The Evolution of Turkey Farming

Commercial Turkey Farming Brings Big Changes

The Evolution of Turkey Farming

By Doug Ottinger – Ah, the glory of Thanksgiving and turkey farming in the past. Norman Rockwell painted the picture that memorializes in our minds what the holidays of yesteryear were really like. All the family was together. Everyone was happy. Every family had a perfect, oversized turkey on the table. Life was never easier or grander. Or was it?

Just what was the actual cost to get that Thanksgiving turkey onto the table in 1950? When you adjust the cost of inflation, you start to realize that a turkey for the holidays was something special. The minimum wage in 1950 was 75 cents per hour. In Chicago that year, Thanksgiving turkeys were about 49 cents per pound. That means that the 20-pound bird in the painting cost that family today’s inflationary equivalent of about $95. But what if grandpa was into turkey farming and raised his own turkey?

According to the feed consumption tables shown in poultry textbooks from that time period, the turkey would have eaten about 90 pounds of high protein mash and grain at a cost of about $4.50 or a little higher. Seems cheap enough, I suppose. But, adjusted for inflation, that is still a cost of about $44 just for feed alone in today’s money. Add in some of the other costs and it becomes apparent that a holiday turkey in 1950 was special.

Turkey Farming: Big Changes in a Short Time

Commercial turkey farming has seen many changes in a short period of time. Some of the biggest changes include shifting away from pasture raising to an enclosed, concentrated-feeding system. Birds have been genetically bred to rapidly put on weight.

Commercial turkeys, just like chickens, have also been bred to produce a higher mass of breast meat making the Broad Breasted White the main turkey commercially raised. Consumers also do not like the little dots of pigmentation left around each feather follicle when a bird with colored feathers is plucked. During the 1950s, there was a large shifting from raising bronze birds to raising white birds.

The modern grocery store bird of today is a world apart from its ancestral beginnings. A wild turkey can attain flight speeds, in short bursts, of up to 55 miles per hour. They can also run at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. A fattened, modern turkey can barely lift itself off the ground.

Wild turkeys are alert and are constantly on the move. Turkeys raised in a commercial environment rarely leave sight of the feed trough. And breeding? Wild turkeys and heritage turkey breeds, like the Royal Palm turkey, can copulate naturally. Modern turkeys must be artificially inseminated.

Modern turkey farming has made it so almost all of us can afford to have turkey on our holiday tables. Many of us eat turkey, in one form or another, several times per month.

History of Turkey Domestication

The turkey, Meleagris gallopava, and its modern descendants have ancestral roots in Mexico and the Eastern two-thirds of the United States. Explorers began to take them back to Europe in the 1500s to meet the demands of royalty for this exotic new bird. There they were raised on the large estates of European royalty and aristocracy.

There is some discrepancy in the stories about the domestication of the turkey once it reached Europe and how the domesticated stock was introduced to the Americas. We do have record that domesticated birds were brought back into the Americas for breeding in the first half of the 1600s.

I recently read one source that claimed the Pilgrims had several domesticated turkeys as part of the cargo on the Mayflower. I seriously question this theory. The logs from the ship only mention two pet dogs who made the voyage with the people. After landing, a mention of chicken broth was made in a diary, so it is likely a few chickens were also on board. Turkeys were expensive and something only the rich kept and bred, so it is within reason to think that any turkeys on board would have been listed in the cargo logs based on their economic value alone.

The idea of domesticating wild turkeys did not start with the Europeans. Native people of Mesoamerica were already doing this more than 2,000 years ago. This may have given Europeans their first ideas for raising these birds in captivity.

By the early 1700s, domesticated turkeys were a common sight in some areas of England. By 1720, some 250,000 turkeys had been collectively herded from Norfolk, England, to the markets in London, an approximate distance of 118 miles. The birds were driven in flocks of 300 and 1,000 birds. The turkeys’ feet were dipped in tar or wrapped in little leather booties to protect them. The birds were fed in the stubble fields while en route.

Historical sources make it pretty clear that domesticated turkeys were still considered partially wild well into the early 1900s, and were raised as such.

