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.*
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. Read More…