Ask a Farmer: Katie Olthoff, Squaw Creek Farm

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Katie and Bart Olthoff have been raising turkeys since 2009 in Squaw Creek Iowa. Bart Olthoff’s family has been farming in that part of Iowa for five generations and he was working for the USDA when they were approached by a local turkey farmer who decided to expand their business by investing in young, local farmers rather than expanding their own operation. Squaw Creek Farm. This is how Katie describes their operation on their website:

Twenty thousand (20,000) male baby turkeys (poults) come to us when they are 1 day old. We unload them into a big, toasty, 90 degree barn called the “brooder.” They live there until they are about 5 weeks old. Inside the barn, there are automated feeders and waterers, which are triggered by the turkeys, so they have unlimited access to these. The temperature in the barn is controlled by a thermostat, and there are vents that open and close automatically to help adjust it if needed. The turkeys are not in cages – instead they are on sawdust bedding from a local sawmill. For the first two weeks, chores take a few hours each morning, because of the supplemental feeders and waterers that we fill by hand. We also chore the poults at night, but this is usually a quick walk through to make sure all equipment is running smoothly and that the turkeys seem comfortable.

Around 5 weeks of age, we move the turkeys to one of our two finisher sites. The finisher sites have two 528 foot buildings, so the turkeys have plenty of room to spread out as they grow. These barns also have automated feeders and waterers and again, the temperature is controlled for the turkeys’ comfort. Our finishers are tunnel ventilated, meaning that there are huge fans at one end that suck air through, creating up to a 10 mph breeze in the barns when necessary. (Most livestock barns have curtains instead and rely on the natural breezes to cool animals.) We also have misters that cool the birds in the summer.

The turkeys stay in the finishers until they are ready for market at 19 1/2 weeks. Until then, my husband chores them twice a day, walking through to check equipment, pick up dead, and look for any signs of distress or disease. At the time they go to market, they average about 41 pounds. These are not your Thanksgiving birds! Our birds are processed for lunch meat and ground meat. In fact, the processing plant we use supplies turkey to all the Subways west of the Mississippi River!

In the meantime, we would have already started a new flock in the brooder. At 5 weeks, they would move to the OTHER finisher site. In between flocks, there is about 4 weeks to clean and disinfect, and that is actually the busiest time for us. So, every 9 weeks, we get a new flock of 20,000, and there is no break in between! We raise almost 6 flocks, or 120,000 turkeys, in one year!

On March 14, Food and Farm Discussion Lab held our first Ask a Farmer Q&A with Katie. The questions came from FAFDL members. The conversation has been condensed, lightly edited and organized for continuity.*

THE BASICS

FAFDL: What do you feed the turkeys?

Katie: Turkeys eat a mixture of corn and soybean meal, with vitamins, fats, bone meal, and bakery meal mixed in. We do not mix feed on site. We have a feed mill nearby (owned by a group of 12 turkey farmers) where our feed is mixed.

In the grocery store there are different size birds. How is that managed on the farm? Is there natural variance in weights or will you feed groups for more or less days to get desired size bird? Do the female turkeys reach laying stage during your operation? If so, are eggs considered a bonus, or a chore to deal with?

Great question. We raise male birds – toms – for further processing. Our birds are over 40 pounds when they go to market. Most whole birds are hens. And I’m not sure how the weight variance happens – I imagine it’s the age they are sent to market. Modern breeding has developed birds that are very similar in size.

The occasional female slips through. There are sometimes eggs at market time. The load out crew (mostly Hispanic) sometimes takes them home to eat. We’ve never eaten one.

Are the males hatched on your farm or delivered from an outside hatchery ?

Our birds come from a hatchery about 5 hours away. Delivered at 1 day old.

Is there any seasonal production differences / demands (Thanksgiving) ? Or do they balance the demand and slaughter over the whole year?

Because our birds are toms for further processing, we have no seasonal variances. 

