In recent years, genetics and nutritional programs have contributed greatly to the commercial turkey’s performance potential. However, turkeys raised on contract farms are subjected to many more challenges than birds selected back on the pedigree farm as parent stock. In addition, there is increasing concern from the general public over modern-day genetic programs (artificial insemination vs. natural mating), nutritional programs (feed ingredients, antibiotic use, and BSE fears), and grow-out environments (confinement buildings vs. free range). These concerns are making their way to fast-food and supermarket chains, food retailers and others who are demanding changes in the way turkeys are produced in the U.S. Animal welfare issues will require additional attention in the future. Let’s look at some of the factors that can have a major impact on the performance of turkey flocks.
A turkey’s ability to walk freely and painlessly is critical to performance. Without adequate bone development and locomotion capabilities, turkeys will be unable to reach their full genetic potential. Some bones in turkeys have been reported to grow an average of 1.9 millimeters a day during the first 10 weeks of the bird’s life (Monk, 1998). Factors which impede this growth or make walking painful (leg deformities, swollen hocks, infected or ulcerated footpads) will result in turkeys making fewer trips to feeders and drinkers, thereby reducing feed and water intake and adversely affecting growth. Reduced feed and water intake will also likely lead to higher mortality rates, increased number of cull birds, and a higher condemnation percentage at the plant.
Management plays a key role in bone development. If poults are stressed from excessively hot or cold temperatures during brooding, cell growth in the bones can be greatly affected, leading to bone deformation and later leg weakness (Monk, 1998). Poults must be allowed to move unimpeded within the brooder ring from the outside edge to the heat source in order to find the ideal comfort zone. This will require proper placement of feeders and drinkers within the ring. Do not block access to heat source or outside edge of ring and do not place feeders or drinkers too close to the heat source, as poults will not consume feed or water that is too hot (Tabler, 2004).
Poor environmental conditions are a concern throughout the life of a flock, not just at brooding. If overall house conditions are not acceptable to the bird, feed and water consumption will decrease. Be aware that whenever a whole house of turkeys is just sitting (not eating or drinking) during the day, something is wrong. Some birds should be on the move at all times throughout the day. Ideal bird activity is when groups of birds can be seen standing and slowly maneuvering their way across the house to feeders and drinkers (Wojcinski, ND). Wet litter must be avoided, as this may lead to foot pad lesions, which provide opportunities for bacterial infection (Monk, 1998).
Most producers realize that wet litter leads to ammonia production and subsequent respiratory or leg quality problems. However, producers may not realize that typical poultry litter contains 1 billion viable microorganisms per gram (Rehbeger, ND). These microorganisms come from several sources with the primary source being the gastrointestinal tract of the birds themselves (Rehbeger, ND). Litter management involves reducing the multiplication of microorganisms to protect foot pads, control diseases and enhance the house environment. Knowing how to prevent wet litter may help reduce or eliminate these problems. Some of the common causes of wet litter are:
• Inadequate litter depth – make sure depth is adequate at start of the flock (follow integrator guidelines)
• Unsuitable ventilation rate – an inadequate air exchange rate allows humidity levels to rise, increasing
the likelihood of wet litter
• Inappropriate temperature – cool temperatures mean elevated humidity levels, which leads to wet litter.
Recognize that supplemental heat will be needed at times (particularly when birds are young) to keep
the litter dry. Increasing air temperature by 20°F will double the moisture holding capacity of the air
• Improper drinker management – height, line pressure, spillage, and wastage all impact litter condition
Keep in mind the age of the flock when implementing a litter management strategy. Recall that young turkeys (less than 10 weeks) produce less body heat than older birds (13 weeks or older). This means (obviously) that during cooler temperatures additional heat must be added to maintain an ideal growth environment. Although fuel is expensive, the addition of extra heat not only warms the birds, it increases the capacity of the air to remove moisture. If no supplemental heat is added to turkeys 10 weeks old or less, the capacity of the air will be inadequate to remove the moisture exhaled and excreted by the birds. In contrast, in turkeys of 13 weeks or older, the heat produced by the bird is adequate to remove the excess moisture. Thus, properly maintaining temperatures and adequately ventilating are critical to good air quality in the turkey house. Good air quality is important 24 hours per day throughout the flock, not just when someone is working in the house or on days the service tech visits the farm.
Like other livestock, water intake in turkeys is directly related to feed intake and therefore growth and performance. Water consumption of turkeys at the start of the growing period is around 2.5 times greater than feed consumption and around 2 times higher in the mid growing phase (Wojcinski, ND). It is essential to have water meters and keep daily records of water consumption. This is the only way producers will know if consumption is normal for flock age and season of year. Excessive or irregular changes in water consumption can alert producers to potential problems with either flock health status or malfunction of the feed and/or water system. As with bone development, if flock health is compromised, turkeys will never reach their genetic potential and performance will be disappointing. Even one compromised bird may contribute towards a deteriorating environment starting a long series of events that ultimately result in disappointing flock performance (Fernandez, 1998).
Not only is an adequate supply of water necessary, it must be high quality water if turkeys are to achieve high quality performance. Treating water lines during cleanout, sanitizing watering equipment during house preparation, and maintaining the correct amount of sanitizer present in the drinker throughout the flock are vital to providing quality drinking water. For example, Bordetella (which causes turkey coryza) has been isolated from the inside of nipple drinkers and from the rubber seal in the water line regulator in houses with Bordetella positive turkey flocks (Watkins, 2002).
Chlorine levels in the last drinker should be checked weekly to ensure proper amount is being delivered. Also, water should be sampled regularly for mineral and bacterial levels. Producers must know how much water turkeys are consuming and what’s in the water, otherwise it is impossible to know if the water supply is adversely affecting flock performance.
Locomotion is essential to the birds’ ability to obtain feed and water. Litter management also plays a key role.
Availability of a plentiful and high quality water supply is a necessity for flock performance. Water meters are valuable tools for tracking consumption and alerting producers to possible flock health or other serious problems. While modern, commercial turkeys can obtain remarkable performance, it is the concern and management skills of individual turkey producers at the farm level that ultimately determines whether potential becomes reality at flock harvest.
Fernandez, D. 1998. Reducing pathogen load optimizes turkeys’ production performance. The Feather File. Cuddy Farms.
Monk, J. 1998. Nutritional, management factors can interfere with development. The Feather File. Cuddy Farms.
Rehbeger, T. No Date. Controlling litter microorganisms. Watt Publishing e-digest 2(6). 7 pages. Visited June, 2002.
Tabler, G. T. 2004. Strategies for successful turkey production. Avian Advice 6(2):9-11.
Watkins, S. E. 2002. The campaign for quality drinking water continues. Avian Advice 4(3):7-9.
Wojcinski, H. No Date. Grow-out management. Watt Publishing e-digest 2(6). 4 pages. Visited June, 2002.
By G. Tom Tabler
Center of Excellence for Poultry Science - Division of Agriculture
University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service
AVIAN Advice newsletter (Summer 2006 • Vol. 8, No. 1)