Having been a turkey grower in Central Texas for the past 20 years, the recent outbreak of avian influenza (“bird flu”) has certainly garnered my attention. The media attention being given to bird flu, and how it is being handled gives me a good opportunity to discuss some of the ways we are working to prevent disease on our farm, as well as address some common misconceptions related to the poultry industry.

The first issue I want to address is the use of antibiotics. It appears that many consumers feel that antibiotic use in the poultry industry is widespread and running rampant. While I cannot speak for all of the industry, I can explain the procedures we use on our farm and how serious we are about reducing the need for antibiotics in our turkeys. In 1994, when we placed our first flock of 60,000 turkeys, using antibiotics was a far more common practice than it is today. Through education and changes in the way that we manage our family farm, we have been able to virtually eliminate the use of antibiotics in the turkey flocks that we raise today.

When we started our farm, we were focused more on treating disease. In contrast, today we are seriously focused on preventing disease. Our primary goal is still to take the best possible care of our flock, and if a flock gets sick we do treat them. However, since we focus on disease prevention, this is now the exception rather than the rule.  

We have accomplished our goal of using less antibiotics through prevention and education. I know this sounds simple but it’s exactly how we did it. All members of our workforce are educated on our goal of keeping our turkeys healthy. This is imperative because “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Each member of our team understands that they play an important role in keeping our turkeys healthy. 

An average flock of turkeys on my turkey brooding farm is around 120,000 poults (baby turkeys). Our turkeys come to the farm when they are one day of age. We will keep them for a period of six weeks. After that, they are moved to a turkey grow-out facility. Having grown turkeys for over 20 years, we have determined the best management practices to help our turkeys through this critical time without the need for antibiotics.

Following the first year of raising turkeys, I spent the next 19 years working to improve upon what I had learned with each subsequent flock. Key factors that I have found to have the biggest impact on our turkeys health are clean buildings, excellent ventilation and a good source of clean water and feed.

Since a one-day-old turkey does not have a developed immune system, we are adamant about having clean facilities when the turkeys arrive on our farm. To accomplish this goal, we clean our farm houses after every flock leaves. Once birds are moved out of our houses, we remove all of the old litter (bedding) from the houses. This totals about 300 tons of organic fertilizer that can be used on our farm or on neighboring farmland. The reason that we remove all of the bedding is to help reduce any disease challenges that the next baby turkeys will face when they arrive on our farm. However, we do not stop at just removing the bedding; we also wash and disinfect our buildings and all of our equipment after each flock. Again, we do this in an effort to make sure everything is clean and ready for the next flock of turkeys and to prevent them from being exposed to any unnecessary disease challenges. After all of the disinfecting is completed, we restock our barns with new wood shaving bedding for the upcoming flock. We also practice strict biosecurity on our farm to ensure we do not introduce any unwanted diseases into our flocks. We keep disinfecting stations at every entrance door of our facility. We disinfect our shoes when entering and leaving our turkey houses. We do this to prevent carrying diseases in or out of the houses. 

Once we have our barns clean and restocked with bedding, we begin preparing to receive our new flock of turkeys. A key to excellent turkey health is having ample fresh feed and fresh water available when the baby turkeys arrive on our farm. We accomplish this by adding supplemental watering and feeding stations to our houses for the first week that the turkeys are on our farm. This is done only for the first week because this is the critical time when the turkeys are learning to eat and drink. Once they have learned where to go for feed and water, the supplemental drinkers and feeders are removed. Having our barns at that optimum temperature for the turkeys is another key to a healthy start for our turkeys. As you may imagine, a one-day-old turkey is very sensitive to temperature changes. We monitor barn temperatures very closely with computerized systems to ensure that we do not subject our turkeys to dramatic temperature changes. We want to make sure that our turkeys are comfortable and have the best growing environment possible.

This brings me to ventilation. We work very hard to clean our facility and have it ready for the newly arriving flock. Once that flock is placed, we then do everything we can to ensure we continue to provide a healthy growing environment. The key to doing this is fresh air and proper ventilation. We use a negative pressure ventilation system in our houses to maintain an ample fresh air supply for our turkeys and maintain a consistent inside temperature. We continually adjust temperature and ventilation times throughout the flock based on outside temperatures, bird age and humidity levels in the houses. Adequate fresh air circulation throughout our houses leads to a better overall house environment.

Our goal is always to provide the best growing environment possible for our turkeys. We continually evaluate our growing system to look for ways to improve how we grow turkeys. Over the past 20 years, we have modified our growing system in an effort to improve bird quality and reduce the need for antibiotics. We have found that the biggest factor in reducing antibiotic use is to provide the best growing environment possible. It can be summed up by the simple phrase “A happy turkey is a healthy turkey.”

The management practices that I have explained are exactly how we are working to prevent bird flu from coming to our farm. Although there are some things that are out of our control, we can make sure we are practicing strict biosecurity and providing the best possible environment for our turkeys to help prevent disease and reduce antibiotic use. It is important to mention that since bird flu is a virus, antibiotics would be an ineffective treatment (since antibiotics only work for bacterial infections). This reinforces the importance of us doing everything possible to prevent disease rather than having to focus on treating disease. As always, our goal is to produce the heathiest, safest turkeys possible and do it in the most responsible way possible. So, until next time “Happy Farming.”

Darrell Glaser, a member of the second class of Faces of Farming & Ranching, is a turkey farmer from Rogers, Texas. Learn more about Darrel and his turkey farm on his Q&A.