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Protecting Turkey Eggs Is Key to Continuing Thanksgiving Tradition

By Tara Weaver
November 18, 1998

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 1998--Turkey hens only lay 70 to 100 eggs a year, and you can’t count your turkeys until they hatch.

“Last year, more than 430 million turkey eggs were laid in the United States, but nearly 100 million failed to hatch after incubation,” said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. “This is a major concern for the turkey industry and for the many Americans who look forward to turkey each year at their Thanksgiving table.”

At Secretary Glickman’s request, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers continue to study the problem and seek ways to boost egg production and encourage more consistent hatching.

Reducing the time eggs spend in cool storage could help, according to USDA researchers, ever scrambling for ways to boost the hatch.

“As hens are bred for heavier body weight, the number of eggs they lay during their reproductive cycle gets smaller,” said Murray R. Bakst, a physiologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. Bakst is not sure what causes the cell death, but suggests limiting storage to three days at 18 degrees C to maximize hatching.

Turkey embryo death ranges from one to 15 percent of the total eggs laid, according to an ARS survey of 10 commercial turkey breeders and hatcheries. Large hatcheries may have hundreds of thousands of eggs in their hatchery at a time. When incubators are full, fresh laid eggs are generally stored from five to 25 days in a cool room to await incubation. Bakst found that nearly half of the embryo’s cells die during the first five days of cool storage. This may be a major factor contributing to embryonic death, he said.

Another reason to ensure that eggs hatch: There’s not much of a market for turkey eggs. They’re much chewier than chicken eggs when scrambled. Last year, consumers gobbled up a total of 4.7 billion pounds of turkey, nearly double the amount consumed in 1980.

Scientific contact: Murray R. Bakst, physiologist, Germplasm and Gamete Physiology Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-8795, fax (301) 504-8546,

For a turkey information packet, contact Tara Weaver, ARS Information Staff, phone (301) 504-1619,