Chapter 3 Turkey industry in Australia

3.1 Description of the Australian Turkey Sector

Turkeys arrived in Australia on the First Fleet and have been an integral part of the traditional Christmas feast since that time. Compared with the chicken meat industry, the turkey meat sector is quite small, with approximately 4.7 million birds slaughtered in 2001-2002, resulting in sales product valued at around $200 million. (Source: QDPI National Capability Survey 2002). Since 2001-2002 it is estimated that the industry has grown by between five and nine percent. There is no commercial turkey egg industry in Australia.

Turkey production has been increasing and intensifying in Australia, with a larger number of commercial contract growers running larger farms, and an increasingly strong market for niche birds, such as traditional coloured breeds and free range. A marketing campaign by one of the larger integrators has resulted in increasing consumption of turkey meat throughout the year, as well as at Christmas. Small flocks produced with low overheads (using low cost shedding, home milled feed, home processing and selling direct to consumers at farmers markets or from farm shops) can prove very profitable.

The two breeds commercially available for meat production in Australia are the Hybrid and the Nicholas.

3.2 Structure of Turkey Sector and How a Typical Turkey Flock is Established and Maintained

There are two common types of commercial turkey farm in Australia. The first is the large, commercial contract grower, similar to the commercial chicken contract broiler grower. This type of grower is responsible for more than 85% of turkey grown in Australia. The second is the small, low input, integrated farm, accounting for the remainder of production.

Commercial contract growers grow broiler birds for four vertically integrated turkey companies –based around Bargo in NSW, Beresfield in NSW, McLaren Vale in South Australia and St. Arnaud in Victoria (see Figure 3.1).

This is an image of a map of Australia Figure 3.1 showing the distribution and bird and egg movements in the Australian Turkey Industry. This image is found in the report 'Structure and Dynamics of Australia?s Commercial Poultry and Ratite Industries'.

Figure 3.1: Distribution and bird and egg movements in the Australian Turkey Industry

These growers are essentially identical to commercial chicken broiler contract growers. They supply the farm infrastructure, litter materials, labour, electricity, water and gas, and in return are supplied with feed, birds and technical advice by the integrator. These farmers are paid on a “per bird grown” basis, along with a performance bonus.

Small growers purchase day-old poults from a hatchery for between $4.75 and $5.50 each, grow them out, market and then sell the product themselves. Typically these are multi-age farms with multiple age groups of birds at different stages of grow out at any time. Some have licensed processing plants on site, others transport live birds to small licensed processing plants and pick up the dressed carcasses for a fee. These producers may also further process product by boning, portioning or smoking. Usually these growers have their own brand and a small number of dedicated retail outlets in the same state, often combined with small farm shops or sales at local farmers markets.

Only two companies maintain commercial quantities of primary breeding stock in Australia. Hatching eggs from these farms are transported by road to four hatcheries. These hatcheries then supply commercial quantities of day old poults to the industry.

Both eggs and poults may travel extremely long distances. For example, eggs move from Victoria to NSW hatcheries and poults are air-freighted to Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania from Victoria, or to SA from NSW. There is potential for interaction between poults and cage or aviary birds transported across Australia in a similar manner, although the number of poults transported, and the frequency of these movements is low when compared to the number of chickens and turkeys transported by road.

Movement of broiler turkeys from farm to farm is very uncommon, although movement from shed to shed within a farm may occur. This commonly happens when producers brood birds in one shed equipped with heating infrastructure and then move them to other sheds on the same farm later in the grow-out. Female broiler turkeys are processed at around 10 weeks of age at a weight of around 5kg. These birds are predominantly used for the whole bird market. Males are processed later, at around 17 weeks of age. The weight of males is usually between 16kg and 18kg. The males are typically used for breast yield and thigh/red meat portions, rather than as whole birds. However, some larger sized birds are required for seasonal celebrations. Due to the size of the birds and the cost of freight, turkeys typically do not travel long distances from broiler grow out farms to slaughter.

3.3 Size of Production Units, Types of Husbandry and Shedding

Production unit size is highly variable. Commercial turkey broiler producers with multiple sheds ranging from 10 000 to 20 000 square feet in size may have up to 32 000 birds on one site. Other smaller farms may have multiple, smaller sheds to allow for different age groups on the farm. Farm sizes are increasing, particularly as many of the small producers find increasing markets outside of the traditional Christmas demand. Shedding requirements for turkey are similar to that required for chickens, although most turkey sheds are older and naturally ventilated rather than controlled environments.

