In this fact sheet: Turkey production & welfare, Disease, Transport, SlaughterReferences 

90% of turkeys are intensively reared for their meat. Traditionally, turkeys were mainly reared for the Christmas market but today they are produced throughout the year. 18 million turkeys were slaughtered in 2012 (1).  

Given the opportunity, turkeys will naturally 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 a wild species native to North America where they lived in open forests. Turkeys have a distinctive fleshy caruncle that hangs from the beak, called a snood, and have a 6 foot wingspan. The 3 main types of turkey production are 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 frustrates the natural mating instincts of turkeys and causes distress. The surplus chicks which are produced in breeding (referred to as ‘hatchery waste’) are killed by a number of permitted methods which 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 as many as 25,000 birds. Heating, ventilation and lighting 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 whilst the turkey is in the shed and becomes increasingly covered in the birds' faeces. Turkeys do not scratch around in the litter like chickens do which this means the condition of the litter deteriorates more quickly. Many turkeys die in these sheds every year, including 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 to broiler sheds (around 410cm2/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 the lack of stimulation and overcrowding, aggression and cannibalism have to be controlled by de-beaking (2). In free-range systems birds are stocked at 10m2 per bird (1).

Turkeys have to endure a number of mutilations, such as 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. The last joint of the inside toes of the male breeding birds is removed. This must be carried out within the first 3 days of life, if not then a veterinary surgeon must perform it.

Beak trimming is 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 be de-snooded soon after hatching. The snood is the part of the turkey's wattle rising from the forehead and lying over the upper beak. De-snooding reduces 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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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)

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