Turkey Farming

Australian turkey farming

Turkeys are social and intuitive birds who, when living in natural conditions, are family-oriented and learn from one another. Mothers are attentive and caring towards their young, and teach them important survival skills, including what to eat, how to evade predators and assist in the development of crucial social habits. This is in large part due to the fact that it is unnatural for ground-nesting birds to be isolated from their young. As Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns (UPC) maintains, “the mother turkey is the centre of the young birds’ universe”[1]. Young turkeys have very limited vision, and if they are separated, young turkeys (known as poults) will experience panic and signal to their mother that they are alone with a ‘lost call’. Upon hearing this, the mother runs to find her young. For the first months of their lives, poults will sleep on the ground beneath their mother’s wings. By the age of 3 months, the age at which most commercial turkeys are slaughtered, wild turkeys establish social hierarchies, can recognise members of their own social grouping, and can discern others who belong to other groupings[2]. Adult turkeys can fly at speeds of 55 miles (88km) per hour, and run 25 miles (40km) per hour[3]. In modern commercial factory farm operations, however, these behaviours are fundamentally repressed and constitute the antithesis of their natural inclinations and behaviours[4].

Within the Australian commercial meat industry, the term ‘poultry’ is applied to chickens, ducks, and “spent layer hens” (hens kept for egg production that are deemed useless after their production rates drop)[5]. Worldwide, over 650 million turkeys are slaughtered each year for meat[6]. In Australia, between 3 and 5 million 3-month-old turkeys are slaughtered every year for their flesh, and this staggering number is multiplying as farm sizes increase[7].

In NSW, two large companies dominate the poultry meat production industry: Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd and Ingham Pty Ltd. Aside from these major processors there are two relatively smaller companies operating in the Sydney region (Cordina Farms and Red Lea Chickens) and one independent operation in Tamworth that grows and processes turkeys (Quast Turkeys).

Turkeys in Australia

In factory farms across Australia, turkeys are crowded in sheds with up to 14,000 others and live in a space roughly the size of an A3 sheet of paper[8]. Routinely these sheds are not cleaned until the turkeys are sent to slaughter, up to 3 months from the time they arrive. The resulting abundance of faeces, coupled with poor management, cleaning, and inadequate air ventilation produces a proliferation of ammonia, which causes burns, respiratory infections, ulcerated feet and irritated eyes[9].

As they grow, the lack of space becomes increasingly unbearable, leaving the birds incapable of performing any natural behaviour. They are essentially imprisoned in a vast expanse that paradoxically leaves them no room, and unable to even see the sun, daylight or breathe natural air. Lighting is orchestrated to alter normal sleeping and eating sequences, principally to multiply the birds’ consumption and limit movement. These methods, however, wreak havoc on the functioning of the body and result in a multitude of diseases and problems. As slaughter draws nearer, lighting is increased, leaving the turkeys to suffer from prolonged periods without sleep and an added element of distress. Vision and the ability to see their surroundings are vitally important to birds. Their behaviour is “predominately visually mediated,” meaning that adequate and uninhibited vision is a requisite for their welfare[10]. The lighting regimes undertaken by the turkey industry, however, are not concerned with the welfare issues such methods raise. Instead, focus is reserved for the potential profitability artificial lighting can accrue[11].

This desire to increase profit at the expense of welfare is highlighted by the use of antibiotics. Due to the interminable crowding and the disease and infection that this encourages, turkeys are fed a regimen of antibiotics to curb outbreaks[12]. Antibiotics were first introduced into animal farming in the 1950s, and the extent of their application has since ballooned to a staggering 80 per cent of all antibiotics used in the United States[13]. Whilst the meat industry maintains that residues of antibiotics have not proven dangerous to human consumers, the US-based Consumers Union disagrees, arguing that because they have been used so extensively and over a prolonged period, it constitutes a “major public health threat”[14]. Food and Water Watch explicitly state that antibiotic resistance is encouraged by their use in factory farms[15]. Denmark and Sweden have proactively confronted this issue by banning the administering of antibiotics in animals raised for human consumption[16].

In natural conditions, turkeys, like many other birds, take great pleasure in perching. In factory farms, this is an intended impossibility – an electrified cable skirts most of their feeders in factory farms, utterly crushing their ability to lead natural lives. The Humane Society of the United States maintains that turkey’s intricate social and exploratory behaviour is essentially and drastically inhibited[17].

