Lifecycle: Turkey

Lifecycle: Turkey

Over 5 million turkeys are farmed each year in Australia. When purchasing turkey this Christmas. choose humanely farmed, RSPCA Approved turkey.

Breeding Turkeys
There are two breeds available for commercial production in Australia known as the Hybrid and the Nicholas.

There is no commercial egg industry in Australia so turkey eggs are imported from the USA (Nicholas) and Canada (Hybrid) by the two companies that hold the largest number of breeder stock in Australia (Baiada and Inghams). Turkey breeder hens are 7 months old when they start laying eggs. Because these birds are bred to grow very quickly (see section on ‘Fast growth rate’ below), the weight of breeder birds is kept in check by formulating a special feed. However, this still means that turkey breeder birds are likely to be constantly hungry. Male birds (called ‘toms’) still become too heavy (due to the large area of breast muscle) to mate naturally, and artificial insemination is used to ensure the female (or ‘hen’) lays fertilised eggs. Both the extraction of semen as well as insemination of the hen are stressful and, depending on operator competence, can result in poor welfare.

Breeder hens will produce up to 105 eggs over a 28-week laying period at which stage they are slaughtered. The normal life span of a turkey is 10 years. Breeding hens are vaccinated (haemorrhagic enteritis, cholera and fowl pox) and this provides immunity to the poults which are normally not vaccinated. Eggs from the breeder birds (or ‘parent flock’) are transported to the major hatcheries, where eggs are incubated for a period of 28 days.
Hatching Turkeys
Within hours of hatching, poults are sorted by sex and may be subjected to various husbandry procedures at the hatchery.

Because turkeys are avid peckers, beak trimming using an infra-red laser is common (the tip of the beak is not immediately removed but slowly erodes away as the bird eats, with the laser treatment preventing regrowth). Turkeys that are destined for an indoor production system will also have their toes trimmed to avoid wounds and scratches to the skin if birds jump on top of one another. Toe trimming involves removing the tip of the toe to prevent regrowth of the nail. As with beak trimming, it is done with an infra-red laser. Both procedures require a high level of operator competence and appropriate calibration of the equipment. Poor beak trimming can result in the beak being misshapen or sensitive due to exposed nerves, making it difficult for the bird to eat.
Farming Turkeys
Day-old turkeys, known as poults are transported from the hatchery to the growing facility within a period of 72 hours of hatching.

At this stage, they weigh between 40 to 60 grams. Depending on the location of the growing facility, poults are either transported by road or by air. Both male and female birds are grown out for meat, with the male growing out to a larger bird than the female.

For the first four weeks or so, poults are kept in ‘brooding circles’ within a shed. Here, they can be kept warm under brooding lights and can easily find food and water. At the end of the brooding period, birds are given access to the entire shed.

In the larger growing facilities, birds are housed in big sheds with feed and water lines running across the length of the shed and bedding (e.g. wood shavings, chopped straw or rice hulls) on the floor. Older sheds have natural ventilation whereas the more modern sheds use tunnel ventilation and climate control that is computer-monitored. One shed may house 8 – 14,000 birds with male and female birds usually grown separately. Birds remain in the shed until they reach slaughter weight.
Conventional farming
Most turkeys in Australia are farmed in conventional systems, and the welfare issues relate to their fast growth rate, along with the conditions in which turkeys are housed.

Most of the welfare problems relating to turkeys manifest themselves during this growing stage of the bird’s life cycle. Over the years, turkeys have been selected to grow more muscle in the breast and thighs and reach slaughter weight very quickly. Hens reach slaughter weight at around 10 weeks old (5-6 kg), whereas toms will grow to around 19 weeks (7-11 kg) or more.

Studies show that rapid growth rate can result in the bird developing chronic leg disorders. Birds may become so heavy that they suffer from leg weakness, joint problems and bone fractures. Increased contact with the litter as birds become too heavy to stand for long periods, can result in breast lesions.

