A few words about the bird

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

By SARA ARTHURS - Wild turkeys are native to the United States and have become an export enjoyed in countries all over the world. But if you're buying a turkey for your holiday feast, it is most likely a domestic bird. Domestic turkeys, raised on farms, are larger than wild turkeys with toms at about 30 pounds after 18 weeks, and hens about 15 pounds in 14 weeks. - Brandenberger said the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 240 million domestic turkeys will be produced nationally this year, down slightly from 2012.

Minnesota produces the most turkey in the United States with 46 million turkeys. North Carolina is second with 36 million.

And while Thanksgiving is the biggest turkey season the meat is increasingly popular year-round, Brandenberger said.

About 30 years ago half of all turkeys were consumed in the fourth quarter of the year but today, even with an increase in production, it's only about one-third.

Brandenberger said in the 1970s and early 1980s people became more health-conscious and turkey became more popular because it is rich in protein but lower in saturated fat than other meats.

In addition, products such as ham, bacon and hot dogs made from turkey are increasingly popular, he said. The industry's biggest growth item is ground turkey for turkey burgers or substituted for ground beef in dishes like tacos, spaghetti sauce or chili.

Most domestic turkeys are variations on what is known as the "broad-breasted white turkey," Brandenberger said.

"They're bred for a larger breastplate because Americans are big white meat lovers," he said.

In addition, while wild turkeys have dark feathers which are often bronze, domestic turkeys are generally white. Brandenberger said this is because when the feathers were knocked off the bird for processing "the darker feathers left dark blotches," which led some consumers to think something was wrong.

Turkey farming requires "a commitment" and most farmers raise between 10,000 and 40,000 turkeys at a time, with three to four flocks of that size a year. Farmers must check on the turkeys multiple times a day every day to make sure the birds are healthy, the temperature is regulated and feed and water are working properly.

Turkeys are generally raised in enclosed houses, usually at least a football field long and half a football field wide.

"It protects them from predators, the weather, potential diseases that birds flying overhead could inflict," Brandenberger said.

He said some are still raised outdoors but this requires more specialized care.

"Seventy percent of the cost of raising a turkey is feed," Brandenberger said.

He said corn makes up more than half of the feed and corn prices have risen over recent years.

"When the prices swing wildly from one year to the next it's much harder to plan, and it's created a lot of uncertainties," he said.

The turkey industry has expanded its export market in the last 20 or 25 years, Brandenberger said.

"Our number one export customer is Mexico," he said.

Mexico buys about half of the turkey the United States exports, almost exclusively dark meat. In Mexico turkey, or "pavo" in Spanish, can be found everywhere in a deli case, often processed into turkey sausages or turkey hams.

"It's very popular down there," Brandenberger said.

Europe also has a "robust" turkey industry, particularly in France and the United Kingdom, he said.

Turkeys don't lay eggs as rapidly as chickens do, which is part of why consumers don't see turkey eggs for sale.

"The eggs would be too expensive," Brandenberger said. "But those who've eaten turkey eggs say they are very tasty."

The wild turkeys found in Ohio are a subspecies called the eastern wild turkey, said John Windau, wildlife communications specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife District 2.

The eastern wild turkey is found from the Mississippi River east.

The size varies from male to female but they are generally 3 to 4 feet tall and weigh around 24 pounds as adults, so they are quite a bit lighter than domesticated turkeys, Windau said.

Wild turkeys eat insects, nuts off of trees and acorns which Windau said are "a really important part of their diet."

Turkeys are known for the display in which the male turkey spreads his tail feathers. Windau said this is a mating behavior the male does to attract the female.