Modern turkeys are the descendants of wild breeds, originally from North America. They were brought to Europe by the Spanish who had discovered them as a favorite domesticated animal of the Aztecs. In the US, turkey is still enjoyed as a holiday treat: a significant percentage of turkeys consumed in the US are eaten on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
Turkey farming today
Globally, more than 650 million turkeys per year are raised for meat. More than a third of them are raised in the US.
Modern commercial turkeys are selectively bred to grow much faster and with more breast meat than traditional turkeys. Baby turkeys (called “poults”) are typically reared in enclosed sheds that can house thousands of birds.
By the time they are ready for slaughter at between nine and 24 weeks of age, turkeys weigh between 11 and 44 lbs (sometimes more).
Young turkeys are kept in overcrowded sheds that are usually bare except for food and water, with litter on the floor to absorb the droppings. As the birds grow, the overcrowding intensifies until the floor of the shed is completely covered and the birds can no longer move freely.
The sheds are artificially lit and ventilated. The lights in the sheds are kept on for much of the day to encourage the birds to eat.
Smaller turkey producers, especially those producing for the seasonal winter market, often keep turkeys in open barns with natural lighting and ventilation. The number of birds per square meter is typically lower than in enclosed sheds.
In the US, the USDA requires that all poultry carrying the “free-range” label must have had at least some access to the outdoors.
The Animal Welfare Approved welfare standards for turkeys require access to a foraging area for all turkeys over four weeks of age, but encourage access for turkeys as young as two or three days of age if conditions are suitable.
Unfortunately, most turkeys are raised in intensive, indoor systems, which raises many welfare issues.