For most of us, picking a turkey out is nothing more than a trip to the grocery store. But there’s a complex and fascinating supply chain that makes that possible: Nearly every single turkey that Americans will eat on Thanksgiving is the product of artificial insemination.
There’s nothing glamorous about modern turkey farming..
“The semen collection, they actually kind of like it,” says US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist Julie Long. “There are some birds that, the minute you walk into a room, they are like, ‘Oh yay!’ because they know what’s about to happen.”
It all starts with a farm worker slapping on a pair of gloves and wading into a barn full of toms, as male turkeys are known.
To collect turkey semen, the worker reaches down and begins “rubbing the tush” of a bird. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual this stimulates the phallus, which “is followed quickly by pushing the tail forward with one hand and, at the same time, using the thumb and forefinger of the same hand to apply pressure in the area and to ‘milk’ semen from the ducts of this organ.”
Once semen is collected, it’s placed into vials of “extender” fluid, which allows the sperm to survive long enough to be transported to a hen barn, where workers then inseminate the females.
Why all this rigamarole? Modern turkeys have been bred to be so large that they can’t mate naturally, let alone fly.
By The Digits
30 seconds: Time it takes to artificially inseminate a female turkey, according to the USDA
12 weeks: Time it takes for a turkey chick to grow big enough for slaughter
5: Number of hens per tom in the turkey industry, according to the USDA
18%: Proportion of US turkeys that are eaten on Thanksgiving
88%: Proportion of Americans who eat turkey for Thanksgiving, falling a bit short of founding father Alexander Hamilton’s dictum that “no citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”