The Supersized American Turkey

This holiday season, thank artificial insemination for transforming turkey into the relatively cheap foodstuff it is today.


It is an extra big Thanksgiving for turkeys this year.

Mark it down: in 2013, the average weight for American produced turkey crossed 30 pounds for the first time. At least based on the January to October numbers for this year, we're talking about an average weight of 30.47 pounds.

That's a remarkable increase in average size. Go back a little further, like I did in 2008, and you see that we didn't hit 15 pounds until the 1930s. In 1960, the average weight of a turkey was just 16.83 pounds. Even in 1985, it was only 20 pounds, and we didn't hit 25 pounds until 1999.

And we owe it all to artificial insemination.

OK, not all of it. But artificial insemination is a required part of modern turkey breeding. The modern bird is too heavy and misshapen to procreate the old fashioned way. And AI means that good genetic material can be easily spread around.

John Anderson, a long-time breeder at Ohio State University, put it like this to me for a previous story: "You can spread the one tom around better. It adds a whole new level of efficiency. You can spread him over more hens," he said. "It takes the lid off how big the bird can be."

In case you're wondering, you have the United States government to thank for the development of this technology. William Henry Burrows and Joseph P. Quinn of the US Department of Agriculture developed the process and published it in 1939 as a circular called, "Artificial Insemination of Chickens and Turkeys." 

They worked the kinks out of the process over a series of years. They discovered, for example, that it was best to collect semen from turkey toms once per day, though one could try as often as twice per day. If they waited two days, they got the "maximum quantity at one collection," but not enough to make up for skipping the off day. They also tried giving the toms massive quantities of vitamins to supercharge their sperm production, but to no avail.

And on the receiving end, they found the right "dosage" of semen to achieve good fertility. That turned out to be 0.1cc of semen once per week from a mix of males (to offset any poor performers).

Along the way, they also tried to create chicken-turkey hybrids by inseminating chickens with turkey semen and vice versa. It didn't work, but their dream sort of lives on in the form of the turducken.

From Artificial Insemination of Chickens and Turkeys (1939).

The process spread fairly slowly, at first, but it was widespread by the 1960s and the introduction of the Broad-breasted White breed that now dominates the market.

What was the actual process of insemination like? Andrew F. Smith wrote a great academic work called The Turkey, which provides the following very detailed description:

Although most turkey processing operations have been industrialized, the process of insemination must be done by hand. First, semen is collected by picking up a tom by its legs and one wing and locking it to a bench with rubber clamps, rear facing upward. The copulatory organs are stimulated by stroking the tail feathers and back; the vent is squeezed; and semen is collected with an aspirator, a glass tube that vacuums it in. The semen is then combined with "extenders" that include antibiotics and a saline solution to give more control over the inseminating dose. A syringe is filled, taken to the henhouse, and inserted into the artificial insemination machine. A worker grabs a hen's legs, crosses them, and holds the hen with one hand. With the other hand the worker wipes the hen's backside and pushes up her tail. Pressure is applied to her abdomen, which causes the cloaca to evert and the oviduct to protrude. A tube is inserted into the vent, and the semen is injected. 

So much food marketing focuses on the production conditions (organic, free-range, certain types of feed) but so little of it focuses on the thing that matters the most: the genetics of the birds involved.

In 2007, poultry scientists conducted a remarkable study. They took a line of turkeys housed at Ohio State that had not been selectively bred over the last 40 years. That is to say, the turkeys had the genetics of commercial turkeys from 1966.

Then they fed the old-genetics turkeys and modern breeds the same diet, one often used in 1966. The old-line turkeys reached 21 pounds. The modern turkeys grew to an average of 39 pounds, and did it quickly.

A faster growing bird that converts feed more efficiently into breast meat helps drive down costs for farmers. Their DNA, transformed over decades, is doing the work.

The point is: The turkeys of 2013 are not the same beasts that anyone's grandmother ate as a child. They've been precision engineered by several generations of scientists and corporations to deliver more and more marketable product at lower and lower cost.

In other words: turkeys are a (delicious) glory of late capitalism.

Enjoy the bird!