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The true story of your Thanksgiving turkey

The following is a guest post written for us by Lilian from Food and Farming Canada.

Most of us have very little knowledge of where our food comes from or how it is produced. As a result, misinformation is widely circulated in many different forms – so to get to the real scoop on what’s going on, there’s no one better to ask than a farmer himself.

I had the chance recently to visit with Brent, who raises turkeys on his farm in south-western Ontario, and seized the opportunity to pepper him with questions about one of my favourite holiday meats, turkey.

Young turkeys arrive on Brent’s farm in a heated truck from the hatchery as day old birds called poults. When they come off the truck, they’re placed inside the barn on bedding made of wood shavings.

As they grow older, they will be moved to straw bedding. The inside of the barn is a toasty 95F; Brent says he keeps his barn very warm for the little birds just as you would for most young animals.

The poults are free to roam as they please inside the barn and have constant, unlimited access to feed and water. They eat a mixture of grain, soybeans, corn, vitamins and minerals – but there are seven different rations or diets for turkeys throughout their lives, depending on what stage of growth they are at.

When the birds are four to five weeks old, they are moved to a bigger barn so they have more space to grow. They also no longer need quite as much heat as they did when they were newly hatched; Brent’s bigger barns have curtained sides (left) that can be rolled up when the weather is warmer to let in fresh air and sunlight.

Turkeys are sexed or sorted according to sex when they are hatched. Hens, the females, are normally destined for the fresh turkey market as whole birds due to their smaller size. The males are called toms and they are raised primarily for the processing – like deli meats for example – or food service markets.

The turkey consumption cycle is seasonal, peaking at traditional holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, but Brent’s family grows turkeys all year round since most of his birds are toms (males) and go into further processing. They’re sent to market when males reach a weight of 15 kg and females a weight of six to ten kilograms. This is normally at just over four months of age.

Here’s an interesting fact - not only can the birds eat and drink and move around when they want, they’re also free to weigh themselves whenever they want.

The weigh-scale (shown in the photo at left) is a small swinging platform that sits in a certain area of the barn and the turkeys will jump up on it as part of their play routines during the day. I don’t think I know too many people who’d consider jumping on a scale a fun part of their day!

So what about antibiotics?

This is a question that always comes up, so I asked. Brent, like most farmers, works really hard to keep his birds healthy in the first place, preferring prevention over treatment any day. But, he tells me, when one or several birds in his flock do get sick, he treats the entire flock with medication.

Not all birds show symptoms right away, he says, and the birds tend to work together in a flock – if one is sick, the others likely are too. This way he can make sure that he can quickly and effectively fight the sickness in his barn.

“We’re very careful that we use our medications according to veterinary standards and that we only use them when we absolutely have to,” stresses Brent. “This is an important part of our on-farm food safety program and we are audited yearly to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to.”

Turkey Farmers of Ontario, which oversees the on-farm food safety program, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also promote very specific codes of practice that set out housing and handling requirements for the birds. These will vary at different stages of their lives, depending on their age and size, but Brent assures me they all meet approved Canadian animal welfare standards.

Why can’t people go in the barn?

Once a flock has been sent to market, the barn is cleaned out, washed and given time to breathe – which means a small rest period before new birds come in. This helps ensure that disease isn’t transferred from one flock to another.

Brent also follows fairly strict biosecurity procedures on his farm to protect his birds from any diseases that might be carried in by people or equipment. He makes sure he uses hand sanitizer before he moves from one barn to the next and he keeps a different set of boots and coveralls in each barn that he wears only when he is in that particular building.

In the photo here, he’s shown in front of one of his barns - and with the family dog, who refused to show his polite face to the camera!

“We try not to let people into the barn – not because we have anything to hide but because we want to keep our birds healthy by keeping disease out,” he explained. “Anyone going in can bring something bad in with them if they’ve had any contact with pet or wild birds, or other animals, for example.”

Family vs corporate farming and farm sustainability

There is an average of 12,000 to 18,000 turkeys spread over four barns in Brent’s care at any given time during the year, which makes his farm one of the larger ones in Canada. He produces enough turkey every year to provide Christmas dinner for one million Canadians.

Brent farms with his wife and two young daughters. His farm is family-owned, like most farms are in Canada – 98% of them in fact. Each turkey farmer in Ontario must have quota, which means they know exactly how much turkey they are allowed to produce to meet the needs of Canadian consumers.

This system is called supply management, and is also used in Canadian egg, chicken and dairy farming. It’s based on the premise of matching up supply with demand and as a result, prices are pretty stable for both farmers and consumers.

“It’s a great system because it lets us grow what consumers want and people pay a fair price to the farmer but they are not overcharged” he explained. “It’s a win-win for both sides.”

Some farms may be owned by a family under a corporate business structure, but all that does, says Brent, is make it easier for the next generation to take over the farm because it allows young farmers to assume the farm piece by piece instead of having to buy it all at once. That is almost unachievable for most young farmers as farm land and buildings have become very expensive. He was able to take over his farm from his own parents in this way.

But the size of a farm doesn’t matter when it comes to caring for animals. Brent says there are farms of many different sizes in Canada but all produce safe meat and at the end of the day, people have farms because they love working with animals.

“Everybody cares for their animals and we make sure they have the best conditions possible,” he says. “If we treat them well, they will treat us well.”

To tour Brent’s farm yourself, visit www.virtualfarmtours.com and click on turkeys.

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Posted by FFC on May 26th, 2010 :: Filed under Animal care,Family vs factory farming,Farm life,Food safety,Poultry,Sustainability of the family farm
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One Response to “The true story of your Thanksgiving turkey”

  1. [...] protein. Point taken, Brent! To read about what else I learned, check out the blog post I wrote for Let’s Talk Farm Animals. var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname="Where your Thanksgiving turkey really [...]

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