Talking turkey

Wisconsin may be known as the dairy state, but did you know that we also farm turkeys?  Turkeys are thought to have been domesticated over 2,000 years ago and are a native bird of North America.  The domestic turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is a popular bird to have on small hobby farms due to their unique looks, behaviors, and sounds.  Domestic lines of turkeys can be very efficient converters of feed to meat, one more reason for their popularity.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service database that manages the Census of Agriculture data, Wisconsin farmers sold over 7.2 million turkeys in 2012.  While this is a small amount compared to the top producing states, it is still a significant part of the diversity of agriculture in Wisconsin.

Heatmap of turkey operations in Wisconsin.

Turkey operations in Wisconsin according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture data. Map courtesy of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The top eight states for turkey production in the United States are Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Virginia, Iowa, and California.  These eight states combined account for 183 million birds, out of the 244 million turkeys in the United States, or 75% of the total turkeys in the United States.

Prior to the 1940s, turkey was a luxury for most working folks in the United States.  Changes in livestock farming practices allowed the price of turkeys to drop, allowing more families to be able to enjoy turkey.  Modern refrigeration allowed for harvested turkeys to be shipped longer distances from their farm of origin, making getting turkey meat easier for the consumer.

According to the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the USDA, turkey meat produced by farmers in the United States exceeded six billion pounds in 2017.  Back in 1970, approximately half of the turkey consumed in the United States was during holidays, where now only about 30% of turkey consumed is eaten at holidays.  More availability of ground turkey and processed turkey meats (deli, sausage products, etc.) has allowed for households to incorporate more turkey in their diet on a regular basis.  The average weight of a purchased whole turkey is around 16 pounds.  About two thirds of the meat on the turkey is white meat, and one third is dark.

The average American eats 16.5 pounds of turkey in a year.  For reference, in 2017, beef consumption was at 81.3 pounds per person, pork at 64.5 pounds, chicken at 105.8 pounds, and lamb at 1.2 pounds according to the ERS.

While you are enjoying turkey during the holidays, be thankful that our forefathers had the vision to domesticate this bird that we find so useful for meat, eggs, and feathers.

The University of Wisconsin-Extension provides research-based information to help citizens of Wisconsin make informed decisions based on science.  UW-Extension extends the boundaries of the university to the boundaries of the state, helping the people of Wisconsin and beyond access university resources and engage in learning, wherever they live or work.


Note: This article originally was published in the Marquette County Tribune, Waushara Argus, and/or the Berlin Journal.  This article was written by Lyssa Seefeldt, UW-Extension Agriculture Agent for Marquette County unless otherwise noted.