The large size of the birds also affects stocking density (the amount of space available to the bird). Lack of space may result in lack of exercise, lameness, inability to rest properly, a higher incidence of feather pecking, scabs and scratches, and footpad burn. High stocking density also affects air quality with a build-up of dust and ammonia increasing the risk of pulmonary disease.

Turkeys are often kept in dim light with only a very short period of full darkness. This encourages them to eat but prevents them from having a proper rest, and discourages activity which exacerbates lameness. The sheds in which turkeys are kept do not provide any form of environmental enrichment, e.g. straw bales or perches for pecking and perching. Barren environments discourage activity and contribute to breast lesions and leg disorders.
Farming RSPCA Approved turkeys
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standards ensure an environment that meets turkeys behavioural and physical needs.

The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standards covers turkey production from the grower farm to slaughter. In relation to breeding, the Scheme encourages producers to source slower-growing and less aggressive strains to address the problems of leg disorders and injurious feather pecking.

The RSPCA Standards focus on key areas that influence bird welfare including the provision of good housing conditions, appropriate stocking densities, and environmental enrichment.

Turkeys must be provided with some form of environmental enrichment, such as straw bales, lengths of rope to play with, and other pecking or perching options.

Producers meeting the Standards must ensure that the floor of the shed is covered in good quality litter that is kept dry and friable. Litter quality is strongly linked to turkey welfare and can help reduce a number of conditions, including lameness, footpad burn, breast buttons, breast blisters and bacterial infection. The ability to manage temperature, humidity and ventilation within the shed, as well as stocking density, will largely determine litter condition.

Producers are required to monitor lameness and must ensure that birds that are unable to walk are humanely killed immediately. Beak trimming is permitted but only when all other measures to prevent injurious feather pecking have failed. Beak trimming must then only be carried out at the hatchery on day-old poults using an infrared technique. All other husbandry procedures such as desnooding, dewinging or toe trimming are not permitted.

The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme does not require that birds have access to an outdoor area, but where they do, the area must encourage birds to use it by providing easy access, shade, and protection from avian predators. The range should be accessible to birds during daylight hours for at least 8 hours a day, and should be capable of providing palatable vegetation, including pasture.
Compliance is critical
Regular farm assessments are essential to ensure Standards are maintained.

The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme has a very robust assessment process to ensure Approved farms continue to meet the Standards. Turkey farms are assessed four times in the first 12 months and bi-annually in following years. RSPCA Assessors also visit processing facilities.

It’s not only important that welfare standards are regularly assessed on farm, but crucial that RSPCA Assessors understand animal welfare.
Harvesting, transport
Depending on customer requirements, turkeys may be processed at 10 weeks of age and up to 18 weeks of age for heavier birds.

Birds are harvested by ‘pick-up crews’ – usually in darkness as birds are calmer – who catch birds by a leg and a wing and place them in nearby crates or modules.

It’s very important that pick up crews are appropriately trained and competent to ensure proper handling and treatment of birds. The birds are then placed into plastic crates or transport modules and loaded on trucks for transport to the processing plant.

Once in their crates, birds are stacked onto trucks and transported to a processing plant. During hot weather, birds may be cooled with a water mist prior to departure and/or at arrival at the processing plant.
Once at the processing plant, chickens are rested for up to 2 hours to allow them to settle from being transported.

At the processing plant, turkeys are then removed from their crates and shackled, upside down, by their legs on a conveyor system.

Shackling must take place in a purpose-built dimly-lit area, and birds must be quickly and competently suspended from the shackling line to reduce injuries or pain to birds with leg disorders. While shackled, turkeys pass through an electrical water bath which renders them unconscious and they then have their necks cut by a sharp rotating blade. Turkeys must be stunned without delay and bled out prior to the bird regaining consciousness.

The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme includes Standards for harvesting, transporting and processing turkeys humanely.

Once they are dead, turkeys are plucked, cleaned and further processed either as whole birds or cut into pieces such as drumsticks, breasts, wings and thighs. They are then packaged for sale.