It’s turkey time.
Millions of Americans will dive into the big bird on Thursday, smothering it with gravy or cranberry sauce or both.
Many will also face the scornful stare of their vegetarian cousin, silently asking, “do you know how that turkey got here?”
We can assure you: You don’t want to know.
From conception to carcass, here’s the short, hellish life-cycle of your industry-produced turkey.
Domestic turkeys aren't interested in sex, and even if they were, the size of their breasts would make it impossible.
To get around this problem, major turkey breeders rely on artificial breeding, which often takes place at separate artificial insemination facilities. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, the process involves 'stimulating the copulatory organ by massaging the abdomen and the back over the testes... pushing the tail forward with one hand and, at the same time, using the thumb and forefinger of the same hand to 'milk' semen from the ducts of the organ.'
Subsequently, the turkey semen is propelled into the oviduct via syringe. The semen produced by one male bird -- a 'tom' -- can usually inseminate several hens.
Photo: Farm Sanctuary
As soon as a hen lays an egg -- within one or two days -- the breeders inseminate her again. She can keep this up for around 25 weeks, at which point she is 'spent,' says the National Turkey Federation.
Some breeders then ship off these hens to be processed for meat. Others take time to recondition the hen for another round of breeding.
The so-called 'molting' (rehabilitation) of a turkey hen takes a leisurely 90 days, according to the NFT. Force-molting is much faster, however, and involves a 72-hour trauma in a completely dark room with no food or water, according to the Humane Society. This resets the hen, and she is ready to be knocked up again.
As soon as an egg hits the hay, inseminators ship it off to a separate facility for hatching.
At the hatchery, thousands of eggs are put in large incubators, set for high speed with bright lights and optimal heat and humidity, according to the Humane Society.
Turkey eggs hatch in less than a month.
Hatching is only the beginning of a turkey's journey through industrial processing.
The chicks in this picture are being exposed to high-intensity light and partially microwaved to prepare for a routine surgery.
Having their beaks and talons cut off.
The beaks aren't necessary for eating, and they might scratch other turkeys. Same for talons. So off they go!
As they get softened up to have their beaks and talons chopped off, some unlucky (?) chicks fall from a conveyor belt or slide and are literally crushed in the machine, according to a hatchery investigation by Compassion Over Killing. Watch the 10% cute and 90% disturbing video here.
Photo: Compassion Over Killing
Beaks, toenails, and even the fleshy 'snood' that hangs from the top of the beak, are surgically removed from the chicks.
This is done to prevent the birds from giving or taking too much damage in the violent pecking and scratching that takes place in the crowded brood house.
Photo: United Poultry Concerns
Here's some good news: For some of their short, hellish lives, the turkeys that are being grown for your meal are actually allowed to eat something resembling food.
They are fed a balanced diet of corn and soy bean meal, mixed with vitamins and minerals.
(They don't need their beaks to eat it, apparently.)
Hormones and steroids are not necessary, nor are they allowed, according to the National Turkey Federation. Indeed, these turkeys are all-naturally engineered to grow at an incredible rate, so that it takes only 80 pounds of feed to raise a 30-pound turkey, says the NTF.
Turkeys are also given antibiotics for disease prevention and resolution, according to Butterball.
Next, it's time to fatten those chicks up--in double time.
Thousands of turkeys are packed into a brooding barn, with only 2-4 square feet per bird, according to a report by the Humane Society. Over the course of three to four months, the turkeys get bigger and the space gets tighter.
Leading turkey processor Butterball promises it has programs in place to 'restrict the crowding of birds.' This is where cutting off the beaks and talons really pays off.
When the turkeys are 14-18 weeks old they are ready for the slaughterhouse.
How do they get there?
Workers usually grab the turkeys by the legs and throw them into crates, which are stacked on the back of trucks. It is legal to transport farm animals for up to 36 hours without food or water, according to Veganpeace.com. No sense in wasting good food on turkeys that are about to have their heads chopped off.
When they get to the slaughterhouse, turkeys are hung upside-down on metal shackles by their legs and then stunned unconscious using an electrified water-bath system before they are killed.
According to a Human Society report, there's growing concern that the stunning process is inhumane, as birds experience stress and pain before, during, and sometimes after.
After their heads are submerged in the electrified 'stunning tank,' their throats are slashed by a mechanical blade. According to animal rights site Vegan Peace, 'some birds are missed and continue on still conscious' as they're submerged in boiling water to remove their feathers.
The turkey industry says it 'does not condone the mistreatment of turkeys.' Butterball, for example, notes it's a 'leader in responsible animal welfare practice' and undergoes audits by the USDA.
Industrial slaughter methods used to be worse.
Case in point was the technique practiced at a Minnesota turkey farm in 1999, which was the subject of a PETA undercover video. The farm manager is seen using pliers and what he calls his 'killing stick' to bludgeon turkeys to death. Watch the unpleasant video here.
After slaughter, the birds are stuffed into plastic bags and then distributed.
Minnesota, home to Jennie-O and Cargill, leads the country in turkey production at 48 million birds raised in 2008. North Carolina, home to Butterball, comes in second at 40 million birds for the year; Arkansas (Tyson) is third at 31 million.
From there, turkey distribution spreads out like this, according to eatturkey.com:
- 42.6% to grocery stores
- 23.5% in commodity outlets
- 17.7% to food-service outlets
- 8.5% exported (especially Mexico, China, Russia and Canada)
Butterball, for example, has seven plant locations processing more than 1 billion total pounds of turkey each year (Mount Olive and Kinston, N.C.; Jonesboro, Ozark, and Huntsville, Ark.; Longmont, Colo.; and Carthage, Mo.).
Butterball says it has 26,000 delivery trucks that collectively travel 30 million miles per year, distributing to all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Major retailers include Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, Albertsons, Costco, Harris Teeter, Publix and more.
And finally, turkeys go from the local freezer isle to your kitchen.
Aren't you hungry?
Holiday turkey eating represents only about 29% of total yearly consumption, according to the National Turkey Federation.
Of the 232 million turkeys consumed in the U.S. last year, the NTF estimates that 46 million were eaten at Thanksgiving (20%), 22 million at Christmas (9%), and 19 million at Easter (8%).
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.