In this fact sheet: Turkey Production & Welfare, Disease, Transport, Slaughter, References
The vast majority of turkeys (90%) are intensively reared for their meat. Traditionally, turkeys were mainly reared for the Christmas market but today they are produced throughout the year. There are approximately around 6 million turkeys in the UK with over 15 million slaughtered in 2009 (1). Given the opportunity turkeys will cover a wide area eating vegetation, seeds and grains. Wild turkeys are strong fliers and roost high up in trees. They are more closely related to game birds such as pheasants and partridges than to chickens.
Turkey production & welfare
The modern domesticated turkey emerged from the wild species native to North America, where they live in open forests. Turkeys have a distinctive fleshy caruncle that hangs from the beak, called a snood, and have wingspans of almost 6 feet. The three main types of turkey production consist of conventional enclosed housing (Broiler sheds), pole barns and free range systems. Flocks of turkeys are kept for breeding to produce chicks to rear for their meat. The parent birds undergo a number of welfare problems having been selectively bred so they produce huge amounts of breast meat. Their large size and broad breasts have caused male breeding turkeys (stags) to suffer from degenerative hip disorders resulting in chronic pain. They are unable to mate naturally so artificial insemination (AI) is routine. This procedure involves the male breeding turkeys being repeatedly ‘milked’ for semen collection, whilst females (hens) have to endure the process of being caught and inseminated by tube/syringe (2). AI completely frustrates the natural mating instincts of turkeys and is distressing for both stags and hens. The surplus chicks which are produced in breeding (referred to as ‘hatchery waste’) are killed by a number of permitted methods, these include exposure to gas mixtures or dislocation of the neck (1).
The majority of turkeys reared for their meat are kept in windowless houses, with some containing up to as many as 25,000 birds. Heating, ventilation and lighting, etc are all automatically controlled with a minimum of 8 hours artificial light allowed each day. The stocking density for broiler-type housing of turkeys is 260cm2/kg, and as the birds grow and approach slaughter age they become more tightly packed together. Broiler sheds contain flocks of around 10,000 birds housed on litter (usually wood shavings). The litter is not changed during the turkey’s time in the shed and so becomes increasingly covered in the bird’s faeces. Turkeys do not scratch around in the litter in the way that chickens will and this means the condition of the litter deteriorates more quickly. Many turkeys die in these sheds every year, this includes young birds that never learn to reach food and water points (these birds are known as starve-outs) (2). Turkeys reared in pole barns are slightly less densely stocked compared with conventional sheds, (around 410cm⊃;/kg). Pole Barns are large sheds with natural lighting and ventilation. As these are not often purpose built for rearing birds bad ventilation, draughts, exposure and heat stress can all cause problems. Due to a lack of environmental stimulation and overcrowding, aggression and cannibalism are often controlled in these barns by de-beaking (2). In free-range systems birds are stocked at 10m2 per bird (1).
Toe cutiing, beak trimming and de-snooding
The mutilations turkeys have to endure includes toe cutting, beak trimming (de-beaking) and de-snooding. Toe cutting is carried out to avoid injury to hens during mating (even when saddled – saddles are designed to prevent injury to the backs and sides by the stags). It involves the last joint of the inside toes of the male breeding birds to be removed. This must be carried out within the first 3 days of life, if not then a Veterinary Surgeon must perform this. Beak trimming is mostly carried on out breeding turkeys and those kept for meat in pole barns and free-range systems to prevent or control injurious behaviour. It involves slicing off about one-third of the beak usually with a red hot blade when the turkey is around 5 days old (breeders may be de-beaked again at 14 to 18 weeks). This can be extremely painful for the bird and studies on de-beaked chickens have shown pain to be prolonged and perhaps indefinite (3). The Farm Animal Welfare Council believe that it is best to trim accurately (using a cold cut) and substantially when the bird is young in order to retard re-growth of the upper beak so further cutting is not required. Studies have shown that cold cutting was the most accurate method, but that substantial re-growth of the beak occurred. The use of a hot cut was the most distressing procedure for the turkeys. Beak trimming should be carried out by a skilled operator or under supervision.Stags may sometimes also be de-snooded soon after hatching. The snood is the part of the turkey's wattle arising from the forehead and lying over the upper beak. De-snooding may occur to reduce the risk of cannibalism in intensively stocked turkeys and if not carried out within 3 weeks of life this must be performed by a Veterinary Surgeon (1).
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