Hayes Family Farms near Celina raises millions of tom turkeys annually. (DHI Media/Robin Pennell)
Hayes Family Farms near Celina raises millions of tom turkeys annually. (DHI Media/Robin Pennell)

By Robin Pennell

Times Bulletin

editor@timesbulletin.com

CELINA — The Times Bulletin spoke to Gary Cooper of Cooper Farms, and turkey farmers Eric and Colt Hayes to get a better understanding of the turkey and its more recent history.

At Hayes Family Farm, turkeys fill the long coops, gobbling and rumbling to each other inside. The Hayes pulled out two tom turkeys for a photo op, their white feathers shining in the sun as they clucked and gobbled their protests. These bright eyed toms will become deli meats someday soon.

The Hayes Family Farm raises mostly tom turkeys, with a couple of hens slipping in here and there. Tom turkeys grow really fast and yield a lot of breast meat so they are raised for processing; burgers, sausage, and deli meat. The hens are smaller birds and are processed for whole bird use. (They fit in the oven.) The hens are raised between 15 to 17 weeks, while the toms are raised to about 21 weeks. But the average person couldn’t tell the difference in taste. It all has to do with rapid growth and yield.

The poults, the baby turkeys, are hatched in Oakwood at the rate of about 15 million per year. They are moved to starter barns at about a day old and then they are moved to growth barns at about five weeks old. Moving them is more cost productive since the babies need heat up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while the older poults require less heat as they grow because they are less fragile. Typically, the weeks old poults do not need supplemental heat in the barn.

Interestingly, turkeys do not produce eggs as abundantly as chickens do. They may only lay an egg every other day. The hens are inseminated, yes artificially inseminated, once a week for about twenty-four weeks. Hand inseminating the hens is a lot of work, but compared to earlier decades, it’s easier on the hens and on the workers.

In early years, the hens would have leather saddles placed over them and around their wings for the toms to mate with them. By the end of the summer, when the hens were kept outside, they had lost all of their feathers. The workers would have to take those saddles off the hens, resulting in a good thrashing of cuts and scrapes to their arms.

To get the semen for insemination, Cooper Farms has a couple of stud farms. The toms are around 80 pounds and have to be milked for semen to disperse at the hen farms. The current job title is ‘semen extractor’ in case anyone wants to apply for the job.

Coopers raises two types of turkeys but they are both white and can’t really be distinguished by sight. These days, domestic turkeys grown in farms are white for interesting reasons. When Cooper’s parents starting raising turkeys in 1938, turkeys were bronze colored. Along in the 1950s, consumers were more aware of food safety and were suspicious of anything that looked unsafe. Bronze turkey feathers leave black dots where the feathers are pulled from the bird, making the bird product look dirty. Consumers became leery of the dotted turkey skin.

Breeders began to breed the bronze feathers out of domestic turkeys. By the 1970s, most domestic turkeys had white or yellow feathers so that coloring was not left in the skin as the bird is de-feathered. Breeders also began working on developing faster growing birds with larger breast meat yield. The problem is that large hens don’t lay as many eggs. So toms were bred to grow fast and produce large amounts of breast meat, while hens remained on the smaller side. And now we have a domestic white feathered turkey with larger breasts and a cleaner look.

Over the last five decades, the turkey industry has worked on increasing the egg laying production of the turkey to keep up with the demand for turkey products. To keep the hens from ‘going broody,’ or cease egg laying in order to incubate their eggs, Cooper said, “We put them in the barns, we light control them, and what you have to do is you have to keep them from setting on the eggs. So every day they lay an egg you gotta take that egg away from them. And they’re like ‘where did that egg go’ and they lay another egg. They say the turkey business is much more an art than it is science.”

At Cooper Farms, the turkeys are fed a mixture of corn and soy products supplemented with vitamins and minerals. The droppings are collected in the shavings on the barn floor and then used as fertilizer in corn and soybean fields. Commercial fertilizer use can be reduced by 80% when using the manure and litter from the turkey barn floors, while the crops can have a 20% increase in yield. The turkey business goes full circle to supply consumers with the traditional bird of Thanksgiving.