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What It's Like Being a Turkey Breeder

People in Minnesota, the No. 1 turkey-producing state in the union, are familiar with the profession of turkey farmer. "Most of the time, I just have to explain that I’m not a commercial turkey farmer, meaning that I’m not growing birds for consumption," Robert Orsten, one of about 450 family farmers in Minnesota, told ValuePenguin. "I also mention that we're independent. I own my own birds, I feed my own turkeys and then I sell the eggs at the end." Maybe turkey breeder is the more appropriate job title then. After all, one of the turkeys originating from one of his farms could end up on your dinner table.

This interview was condensed for clarity. To contribute to ValuePenguin’s coverage on careers, follow us on Twitter @VP_Careers. Our guest, @OrstenRob, was made available by @MinnesotaTurkey.

Since you grew up on a farm, did you learn how to be a turkey farmer simply through osmosis?

Yeah, for the most part. I learned because I was here and working in the industry. But I still think that you still learn something every day almost. I still go to educational events, to try to learn from researchers. 

This year, I’m the president of the Turkey Research Promotion Council, which helps us gather a lot of research, like with the University of Minnesota, on different diseases, disease prevention, bio-security measures. That really helps us on the farm, to know what to do and how to do it. And then I'm on the board of the Minnesota Turkey Grower’s Association, which is more focused on educating producers as well as lawmakers. For me, the associations have helped with networking. A lot of times when you’re on the farm, you’re just going about your business, and you don’t really meet other people doing the same thing that you’re doing.

But, yes, the core of the turkey industry I learned just from growing up in it. Actually, the farm that we grew up on is where I live now. A hundred yards away is our first turkey barn, but my brother and I have three other farms too.

How does your business fit within the industry at large?

My brother and I -- and the 18 employees that work with us -- produce about four and a half million eggs per year, which translates into just under four million poults, or baby turkeys, per year. So those poults that we produce become Thanksgiving birds or deli meat turkey.

On the commercial end of the turkey industry, the United States produces about 240 million turkeys per year, so we’re definitely not a niche market; our turkeys are hormone-free like all poultry in the United States, but we're not certified organic, selling at farmer's markets.

Do each of your farms serve a different purpose?

Two of our farms are just for growing the birds, and then two of our farms are where they go and lay eggs. We are a breeder operation, so our eggs go to a local hatchery, and then that hatchery will hatch them and distribute those baby turkeys out to customers that they have. And those baby turkeys go all over North America. And in the past they’ve gone to Europe and to Russia.

How many breeder turkeys do you guys have?

We have 45,000 a year. We take them from one day to thirty weeks of age, and then at 30 weeks, they’ll start laying eggs. Then they’ll lay them for another 30 weeks, so we have our turkeys for about 60 weeks.

And then they too go to the slaughterhouse?

That’s correct.

Did you have other jobs growing up, or was this it?

My family’s been in turkeys since 1968, and so as kids growing up we were highly encouraged to stay on the farm and to take over the farm. I’m the youngest of three boys, so all three of us boys came back to the farm. I had high school jobs off the farm, but because my two older brothers were already back to the farm when I was college-aged, I wasn’t really given an opportunity to go to college if I wanted to come back to the farm. That’s a little bit of a longer, involved story. I kind of had to make my choice at 19 and stuck with it.

We’ve tried to diversify the business a little bit. What my brother and I have added is a registered Hereford cow-calf operation and farming corn and beans. 

Is "turkey farmer" still the most appropriate title?

When I’m in front of a group, that’s typically how I’m introduced. It’s the main part of our business, the main part of our job. Most of our days are spent with the turkeys.

What is a normal day in your work life like?

I’ll get up, usually between 5 and 5:30 a.m. I’m out in the barn by 6 a.m., because that’s when the lights come on. I go through the barns, and check the feed and water, but also I’m checking how the birds are doing. Just by seeing the birds every day, you can really get a sense for if they’re -- I’ll call it, happy. If they’re happy, everything’s OK, and there’s very few, if any, dead ones laying around. I’m checking their health, and the condition of the barns. That takes me probably about three hours on this farm. I have three barns, so about an hour per barn.

Then I will typically go back into my house and shower and put clean clothes on before I go to the next farm. The next farm’s the same. I do a little more on growing the young birds, so typically I’m the only one in those barns on a daily basis. Every Monday, we do sampling. Some Mondays, we’re just swabbing the drinkers, and we send those in for testing of different viruses that could potentially be floating around in the water. Other Mondays, for the state, we do blood testing and environmental. We'll test a sampling of the birds, about 100 birds.

By the time I'm done with that, I’ve put in about seven hours, maybe. Then I do a little more on the business side of stuff. I don’t pay bills, but I deal with the bankers and accountants. I work on reports, and I track production. That’s typically my day.

Now, my brother, he works with the production birds. And so his day typically starts at about 4:30 a.m.. Since we’re selling hatching eggs, our birds have to be artificially inseminated every week. My brother has two crews who do that four days a week, and so he’s out there helping those people with those birds. Also, on his farms are where the egg collections are. So we collect eggs every day, for a couple hours a day. That’s how long the birds lay eggs. Once the lights go off, they don’t typically lay any eggs; they lay the bulk of their eggs during the day. We have about ten people every day picking eggs, 12 hours a day. And then those eggs get sanitized, and they get put in a case, and put in coolers on the farm until they go to the hatchery, twice a week. My brother deals with that end more, interacting with the artificial-insemination crew, and the egg-collecting crew.