In so-called “grow-out” houses, turkeys live in desolate automated sheds that categorically crush innate desires and instincts. The lighting in the sheds is kept faint and the heating is high. Due to the separation from their mothers, young turkey poults are continually at risk of starvation as they do not have the guidance of their parent. A condition known as ‘starve-out’ occurs when they stop eating, primarily due to the shock of their confinement and lack of guidance.

Modern commercial turkey breeds are raised to develop at an abnormally swift speed, leading to a litany of health and welfare issues that cause severe and prolonged pain, injury, and trauma. Turkeys in commercial factory farms suffer from bone and muscle problems, leading to agonising leg disorders due primarily to their rapid growth.

According to a 2015 report published by the Department of Primary Industries, poultry meat consumption has expanded from being an “occasional meal” to one that accounts for 36% of the global meat demand[18]. USDA reports calculate that the value of turkey meat production increased by 10% from 2014 to 2015, with hatcheries raising over 1 million turkeys each year[19]. Although the “traditional Christmas feast” of turkey meat is most common in America, a cursory search of available information shows that Australians are increasingly choosing to participate as well. According to a 2015 Roy Morgan Research study[20], there is “a distinct, recurring spike in turkey consumption over the December-January period every year,” and a number of cooking magazines, food websites, and supermarket chains advertise “How to cook the perfect Christmas turkey” (ABC),“Talking turkey: we’re gobbling more than ever” (News.com.au) and “Turkey, not just for Christmas” (the title of an advertising campaign by Steggles).


By the 1880s, the assembly line model of animal slaughter industrialised the meat industries. Although Henry Ford is credited with the invention of the assembly line, the process was initiated by Chicago meatpacking plants and famously replicated by Ford in the early 1900’s[21].

The twentieth century saw the turkey industry move to methods geared to maximise profits and stamp out middlemen, allowing ever greater financial gain without the need to pay wages deemed unnecessary by the advancement of technology and modern modes of production. The development of so-called “contract growers” and the contractual system of production has led to a program of vertical integration. By consolidating every facet of turkey farming into a single operation that spread to include hatcheries, feed manufacturers, and slaughterhouses[22]. These operations maintain a virtual monopoly, trading in lives and perpetuating vast regimes of cruelty. As a Farm Sanctuary Research Report explains, a select few large companies currently “dominate the production and marketing chain,” a clear and recognisable example of vertical integration at work. Along with these changes, seen throughout the agricultural system, the genetics have been radically altered to fit the factory farm principle[23].

Business As Usual: Standard Practice in the Commercial Turkey Industry

Soon after birth, turkey poults are subjected to a number of “processing” procedures parallel to those chickens, ducks, and other intensively farmed poultry. These are done to alleviate potential problems caused by the stress and denial of innate desires and may include de-snooding, a procedure that involves the removal of the fleshy appendage from the turkey’s head. It is rationalized within the industry as a technique to limit or prevent injuries potentially obtained through fights.Toe and beak clipping are also standard practices within the industry[24]. Of these, toe-clipping or de-toeing is done with shears and defended as a technique to inhibit scratching and the associated reduction in carcass quality. For the industry, the procedure is linked to a decrease in growth and an increase in early mortality[25]. Beak-trimming is rationalized within the industry as a technique to limit or prevent injuries or death potentially occurring through fights[26] or “peck-mortality” (cannibalism)[27]. Beaks are trimmed using a type of shear known as secateurs in conjunction with a hot blade and an electrical current. These procedures are routinely performed on turkeys as young as a few days old and without anaesthetic or veterinary treatment. Studies have shown that beak trimming leads to severe and chronic pain[28] that can be analogous to phantom limb pain experienced by human amputees[29].

Prior to careful or thorough study, it was believed that birds had comparatively little sensory neurons capable of processing pain. This made it easy to believe that these animals had a higher threshold for enduring pain, until it was discovered that nociceptors are located in birds, from the skin to the beak[30].


“Avian physiological and behavioural responses to painful stimuli resemble those of mammals and so it should be assumed that if a stimulus would cause pain to a human or other mammal, it will also cause pain to a bird”[31]


A bird’s beak is extremely receptive and full of nerves, including nociceptors located in the tip of the beak. Nerves, blood vessels and receptors are clustered in the beak. Nerves can either end in a receptor or have “free nerve ends,” which have comparable qualities and characteristics to nociceptor systems found in mammals. This makes it highly likely that such nerve systems found in birds function as links recording and revealing pain[32]. The nociceptor system is comprised of links within the neuropsychological system that are responsible for controlling, managing, and alerting pain perception. This is a network of neurons, or nerve cells, that react to possibly or actually harmful stimuli by transmitting messages to the spinal cord and the brain. It has been proposed that this has a protective mechanism acquired through years of evolution, and assists in certain fight-or-flight type responses. It’s functioning is similar in all species of mammals and birds[33]. Concerns have been raised relating to the suffering birds experience due to the presence of nociceptors.

