Can Turkey Farmers Keep Up With The Thanksgiving Demand?

Author: Anna Quinn, Johns Hopkins University ____________________________________________________________________________________

A recent report from CNBC predicted a turkey shortage this Thanksgiving. According to the article, corn production was at a low in recent years, leading turkey producers to experience “poor profitability” in last year’s Thanksgiving. Corn and other grains are used as feed for turkeys; so low corn production creates higher prices for the feed turkey farmers need to raise their birds. Due to this lack of profits, turkey farmers were reluctant to increase their flock sizes to prevent another loss. Because of this, according to CNBC, “turkey production is at its lowest in almost 30 years, and wholesale prices are at an all time high.”

TIME magazine, however, argues that this does not mean shoppers should worry about not being able to afford their Thanksgiving dinner. According to TIME, “it’s true that production is down, and that wholesale prices are up for turkey. But the important takeaway for shoppers is that neither of these factors is necessarily translating to rising prices in stores.”

So, it seems as though only time will tell if turkeys will be more expensive this Thanksgiving. Either way though, the discussion of turkey production raises some interesting questions about Thanksgiving, and more specifically how turkey farmers are able to usually produce enough turkey for the holiday.

According to a survey by the National Turkey Federation, 88% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. This equates to about 46 million turkeys, 20% of the turkeys eaten by Americans in a year. So, how are turkey farmers able to produce 20% of their annual production for a single day?

Mostly, it takes a lot of pre-planning. Take a look at Butterball for instance, a leader in the turkey market. Butterball has reported that they have already started production for next year’s Thanksgiving. Most of the turkeys that are bred this far in advanced, however, are used to make the company’s frozen Thanksgiving birds. Each major turkey farm produces about nine frozen turkeys for every one fresh turkey.

The real change in production methods is used to breed fresh turkeys. In order to breed fresh turkeys all year round, “farmers use artificial lights to trick birds into thinking that it’s spring—their natural breeding season—all year-round, thereby increasing their production,” according to Slate.

Also, in an effort to compete against other companies, turkey farmers have grown increasingly large birds. As Slate notes, “these birds have been bred to produce as much white breast meat as possible, resulting in males so large and unwieldy they can’t properly mount the females.” Slate goes into more detail about how the female turkeys must now be manually inseminated, a process that some have deemed as inhumane. The birds’ large size can also cause their legs to break “as a result of being unable to handle the extra weight,” according to Mint Press News. They also are more likely to suffer heart failure, and often cannot stand up due to the weight gain.

Turkey farmers have also been forced to increase their flock sizes to keep up with the demand for turkeys. The nation’s turkey consumption has increased 104% since 1970, causing the turkey production to increase 110%. Subsequently, the turkey farms have become much more crowded than they used to be. In a recent National Public Radio article, for instance, Kate Stillman discussed the changes her local Massachusetts farm has had to make to keep up. “When we started here, I struggled to sell 50 birds,” Stillman said, but it’s obvious things have changed. She reported that “[they] raised just about 700 this year.”

These larger flocks create some changes in how and where turkeys are bred. An anonymous undercover investigator sponsored by the group Compassion Over Killing worked at a breeding factory farm in Minnesota. While working, he reported that an estimated 25,000 turkeys are forced to live in “cramped areas that are often no larger than 3.5 square feet of space per bird.” These small spaces have caused the farmers to burn off the upper beaks of their birds and cut off portions of their toes to save space. The investigator also reported that, “the squalid, cramped conditions cause many hens to suffer from various ailments, such as severe irritations covering their heads and faces.” These birds routinely do not receive any veterinary care over the course of their life, despite the various ailments they suffer, according to the investigator.

It is clear from these examples that the increased demand for Thanksgiving turkeys has caused farmers to use unconventional, and arguably inhumane, breeding and production processes on turkeys. Whether acknowledging this will spur people to refrain from eating these turkeys, well, that’s a separate issue.

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