An exchange between Katie and New Hampshire farmer Bill Fosher:

BF: Tongue in cheek question: how do you deal with that much stupid under one roof?
KO: We have a guy help us from time to time who has worked with turkeys for decades. He says, “The only thing dumber than a turkey is the farmer who raises them.”
BF: At what weight and age do your toms go to market?
KO: About 20 weeks, shooting for 45 pounds!
BF: That’s downright terrifying! 🙂
KO: The way I always look at it is that they are teenage males when we ship them off. They are agressive. They are big. The wing feathers are sharp and have cut hubby’s arms before. They have nipped hubby in the balls (serious.) The kids and I do not go in with the “big mean turkeys” as 5 year old calls them.
BF: Dressed weights would be in the 30s?
KO: Important note: poultry is the us is raised without hormones (and steroids.)
KO: I don’t know because ours aren’t dressed like a Thanksgiving bird. We are paid for live weight, and I think I heard once that 70-80% of the bird is used? 80% of 40 = 32 lbs, right?
BF: That’s my experience. BBWs usually come in about 75 percent of liveweight, with a few higher and a few lower. My heritage are more like 70 (less breast muscle) but just as many rocks in their heads.
BF: So these would end up as ground turkey, turkey breasts, deli meat, etc.?
KO: Yes, our turkeys go to West Liberty Foods which supplies 80% of Subway’s meat nationally.
KO: West Liberty Foods is also certified landfill free at all of their plants nationally! We are EXTREMELY proud of that!
BF: I should say that 75 percent figure was based on mixed-sex batches. Toms would probably be skewed towards the heavy end.


FAFDL: (Regarding) the WaPo; this past Thanksgiving. Comments? Especially this part:

Some fun facts: Turkeys bred for eating now grow to an average of 30 pounds — much bigger than wild turkeys.* (The two turkeys on their way to the White House are over 37 pounds apiece.) These domesticated turkeys are often so fat that their skeletons are unable to support that weight. They frequently develop bone deformities and degenerative joint diseases. They’re incapable of breeding on their own. They often suffer heart failure or bleeding around the kidneys.”

Katie: I’m not an expert on this, but I will tell you what I know. Their bodies can hold their weight. Three years ago we were having big time tendon issues. It was discovered that the tendon issues were a virus that had mutated from chickens and was spread by darkling beetles. The tendon issues caused “downer” birds who then got staph infection and died. It was a big problem. Eliminating the beetles has eliminated the problem.

Sometimes, the biggest birds have heart attacks, but it’s a very, very low percentage. Our favorite is when they have a heart attack in front of Bart, so he can clean it and we can put the breast meat in the freezer! (Happens about once a year.) Never heard of bleeding around the kidneys.

I have mixed feelings on the turkey pardon. On the one hand, I love the publicity for the turkey industry – a chance for us to talk about what we do. On the other hand, I think it’d be way cooler if the president ATE the turkey! Maybe he meets the turkey, and then a celebrity chef roasts it, and they eat it. I think promoting the EATING of the bird vs. the PARDONING of the bird would be neat. (National Turkey Federation doesn’t agree with me on this.)

I so love that idea. Given the loss of understanding of farm to table of a couple of generations ago, when everyone basically knew how things worked compared to now, it would be much better to educate, rather than play up the sentimental misconceptions.

Back to toms v hens. You get them sex separated at one day old. Where do the hens go, and what is the advantage of raising only toms? I read somewhere that hens are raised to maturity and sold whole due to their smaller size while toms are for processed meats , am I close?

Yes (hens are raised to maturity and sold whole due to their smaller size while toms are for processed meats ). Hens are sent to farms that raise hens. Excess poults are used in cat/dog/mink food. We adjust water lines/feeders to the proper height for the turkeys. It would be hard to use the same equipment for hens and toms because they grow at different rates.

On a side note, during the last ice storm we had, the turkeys had power in their barns (generator) but we didn’t in the house. I always say the birds live more comfortably than I do! Better diet, better temp control in the barns, never have to go outside, etc. etc.

Katie addressed some common issues raised elsewhere.