When a beak is “trimmed,” these nerves are amputated.

Modern Factory Farm Turkeys: Welfare Problems

Unlike their wild forebears, commercially raised turkeys have been bred and selected solely for “productivity and profit”[34]. Turkey breeders proactively “select” birds genetically programmed to develop quickly and with immense weight, allowing rapid profits and higher levels of production. This, however, has come at a significant cost to animal welfare.

The Department of Primary Industries acknowledges that Australian poultry industries import animals from international breeding facilities for this very purpose[35]. These birds have been genetically engineered to grow to twice the size in half the amount of time their wild descendants did[36]. Because of this, modern turkeys are riddled with physical ailments that make it painful to move, plagued with lameness, heart problems and deficient immune systems[37], and are unable to procreate naturally, giving rise to the practice of artificial insemination[38] – a procedure that has been applied to the commercial turkey industry since the 1950s. A guide published by the Oregon State College in 1954 stated that artificial insemination is best considered a ‘stop-gap’ to be used until “fertile broad breasted turkeys are generally available”[39]. However, the practice is still used extensively within the commercial turkey industry, due largely to the strain selective breeding has had on normal biological functioning[40].

The artificially induced growth of turkeys induces a myriad of skeletal problems that subsequently affect essential organ functioning. One ailment common to commercially raised and slaughtered turkeys is known in the industry as ‘cowboy legs,’ which can become fatal when they are unable to adequately move, resulting in trampling or culling by producers.

This welfare issue shows no signs of abating.

Reports acknowledge that due to the manner in which turkeys are bred, these problems are liable to become more widespread and pervasive. The economics that drive the system also drives birds to short lives of immense and perpetual suffering.

Circulatory problems, or complications in the heart and cardiovascular system that enable blood circulation and nutrient provisions, are a prevailing welfare concern within the commercial turkey industry. As a Utah State University[41] reports, “the consequences of breeding for rapid growth have undoubtedly affected the occurrence of circulatory-related mortality in commercial turkey flocks.” This is a problem that the industry is reluctant to remedy as it will ultimately result in cuts to their profits.

The overwhelming majority of poultry meat production, including turkey meat, is managed and owned by “third-party contract growers,” which the Department of Primary Industries maintain are “family farms” averaging a total of four intensive confinement sheds each property. There are, however, two larger companies that provide “growing-out” services in NSW, peaking at a height of 64 sheds. Most of the growing facilities are owned and operated by vertically integrated companies, a system wherein companies “own or control most aspects of the supply and production chain”[42]. The growers provide the farms with the turkeys, who are explicitly recast as units of production and designated little more than a number and a weight.

At the end of their short lives, all commercialy raised turkeys will make the final journey to slaughter. This, in itself, presents a final and twisted litany of welfare concerns. Once the turkeys reach their target weight, workers force them to gather and crowd them onto conveyers belts towards the crates they will be transported in. The minimum height requirement for these crates is little more than 30 centimetres[43], the length of a school ruler, a size grossly inadequate for the size of the birds. During transport, turkeys are vulnerable to suffering a range of injuries, including bruising and bleeding, fractures, and suffocation. External factors, including weather and exposure to elements, also add to this[44]. According to one report, turkeys were second to hens in suffering the highest mortality rates during transport to slaughter[45]. To understand the disregard for the lives of these animals, it is sufficient to note that there exists ‘accepted’ mortality rates expected during transport. Once inside the slaughterhouse, turkeys are shackled to moving rails and moved through a stunning tank, intended to immobilise but not render unconscious. Several accounts have noted that turkeys attempt to escape this by bending their necks, some of which pass through the tank without being stunned. Following stunning, the turkeys’ throats are sliced and they are defeathered in a scalding tank. Like the stunning tank, however, some birds will not be killed by the blade - it may miss as the line passes at a dizzying speed. These birds then progress to the scalding tank to be boiled alive.

For further information, visit www.bigbirdsbigcruelty.org to read a comprehensive report on the Australian commercial turkey meat industry compiled through major undercover investigations by Animal Liberation NSW and Animal Liberation ACT.


[1]Davis, K,., 2007, ‘A mother turkey and her young: their kind and careful parent,’ Poultry Press, 17: 3, pp. 1-2. Excerpt taken from Davis’ More than a Meal: the Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.