3.4 Factors that Affect the Size of Flocks and Densities of Poultry Including Financial, Environmental and Animal Welfare Impacts

The most significant barrier to growth of the turkey meat industry in Australia has been consumer reluctance to accept turkey as an everyday meat rather than a traditional Christmas treat. Consumers also perceive traditional cuts of turkey as taking a long time to prepare and being difficult to cook. Compared to chicken, turkey meat is expensive to produce and this cost is passed on to the consumer, resulting in a more expensive meal. These factors continue to limit the local market for turkey products outside of the festive season. The expense of turkey production in Australia compared to overseas also limits export opportunities, except in very small niche markets such as religious slaughtering. A significant increase in poult hatching must occur every September to supply well grown, whole, fresh birds for Christmas sales. A large volume of product has to be stored in freezers during the year to allow for increased Christmas sales, and this can be costly for producers.

Marketing campaigns have resulted in an increasing proportion of product being consumed outside the festive season. New products such as cold cooked meats, small portion size product such as thigh chops and other further processed product are proving more popular to the consumer. These products can also be marketed to the consumer at a cost similar to that of red meat and command a small but increasing share of the poultry meat market.

Residential encroachment on small producers wishing to expand is a significant problem, as it is for the chicken industry. Many small farms are in areas of increasing residential demand but the cost of establishing a larger farm in more remote areas is prohibitive. Specifically, additional costs in remote areas include payments for the connection of electricity and gas, establishing a permanent potable water supply and increased transport costs

3.5 Commercial Populations of Other Species on the Same Property

Commercial populations of other species on the same property are uncommon. Commercial populations of other poultry species are not permitted by the biosecurity codes implemented by the vertically integrated companies. Additionally, most farmers appear to have an understanding of basic biosecurity principles.

Occasionally, a small turkey producer will have a population of commercial free range chickens on the same property. Typically, these will be kept on separate areas of the farm to increase ease of management, but also to assist the control of Blackhead. Blackhead is a protozoan parasite that can cause severe mortality in turkey flocks. It has a direct transmission cycle in turkeys but may also be spread by a common chicken intestinal worm.

3.6 Dynamics Within the Industry Sector

Establishing Flocks of Genetic Stock

There are two commercial strains of meat turkey in Australia. The Nicholas breed is sourced from the USA, and enters Australia via Torrens Island as Great Grandparent (GGP) eggs. The Hybrid breed is sourced from Canada and enters Australia as GGP eggs via an importation facility. Small producers with a hatchery on site may maintain lines of rare breed birds, such as the King Island Turkey, coloured birds, or traditional Australian genetic stock (commercial white, bronze wing) in an organised breeding program. Both the large commercial hatcheries and these small producers have significant numbers of hobby farmers who will purchase small numbers of turkeys for grow out before a traditional Christmas or Thanksgiving kill.

Development of Genetic Stock

i Management of Genetic Stock

GGP, GP and parent breeder stock are typically kept at a higher level of biosecurity than broiler birds. These farms will include shower facilities for staff, and strict rules regarding movement of personnel and equipment between farms. As natural mating of all commercial breeds is impossible, semen is collected from mature toms and artificial insemination of hens is completed weekly by on-farm insemination staff.

There is no movement of staff or equipment between the two commercial breeder companies, although sanitised equipment may move from breeder farm to breeder farm within the same company.

Fertile eggs are sent by truck to the four commercial hatcheries for hatch of poults. Eggs travel weekly from Victoria to NSW, as well as between NSW based breeder farms and hatcheries.

ii Feed and Water Supplies

Breeder flocks are always supplied with commercially milled, heat-treated, nutritionally balanced feed. Weight of these birds in rear and lay is usually controlled by manipulation of feed formulation rather than restriction of intake, as is usual in broiler breeder birds. Water supplies are always sanitised.

iii Live Bird Disposal

There are a small number of farms where turkeys are reared until sexual maturity before transfer via trucks to a production farm for fertile egg production. Some rearing and production facilities are on the same site. All birds from breeder farms are sent for processing at the end of their production cycle.

iv Farm Waste Disposal – Reject Eggs and Dead Birds

Disposal of dead birds and cracked and dirty eggs usually takes place on-farm by burial or through the Biobin® system. Hatchery waste may be sent to landfill.

v Factors Influencing Genetic Stock Performance

The production performance of turkey breeders in Australia is similar to the production performance of turkey companies overseas. Typical egg production per turkey breeder housed will be between 95 and 105 eggs in a 28 week laying period, with fertility ranging from 95 to 88 per cent. Overhead costs per hen housed are increased by the small size of facilities and flocks and an inability to utilise facilities such as GGP housing to their full potential. These factors contribute to increased costs per poult produced which are higher compared to overseas costs.

