Birds of a feather

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

On a county road, just before the town of  Loose Creek, Mo., the hills of the surrounding landscape give way to deep valleys only to rise again into another sloping arch. It’s a familiar hallmark of this region of the state.

“On the right, you’ll pass a road called Turkey Hollow Lane,” directed John Stegeman, owner of Stegeman Farms. “That takes you down into the homestead.”

Continue past the lane, and turkey houses start to come into view. John pulls a tractor into a shed across from one of the houses. He’s in the midst of readying equipment for harvest on this October afternoon.  

John bought the farm in 1999 and his son, Chris, began working with his father full time in 2015. Though they also raise row crops and cattle, turkey production is their main source of income. They just finished cleaning one of the houses—tilling the existing pine shavings used for bedding and adding new.

“Our family has been raising turkeys on this farm since probably the late ’30s or early ’40s,” John said. “When my uncles decided to retire, I thought I’d give it a try.”

John is the third generation to “give it a try.” Chris will be the fourth. In the early decades of the farm, the family raised range birds. Now, several large turkey houses dot the landscape.

“Back when my grandfather raised turkeys, they raised 300 birds a year,” John said. “That was enough. Now we raise 90,000 a year when we’re in full production. It’s what it takes now to make a living.”

John and Chris raise toms. While hens are typically raised for roasting, like the kind you might find on your Thanksgiving table, toms typically go to facilities where food items such as deli meat and frozen meals are processed and packaged.

A typical day for Chris starts around 7 a.m., while John takes care of phone calls and paperwork. John will join him shortly thereafter.

The turkeys have to be checked three times a day, seven days a week. At any given time, the Stegemans will have between 30,000 and 45,000 birds on their farm.

“We check for all the basics—mortality, water leaks and feed,” John explained. “As we walk through the barns, we also check to make sure the equipment is working.”

Like other poultry, turkeys thrive in different temperatures at different stages of their lives. The temperature is mild on this day in mid-October, brisk even, one of the first cool days of fall. A thermometer inside the building detects temperature changes, and a computer controls automatic curtains on the outside of the house, raising and lowering them to let in air for cross ventilation. When the curtains are fully closed, exhaust fans turn on, bringing in fresh air.

“There’s an optimum temperature for the turkeys, and it varies throughout their lives,” Chris said. “There’s a guideline we go by. When we get them, they are a day or less old, and they start out at 92 degrees. They will finish out at 19 weeks around 55 degrees. As the birds get older, they like to be cooler.”

Because of this, weather is one of the greatest adversaries for turkey producers, just like other farmers.

“Summertime can be pretty hard,” John said. “The heat and humidity is rough on them. Someone is here all the time in the summer. If we had a power outage or a well fail, we have to be on top of that right away. Disease can also be a challenge, but that’s something most producers have to watch for, no matter what kind of livestock you raise.”

Chris and John are independent turkey growers. In Missouri, there are six independent growers who raise birds for West Liberty Foods in West Liberty, Iowa, a meat-processing company owned by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative. Five of those growers are located in Osage County. As independent producers, John said he and Chris have more control over their farm and management practices than vertically integrated operations that produce birds for a larger corporation.

“We get to choose what breed we raise, and we get to try different and new things that come on the market,” John said. “We get to work with our own nutritionist to develop our own feed. That’s probably the biggest thing about being an independent grower—we have more choice.”

The MFA feed mill in Gerald, Mo., delivers feed to the farm two to three times per week. Over the course of its life, a turkey will eat about 100 to 110 pounds of feed, John said. The Stegemans worked with their feed nutritionist to formulate the turkey ration, which starts as a crumble and transitions to a pellet as the birds grow.

“By the time a turkey is 19 weeks old, we expect him to weigh around 42 to 43 pounds,” Chris said. “That fluctuates a little bit seasonally. In the summer, they tend to weigh 1 to 2 pounds less, whereas in the winter they may weigh a little more.”

At 19 weeks, the birds are loaded onto a truck for shipment to West Liberty Foods. The facility mainly produces food items for customers to sell under their own brand names. When they reach the plant, the turkeys are extensively tested for food safety requirements.

“Everything is checked and double-checked before that bird ever goes to market,” John said. “Blood is tested two weeks before slaughter, and fat is tested seven days prior. All meat is antibiotic-
free, even if it doesn’t say it on the label, and we as farmers have done a poor job of promoting that to consumers.”

Currently, Missouri stands as the fifth-largest producer of turkeys in the U.S., behind Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas and Indiana. In 2017, Missouri produced 624 million pounds of turkey, according to The Poultry Federation. Nationally, turkey production has remained relatively flat since 2012, typically somewhere between 5.5 billion and 6 billion pounds, according to the USDA. However, there’s more meat being produced overall, John pointed out.

“Right now the markets are a little depressed,” he said. “There’s a lot of meat out there, whether it’s cattle, hogs or poultry. The market is saturated, but it’s showing signs of getting better.

In 2017, the U.S. exported an estimated 611 million pounds of turkey meat. That’s up from 569 million pounds in 2016, but down from 797 million pounds in 2012. However, USDA reports that domestic consumption has seen steady increases, from 5.03 billion pounds in 2012 to an estimated 5.39 billion in 2017.

Like other sectors of agriculture, the turkey industry is cyclical, John said.

“About every eight to 10 years, it seems to cycle,” he said. “We’ll have one or two bad years, then it works itself out of it and gets good again.”

And like other sectors, John and Chris have experienced a lot of changes over the last 20 years—namely in technology. Feeding and watering systems are more advanced. Temperature regulation is now computerized. Ventilation structures are better and more efficient. Even the litter is sold as fertilizer to organic farmers. There’s little room for waste.

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is in starting turkeys,” John said. “We used to have round brood stoves with a cardboard ring around each one. Now we have infrared ceiling heat that provides nice even heat. It cuts down on a lot of labor. That’s one of the top improvements I’ve seen in my career.”

In other ways, however, turkey production is timeless. In one of the Stegemans’ barns, 7-week-old birds form a kind of runway. They huddle together on one side of the barn and take off one by one at a full sprint toward the other side, wings flapping.

“That’s how they play,” Chris said as he watched.

In another barn, 15-week-old toms strut around fanning their feathers to make themselves appear large and boastful. And in three more weeks, the Stegemans will have new poults, beginning the cycle again.

“I’ve always had a love for this, a love for farming of all types,” Chris said. “I was by Dad’s side as soon as I could be. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

Chris now has two children of his own, 4-year-old daughter Cora, and a 2-year-old son, also named John. Already, they follow their dad around the farm as he did with his own father.

“If my kids want to go into farming, that’s great,” Chris said. “If they don’t, that’s okay, too, but I hope I get the chance to work with them like I’ve had the chance to with my dad.” 

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