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Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom

Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

Lesson Plan

A Rafter of Turkeys

Grade Level
3 - 5

Students investigate the domestication and life cycle of the turkey, discover how turkeys are raised on farms, and identify turkey products. Grades 3-5

Estimated Time
2-3 one-hour class periods
Materials Needed


Activity 1: History of the Turkey

Activity 2: Life Cycle of the Turkey

Activity 3: Turkey Products


breed: a group of animals or plants within a species having a distinctive appearance and typically having been developed by deliberate selection

commercial: designed mainly for profit

conservation: the wise use of resources, to conserve them for use by present and future generations

consumer: a person who buys and uses goods and services

diverse: differing from one another

domesticate: to breed a population of animals or plants to serve the purposes of human beings and to need and accept human care

extinct: no longer existing

genetics: the study of heredity and the variation of inherited characteristics

heritage: something acquired from the past

pigment: the chemical compound that produces color

predator: an animal that preys on others

producer: a person or company that makes, grows, or supplies goods or services

selective breeding: process by which humans control the breeding of plants or animals in order to exhibit or eliminate a particular characteristic

wild: living in a state of nature and not under human control and care

Did You Know?
  • A group of turkeys is called a rafter.
  • The red fleshy appendage that hangs from a turkey’s neck is called a snood.
  • The male turkey is known as a tom. The female is called a hen.
  • Only tom turkeys gobble. Hens make a clucking sound.
  • The dark of dark meat comes from a chemical compound called myoglobin, which plays a key role in oxygen transport. Dark meat is found in muscles that are used frequently, such as the legs.
Background Agricultural Connections

The birds we know as turkeys are native to Mexico and the eastern United States. They were first domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico. Early European explorers called them “turkey” after the country in Asia. Since turkeys looked similar to peacocks brought by explorers to Europe from Asia, they assumed that’s what they were. At that time, anything from the exotic East was given the name “turkey.”

In the 16th Century, explorers took turkeys from Mexico back to Europe. There the species soon became established as a common farmstead fowl. Turkeys provided excellent meat and eggs and helped control pests by eating large numbers of insects. In the 17th Century, English colonists brought turkeys back to the New World, introducing European-bred types to the native turkeys in eastern North America. The result was the Standard Bronze, the turkey we often see pictured in Thanksgiving advertisements. It has brown features with buff-colored feathers on the tips of the wing and tail.

The wild turkey is closely tied to the Native American culture and its history in the United States is sometimes misunderstood. It didn't become a traditional part of the Thanksgiving celebration until the 1800s. The wild turkey could have been served (in addition to venison) for the Thanksgiving meal at Plymouth in 1621, but it wasn't considered a tradition until later, after being championed by Benjamin Franklin. In a letter written to his daughter, Sarah Bache, in 1784, his comments favored the turkey over the bald eagle as the American symbol. However, Benjamin Franklin never recommended the turkey as the American symbol to the seal committee.

Turkeys are considered to be a bird because of their feathers. There are two types of turkeys; common turkeys raised for food by farmers and wild turkeys that live in hardwood forests and grassy areas. In nature, wild turkeys live together in groups called flocks. There are nearly 7 million wild turkeys in North America, and all states have populations that are huntable, except for Alaska. Turkeys raised by farmers for meat production are normally larger and weigh more than turkeys living in the wild. Due to their lower weight, wild turkeys are able to fly for short distances at speeds up to 55 miles per hour (89 km/h) for about a quarter of a mile; however, the common turkey is too heavy to fly. The wild turkey diet consist of fruits, insects, and seeds. They are known as omnivores, organisms that eat both plants and animals. 

The turkeys most of us eat today have very little in common with the Standard Bronze turkey. The United States is the world's largest turkey producer and exporter of turkey products. The turkey we buy in the supermarket is a breed with white feathers, called the “White Breasted Tom.” Commercial producers prefer turkeys with white feathers because white feathers don’t leave pigment spots under the skin when they are plucked. The White Breasted Tom was the result of many years of selective breeding. In addition to having white feathers, the breed also has more breast meat and meatier thighs than early turkeys. Today, the White Breasted Tom is the only turkey in large-scale production in the US.