[2]Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), ‘An HSUS report: the welfare of animals in the turkey industry’. Available at: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/HSUS-Report-on-Turkey-Welfare.pdf

[3]World Animal Foundation, n.d., ‘Turkey Fact Sheet’. Available at: http://www.worldanimalfoundation.net/f/turkey.pdf

[4]Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), ‘An HSUS report: the welfare of animals in the turkey industry’. Available at: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/HSUS-Report-on-Turkey-Welfare.pdf

[5]Australian Chicken Meat Federation, Inc. (ACMF), 2011, The Australian Chicken Meat Industry: An Industry in Profile. Available at: www.chicken.org.au/industryprofile/downloads/the_australian_chicken_meat_industry_an_industry_in_profile.pdf

This denotation is also adopted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), as seen in Livestock’s Long Shadow (2006).

[6]Compassion in World Farming, ‘About Turkeys’. Available at: http://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/turkeys/

[7] Scott, P., Turner, A., Bibby, S. and Chamings, A., 2009, Structure and Dynamics of Australia’s Commercial Poultry and Ratite Industries, report prepared by Scolexia Animal and Avian Health Consultancy for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, p. 11.

[8] The Compassionate Road, ‘Turkey is often called the ‘healthy meat’ but is it really?’ Available at: http://thecompassionateroad.com/turkey-is-often-called-the-healthy-meat-but-is-it-really/

[9]United Poultry Concerns (UPC), n.d., ‘Turkeys are full of diseases and drugs’. Available at: http://www.upc-online.org/turkeys/turkeys.pdf

[10]Collins, S., Forkman, B., Kristensen, H. H., Sandøe, P. and Hocking, P. M., 2011, ‘Investigating the importance of vision in poultry: comparing the behavior of blind and sighted chickens,’ Danish Centre for Bioethics and Risk Assessment. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Paul_Hocking/publication/251523387_Investigating_the_importance_of_vision_in_poultry_Comparing_the_behaviour_of_blind_and_sighted_chickens/links/5411c4e90cf2788c4b354ad4.pdf

[11]Delabbio, J. L., 2014, ‘The science of poultry lighting: LED lighting for improved performance and energy savings in poultry farming,’ Once Innovations Inc. Available at: https://www.onceinnovations.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Once_WhitePapers_Energy-Savings-in-Poultry-Farming.pdf

[12]Compassion in World Farming (CWF), 2011, Antibiotics in Farm Animal Production: Public Health and Animal Welfare. Available at: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/animalwelfare/antibiotics_in_animal_farming.pdf

[13]Jeremy Coller Foundation, 2015, Global Sustainability: Human Consequences of Animal Factory Farming. Available at: http://www.fairr.org/wp-content/uploads/Global-Sustainability-Animal-Factory-Farming-Summer-2015.pdf

[14]Consumers Union, n.d., ‘The overuse of antibiotics in food animals threatens public health’. Available at: http://consumersunion.org/pdf/Overuse_of_Antibiotics_On_Farms.pdf

[15]Food and Water Watch, 2015, Antibiotic Resistance 101: How Antibiotic Misuse on Factory Farms Can Make You Sick. Available at: https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/sites/default/files/Antibiotic%20Resistance%20101%20Report%20March%202015.pdf

[16]The Pew Charitable Trusts, n.d., ‘Avoiding antibiotic resistance: Denmark’s ban on growth promoting antibiotics in food animals’. Available at: http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/phg/content_level_pages/issue_briefs/denmarkexperiencepdf.pdf; Cogliani, C., Goossens, H., and Greko, C., 2011, ‘Restricting antimicrobial use in food animals: lessons from Europe,’ Microbe. Available at: http://emerald.tufts.edu/med/apua/news/press_room_34_846139138.pdf

[17]Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), ‘An HSUS report: the welfare of animals in the turkey industry’. Available at: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/HSUS-Report-on-Turkey-Welfare.pdf

[18]NSW Department of Primary Industries, 2015, NSW Poultry Meat Industry Overview 2015: Intensive Livestock Production. Available at: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/578431/poultry-meat-industry-overview-2015.pdf

[19]United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2015, Poultry – Production and Value, 2014 Summary. Available at: http://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/plva0415.pdf

[20]Roy Morgan Research, 2015, ‘Christmas: time to talk turkey”. Available at: http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/6602-christmas-time-to-talk-turkey-201512170140

[21]O’Brien, M, 2004, ‘The American system,’ History Magazine, December/January. Available at: http://boe.jeff.k12.wv.us/cms/lib02/WV01001913/Centricity/Domain/1206/American%20System.pdf

[22]Smith, A. F., 2006, The Turkey: An American Story, University of Illinois Press.