Management of breeder stock is influenced by staff experience and competence. The difficulties associated with finding competent staff are discussed in the poultry meat section of this report.

Vaccine companies are reluctant to conduct the expensive testing required to allow their chicken vaccines to be registered for turkeys, or to allow the development of vaccines for diseases specific to turkey. This is primarily due to the small Australian market for these products. The unavailability of vaccines to protect against common, endemic diseases of turkey in Australia such as Mycoplasma meleagridis has resulted in strict biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of production limiting disease into “clean” imported breeding flocks.

Cheap serological diagnostic tests for many of the common diseases of turkey, particularly Mycoplasma meleagridis, are unavailable in Australia, making rapid disease diagnosis and monitoring difficult.

3.7 Husbandry and Dynamics of Production Stock

i Management of Production Stock

Broiler turkeys are grown in naturally ventilated or assisted ventilated sheds similar to those used for commercial chicken production.

Turkey poults can be very difficult to brood because they are easily frightened and tend to crowd into corners, resulting in smothering mortality. Most poults are brooded within brooding circles, with an elevated hover brooder that has easily identified feed and water supplies. The eyesight of poults is poor when compared to chicks, and increased light intensity assists them to find feed and water, as does the addition of marbles or other shiny objects to feed and water troughs.

Broiler turkeys may be housed with males and females in the same shed and separated by a fence. Females are removed first at around 10 weeks of age and the males released into the remaining half of the shed for continued grow out until 18 weeks of age. Alternatively, males and females may be housed in separate sheds.

Growing broiler turkeys is considered more difficult and demanding than growing broiler chickens. This is primarily because shed design is less automated and more knowledge and experience is required to maintain constant and optimum shed conditions for growing birds than when fully automated, controlled environment sheds are used. Also, brooding of turkey poults is very difficult, and requires almost constant supervision of the birds for the first two to three weeks.

Chicken farmers who are under pressure from integrators to complete costly upgrades to convert their sheds to controlled environment style may turn to turkey integrators to avoid this cost, and to prolong the productive life span of their older style shed without modification. This can obviously only occur in areas of turkey production such as McLaren Vale and Beresfield, and where farmers are looking to gain new skills in poultry farming by growing turkeys.

ii Feed and Water Supplies

Heat-treated, pelleted feed is supplied by commercial mills to most broiler producers, although some small farms (particularly those with niche markets) will use home milling.

Water supplies may be from mains, surface or underground water. Some free-range flocks may be offered water in open troughs but a majority of producers use closed drinking systems within sheds.

Surface water, where used, is always sanitised. Bore water is commonly used where available and is rarely sanitised.

iii Live Bird Disposal

All turkeys are sent to processing plants specially equipped to handle larger size birds. The process used to slaughter and dress turkey carcasses is identical to that used for commercial broiler chickens.

iv Farm Waste Disposal – Reject Eggs and Dead Birds

Disposal of dead birds is usually by burial on farm as mortality rates are low. Some farmers utilise the Biobin™ system, or compost their dead birds in used litter.

v Factors Influencing Production Stock Performance

The performance of turkey broiler stock in Australia is comparable to overseas. Feed conversions of 2.2 to 2.3 kg of feed to 1kg of live bird are industry standard for female broiler birds processed at around 5kg live weight.

Commercial turkey broiler growers are pressured by integrators to maintain and improve production parameters such as mortality and feed conversion. They may also be paid a bonus based on these production performance parameters.

Small, niche producers selling product at higher prices per kilogram with lower input costs can be more inefficient than commercial contracted growers yet still make significant margins per bird processed.

Newcastle disease (ND) vaccination is not compulsory for turkey flocks in Australia.

3.8 Types of Horizontal Contact Between Industry Sector Flocks and Farms

Facility Builders/Suppliers of Basic Materials

Shed design is essentially the same for both commercial turkey broiler and chicken meat sheds. Older style sheds built originally for commercial chicken production are easily and cheaply renovated for commercial turkey production, compared to the cost of building a new shed. Occasionally brand new turkey farms will be established. Most turkey feeder and drink equipment is imported.

Husbandry Equipment Suppliers

Due to the small amount of product required, artificial insemination equipment may be sourced through the commercial pig industry. Generally, equipment will be available for purchase through the same suppliers of chicken husbandry equipment.

Flock Placement

Following hatching from one of the four commercial turkey hatcheries, poults may be transported large distances compared to the chicken meat industry. Poults routinely travel from Victoria to Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania by air, and from Central Victoria to Gippsland by road and rail.

