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'Turkeys aren't just for Thanksgiving anymore'

Washington poultry farmer talks process of raising birds from farm-to-table

Photo courtesy of Tye Rinner

At Rinner Family Farms in Washington, there are approximately 28,000 turkeys at all times. The birds are kept in barns that use unique technology that help regulate the temperature in the space.
Photo courtesy of Tye Rinner At Rinner Family Farms in Washington, there are approximately 28,000 turkeys at all times. The birds are kept in barns that use unique technology that help regulate the temperature in the space.
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WASHINGTON — Tye Rinner may not know what came first, the turkey or the egg, but he knows just about everything else about them. With a minimum of 28,000 on his farm at any given time, the owner of Rinner Family Farms knows his birds and has had a passion for them nearly all his life.

“The love for it started when I was a kid,” he said, explaining his dad used to work for a turkey farmer in Wayland when Rinner was a kid. Being around them so much, Rinner fell in love quickly and in 1996, began working for Mike Bates, of Washington, who owned his own farm. He stayed on for 22 years until Bates was ready to retire and purchased the operation from him about 11 months ago.

Rinner said there are many breeds of turkeys but the two main ones he keeps are Nicholas and hybrid. He said he prefers these two options because they are native to the Midwest and easy to acquire.

He orders from multiple hatcheries across the Midwest, but the main two he uses are in Osceola and Beresford, SD. Those two have the best facilities, he said, and create better results for him in the long run.

The birds are born in the hatchery where they are vaccinated and made ready for transport. One hundred birds are put into a cardboard box that is divided into four sections with 25 birds in each compartment. Rinner orders 72 boxes at a time and they are brought on a climate controlled semi.

The truck has a built in ventilation system and fans to keep the temperature at 85 degrees. Although the ride from Osceola is only two hours, the ride from South Dakota is nearly seven hours. However, he said the turkeys are well taken care of and arrive comfortable with no complications.

“We’re still getting them within 24 hours or less of when they’re hatched. The sooner you can get them from hatch the better, with anything the sooner you can get it on feed and water the better off it is,” he said.

Once the birds arrive at Rinner’s, he said he vaccinates the birds again as a booster. For the rest of their lives, the turkeys are vaccinated every two weeks for ornithobacterium infection (ORT), a respiratory disease. The vaccines are liquefied, mixed into the water supply and distributed to the birds to drink.

The turkeys on his farm are all divided into six buildings: two brooder barns and four finishing barns.

The brooder barns are like nurseries. Once the turkeys come off the truck, they go into one of the two barns and spend five weeks inside. Heat, fresh sawdust and feeders of water and food are all spaced out inside.

Once the turkeys reach week six, they are transferred to the finishing barn. The birds will spend an additional 14 weeks there until they are ready to be sent to the processing plant. Each of his barns are 60-feet-by-400-feet; a little longer than the length of a football field and less than half the width.

Each building has a computer controlled climate system- one of the most important parts of the process, he said. Because turkeys cannot regulate their own heat, they need to have room to walk around and find where the most comfortable spot it. Rinner said his barns stay at a balmy 93 degrees year-round to help keep them as comfortable as possible.

The controlled zones in the barns are being monitored 24/7, 365 days a year for temperature, ventilation and water usage he said. An alarm system is in place that will send an alert to Rinner’s cellphone if the temperature drops below a certain degree or any other issues arise. If he misses the call, it will go to another worker, he said.

Although technology is a big part of his business, so is manual labor. The feed is distributed by workers and it can be grueling. He said one barn of adult turkeys can eat up to four tons a day, making for a large order.

“I’ll have a feed truck show up once a week with about 24 tons [of feed]. That’s just for one building,” he said, continuing that he orders about 27 tons of food each week.

The feed is important for getting the birds ready for market, he said. The target age is 19 weeks and two days, but the size of the bird is the most important part. He said the ideal weight range is 40 pounds or more.

Once the birds are ready for processing, they are put onto a truck and sent to West Liberty to be processed. The amount of trucks used to transport the birds depends on how much they weigh. On average, it takes about seven or eight semis.

Rinner’s turkeys are all toms, males, which means they put on a lot of breast meat. This is most ideal for cold cut sandwiches, so they are butchered and processed for lunch meat and sold at West Liberty Foods then sent to other stores like Subway. Because his birds are not raised to be the main event at Thanksgiving, he said he does not traditionally see a spike around the holiday.

“I’ve had that question asked many times each November and I just chuckle because I have turkeys ready every month,” he said. “Turkeys aren’t just for Thanksgiving anymore.”

Thanks to new technology, Rinner is able to keep the turkeys comfortable year-round, the meat is more readily available than it was years ago. Another big change to the industry is being more cautious and aware of disease.

“Biosecurity is probably one of the biggest things we keep our finger on,” he said, explaining there are a number of measures in place to ensure diseases are not brought in.

Before anyone can enter the barns, he said they must walk through a dip pan and put on coveralls, boots and gloves. Each barn has its own set of clothes as to not contaminate any of the others by wearing them in the different locations. He said this helps keep the antibiotic usage low because all the preventive measures lessen the chance for disease.

“Anything we can do to prevent spreading germs from one building to the next is a benefit to us,” he said.

As the countdown to Thanksgiving begins and families are making arrangements to meet each other around the dining room table, Rinner has just one more thing to add.

“Eat plenty of turkey year-round. It keeps me employed,” he said.