By 1918, production attitudes were gradually changing, at least on the West Coast. Turkeys were still open-ranged and considered partially wild, yet artificial incubation was becoming the norm. “Turkey farming, as it is called, is mainly in the grain districts where the fowls can range. Hatching by incubators prevails generally” — 1918 Statistical Report of the California State Board of Agriculture.

About the same time, a young farmer in Virginia, Charles Wampler, began wondering if turkeys could be raised in captivity in entirely enclosed systems. I spoke with Charles’ great-grandson, Harry Jarret. Harry told me that during the years 1920 and 1921, his great-grandfather wrote to about 100 county extension agents all over the United States, and all but one told him that turkeys were wild animals and could not be successfully raised in captivity. Despite the negative answers, he decided to give it a try. He built an artificial incubator, and in 1922, hatched his first brood.

That initial small experiment eventually grew into a large domesticated turkey raising industry that expanded throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Charles Wampler became known as the father of the modern turkey industry in the United States and has been honored with a permanent spot in Virginia Tech’s Poultry Hall of Fame.

In the 1930s through the 1950s, turkeys were routinely butchered at about 28 weeks of age, although they were sometimes held longer if consumer demand dictated a fatter bird. It was nothing for the birds to consume 80 or 90 pounds (or more) of grain and feed concentrates if they did not have lots of pasture or forage available.

Today’s commercial turkeys reach marketable weights on much less feed, within a much shorter period of 16 weeks. According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers’ Association, turkeys today produce twice as much meat on half the feed as birds did in 1930. Penn State University lists feed consumption today for a 16-week-old marketable bird at about 46 pounds for hens and 64 pounds for toms, a huge reduction from feed consumption years ago.

Because of the rapid muscle growth and formation that has been bred into modern turkey strains, many hatcheries and poultry nutrition experts recommend nothing less than feed with a minimum of 28 percent protein. Skeletal problems and other issues can present themselves if they are not raised on extremely high protein feeds. Obviously, modern strains are not well prepared for foraging or being raised in slow growth systems, as are the wild or heritage turkey breeds.

Years ago, a heavy layer of fat underneath the skin of the bird was considered highly desirable. Turkeys do not start to put on this layer of fat until about 22 weeks of age. Although the bulk of muscle formation had already been completed, growers would keep the birds an extra six to 10 weeks for fattening, sometimes until 32 weeks of age or more. Fattening was just what the term implied — the development of the fat layer underneath the skin.

Range turkeys were rounded up and kept in pens and fed grain for several weeks before slaughter. The cost of feeding the birds soared at this point, but consumer demand called for a fat turkey.

Today, consumer preferences are generally for more lean birds, and this practice has mostly been done away with, except for a few specialty growers that raise heritage breeds or cater to specialty markets.

Many feedstuffs have been tried and used over the years for raising turkeys for meat. Besides open pasture and grain, some producers years ago supplied large flocks with a butchered pig or another animal for protein. Many producers have used potatoes for fattening, especially in some areas of Europe where grain was at a premium. The University of California at Davis, did studies on this in the late 1940s and found that weight gains from potatoes were not nearly as desirable as they were with grains. Since then, it has been found that diets high in potatoes cause enteritis in the poultry intestines (cited by Dr. Jacqui Jacobs with the University of Kentucky Extension Service).

In 1955, a combination of pasturing and concentrated grain or high protein mash feeding was the norm (Marsden and Martin, Turkey Management, Interstate Press, 1955). Within 10 to 15 years, much of the industry had shifted to enclosed, highly-concentrated feeding systems. Artificial insemination also became the norm, as male turkeys were gradually being bred too large and heavy to successfully mount the hens.

When we look at commercially-raised turkeys today and see how dependent they are on human care and protection, it is almost inconceivable that birds just 100 years ago were considered highly efficient at self-care and self-perpetuation.

Next spring, all of us will be inundated with poultry catalogs that help feed our poultry addictions. All sorts of baby poultry will be available. I’m already dreaming about next year’s Thanksgiving bird. How about you?




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