Many folks may be surprised to learn that farm-raised turkeys often have white feathers, not brown. Turkeys also don’t sport rainbow-colored tail feathers and look like a kid’s handprint.

I’m kidding, of course. Yet I would guess that most of us don’t know a lot about how farmers grow and raise turkeys. Plus, there’s a lot of misinformation overall about food safety and animal well-being.

I asked Ben Slinger, a turkey farmer from Ellsworth in central Iowa, to answer common questions about modern turkey farming. Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, joined our conversation.

I discovered that, yes, turkeys are bigger today than in the past, but not for the reasons we may think. 

And farmers remain focused on the tiniest of details, like the taste of the water that turkeys drink, to keep the birds comfortable and thriving.

Q  Generations ago, did your family raise turkeys outdoors? 

Ben Slinger: Yes, they did raise turkeys on what’s called open range. And I’ve seen some pictures of it and how that has somewhat changed. 

Q  Why did farmers switch to raising turkeys indoors in barns? 

Ben: One is the health and welfare of the animal. When you raise turkeys on range, and it rains or snows outside, it’s not very conducive to their health, so that’s an important part of it.

Also, you need to think about the predators that are around in the state of Iowa that would be preying on turkeys outside. So that’s another real reason. 

A lot of it stems from the health and well-being of the livestock. We as farmers are always being pushed to be better at what we do.

Q  What do turkeys eat? 

Ben: Most of the diet is corn. The second thing that would be in the diet is soybeans. And then you are going to have a handful of other small items – basically, vitamins and different nutrients – just to support gut health and bone structure and things like that. It’s no different than a multi-vitamin a person might take daily to promote good health. 

Gretta Irwin: The better feed, the better care that’s being provided, leads to a happier turkey that grows better. 

Ben: Stress equates to problems in turkeys. It really does. They need a stress-free life. 

Q  I’ve seen pictures of Thanksgiving turkeys from the 1950s, and turkeys were so much smaller than they are today. What’s the reason that turkeys are bigger and you are able to raise them to such a bigger size? 

Ben: A lot of that has to do with genetics and how we select breeds. That’s where I would say all of that (size) has really come from. We’ve seen it too. We used to raise toms (male turkeys) to 30 pounds, and we thought that was a big tom. And now today we’re in the upper 40s with that same bird. 

And that didn’t just happen with the flip of a light switch. It’s a lot of selecting of certain genes to create a turkey that basically can put on that kind of weight but also withstand that kind of weight. So making sure that leg structure and bone development is there to support a bird that is up to 18 pounds heavier than it was 25 years ago.

It’s also about feeding the turkey the right diets. If you are shorting them on energy, you aren’t going to feed to those weights. So it’s making sure that you have the fats and the corn oils and the different things available for that turkey to eat so they can gain appropriate weight. Farmers are trying to provide consumers what they want.

Q   Is it true that turkeys are so big they can’t walk?

Ben: Not true. Turkeys are raised in whole barn systems (not in cages). 

I have 900-foot-long barns, and those turkeys are free to walk from one end of the barn to the other. 

And if they can’t walk, that means my staff and I would have to carry 60,000 turkeys to a loader (for transport to market). I would have to carry, 900 feet down a barn, a 50-pound turkey. I can’t physically do that, and nobody else can physically do that. 

So the long answer to your question is, they walk very well. Turkeys have to be able to walk, and they walk around quite a bit when they are chasing us around in the barns.

Q  Are turkeys given hormones to get bigger? 

Ben: Since the ‘50s, (poultry) haven’t been allowed to be given hormones. It hasn’t been allowed in food production for a long, long time.

Q Do farmers give turkeys antibiotics?

Ben: In terms of antibiotics, it’s no different than humans. Sometimes you have a sick flock. You work with vets to determine what they have and if there is an antibiotic that can be prescribed to the flock.

But there again, there are withdrawal periods on those antibiotics. And we have to make sure we meet that withdrawal before market. (Editor’s note: The withdrawal period is the length of time when the medicine leaves the animal’s body.)

They (USDA meat inspectors) test poultry to make sure I have met all the pre-harvest requirements. And if any of that stuff would get flagged, my turkeys aren’t going to market.

Q Have you seen any shifts in turkey farming over the last few years?

Ben: Water quality is a huge shift in the last seven years. The whole industry is shifting to cleaner water (for the birds). And it pays for itself. It truly does. It creates a healthier animal.

We now understand that if the taste or pH level or different things are off a little bit, that bird doesn’t appreciate that taste (of water). You can put an acidifier or a neutralizer in that water so that they enjoy it more. A turkey likes more acidic water. So there are different things you can do to appease their appetite.

Q I have never heard that before. I had no idea. That’s so cool.

Ben, laughing: Well, welcome to my world.

Gretta: To say that farmers wear a lot of hats is an understatement. That sense of knowledge and the caring about the details. You seem to be really surprised by those details that Ben understands about water and feed. Everything that goes into caring for that turkey, the farmer needs to know in detail, and does, to ensure that consumers are getting a well-cared for, healthy turkey when you go to the store.