In 2017, the top five turkey-producing states included Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, and Virginia. More consumers are choosing poultry over red meats. Consequently, over the past 10 years, poultry consumption has increased rapidly. The consumption of turkey in the United States by individuals was recorded by the USDA to be 16.4 pounds (7.4 kg) per year. Other than the whole turkey, the variety of turkey products offered in the supermarkets expanded to include turkey bacon, turkey burger, turkey ham, and deli breast. This alternative white meat provides a high protein, low fat substitute over ground beef for the consumer.

White Breasted Toms are usually raised indoors so they will be protected from airborne bacteria, viruses, and diseases carried by migratory birds. Indoors, the flock is also protected from predators and lives in a temperature controlled environment. The turkeys are fed a diet of corn and soybean meal mixed with a supplement of vitamins and minerals.

Turkeys can live in three types of barns according to the stage of their life cycle. The mature female turkey, known as a hen, will live on a breeder farm and are bred, using artificial insemination, to lay fertilized eggs around 32-57 weeks of age. The fertilized eggs are transferred to a hatchery for incubation and normally begin hatching within 28 days. The young turkeys are known as poults. Soon after hatching, the young poults are moved to the last facility, known as the turkey farm, where they reach market weight between 11 and 17 weeks of age.

A heritage turkey, sometimes called an heirloom turkey, is a variety of domestic turkey raised specifically to help conserve some of the historic characteristics that have been bred out of turkeys raised for commercial purposes. Some of those characteristics include their diverse colors and their size. Heritage turkeys are raised in a manner that more closely match the way turkeys live in the wild. In the wild, turkeys roam free and eat grass, seeds, and large numbers of insects. Heritage turkeys are fed grains, like commercial turkeys, but are also put on pasture to eat grass and insects. They have longer lifespans and slower growth rates than commercially-grown turkeys. While White Breasted Toms grow to an average of 20 pounds (9 kg) in four months, heritage birds take seven months to reach their market weight of 18 pounds (8 kg).

  1. Ask the students if there is a difference between wild and domesticated animals. Ask them to give you examples of domestic animals and their wild counterparts such as pigs and wild boars, or domesticated white turkeys and turkeys that live in the wild. Create a KWL chart on chart paper or whiteboard. This should be displayed in the classroom for use throughout the lesson. Ask the students the following questions and place their answers in the first two columns. The third column will be filled in at the conclusion of Activity 3.
    • What I Know
      • What do you know about the difference between wild and domesticated animals?
      • Have you ever seen a wild turkey? Have you ever seen a domesticated turkey?
      • What physical differences did you notice between a wild and domesticated turkey?
      • What do you know about any other differences between a wild and domesticated turkey?
      • What holiday is associated with turkeys?
    • What I Want to Know
      • What do you want to learn about turkeys?
      • Why are turkeys important to people?
      • What differences do you want to learn about wild and domesticated turkeys?
      • How are turkeys raised on a farm?
  2. Access the Poultry Ag Mag and project it onto a large screen. Have students take turns reading the section titled "Turkey Talk" found on page three. Make sure to point out the picture at the bottom of the white domesticated turkeys and ask the students if they look different than turkeys seen in the wild. Refer back to the KWL chart and add any additional information that the students learned from the reading.
Explore and Explain

Activity 1: History of the Turkey

  1. Place the students into four small groups. Give each group a copy of one of the Turkey Reading Passages
  2. Each reading passage includes a set of questions. Have each group answer their questions after doing a shared reading of the assigned passage.
  3. Once they have read the texts and found their assigned information, have the student groups report the information found in their readings to their classmates.
  4. Groups will then use the information to create a lap book about turkeys with a colored folder. Refer to the What is a Lap Book video for directions on creating a lap book. Tell the students that they will be adding pictures to the lap book from the next two activities. The Turkey Images can be used in the lap book. You may also add your own.
  5. Have each group present their lap books to their classmates.
  6. For more sharing, rotate the lap books from group to group allowing each group time to read the information recorded in each book.
  7. Ask each group to report one thing they learned from reading their classmates' lap books. These statements can be added to the third column of the KWL Chart.

