The life cycle of the Thanksgiving turkey: From farm to fork

Have you ever stopped to consider how that turkey got on your table? Follow the Thanksgiving turkey from farm to fork!

The life cycle of the Thanksgiving turkey: From farm to fork

If you are like me, you look forward to sitting down to an almost obscene meal on Thanksgiving Day, complete with a big, juicy, Thanksgiving turkey. But have you ever stopped to think about where that turkey came from? The grocery store? The local meat market?

When selecting a breed of turkey to raise, there are many choices in varieties. Commercial varieties such as Broad-Breasted Bronze and Broad-Breasted Whites are selected because of their high breast meat yield, fast growth and high feed efficiency. Commercial-type varieties are bred specifically to address consumer preferences and for their production efficiency.

Heritage varieties, such as Standard Bronze, Beltlsville Small White and Burbon Red to name a few, retain the characteristics of turkey varieties bred long ago in Europe and during the early history of the United States. Heritage turkey varieties are adapted well for a small flock management system. They are more disease-resistant and are good foragers. They also naturally raise their young, however mothering abilities do vary between varieties.

Turkeys have an incubation, or the number of days it takes for the turkey egg to hatch, time of 28 days. Young turkeys, known as “poults,” must be brooded within 48 hours after hatching. Brooding is simply providing a warm, draft-free environment that is well ventilated and has free choice feed and water. Poults are unable to regulate their own body temperature within the first 10 days of their life. Brooders provide the perfect environment for them to begin growing and developing for the first five to six weeks.

Turkeys are then moved to a finishing barn where they will be housed until they reach their desired market weight. Turkeys require 3-5 square feet per animal when in a confined housing environment. Ventilation is very important in housing to prevent respiratory illnesses. Providing adequate feed and water at all times at an appropriate height will encourage turkeys to eat and therefore grow.

Processing your birds for home consumption can be done either at home or by a custom processor. In Michigan, if you plan on selling the turkey, please refer to Michigan State University Extension’s MDARD Licensed Poultry Processors for a list of Michigan poultry processors.

As always, before you decide to raise your own Thanksgiving turkeys, check the zoning laws in your area. Happy Thanksgiving!

Visit the Michigan 4-H Animal Science page to learn more about Michigan 4-H animal science programs.

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