Typically, we work six days a week. The seventh day, or Sunday, we still go through the barns and check everything in the barns, but we try not to do extra work on Sundays. But unless I’m on vacation, I’m in the barn seven days a week.

That's a year-long routine?

With the turkeys, it is 365 days a year, yes, and it’s pretty steady. Our 45,000 turkeys are in three flocks of 15,000. Every four months, a new 15,000 birds start. And so we’re going year-round. I think 20, 30 years ago Thanksgiving was a big thing for the turkey industry, meaning that everything kind of ramped up to Thanksgiving, and then after Thanksgiving it really slowed down. Now, turkey consumption is pretty level between all four quarters. With deli meat and the Subways of the world, there’s a lot of turkey consumed, not just at Thanksgiving. It’s a different product, but people are consuming turkey all year long. (Editor's note: In 1970, 50% of all turkey consumed occurred during the holidays, but that number was 31% in 2013, according to the National Turkey Federation.)

How has technology improved the process turkey breeding on your farms?

This year, we updated our egg-laying facilities. So now the egg-collection part in the barn is automated, which is all run by computers: Every hour, the computers and machines push the birds out, and then they pull the eggs out to a track, and they bring them to the end or the middle of the barn, wherever you want them.

And then we have WiFi in all of our barns, and so we have live cameras that we can look at our phone or our iPad and pull out a camera in whatever barn if we’re wondering if the conditions are OK. We use that to look at bird conditions and bird behavior when we’re not able to be at that barn. All of our barns have alarm systems in them, for when there’s a power failure, or if it gets too hot or too cold in the barn.

And then also with our feed: The feed levels or the feed tanks outside of the barns where the turkeys are fed, that’s all on scales, and it goes directly to a feed mill, a feed elevator. And so when our feed tanks need feed, it shows up on their computers at the feed mill, and then they bring us feed. In the old days -- five years ago -- we had to climb each feed tank and check the feed levels three, four time a week, just to make sure.

What about being a turkey farmer do you especially enjoy?

I enjoy animals, being able to go out to the barn and walk through the birds and see them grow and change and become nice-looking birds. I also enjoy the flexibility. I mean, I don't have to start at 6 a.m. If something comes up or I have a meeting in the morning, I can be flexible. I can get done with all my stuff, and I go to lunch with my kids at school, or go to one of their sporting events. It’s very regular for me to be done by three in the afternoon, and I can go and participate in all their after-school, extracurricular activities. I also just get to spend quite a bit of time outside, working outdoors.

Are there aspects of being a turkey farmer that you could do without?

Scheduling. This year, I may get baby turkeys on December 22nd, so that’s not ideal. When I get baby turkeys, that’s usually about all I can do, is check those little turkeys. So I’m out in the barn every two hours for about 45 minutes. I take about an hour break, and then I’m out to the barn again.

And then, all animals get sick now and then. So when there’s a disease problem in a flock -- one of my flocks -- I don’t like that. It’s more work, and it takes the joy out of getting into the turkey barns, when you know that they’re not feeling good.

Also, I don’t have a steady income. I haven’t made the same in one year in the last 20 years. Some years, you do well, and some years, you don’t do well. I've had to learn to budget: when you have a really good year, you can’t spend it all, because the next year might not be too good.

What should the average American turkey-eater know about your job?

We know what the end process is for our birds, but we take pride in raising good-quality turkeys. We make sure that, in our barns, the air quality is good, the water is clean and fresh, they always have feed. We try not to overcrowd them, and if they’re getting overcrowded, we try figure out how to get them out, get them into a different barn.

We are concerned about the health and welfare of our birds. We want people on Thanksgiving to have a very good experience eating turkeys. That bird needs to have a good and happy life while it’s having a life to be a good product in the end. And most turkey farmers, most of us are family farms. We’re raising kids, and our kids are involved, so it’s kind of a family affair. We’re real people out here, raising turkeys, for people to have a quality product.

Do you and your family ever get tired of eating turkey? 

We don’t, actually. In fact, yesterday, my brother -- we were harvesting corn -- and he said, “I’ve got to get going home. I’m going to quit early today.” It was 2:30 p.m.. He said, “I’ve got to get the turkey in the oven for supper tonight.” He was cooking a whole turkey. And we eat a lot of turkey deli meat. My wife will cook a whole turkey probably once a month, or once every six weeks. We’ll cook a whole turkey that night, but the leftover turkey, we’ll cut it up and freeze it for putting into future recipes.

Does any special thought go into which turkey you and your family choose for Thanksgiving?

We have barns full of turkeys, but we go to the grocery store and buy a turkey like everybody else does. Nothing special. I’ll tell you a little story: After my wife and I got married, a lot her family members said before a holiday get-together, “If you’re a turkey guy, you’re the farmer, how about you bring turkey?” So I thought, "Wow, there’s a lot of people, I’d better prepare. So I went out to the turkey barn, and I picked out two turkeys. And we plucked them, and we cooked up these turkeys. And we went to Christmas, and we used about a quarter of one of them. So we had a lot of leftover turkey that day. That was the last time I did that. From then on I just said, we’ll go to the grocery store. They’re already packaged and cleaned up. It’s a lot easier. 

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