Raising Antibiotic-Free Turkeys

Hi, my name is Ashley Klaphake – wife of Jon Klaphake. I married into the turkey business; however I had experience growing up on a dairy farm. Jon and I have two kids who are excited about the birds every time they see them. We took over operations at Meadowlark Turkeys LLC near Melrose, Minn., beginning January 1st, 2017 and we employ one person for the time being. Prior to January 1, Jon and his dad, Glen, raised turkeys and over 900 acres in crops. Jon has been raising birds for most of his life.

We are a third generation family farm which was founded in 1972. We raise 250,000 turkeys a year which equates to about 3.6 million pounds per year. We raise a combination of light hens and heavy hens, growth ranging between 13-17 1/2 weeks of age. My roles on the farm can range from brooding on days when Jon needs some extra help along with most of the administrative management tasks.

For our farm, we’ve taken a leap into raising antibiotic-free, vegetable-fed turkeys, which has been a new opportunity for us. We were approached by Jennie-O Turkey Store to raise antibiotic-free, vegetable-fed turkeys back in July 2016. This is part of why I’m excited to start the conversation here on this blog regarding our new adventure and how it’s working for us.

 Our Test Run

We definitely had some learning to do as our barns were raising conventional birds for years and years. Breaking it down to its simplest form, the many different organisms within a barn had to be stripped away. We had to flush out these colonies so we would be successful at raising an antibiotic-free bird to market.

We started our very first brooder barn of antibiotic-free birds in November 2016. We had our first hiccup in December, when we had some turkeys get sick so we found it necessary to humanely treat a barn with antibiotics. We did not want – and never want – to see our birds suffer from being sick. Because of this, we learned we  needed to make a few adjustments regarding timing and dosage of vaccinations along with adding more probiotics. It became clear pretty fast that it takes a lot more finessing the first four weeks of the birds’ life when we are raising an antibiotic-free flock.

Why go through the extra work, you might ask? We feel change is on the horizon and in this moment we are going through a paradigm shift – a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions – on the way we do things on our farm. This is true regarding what some consumers are asking for in the marketplace and also true regarding how all poultry farmers administer and use antibiotics. New guidelines came into play this year, which all poultry farmers adhere to, and for us, we decided this meant an opportunity to move to providing turkey for the antibiotic-free market.

Our turkeys are raised under the label “no antibiotics ever.” And as I noted above, if we do have birds that are sick, they can – and should be – humanely treated with antibiotics. If that would happen, the birds would be raised conventionally and would not be labeled with “no antibiotics ever” in the grocery store.

It’s important to note that ALL turkey you purchase in the grocery store are antibiotic-free. If farmers use antibiotics to treat an illness in a flock, there are required withdrawal times that must be followed before the flock can be processed. All turkey flocks are tested prior to going to market to ensure this is the case.

Jon and I saw an opportunity, an opportunity that could open more doors and help us raise the best turkey possible – which ultimately is the goal of all turkey farmers regardless of their production methods! We have been successfully raising antibiotic-free veggie-fed birds since November and have enjoyed it this far.

I look forward to sharing more about our family farm with you in future blog posts. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please put them in the comment section and I’ll do my best to answer them!