[23]Farm Sanctuary, 2007, Unnatural Breeding Techniques and Results in Modern Turkey Production. Available at: http://thehill.com/images/stories/whitepapers/pdf/UnnaturalBreedingTurkeyProduction.pdf

[24]The Humane Society of the United States, ‘An HSUS report: the welfare of animals in the turkey industry’. Available at: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/HSUS-Report-on-Turkey-Welfare.pdf


[26]American Veterinary Medical Association, 2010, ‘Literature review on the welfare implications of beak trimming’. Available at: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Documents/beak_trimming_bgnd.pdf


[28]Scheideler, S. E. and Shields, S., 2007, ‘Cannibalism by poultry,’ University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Available at: https://web.extension.illinois.edu/smallfarm/downloads/56344.pdf

[29]American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 2010, ‘Literature review on the welfare implications of beak trimming’. Available at: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Documents/beak_trimming_bgnd.pdf

[30]The BVAAWF/FRAME/RSPCA/UFAW Joint Working Group on Refinement, 2001, ‘Laboratory birds: refinements in husbandry and procedures’. Available at: http://www.arsal.ro/wp-content/uploads/members/11.Laboratory%20birds%20refinements%20in%20husbandry%20and%20procedures.pdf


[32]van Niekirk, T. and de Jong, I., 2007, ‘Mutilations in poultry in European poultry production systems’. Available at: http://www.lohmann-information.com/content/l_i_42_2007-04_artikel5.pdf

[33]von Holleben, K., von Wenzlawowicz, M., Gregory, N., Anil, H., Velarde, A., Rodriguez, P., Cenci Goga, B., Catanese, B., and Lambooij, B., 2010, ‘Report on good and adverse practices: animal welfare concerns in relation to slaughter practices from the viewpoint of veterinary sciences’. Available at: http://www.dialrel.eu/images/veterinary-concerns.pdf


[35]Scolexia Animal and Avian Health Consultancy, 2005, Structure and Dynamics of Australia’s Commercial Poultry and Ratite Industries, prepared for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry. Available at: http://www.agriculture.gov.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/animal-plant/animal-health/livestock-movement/structure-poultry-ratite-ind.pdf


[37]Farm Sanctuary, 2007, Unnatural Breeding Techniques and Results in Modern Turkey Production. Available at: http://thehill.com/images/stories/whitepapers/pdf/UnnaturalBreedingTurkeyProduction.pdf

[38]World Animal Foundation, n.d., ‘Turkey Fact Sheet’. Available at: http://www.worldanimalfoundation.net/f/turkey.pdf

[39]Parker, J. E., and Harper, J.A., 1954, Questions and Answers on Artificial Insemination of Turkeys, Agricultural Experiment Station Oregon State College. Available at: https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/23902/CLNO543.pdf?sequence=1

[40]Bakst, M. R., and Dymond, J. S., 2013, ‘Artificial insemination in poultry,’ in A Lemma (Ed.), Quality of Semen and Diagnostics Employed. Available at: http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs-wm/41721.pdf

[41]Frame, D. D., and Anderson, G. L., 1999, ‘Causes and control of spontaneous cardiomyopathy or round-heart disease in Utah turkeys,’ cited in Farm Sanctuary’s Unnatural Breeding Techniques and Results in Modern Turkey Production. Available at: http://thehill.com/images/stories/whitepapers/pdf/UnnaturalBreedingTurkeyProduction.pdf

[42]Australian Chicken Meat Federation, Inc. (ACMF), 2011, The Australian Chicken Meat Industry: An Industry in Profile. Available at: http://www.chicken.org.au/industryprofile/downloads/the_australian_chicken_meat_industry_an_industry_in_profile.pdf

[43]Primary Industries Standing Committee, 2006, Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Land Transport of Poultry. Available at: http://www.publish.csiro.au/Books/download.cfm?ID=5391

[44]For an detailed analysis of the issues surrounding the transportation of poultry to slaughter, see The Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals (CETFA) report Broken Wings: The Breakdown of Animal Protection in the Transportation and Slaughter of Meat Poultry in Canada. Available at: http://www.vancouverhumanesociety.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Broken_Wings.pdf

[45]Voslárová, E., Janáčková, B., Rubešová, L, Kozák, A., Bedáñová, I., Steinhauser, L. and Večerek, V., 2007, ‘Mortality rates in poultry species and categories during transport to slaughter,’ Acta Veterinaria Brno. Available at: http://actavet.vfu.cz/media/pdf/avb_2007076S8S101.pdf