If you want to talk turkey, a good place to go is Minnesota. It’s the No. 1 turkey-producing state in the nation with 450 turkey farms growing 46 million of the 237 million turkeys raised annually in the country. It also leads the nation in the number of independent family owned turkey farms.
“We have a lot of second-, third-, fourth-, even fifth- and sixth-generation turkey growers,” said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association (MTGA). “They have been in the business. They know there are ups and downs, and they’ve been able to weather the storms, put money away in the good years to make it through the tough years.”
John Zimmerman took over his century-old Northfield, Minn., family farm in 1999. Zimmerman raises 13 to 14 flocks of turkey hens every year, with each flock numbering from11,000 to 27,000 birds.
“We get the birds at a day of age from a hatchery in Willmar, Minn., and raise them to about 12 weeks of age,” he said. “Then they are sent to market at 12 to 13 pounds.”
To add on those pounds, it takes a lot of food to add one pound of turkey. Feed makes up about two-thirds of the cost of growing turkeys.
Turkey farmers in Minnesota get a break on the feed cost since they have easy access to corn and soybeans, with many farmers growing their own.
“The fact that we have corn and soybeans in Minnesota and don’t have to ship it as far as other parts of the country gives us a comparative advantage to other regions,” Olson said.
In addition to ample feed and water, turkeys require proper housing and environmental conditions. Some of Zimmerman’s six barns function as nursery barns. There, the temperature is kept at 95 to 100 degrees. By 12 weeks, the turkey is comfortable at 65 degrees. Thermostatic and computer-controlled heating and cooling systems maintain suitable temperatures for all developmental stages.
“We make sure the birds are as comfortable and healthy as possible, because a healthy and comfortable bird grows the best and makes us the most money,” Zimmerman said.
Consumers are demanding farmers keep their animals antibiotic-free. Breeder Robert Orsten said consumers don’t correctly understand how farmers use antibiotics and that they’re used sparingly.
“When I have to treat my birds with antibiotics, it costs me between $800 and $1,200 a week to treat that flock so I’m not going to frivolously throw antibiotics at my birds,” he said. “But when they need it, they need it. When we can’t use antibiotics, the birds suffer and sometimes they die.”
Like Zimmerman, Orsten took over the family farm along with his brother. Orsten Turkeys in Willmar, Minn., focuses on egg production.
“Our turkeys lay eggs, and then we collect those eggs, sanitize them and put them in a cooler. Twice a week, they get picked up and delivered to a hatchery where those eggs are hatched and sent out to commercial growers,” he said.
Orsten Turkeys operates two growing farms and two production farms, producing between 4.5 and 4.8 million eggs per year.
“We get our replacement turkeys at a day of age. It takes about 30 weeks to get to maturity, and they lay for 30 weeks,” Orsten said.
The Minnesota Board of Health and the University of Minnesota both play an important role in the state’s turkey industry.
“As we have had challenges over the years, both those entities have worked with us to help identify and develop solutions that helped us do a better job of raising turkeys,” Olson said.
Like other segments of agriculture, the turkey industry faces workforce shortages. Nationwide, 100,000 people are employed in the industry.
“We don’t have a lot of turnover, but when we do it is difficult to find quality, qualified people that want to work on a farm,” Orsten said.
“People just don’t want to do this kind of labor anymore. I grew up in this. This is what I do for a living,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with it. But to find individuals who want to work with livestock is difficult.”
MTGA is working with the university and Minnesota K-12 schools to educate students about careers in livestock production. The industry will continue to grow as more consumers turn to turkey as a healthy protein option. Currently, the average U.S. consumer eats 16 pounds of turkey a year, but the industry goal is to increase that by 20 pounds per person by 2020.
To meet that goal, turkey farmers throughout the country need to persevere, said Zimmerman, adding that the rewards of turkey farming keeps him engaged.
“You can see the fruits of your labor when you work with livestock, and that is rewarding and enjoyable to me,” he said. “I know if I do a good job, I can get that baby turkey from weighing just a few ounces up to 12 pounds in a relatively short time. That takes management skills.”
Orsten agreed. “There is a lot of hard work, but there is also the benefit of being your own business owner,” he said. “We have three boys, and our kids work alongside of us. That is rewarding.”