November 04, 2021
While driving through west central Arkansas last week Melissa and I passed several long and low sheds that appeared to be chicken houses. Melissa pointed out that in this part of the state these were used to house turkey. In many European countries, roast turkey has long been a customary Christmas dish, but in the US the bird is mostly associated with Thanksgiving. That makes turkey production mostly seasonal, although in the US and some other countries turkey is available in various forms throughout the year. The most raised commercial variety is the Broad-Breasted White, but other varieties are available. The different “breeds” of turkey all originate from the North American wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). While nice to look at, most of these strains do not grow as fast, as efficiently, and have a lower percentage of white meat compared to the commercial strain turkey. They do not make the cut.
When I looked online, I found that Penn State Extension recommended small-flock turkey production as “a satisfying educational activity as well as a source of economical, high-quality meat for your family and friends.” Turkey production lends itself to small-scale and part-time farming operations. A small flock of turkeys can be raised at a scale that fits your available labor and uses existing facilities. Turkey raising is easily started by hatching eggs or raising young poults. Producing turkey close to local markets appeals to locally sourced customers. English colonists introduced European-bred strains of the turkey to eastern North America in the seventeenth century. Turkeys were bred mainly for their colored plumage until about 1935, after which the breeding emphasis changed to their meat qualities.
The buildings we saw as we drove the rural countryside were eight or nine sheds that housed thousands of turkeys. Tyson has been working with poultry farmers on a contractual basis since the late 1940’s and there are currently about 6,000 contract farmers who raise poultry for the company. Tyson supplies the birds, feed, and technical advice, while the poultry producer provides the labor, housing, and utilities. According to the website, “This means the farmer is insulated from the risk of changing market prices for feed . . . and is ensured a consistent price no matter what grocery markets are doing.” The birds are raised in large houses with thermostatically controlled heaters in winter and automatic fans to keep the birds cool in summer. Automatic dispensers provide water and feed for the birds. This was hardly small-flock turkey production.
Thoughts: Commercial production of turkey and chicken faces the same backlash as feedlots for cattle and pigs. Animal agriculture accounts for roughly 80% of ammonia emissions in the US from animal waste, 14.5% percent of global greenhouse gas emission, acid rain from the waste collecting lagoons, smell for nearby residents, and health risks from release of hydrogen sulfide for the workers. In addition, when factory farm waste decomposes it releases airborne particulate matter along with the harmful gases, including dry manure, feathers, bits of feed, and animal dander. While corporate producers claim to be “stewards of the animals”, they are ultimately raising animals to be killed and eaten. It is interesting that cattle and pigs are not even sold as animals, but as beef or pork. I wonder if my fall off the bone ribs are worth the cost. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.