Canadian Poultry Magazine

Modern Turkeys: How They Have Become Like Robins and Ballerinas

Jim Knisley   

Features Business & Policy Consumer Issues

How They Have Become Like Robins and Ballerinas

When Dr. Peyter Ferket of North Carolina State University was asked to
talk about turkeys at the Poultry Industry council annual health
conference he was given free range.

When Dr. Peyter Ferket of North Carolina State University was asked to talk about turkeys at the Poultry Industry council annual health conference he was given free range.

Ferket said that when he reviewed the suggested topic he saw that he could talk about just about anything he wanted and he did. He described how and why the modern turkey’s early development is becoming more like that of its distant cousin the robin than its more direct ancestors. He told how today’s turkeys have at least one thing in common with ballerinas – they’re always on their toes. And in response to a question from the audience he revealed that North Carolina’s turkey industry is threatened and could be in jeopardy because of Midwest ethanol plants.


As for turkeys always being on their toes, Ferket said it is simply the result of the selective breeding of recent decades that has resulted in a bigger, more breast heavy bird. As the weight distribution shifted forward the bird had to do something to compensate and it learned to stand and walk on its toes. Of course, this hasn’t come without side effects. One of these is an increase in leg problems for some of the turkeys, he said.

Turkeys: Like Robins?
The most surprising of Ferket’s revelations concerned how the drive to faster growing and bigger birds has resulted in turkeys whose early growth response is making them more robin-like.

Robins come out of the egg requiring parental feeding of a simple partially digested diet because they have a limited ability to absorb nutrients. They also have a very fast growth rate.

Turkeys traditionally seek their own food after hatch, have the ability to digest complex dietary nutrients and use energy for tissue maturation and maintenance, and have a slower growth rate.

Today’s turkeys are programmed to grow and grow fast. The result is that turkey poults are becoming more altricial (helpless at birth and reliant on parents like robins) and more attention will have to be paid to early feeding including in-ovo feeding, he said.
“Did the turkey industry create a dilemma,” he asked? “Meat birds are genetically selected to be more altricial for rapid growth rate, but we want to manage them as if they are self-sufficient precocial birds.”

It’s unlikely the industry can have it both ways. It’s also unlikely the industry will move back 40 years to birds that were half the size and with poorer feed conversion.

And since its unlikely that turkey hens (even if they could) are going to play the role of mother robin, it will be up to the producer to ensure early feeding, and likely in-ova feeding, that fills the young bird’s requirements, he said.

This early nutrition is critical for the development of gut health and skeletal development.

In-ova feeding has a solution of highly digestible dietary components injected into the amnion. This supplemental nutrition facilitates neonatal development and results in improved hatchability rate, accelerated enteric development, increased glycogen reserves, increased digestive capacity, enhanced early growth and development, he said.

The process has also been automated with a system developed by Embrex of North Carolina with feed formulations developed by AvianTech of Israel.

Once the bird hatches, the increased attention must continue. The first week post hatch is critical, he said. In that first week, when the bird is undergoing the metabolic and physiological transition from egg to a feed nutrient source, it has limited digestive and absorptive capacity for carbohydrates and amino acids and has a low resistance to physiological stress and microbial challenge. Two to five per cent mortality is common in that first week, as is stunted growth.

Of particular importance is the bird’s digestive system. In turkeys everything starts with the development and maintenance of the gastro-intestinal tract. It is the largest organ in the body, it is the most metabolically active organ, the most active hormone organ, the most active immune organ and it is the host to millions of micro-organisms, he said.

If there is an early problem with gut health it might not be immediately recognized, but it will show up later as it affects the bird’s health and growth.

Early feeding affects enteric development, he said. The dietary factors that affect enteric development are: butyrate and butyric acid derivatives, organic trace minerals, essential oils, nucleic acid products and prebiotics and probiotics.

The factors that can affect gut health include exposure to disease agents, biological stress, immunocompetance and feed quality. Feed quality includes the presence of mycotoxins, a problem in Ontario corn this year, feed digestibility and feed particle integrity and size.

Simply put, “anything coming into this (digestive) system is going to have an impact: positive or negative,” he said. This includes antibiotics.

The good news about antibiotics was that they killed bugs. The bad news was that the bugs fought back. The survivors have antibiotic resistance and super bugs evolved.

Health officials, consumers and politicians lined up and antibiotics in feed is doomed.

But Ferket said poultry needs something “that will maintain the advantages of antibiotics,” but the answer isn’t to just replace AGP’s (antibiotic growth promoters) with therapeutic antibiotics.

There are a variety of alternatives. These include: acidifiers and organic acids, which are most effective in poults; direct fed microbials; microbial substrates such as furcto-oligosaccandes, mannan-oligosacchandes and xylo- or cellulo-oligosacchinandes; essential oils, and betaine.

•     The modern turkey is programmed to grow and genetic progress towards growth will continue.
•     Early nutrition is critical for the development of gut health and skeletal development.
•     Maintenance of a healthy gut ecosystem in modern turkeys should be the primary focus especially if use of antibiotic growth promoters is minimized because of consumer demands.
•    Organic trace minerals should be included in starter diets to reduce subsequent leg problems in the modern bird.

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