Updated January 14, 2021
The Plight Of Large Breed Turkeys
Broad-Breasted White and other large breed turkeys (referred to as “Industry” or “Commercial Turkeys” by the meat industry) have been selectively bred by humans exclusively for the purpose of increasing both their body mass and growth rates to make them more efficient to raise and slaughter in vast numbers while increasing overall profitability to large scale farming operations.
Over the course of the 20th century, turkeys have been selectively bred in staggering numbers to almost triple the size of their wild counterpart in four months of life, with male turkeys growing such large breasts that they are now incapable of breeding naturally, requiring the use of forced artificial insemination to prolong the breed. Large breed turkeys now reach industry “slaughter weight” after only 99 days of life for hens and 136 days for toms. The industry is actively still trying to speed up this growth rate, which will only create more health challenges for them in the future. This genetic propensity towards rapid growth as it stands contributes to a variety of devastating health challenges, especially leg and joint problems and heart failure.
In order to best care for these birds, it’s important to know their unique needs compared to non-large breed turkeys!
Feeding Large Breed Turkeys
Not much is known about the nutritional requirements of large breed turkeys outside of the context of commodification. While most commercial turkey foods are very high in protein (often 20% or higher), in a sanctuary setting, where the goal is health and longevity rather than rapid growth, lower protein diets are usually recommended. While both “layer” and maintenance diets typically have lower protein contents than commercial turkey foods, maintenance diets also have lower calcium levels making them a better choice for male residents or females who are not actively laying, since too much calcium can result in health issues such as gout. Two popular maintenance diets are Roudybush Low Fat Maintenance and Purina Game Bird Maintenance Chow. For more detailed information regarding the different types of food to choose from, check out our resource here.
Just as with large breed chickens, healthy, adult large breed turkeys will need to have their diet restricted to prevent obesity and other health challenges. As a result, you will likely need to keep them in a separate living space from non-large breed turkeys, who are generally free fed. Because there is not a universal standard when it comes to a healthy body condition for large breed sanctuary turkeys, and because of the wide range of sizes of individuals who fall into this category (remember, some large breed turkeys are very small in stature compared to others), it is difficult to recommend a specific amount of food that will work for everyone. If you are able to supplement their primary food with fresh greens, such as kale, or other produce, you should be able to feed slightly less primary food than if you did not supplement (while keeping them similarly satiated).
Over the years, many sanctuary caregivers have been reducing the amount of food being fed to both large breed turkeys and large breed chickens and reassessing what they consider a healthy body weight and body condition. Depending on the size and sex of the individual, as well as the type of food and whether or not they receive supplemental produce, we’ve heard of sanctuaries feeding anywhere between about ⅔ cup (especially for smaller females) and 2.5 cups (for large males) of food per day, split into at least two well spaced out meals. We realize this is a pretty wide range; some caregivers may feel that the lower end is too low or the higher end is too high, and for many individuals, they may be right. It’s important to find what works best for the individuals in your care, and watch closely for signs they are too heavy, too thin, or showing signs of a nutritional deficiency.
We recommend tracking each turkey resident’s weight monthly and considering it in the context of their general body condition and comfort. Turkeys who are overweight may stand with their legs splayed and may display greater effort when walking (though this could also be the result of an unrelated mobility issue). A very prominent keel would be a sign that they are underweight. By tracking their weight and observing their body condition, you will likely get a sense of what is a healthy weight range for each individual in your care. If you find that your residents are gaining or losing weight, adjust their food as needed, but keep in mind that small fluctuations in weight are normal. Don’t automatically adjust their food every time their weight changes. Instead, track weight trends and make adjustments slowly. You may find that you need to reduce their portion sizes during the seasons when there is more grass or other vegetation for them to eat in their outdoor space.
Some sanctuaries have noted that the large breed birds in their care cannot have free choice grit as they ate all of the grit immediately, and thus have to manage grit portions for their residents.
Ensure that there are enough spaces with the feeders you use for every bird to get their fair share of food. If anyone is being left out, you must provide more space so that nobody suffers from malnutrition or complications from overeating.
Housing Needs For Large Breed Turkeys
Due to their decreased mobility and increased size, large breed turkeys require a bit more mindful housing care than other turkeys.
It’s important to ensure that their housing floor is slip-proof to prevent injury. Their living space will likely require a bit more cleaning and maintenance because large breed birds are a bit messier than their smaller relatives, and they tend to live lower in their coop.
