How do farmers produce so many turkeys for Thanksgiving?

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Nov. 24 2008 6:04 PM

The Turkey-Industrial Complex

How do farmers produce so many birds for Thanksgiving?

If last year's numbers are any indication, some 46 million turkeys across America will be trussed up for Thanksgiving dinner this Thursday. That's about 17 percent of all turkeys raised in the United States in a given year. How do turkey farmers meet the huge single-day demand for their birds?

They plan ahead. Major commercial turkey brands, like Butterball, Hormel, and Cargill, produce two kinds of whole bird: frozen and fresh. Turkeys destined for the freezer are produced year-round—once these birds reach the proper size and weight, they're slaughtered and blast-frozen at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point they can be stored all year in preparation for the holiday poultry frenzy.

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Producing fresh turkeys takes more planning. Market leader Butterball, for example—which growsabout one fresh bird for every nine frozen ones—has already begun the production cycle for next year's holiday season. Eggs for breeder birds have been purchased from one of the world's two major genetic suppliers, Hybrid and Nicholas. Those eggs will then be hatched and placed in turkey farms so that they can grow and become sexually mature during the winter. (Butterball needs roughly 28,000 laying hens and 1,700 "stud" toms each year to produce the right amount of fresh turkeys.) Come springtime, these birds will produce the eggs that are destined to become the turkeys we actually eat. Hens produce eggs in 25-weeklong cycles: The first five weeks' worth go toward fresh turkey production, the rest toward the frozen turkey market. Breeder hens are normally used for a single cycle before being slaughtered and processed themselves.

The eggs laid next spring will be incubated for 28 days and then, after they hatch, the resulting turkeys will spend about 10 to 18 weeks on a farm before they're brought into the processing plant in late October and November. The birds are slaughtered, quickly chilled to between 40 and 26 degrees Fahrenheit, and then shipped out to retailers, usually all in the same day. (Some fresh birds have to go to market a little early because the plants can't process all of them in mid-November, even working at full capacity.) Poultry companies can also shuffle their production to meet increased demand, routing some of the birds that were meant to be turned into lunch meats, fresh breasts and legs, or ground turkey back into whole bird processing.

Bonus explainer: How do turkeys breed? With a little help from their human friends. The vast majority of turkeys sold in the United States are of the white broad-breasted variety. These birds have been bred to produce as much white breast meat as possible, resulting in males so large and unwieldy that they can't properly mount the females. Toms therefore have to be manually stimulated and "milked" for their semen, which is then inserted into a hen using a syringe. Some have decried the assembly-line-like process as inhumane—at the very least, as chronicled in this not-entirely-safe-for-work clip from Discovery's Dirty Jobs, it is extremely messy. Farmers also use artificial lights to trick birds into thinking that it's spring—their natural breeding season—all year-round, thereby increasing their production.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks David Anderson and Kip Bodnar of Butterball and Michael Davis of Texas A&M University.

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