Typically, fresh litter is used to brood poults and this may consist of wood shavings, chopped straw or rice hulls, depending on the area and availability. This is discussed in detail in the chicken meat chapter of this document. Males and females may be placed in separate ends of the same shed or in separate sheds depending on farm design.

Feed Manufacture

The majority of turkey feed is manufactured in the same mills that manufacture commercial chicken feed. Some very small producers mill their own feed. The movement of feed trucks between farms of different species is a potential risk for transfer of disease between species.

Vaccination and Beak Trimming Crews

All vaccinations and beak/toe trimming is completed by farm staff. No transfer of staff occurs from one breeder farm to another, although equipment may move from breeder farm to breeder farm within a company.

Veterinarians and Service Personnel

There is little organised veterinary technical input into turkey farming in Australia. Some large companies employ veterinarians for their chicken business who also service the turkey technical requirements. Other producers will employ poultry veterinary consultants as required.

The larger turkey integrators employ service personnel to assist with the management of turkey flocks. These personnel are very aware of biosecurity protocols and their contact with birds is usually limited to the turkey flocks of their employer.

Processing Plants/Pick Up Crews

There are three distinct types of turkey processing plant operating in Australia. The larger integrators have processing plants dedicated to their turkey farming operations. These plants may be set up in association with chicken processing plants but the live bird holding areas are completely separate. The smaller integrators have plants that process turkey in association with spent laying chickens. The small independent growers that process their own turkeys on site may also process small amounts of other poultry, usually chickens, for local growers. There may be close association between the species in these abattoirs, with birds of different types held in the same live bird holding area. In general, plant management attempts to process different species on different days, to minimise equipment adjustment during staff working hours. This also limits potential contact between the different species.

Egg Collection and Distribution to Sale Points

All turkey eggs commercially produced in Australia are destined for fertile egg hatcheries. There is no fresh turkey egg market in Australia. Reject turkey eggs are disposed of as for dead birds.

Transportation

Turkey are easy to herd and to prevent entry of staff and vehicles into and around sheds, pick-up of birds for slaughter is conducted by walking the birds to the edge of the farm and then herding them up a loader, where catchers crate birds at the top. This is done in daylight, the afternoon before the day of slaughter. Birds on small farms with small processing plants on site will usually walk the birds to a catching pen and hang them directly on shackles within the plant at the time of slaughter.

Pet Food Manufacture/Rendering of Waste Materials

Materials not suitable for human consumption from small turkey processing plants will either be buried or sent to rendering plants for the recovery of fats, oils and proteins (as feed for poultry, pigs or fish). Larger plants may also send waste for pet food manufacture.

Fresh Litter Suppliers

Suppliers of fresh litter to the turkey industry are similar to those that supply litter to the commercial chicken industry. The recent shortage of rice hulls has required some growers to change litter materials from rice hulls to wood shavings or chopped straw. These products are usually sourced locally to reduce transportation costs.

Litter and Manure Disposal

Commercial contract growers will utilise the same litter disposal companies as the commercial chicken industry. Smaller growers often have local people that pick-up used litter from the farm for home use, whether these people have small chicken flocks for home egg consumption is unknown.

3.9 Summary of Between-Industry Contacts

The turkey industry has very little contact with other commercial poultry industries apart from a very small number of producers with small numbers of both commercial free range chickens and commercial free range turkeys.

Farming of turkeys is significantly different to farming of other poultry, and for this reason most commercial contract farmers have little contact with growers of other species.

However, three of the four main turkey growing areas in Australia (Beresfield and Bargo in NSW and McLaren Vale in South Australia) are in regions of significant chicken production, resulting in increased risk of inter-species interactions. Indeed, one complex at Beresfield contains processing plants and hatcheries for both the commercial chicken and turkey sections of the company. St Arnaud in Victoria is also close to one of the main duck processors in Nhill. The main potential source of contact between chickens, ducks and turkeys in these regions is feed mill trucks that may supply feed to farms of multiple species.

The larger integrators have specialised service personnel for their turkey and thus have little daily contact with the chicken side of the business.

Some smaller processing plants will process a small number of chickens in the same plant as they process turkeys. This is provides potential for mingling of birds before slaughter.

Another small potential risk of interspecies contact is at airports, as poults may be held before transport in areas with other species of bird, particularly cage and aviary species.

By-products, such as waste from slaughter, may also go to the same rendering plants as waste from chicken slaughter.

Additionally, turkey shed litter may be transported and disposed of by the same companies that dispose of commercial chicken manure and litter.

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