November 27, 2008

Local man raises Butterball turkeys

Don’t worry — the chances that the turkeys in this story will be on your Thanksgiving table are slim.
Denver Lawson has been growing turkeys for Butterball for 12 years now, but his turkeys often go to a Carthage, Mo., processing plant.
A typical Thanksgiving Day turkey a family would buy in a grocery store could be about 26 pounds when full-grown. Lawson said that occasionally, he will have to pull some birds for the Army around 30 pounds. But most of the turkeys Lawson grows are a bit more than 42 pounds. And that number, Lawson said, is expected to start rising.
For the last dozen years, Lawson has used a three-stage growth technique, which involved raising 18,000 turkeys in a given flock over three stages, from the pen to an intermediate stage and then to a final growth stage.
However, he’s in the process of switching over to a double-two stage growth method, which skips the intermediate stage and drops the number of birds to 15,500.
“It’s better for the birds because there is less stress on them. There’s more square footage,” Lawson said. “That should get them to finish bigger.”
The method also cuts down on the labor hours of moving birds from one house to another and cleaning houses.
It should also cut down on the amount of birds that die, which is one of the hardest jobs Lawson must do every day.
“I have to do walk-throughs where I pick up the dead birds,” Lawson said. “When I have to pick up two or three 40-pound birds, that gets pretty heavy. On a three-stage, depending on how things go, you can lose 12 percent on a flock, over the 19 weeks of growth. You lose a lot in the first couple to three days. But that’s for a three-stage. In a two-stage, I am expecting 90, 91 percent [survival]. 92 percent wouldn’t hurt me, either.”
With the added weight and subtracted number of dead birds, Lawson expects to get about the same amount of turkey weight as on the three-stage system.
Sometimes, picking up dead birds can create a few confusing moments.
“When they go to sleep, they go so sound asleep that they look dead. I picked one up and I thought he was dead, so I almost threw him in the dead bucket. In the last second, he woke up.”
With those dead birds, Lawson creates a compost pile. He takes a foot of turkey manure, places the dead bird on top, then puts another foot of manure on top of that. The birds decompose under the 160-degree heat in roughly 30 days. Lawson then uses that compost as fertilizer.
When the turkeys arrive, they are a day old. This is another rather tedious chore, as Lawson must spend the first few days teaching the young turkeys how to eat and drink.
“I’ll go around and mess and tinker with the water. I’ll also stir the feed,” Lawson said. “They’re curious enough to go after it. Just being in there helps a lot. It’s still a lot of tinkering and piddling.”
There is no particular trick to raising turkeys, Lawson said. It all comes down to three things.
“Air, food and water,” Lawson said. “The air means more than just air, it means heat and quality, too. Food and water are the others. If you’ve got all those three things, you’ll raise good quality birds, so long as all of that is easily accessible.”
And that is part of the trick. For the air quality, the thousands of birds create their own heat once they are of a certain size, which eliminates most of the need for heaters. Giant fans suck fresh air for 30 seconds every five minutes or so via more than 100 four-inch pipes on the opposite wall.
As for the food and water, that’s automated, too, but a little tricky.
The food and water must be the right height. For the water, if it’s too low to the ground, the birds will splash it on the ground, which isn’t good for the air. If it’s too high, they can’t reach it. If the water in the dish is too full, it will splash, and if the water is too shallow, the birds can’t get enough water.
It is much the same case with the food.
To move the thousands of birds, Lawson often uses loud noises or banging repeatedly with a tool on a post to move the birds away.
“You can’t just try to shoo them. If the guy in the far front isn’t moving, they’ll trample all over each other, and you’ll have layers of turkeys,” Lawson said. “The thing to do is not to overdo it. You’ve got to give them time. Otherwise, they’ll get used to your whistle and start to ignore it.”Perhaps the biggest issue of growing turkeys, Lawson said, is having to buy in bulk. It is also rather surprising when visitors get to the facility.
“It doesn’t really register with people when I tell them I have 54,000 turkeys out there,” Lawson said. “They’ll get out here and tell me, ‘I can’t believe there were that many.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, what do you think that 54,000 is?’”


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