of a wild turkey).17 This results in male turkeys not being capable of mating with a female.

According to a report by the Directorate General for Internal Policies for the European Parliament, “This loss of a fundamental biological function is ethically questionable and has some direct effects on the welfare of the individuals.”18

Laying of eggs in factory farms

Female turkeys are artificially inseminated in order to maintain production continuity. During a 25-week cycle, a hen can lay between 80 to 100 eggs. At the end of this cycle, the hen is ‘spent’ and usually processed, although some breeders choose to molt the hen and use the hen for another cycle. This process takes 90 days. The second laying cycle will produce fewer eggs (75 to 80).19

Processing

Turkey hens are typically processed and sold as whole birds, while toms are often further processed into products such as cutlets, tenderloins, turkey sausage, turkey franks, and turkey deli meats.20

Aggressive behaviour of farmed turkeys

Farmed turkeys tend to be more aggressive and exhibit other negative social behavioural changes such as feather pecking, and even cannibalism. Turkey hens tend to brood and stay on the eggs in their nest, which can result in them no longer laying eggs. In order to prevent this, hens are sometimes denied access to their nests.21

Diseases, antibiotics, and transportation

Bird flu and blackhead disease (histomoniasis) are the most common serious diseases that affect turkeys. When it comes to blackhead disease, once a flock is infected, 70 to 100% of the birds can die.22 23 Antibiotics are used for the prevention of these diseases and to increase feed efficiency.24 25
Transportation conditions are another cause of the high mortality of turkeys. During transportation, turkeys often receive injuries to their heads or wings, as well as being exposed to extreme temperatures, social disruption, and noise.26

Debeaking

Under commercial conditions, turkeys are often aggressive towards other birds. This is why turkeys are debeaked when they are just one day old. The trimming of their beaks is used to prevent injuries caused by cannibalism, bullying, and feather pecking. However, the reasons why farmed turkeys show such aggressive behaviour towards each other are due to poor husbandry, bad management, social stress, size of the animal groups and the stocking rate, insufficient enrichment, light quality, and poor nutrition.27 As a result of beak trimming, turkeys often develop chronic pain.28 29

Legal Condition

There is no EU-wide mandatory legislation on turkey husbandry, even though it is one of the most common farmed animals in the EU. However the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union wants to change that.30 The change was suggested by Austria, where such regulations are already in force, and which wants to apply them to the whole European Union.31

However, there are existing recommendations from 2002 from the Standing Committee of the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes,32 although they are quite general and not legally binding.

Some countries, such as Austria, Denmark, Poland, Spain and Sweden, have their own regulations.33

The need for change

Thankfully, more and more people across the globe are willing to go without a turkey on their festive plates. These traditions rely on unethical commercial-agriculture practices and have negative effects on animals, our environment, and our health. The choice of plant-based meat alternatives is growing exponentially and gives us a chance to make delicious and nutritious meals that do not exert such a high toll on our health or our surroundings. And if you ever get an opportunity to observe or interact with turkeys, give it a go! You’ll find that they are smart individuals with individual personalities and a strong degree of awareness and.

ProVeg supports the availability of plant-based meat alternatives

ProVeg does not only point out healthy, cruelty-free alternatives, but also makes them more readily available. ProVeg supports and facilitates a range of plant-based events throughout the year, from annual happenings such as VeggieWorld and VegMed to important one-off events such as trainings and legal and political symposiums. Furthermore, the ProVeg Incubator advises and supports innovative companies that want to enrich the plant-based sector with their products. This ranges from mentoring early-stage startups to consulting for major international supermarket brands and administering the V-Label, which certifies that a product is either vegan or vegetarian. Find out more about what we are doing to help the world transition to a more plant-based society and economy that are sustainable for humans, animals, and our planet.

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Last updated: 01.11.2022

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