First, our turkeys can walk. The big turkeys look crowded in photos because they are social and come up to “greet” you. And the barns are so big, you can’t see that they’ve left a wide open spot farther back! But even the last day before they go to market, they have room to walk around and even run if they want.

We use a ventilation system for fresh air for the birds year round, even when it’s -20 degrees. Temp sensors let us know if the barn gets too hot or too cold, so Bart can adjust things. Often times, the sensors go off in the night when the weather changes – thunder storm, snow storm, extreme cold, etc. Bart set his cell phone ringer to sound like a turkey gobbling when the barns call. It can be quite startling at 2 am! And then he has to go to the barns, in that severe weather. I nursed my two babies each for a year, getting up with them multiple times with a night, but I think he’s got the worse end of the deal!

Our barns were built in 2009 and use a lot of technology. There isn’t anyone around here who knows how to troubleshoot it like Bart does. Because of that, he’s spent 4 nights away from the farm in the past 5 years. 3 times for Iowa Turkey Federation convention (an hour away) and one night when we had our 2nd son (30 minutes away.) I have been to family weddings 5 hours away without him, to Minneapolis 4 hours away without him, and soon Orlando without him. It’s really hard to deal with that sometimes.

TURKEY HEALTH

What if any physical modifications are done to the poults to accommodate the population pressures?

Our poults are debeaked before they arrive. I do not believe that’s due to “population pressures” though. Even when hubby’s grandpa raised turkeys on range 40 years ago, they were debeaked.

What are the procedures, in place to separate or cull out sick birds? Can you be more specific about what happens to these individual birds?

Sick or injured birds are euthanized through blunt force trauma. This is probably one of the most controversial practices on our farm, and also one of hubby’s least favorite jobs. When done correctly, it is a humane way of euthanization. However, it is disturbing for others to watch, which is why it is the subject of so many undercover videos. The turkey industry has explored other methods of euthanization (captive bolt gun) but for a variety of reasons, decided it was not best for the turkeys.

Turkeys can be susceptible to the avian flu the same as chickens. What safeguards have you had to put in place to protect your birds?

The biggest thing is keeping the birds indoors and limiting visitors. We change into clean boots that are kept in the barns so that we’re not tracking anything into the barns. We also send blood samples to Iowa State for every flock to test for avian influenza.

Does your feed consist of antibiotics as preventative measures? I often get asked this for our dairy, and am constantly being told all chicken/turkey operations are fed constant antibiotics. (nothing new to you I am sure)

We use preventative antibiotics in the feed, but it is not a constant thing. I do not know the exact antibiotics and dosages, but I know that it is based on millions of birds raised and a known susceptibility to a certain bacteria at a certain age. Also important to note – the biggest one we try to prevent is coccidiosis, which I have read can also be a problem for free range/organic birds. And the preventative antibiotics are generally not antibiotics important for human health. A good graphic comparing antibiotics used in animals vs. humans can be found here.

I am curious about the role that antibiotics (what is the schedule of such, is it an ongoing, lifelong treatment , how close to slaughter are you allowed to dose) play in your operation?

I will try to answer the antibiotics question as best I can! I do not know the specific schedule. I know there are preventative antibiotics in the feed when the turkeys are young. It is not ongoing lifelong. Different medications have different withdrawal times, but we send fat samples to our plant 2 weeks before they are scheduled to go to market, and those samples are tested for antibiotic residue. If residues are present, the flock does not go! In Iowa (14 million birds raised annually), a residue positive flock only occurs once every 4-5 years, and in most cases it is a false positive.

Have you had to deal with any hostility from environmentalists or people who perceive antibiotic use as detrimental to human health? We raise cattle and use antibiotics when necessary. I liked your explanation of use and checking for residuals.

Antibiotics is probably the biggest consumer trust issue we have. A few years ago, I even believed the hype. But the more research I do, the more comfortable I feel with our antibiotic use. I’m also comfortable with the idea that rules and regs might change someday, and we’ll change with them. Whether or not I believe that’s best for the turkeys is a whole ‘nother story, but we will adjust to do the best we can given the resources we have.

