The turkey you’re about to eat weighs twice as much as it did a few decades ago

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Jim Bourg/Reuters

  • Turkeys have gotten much bigger than they were half a century ago.
  • To meet growing demand starting in the 1950s, American turkey farmers began to breed birds for their size and speed of growth.
  • Today, the average turkey weighs around 30 pounds, almost twice as much as they did in the 1960s.

The turkey on your Thanksgiving table this week probably won’t look anything like it would have decades ago.

Today’s turkeys are a lot bigger – more than double the size – and faster-growing than the birds our parents or grandparents ate.

For reference, here’s the turkey that President John F. Kennedy pardoned in 1963, compared to the 36- and 47-pound birds President Donald Trump pardoned 54 years later:

BI Graphics_Turkey size_2x1

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John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/NARA; Jim Bourg/REUTERS

That’s a big bird.

Still, demand for the birds is greater than ever. Americans consumed 16 pounds of turkey per person in 2014, and turkey consumption has increased by more than 110% since 1970, according to the National Turkey Federation.

Breeding bigger birds

Until the 1950s, farmed turkeys were pretty much the same size as wild ones.

But to meet growing demand, American turkey farmers began to breed birds for their size and their speed of growth, according to Mother Jones.

Since 2012, turkeys have weighed roughly 30 pounds.

BI Graphics_Turkey size

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Samantha Lee/Business Insider

The trouble with bigger birds

That increased size has led to fewer turkeys getting slaughtered. According to a USDA report, 232 million turkeys were slaughtered in 2015, down from a peak of 293 million turkeys in 1996. Over time, male turkeys have grown so heavy that they can no longer mate with hens. For this and other reasons, most of today’s turkeys are bred through artificial insemination.

Today, USDA regulations prevent turkey farmers from giving turkeys hormones. And as of January 2017, US farmers are not allowed to use antibiotics for growth purposes, either. Giving the animals doses to prevent disease is still allowed, but require a veterinarian.

This Thanksgiving though, enjoy your turkey – just know that it isn’t your grandma’s Thanksgiving bird.

Tanya Lewis contributed to an earlier version of this post, and this post has been updated from a 2016 version.