Activity 2: Life Cycle of the Turkey

  1. Discuss with the students the concept that turkeys have a life cycle much like a chicken. Turkeys and chickens are both classified as poultry.
  2. Use the Cackle Hatchery website to show students pictures and videos of the White Breasted Turkey (described on the website as the Broad Breasted White Turkey), which are the types of turkeys raised by farmers to be sold in the supermarkets. The pictures and videos show both the poults (young turkey) and adults. The website also includes pictures and videos of the Heritage Turkey that can be shown for comparison.
  3. Place the students in the same groups from Activity 1 and have them add the Turkey Life Cycle Cards to their lap books.
  4. From the beginning to the end of the turkey life cycle, the students should place the cards in the following order:
    • Hen
    • Eggs
    • Poults
    • Adult
  5. Once each group has completed this section of their lap book lead a discussion about the life cycle of a turkey. Integrate the following points into the discussion:
    • During the growing stage, turkeys live together in houses and grow to become adults. 
    • To keep turkeys from hurting each other, poults are vaccinated and have their claws trimmed and top nook cut off.
    • Hens are raised on a breeder farm.
    • Turkey eggs hatch at the hatchery.
    • It take approximately 28 days for a turkey egg to hatch.
  6. Refer back to the KWL Chart and ask students to add more information to the last column.

Activity 3: Turkey Products 

  1. Provide each student with an All About Turkeys Information Sheet. Have the students to read the sheet independently or aloud as a class.
  2. Ask the students, "What food products contain turkey?" (sandwich meat, soups, turkey burgers, and turkey bacon)
  3. Remind students that the White Breasted Turkey breed was the result of selective breeding with more white breast meat and meatier thighs and legs containing a darker colored meat.
  4. Conduct a student survey to find out how many students prefer white turkey meat to dark turkey meat. Conduct a second survey to determine which turkey product students most prefer to eat. Graph the results in two circle graphs and have the students include the graphs in their lap books.
  5. Refer the students back to the KWL Chart and add any remaining new information that they learned.
  • Visit the Interactive Map Project website and view the map for turkey production in the United States. Identify the states which raise the most turkeys and discover if your state raises a significant amount of turkeys and how many. 

  • Have the students conduct a school wide student survey to determine which kind of turkey meat is preferred, white or dark meat. The students can survey the faculty and staff in the same manner and compare the percentages to the student survey. Have the students determine the appropriate graph to display the data.

  • Have the students draw a picture of a turkey using the following polygons (at minimum): 10 triangles, 10 quadrilaterals, 5 irregular pentagons, 2 regular pentagons, 3 hexagons, and 1 regular octagon. Students may use more polygons, but must include all of the above.

  • Have the students solve the following math problems:

    • White Breasted Tom turkeys grow to a marketable weight of 20 pounds (9 kg) in four months. Heritage birds grow to a marketable weight of 18 pounds (8 kg) in seven months. If you have a flock of 20 turkeys for each breed, how many turkeys can each group grow in a year?
    • The average American ate 16 pounds (7 kg) of turkey. Determine how much turkey the entire class would have eaten, if each student ate that amount. Have students calculate the average amount of turkey eaten by their family in a year.
    • If you cook a 20-pound (9 kg) turkey for Thanksgiving dinner and each person eats 1.5 pounds (.68 kg) of turkey, how many people can you invite to dinner?

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • Wild and domestic turkeys look significantly different from one another.
  • The knowledge of genetics and inherited traits have allowed turkey breeders to produce a turkey that is efficient to raise and nutritious to eat.
  • In addition to traditional turkey meat, there are also turkey burgers, turkey bacon, and sandwich meat.
Pat Thompson & Michele Reedy
Oklahoma Agriculture in the Classroom and National Agriculture in the Classroom
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