Raising Turkeys


It’s a safe bet you probably had turkey for Thanksgiving and have been having some leftover turkey since then. While we all enjoy a turkey sandwich throughout the year, the turkey industry certainly enjoys the holidays. It is estimated that we eat just over 16 lbs. of turkey each year and the US produces about 6 billion lbs. each year.

Turkeys are native to North America. They are a type of poultry that belong to the order Galliformes, along with chickens. There are two species of wild turkey: the North American Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and the Central American Ocellated Turkey (M. ocellata).

Although domesticated over 500 years ago, it was only in the 20th century that turkeys were fully utilized for their meat. Prior to this, turkeys were selected for their plumage and exhibited in poultry shows. Turkeys were taken to Europe by the Spanish, who had found them as a favorite domesticated animal among the Aztecs. The Aztecs used turkeys as a source of protein (meat and eggs) and used the feathers for decoration.

The most common variety grown commercially is the Large White, but there are many other breeds of turkeys to choose from.

Turkeys used in breeding are raised to 28 weeks of age under environmentally controlled conditions. Controlling the length of daylight is extremely important. Breeder turkeys are never allowed more than 10 hours of light daily as they are growing so they are not prematurely stimulated to lay eggs. During the 28 weeks of grow-out, hens will grow to 24-30 lbs and eat about 102 pounds of feed. Males will grow to 50-70 pounds and eat over 200 pounds of feed.

Since natural mating puts the female at risk of injury commercial meat turkeys are all bred artificially. This is unique in the poultry industry. Toms are raised separate from the hens, semen is collected from the toms, and hens are artificially inseminated once every seven days depending on fertility rates. Females begin producing eggs around 28 weeks of age and will lay efficiently for 26 weeks. An average turkey breeder female will lay 100-130 eggs per laying cycle.

Poults (day old chicks) are placed in a rearing house where they are raised under environmentally controlled conditions. Ventilation of the turkey house is critical for controlling temperature and humidity in the grow-out house. Birds used solely for meat production are grown to different sizes depending on the market that they are meant to fill. On average, a hen turkey will consume around 35 pounds of feed and reach 14-20 pounds in 12-14 weeks. Toms will consume about 90 pounds of feed and reach 35-42 pounds in 16-19 weeks.

According to the most recent numbers I could find, US growers raise 248.5 million birds each year. And unless you had ham or some other fare, one of those birds was served at your Thanksgiving table.

Nutritionally, one serving of turkey has 291 calories, 13.6 g fat, 0 carbs, and just over 39 g protein. This makes turkey a relatively inexpensive source of protein, with more protein per gram than both chicken and beef, while remaining lower in fat and cholesterol than other meats. It also delivers vitamins and minerals, especially niacin, which facilitates the conversion of food into available energy, and Vitamin B6, which is important for the health of the nervous system. Turkey also has selenium, which is essential for proper thyroid and immune function.

Refrigerating and freezing the turkey from a few days ago is your choice – but it is recommended to refrigerate within 2 hours – use within 4 days – or freeze for up to 4 months. With store bought fresh turkey, you have 2 days to cook. And if you never got around to thawing and cooking your frozen turkey, you can keep it for 12 months in the freezer.

As for me, I’m headed back to the fridge and wondering what I can put in my turkey sandwich this time. Pickles and mustard?

Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

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