You’ll need to provide a lot of fresh bedding materials like clean short fiber straw and wood shavings. Many large breed turkeys cannot safely perch at night, so it’s very important to give them a solid elevated sleep structure like a straw bale with daily-replaced bedding on top. Without this special attention to their care, large breed turkeys can suffer from terrible pressure sores on their keels, legs, and feet due to their size. Actively laying large breed turkeys should have a floor-level nesting area (such as one composed of two straw bales with a third laid on top).
Large breed turkeys are extra sensitive to temperatures. In the winter, it’s important to provide their housing with a safe heating source and a bit of extra food if it gets below freezing. In the summer, large breed turkeys can experience heat stroke in hot temperatures. To avoid this, make sure that the turkeys have an area where they can cool down comfortably.
Flock Safety For Large Breed Turkeys
Due to their large size and the way they’ve been intensively bred, there are a few general rules for large breed turkey flock configurations:
- Female large breed turkeys should not be kept with any male turkeys as any attempt at mating can easily tear open their thin skin, causing a potential health emergency. Large breed turkeys are already predisposed to foot and joint issues- being mounted by a male turkey will put undue pressure on their already compromised bodies.
- Male large breed turkeys should not be kept with any female turkeys as their sheer size can easily cause injuries during attempted mating
- If you are considering housing large breed toms with female chickens, you must do so thoughtfully to ensure this is a safe situation. If a male turkey, large breed or non-large breed, mounts a chickens, this could result in mortal injury to the chicken. Pay attention to the tom’s overall demeanor and how he reacts to living with female chickens. If he acts as though he wants to mount anyone, this is a red flag that this living situation may not be safe. Senior or health compromised female chickens may not be good living companions for a male large breed turkey as they may be less able to get away should he suddenly show interest in mounting them. Remember that there is a risk of turkeys developing blackhead disease if they live with chickens, though turkeys under 6 months old seem to be most at risk.
Health Notes For Large Breed Turkeys
Due to their physiology, there are differences between large breed turkeys and other breeds when it comes to their health and propensity for illnesses:
- Because of their size and propensity for lying down, large breed turkeys can have an area on their chest that is feather-free year round.
- Large breed turkeys are much more susceptible to foot, hock, and keel sores. It’s important to treat these early to prevent infections such as osteomyelitis.
- Because of their extra weight, large breed turkeys are much more prone to bumblefoot, typically manifesting as a pressure sore on their foot pad. Their size can mean that bumblefoot is much more painful than in other birds, requiring pain medication.
- Large breed turkeys are especially prone to overheating, so always monitor them on hotter days and take them inside immediately if they show signs of heat exhaustion such as panting, drooping, and collapse. Contact your veterinarian immediately if intervention does not help!
- Because of their near-infinite appetite, large breed turkeys are much more prone to an impacted crop, so stay vigilant in monitoring their food intake and crop health.
- Large breed turkeys seem to be especially susceptible to joint infections. If a bird seems to have difficulty walking or has warm and swollen, red joints, or an open wound or scab on a joint, this could indicate a serious issue that requires a veterinarian to diagnose and treat.
- If a large breed bird stops walking and sits on their hocks or walks strangely, it might be symptomatic of a damaged ligament. Have your veterinarian look over the bird immediately in this case to rule out other conditions. Unfortunately there is little treatment for this problem.
- If you are caring for a laying large breed turkey who breaks their laid eggs on their body when broody, you must clean the yolk off of them as it can attract parasites.
Special Handling Requirements For Large Breed Turkeys
Large breed birds require particular care to ensure their health and safety when handling. Follow our Turkey Handling Guide while keeping the following in mind:
- DO NOT chase a large breed bird as this can cause them to have a heart attack.
- Older large breed birds can become overly stressed and even die when held or restrained, so stay low to the ground and keep the bird in your lap if possible.
- We never recommend putting any turkey on their back, but putting a large breed bird on their side or back can cause respiratory distress, heart attack, and injury. Some large breed turkeys can be slightly tipped onto their side, but others do best if they can remain standing for restraint.
- Be very mindful of how calm they are; a panicked bird cannot breathe and large breed birds already have stressed cardiovascular systems- if you need to let them go to calm down, err on the side of extreme caution!
Although they are less easy to safely handle, it’s still crucial that you perform regular health examinations on large breed birds as they are especially susceptible to illnesses but are less likely to show symptoms until the illness reaches a harder to treat advanced stage.