ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
When a baby turkey eats its fill of high-protein diet, it’s just like a stuffed person at Thanksgiving-ready to stretch out and maybe cool down by rolling over on its back.
Trouble is, a baby turkey usually can’t return roll from back to belly, and it can die in that position.
That fact creates one of the intense work situations for Eldon Koehn and his family at Koehn Turkey Farm located five miles southwest of Canton. They walk through the brooder barn hourly to turn baby turkeys back to their bellies-otherwise the young birds might die in the thousands.
Baby hen turkeys (females) arrive at the Koehn farm by a cooled and heated truck from Nebraska in a group of 38,000 to 40,000 birds at a time. Eldon Koehn said the babies that cost him 62 cents each usually arrive as a double group, meaning there are about 78,000 turkeys in each six-week cycle of birds.
Baby tom turkeys (males) of the same Nicholas breed of white turkey would cost Eldon 50 cents more each, he said. That makes persons who can “sex” turkeys accurately valuable at the hatchery.
They are so accurate, Eldon said, that he may average only one or two toms in all of the 78,000 turkeys in one cycle.
One in every 40,000 turkeys also may be black or black and white.
The baby turkeys leave the brooder barn in six weeks at about 6 pounds each. They’ll gain more than a pound weekly through the entire cycle. They are transferred to a two-story growing barn with 36,000 square feet of range space per floor-72,000 square feet total for the turkeys to run free in.
Koehn said the turkeys are raised entirely indoors.
The birds leave the farm at 12 weeks old at 19 to 22 pounds each, having gained a pound for each 1.4 to 1.9 pounds of feed given them. That’s quite a bit better than the 2.33 pounds of feed per pound of gain average for all growers in his cooperative, he said.
The turkeys that arrived in one truck will have grown enough that it may take 16 to 20 tandem trucks to haul them away for processing at the Nebraska Turkey Growers Cooperative plant in Gibbon, Neb.
The turkeys may leave Gibbon whole for baking, or in specialty meats such as smoked turkey.
Koehn is one of only two Kansas members of the Nebraska co-op, the other being a grower southwest of Wichita.
Public belief in turkey as a healthy meat has increased demand to where turkey growers like Koehn, who once might have provided turkeys for holiday seasons, now grow them year around.
His “Thanksgiving” turkeys left two weeks ago, and the next bunch of babies arrive this week with the in-between group in the growing barn now-255,500 birds total last year.
That helps make it possible for Eldon and his wife, Carolyn, to have their children involved in the business. The family includes sons Brandon and Michael, daughter Shanna, Brandon’s wife, Audrey, and Shanna’s husband, Andrew Rhar.
Eldon’s father, Aaron, also pinch hits after years involved with Eldon in trucking and the oil business.
Eldon Koehn left trucking and oil only two years ago after learning of the opportunity to grow turkeys from Countryside Feeds in Hillsboro. He bought the farmstead with buildings he uses that once was a chicken farm.
An eight-man crew sent from the Gibbon plant spends two days loading turkeys on each cycle at the Koehn farm. Koehn pays a motel bill for them in McPherson. The loaders are worth it for his own health, he said.
“The turkeys can cut you up, and leave you with big black bruised areas on your wrists and hands like an old person gets,” he said.
Even the forward-pointing wing feathers can whip and cut when loading birds, he added.
Koehn pays an average 24 cents a pound for loading, trucking and processing the turkeys. He receives a price based on 5 cents less a pound than the published Urner Barry Pub. Inc. turkey market guide which currently is 67.5 cents.
Even though baby turkeys arrive debeaked and declawed by microwave heat, they can actually be a little ferocious. As the birds grow big, Koehn said, even a cat wandering into a building has the potential to become turkey fodder.
“They’ll peck a mouse apart in no time,” Koehn said.
A tiny percentage of midget birds learn to move very fast, and usually aren’t there by market time because the bigger birds ate them. The hen turkeys will notice redder flesh beginning to develop on the occasional maturing tom’s head, and peck at it-sometimes resulting in bloody wounds.
The turkeys are attracted to anything shiny, Koehn said, and have been to known to eat bolts and nuts, strands of barb wire. They have pecked electric wires in two, and pecked at the lace eyelets of shoes.
“You don’t want to walk through near-grown turkeys with pliers sticking out of your pocket or a watch on your wrist,” Koehn said. “They’ll peck hard enough at the watch to draw blood.
“I’d hate to pass out in a turkey pen,” he said with a rueful smile.
Scavenging abilities of turkeys turn to production advantages in some cases. They eat their own fallen feathers-“they’re good protein,” Koehn said.
Turkey litter only has to be roto-tilled to freshen it, and some is disposed of after every third cycle, he said.
Extra protein at times may be part of why his feed conversion ratio is so good, Koehn said. Sometimes, depending on availability, he’ll stick something like high-protein fish meal in the turkey rations.
Koehn processes his own turkey feed to monitor it for impurities that can break the coil spring auger automated feed lines in his operation. Growing turkeys may receive a ration that is about 70 percent corn and 30 percent soybean meal while the baby-turkey ration may run 50-50 corn and beans, he said.
Typically, turkeys will receive four different rations while on the farm. A fifth ration may be added for any birds that happen to remain after the normal 12 weeks for his own family or special orders.
Baby turkeys receive extra vitamins and antibiotics in their rations while their immune systems develop, Koehn said. But after that first six weeks, they tend to stay healthy,
The main disease threat for birds not fed these supplements would be coccidiosis.
Koehn said turkey growers are constantly receiving warning to watch for bioterrorist threats.
Temperature also is critical for the babies.
“The temperature on the floor has to be 102 to 105 degrees,” Koehn said. “Now remember, that’s floor temperature, not air temperature.”
For the older turkeys in the growing barn, winter temperatures are kept at 72 to 74 degrees with a 500,000-BTU system ducted from individual 250,000-BTU heaters.
In summer, windows and sides of the heavily insulated building are opened, and fans can cool it to 90 to 94 degrees even when temperatures exceed 100 degree.
Koehn said he can’t allow insulation to be exposed in his barns. Turkeys will eat that, too.
The brooder building is thoroughly washed between each group of babies.
With the temperature controls, healthy rations and monitoring, Koehn has managed to keep the mortality rate of the turkeys down to 4 percent and lower. Many growers only manage 10 percent.
Koehn said it is likely to his advantage that his location is relatively isolated from other poultry growers.
Koehn said his family likes to can the white breast meat of turkeys. Eldon’s personal favorite is to flour batter the canned meat to deep fat fry it.