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The turkey is a form of poultry forming a separate zoological family (zool.: Meleagrididae) within the order of Galliformes. Wild turkeys are native to North America (USA and northern Mexico). After the discovery of the Americas the Native American "chicken" were brought to Europe as early as 1520. The Aztec emperor Montezuma at that time already raised tame turkeys on the grounds of his palace. For the Aztecs turkeys were not only a source of tasty, tender meat. They also provided feathers, which the Native Americans used as attire. Europeans started to breed turkeys soon after the Spaniards brought the first few tame animals to Europe. In the early times they were bred mainly in England, France and the Netherlands.

Turkeys have a sturdy body with long legs and a wide chest. Their red, unfeathered head covered with warts is quite remarkable and makes them look almost bizarre. Fully grown male turkeys (called tom or stag) have a black hairtuft on their chest that feels like horsehair. Female turkeys (called hen) have a wart instead of the hair tuft. Turkeys are distinguished by their weight and colour of plumage. There is no difference in the meat quality of male and female animals. They are raised separately but the only difference is the time they are allowed to grow and the weight when butchered. Female turkeys are usually slaughtered earlier and weigh less than male turkeys.

Important colour varieties:

  • Bronze-feathered: Black plumage with an iridescent bronze sheen
  • White turkey: Completely white plumage
  • Black turkey: Completely black plumage
  • Crollweitzer or Pied turkey: White feathers with a black seam

Weight classes:

  • light turkey: (oven-ready) 3.5 to 5 kg
  • medium turkey: (oven-ready) 7 to 10 kg
  • heavy turkey: (oven-ready) 10 to 12 kg
  • very heavy turkey: (oven-ready) more than 12 kg

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Breeding turkeys

Most turkeys are bred in free run intensive breeding. Animals from intensive breeding are often called hybrid turkey. Aims of intensive breeding are prematurity, resistance to diseases, fast growth, a high meat and low bone content. During extensive breeding turkeys are raised free range. The breasts of these turkeys are not as heavy but their meat contains more muscle.

In many countries hybrid turkeys have only a short breeding time between 9 and 12 weeks. In countries with longer breeding times hens are slaughtered after about 16 and toms after 22 weeks.

Turkeys should have enough floor space to move around the cage freely. They should have the possibility to act out essential behaviour patterns like beating their wings and pawing. They should also be able to lay down to rest.

Medication of turkeys

Drugs used in poultry farms are governmentally controlled in most countries. In the US the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) controls the safety and effectiveness of animal drugs. Other countries like Germany have laws concerning the medication of animals. The medication is supposed to prevent or minimize infections, diseases and parasites, improve the feed efficiency and promote growth.

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Nutritional value of turkey

Turkey meat is high in protein (breast 24 percent, thigh 21 percent) and very low in fat (breast 2 percent, thigh 8 percent). The small amount of fat consists to a large part of beneficial polyunsaturated fatty acids.

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Preparation of turkey

The meat of turkey hens slaughtered before they are mature is tenderer than that of male animals. For the preparation of whole birds it is important to know that there are several meat parts of different colour and consistency. The meat of turkey legs is dark and contains more fat. It does not dry out fast during frying. The breast on the other hand is light in colour and very lean, it easily dries out. Covering the breast with a layer of pork backfat solves this problem. The fat should be removed 20 to 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time, so that the skin can get crispy. Neck and sides contain more fat than the breast.

Whole animals are available on the market from September to March. Especially around Christmas and Thanksgiving the demand of whole turkeys is high.

Whole animals can be prepared with or without a filling, comparable to roasters. For the filling a forcemeat made from turkey liver (see also: poultry liver), fresh herbs and white bread is especially well.

The turkey parts breast, leg, and liver are available around the year.

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