By Katie Keiger
Poultry Times staff
GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Today’s turkeys would be almost unrecognizable to the pilgrims, at least the most common Thanksgiving dinner entre known as the hybrid white turkey.
The birds were created by humans to keep up with consumer demand and now, without humans they would go extinct. Phillip Clauer, a poultry Extension specialist with Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Animal Science, understands the relationship the birds have with the industry and people that raise them.
Clauer said that modern turkeys are completely dependent on the people that take care of them. This dependence is mostly due to their size. Today’s hybrid turkeys are so heavy that their weight makes it impossible for them to breed naturally. Artificial insemination is practiced not only to breed more turkeys, but to breed better turkeys. Farmers select only the best turkeys to breed. Through utilizing this technique, they can also select the type of sex of the bird so breeders can raise fewer males and have fewer turkeys to cull.
Though turkey eggs only take one more week to incubate than chicken eggs, they are far more valuable. A fertile egg is worth about 88 cents, a turkey poult is worth about $1.30 half a day after they are hatched, according to Clauer.
The price of turkey eggs is so much more expensive than chickens because they consume much more feed. Even though the birds are only awake for less than half a day, Clauer says that hens can eat more than 102 pounds during their first 28 weeks of life and male turkeys can eat as much as 200 pounds. The farms where turkeys are raised also require proper ventilation, litter and clean running water, as well as additional space for the birds’ size.
When the birds are born, they spend their first 28 weeks in a growout farm. The conditions for turkey growth are ideal in the farms, with controlled lighting and feed. In this environment, males can grow more than 70 pounds and hens can weigh between 24 to 30 pounds.
An interesting thing about turkeys is that, because they have to have help in order to breed, the males and females are separated to prevent injury they tend to cause when they attempt to breed.
At 28 weeks old, hens can begin laying eggs. Most continue laying for 26 weeks, or six months, averaging about 100 eggs per laying cycle, according to Clauer.
The National Turkey Federation states that after 26 weeks, many farmers choose to have their hens processed. Turkeys cost a lot to produce, and have a longer incubation period than chickens. On average, turkey hens need 90 days to molt, or rest, before they can begin laying eggs again, usually at a slower pace during their next cycle.
Once the turkeys are fully grown, they have much larger breasts than wild turkeys, thus much more white meat than they did many years ago. All these changes have been made to help support the average U.S. consumer’s desire for white meat on their Thanksgiving table.