DEALING WITH WASTE

There are a lot of myths surrounding CAFOs. I often hear the charge that animals walk around in their own excrement, but that does not appear to be the case from the photos on your website. How do you manage the animal waste?

We use bedding made from wood shavings in the brooder house and oat hulls in the finishers. The bedding really does a great job of absorbing the waste. After the birds leave the brooder house, the wood shavings are moved to the finishers. Only the top layer is “dirty” so reusing it makes sense. The finishers probably have at least 12 inches of bedding in them at all times.

Throughout the flock’s life, some farmers will till up the bedding to reach the fresh below. We rarely do that, but will if we feel its necessary. If the bedding is too moist, it can cause problems for the birds feet. That is really only a problem in the summer when it’s very humid or if we have to spray water on the birds to cool them. Anyway, after the flock goes to market, we have a fancy machine (poultry housekeeper) we call a skimmer. It lifts up the bedding, sifts out the clean stuff and collects the “cakes.” The manure cakes are composted into a certified organic fertilizer. The clean bedding stays in the barn, with a fresh layer delivered and spread, as well. We use various “litter amendments” to decrease odor, kill pathogens, etc. (I think…I don’t really know a lot about what the litter amendments do.)

After the “dirty manure” is hauled out, we store it on a concrete pad with concrete side walls. Every two months, our partners haul it away to their composting facility. Important to note: turkey manure is a dry product because of the bedding.

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I was just reading about anaerobic digesters, using turkey manure to produce energy that could help save on your energy costs i.e. electrical and heating costs . Is this an option anytime in your future?

We’ve looked into wind, solar, and manure digesters. None of the three were going to produce enough energy to offset the cost, and as we are a business, we have to take cost into account. Turkey farmers in our area have put up wind turbines and solar panels, when there are rebates available that make it cost effective. Our manure is already a valuable product, so when we briefly researched it 3 or 4 years ago, it didn’t make sense to do anything else with it, besides compost it for fertilizer.

Conversation ensued:

Bill Fosher: I always wondered what would happen if the dairies that use digesters and burn methane to make power factored in the N lost to their crops. But most of them are buying in a large percentage of their feed and therefore have “surplus” manure.

Jake Stoltzfus: Not a whole lot of Nitrogen in dairy manure to begin with. It’ll either volatize away in storage or field before the crop utilizes it, using an aerobic digestor to capture the potential energy isn’t a big fertilizer nutrient loss. The big nutrients in dairy manure are phosphorus and potassium. That being said, poultry manures ARE relatively high in nitrogen. Hard telling what the nutrient analysis would be with poultry manure after anaerobic methane digestor

Raymond Eckhart:
As far as testing is concerned. Blew me away when I learned about all the analysis done on dairy farms (assume other livestock operations as well) – soil analysis, crop tissue analysis, milk analysis, feed analysis and manure analysis. All tested, measured and factored into fertilizer inputs for the next season, after accounting for crop residue and cover cropping. Fascinating stuff.

THE INDUSTRY

You seem to have a very well run facility. Are there any practices that you disapprove of in other facilities “not typical” in your industry?

I hate to throw other farmers under the bus. And I don’t come from a farming background, so I have trouble comparing our farm to others, just because of lack of knowledge. I know over 100 turkey farmers in Iowa and there is one that I can think of who does not seem to spend a lot of time in his barns – he seems to leave more of the day to day stuff to his employees than most of us do. But that’s 1/100. One percent.

The other thing I questioned was, how much employees are paid. But I looked up the state averages for farm workers, and it’s far higher than I thought. Which is good! To put it in perspective, it’s right on par with what teachers make in Iowa.

I work part time for the Iowa Turkey Federation. After serving on their “promotions” committee for two years, they created a position for me to manage their social media/website. I am not paid to talk about turkey. I’m paid because I can’t stop talking about turkeys. I never know if that comes across as a conflict of interest, but it truly isn’t!

Do you yourself determine your own procedures or is anything determined for you by the buyers of your birds?

We own our birds and our barns and make most of the decisions. Our plant (West Liberty Foods) is also owned by turkey growers, as is our feed mill. Some of the decisions come from higher up, whether it’s our partners, the plant, the feed mill, or the breeder. But it’s all done cooperatively with turkey farmer input. Sorry I can’t answer more specifically. But I can say, at the end of the day, our gut feeling is that we have enough control and we have an amazing team of experts that help us make decisions when we need it.

I read the article about Tyson and their chicken farmers and talked to my husband about it (FAFDL discussion of the article), and he and I both agreed that we do not feel as though we are in the same position they are (chicken farmers who contract for Tyson). Maybe it’s because we own our birds? Maybe it’s because we have ownership in the plant? Maybe because we are paid fairly? I don’t know, but apparently, the turkey industry in Iowa is NOT like the chicken industry. I’m not sure what it’s like outside of the upper Midwest, but I think it’s safe to say that the turkey farmers around here are generally pleased with the “vertical connections” we have throughout the industry.

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THE BIG PICTURE

What are the biggest challenges you face? On a day to day basis and in terms of where you’d like your farm to be in 3 years? Is there a problem that you’d like to see solved by technology?

Disease. I would like to see technological improvements in prevention, treatment and control. Whether that means more vaccines, breeding for better immunity, more drug availability or whatever else is out there. Disease challenges are a big deal. (And I believe they’re a bigger deal for us, growing to 20 weeks, than for broiler chickens, growing to 6-8 weeks.)

Is there a problem that you’d like to see solved in the policy arena?
I suppose some farmers have very strong beliefs on this. I am sort of floundering politically right now. I have always identified strongly with Democrats, but as a business owner, over the past 5 years, I’m seeing myself align with many Republican principles as well. I see over-regulation as a problem, especially when it means a “one-size fits all” approach to farming. “Everyone should grow cover crops. All turkeys should have access to the outdoors.” etc. Estate tax policy is troubling for farmers…makes it hard to pass things to the next generation. In general, policies put in place based on consumer demand, not science, are troubling (think gestation crates or antibiotic free meat.)

If you could wave a wand and make one thing on your farm work better what would it be?

If I could wave a magic wand and get something farm related, I would magically convince all non-farmers to trust us. Or, at the very least, ask us their questions, like you all are doing here. And, I would end the fights between farmers over who’s doing it better.

Is there anything that hasn’t come up in the conversation so far that you want people to know about or understand?

I believe, deep down in my heart, that livestock farmers and the network of experts who support them, are doing the best they can to balance animal welfare, environment, science & technology AND economics. We want to make a living and we want to send our kids to college and we want to pass this farm on to them, and that means we have to do things right!

I could say this a million times and it wouldn’t be enough: There is no one-size fits all way to farm. So, if you question why a farmer made the decision they did, ask them! It might be a complicated answer, and you might not understand it all, but trust that they have a good reason for the decisions they make, because 99% of them do!

One more thing: I know our way of farming isn’t perfect. But there are so many good things about it. So many good reasons that we do things the way that we do. That doesn’t mean we’re not open to change, but as I said before, we have to balance ethics, economics and science. Any changes have to help us maintain that balance.

And I’m proud of the changes farmers have made and continue to make. I’m proud of the continuing research I see in the industry. I’m insanely proud of my husband and our farm, of his work ethic and the model is for our two little boys.

* CAFO farming had been a hot topic on FAFDL around that time and I knew Katie’s turkey operation was a CAFO that didn’t conform to the dirty, crowded picture that many people had in mind when they thought of CAFOs, so I asked her if she would be willing to do our first QA. When I mentioned that the CAFO aspect might play a prominent role in the discussion, she suggested that we bring Wanda into the loop to bring another perspective. It was an extensive discussion so I will be writing up Wanda’s answers in a separate post.

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About Marc Brazeau

Free lance cultural attaché. Writing at REALFOOD.ORG.

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