By: Jen Haugen, RD, LD

“Turkeys are so big today, they must be loaded with hormones.” Have you heard this statement?  What’s the truth behind the turkey package?

It’s so hard to know what to believe! But I had a great opportunity to meet John Zimmerman, a fourth-generation farmer, and second-generation turkey farmer in May 2016.  I was immediately impressed by his humility as he shared his knowledge of all things turkey farming. John’s dad started raising turkeys as a Future Farmers of America (FFA) project in high school back in the 1950’s, and went full time into turkey farming after he came home from the Navy but when he unexpectedly passed in 1999, John took over the operation.

For the past 17 years, John has raised turkeys on his farm. In a one-on-one interview, John gives us a behind the scenes look at turkey farming, debunks common misconceptions, and defines down the meaning of food label buzzwords.

About John’s Turkey Farm

John, can you tell us about your turkey farm?
I primarily raise hens – female turkeys – which are the whole birds you would find in the supermarket at Thanksgiving. Depending on the time of year and the market, we will also raise turkeys to heavier weights to become deli meat, ground turkey, turkey ham, and turkey bacon.

What is it you love about turkey farming? Why do you do it?
I grew up raising turkeys so it is in my blood, I guess. I enjoy working with animals and watching them grow from one day old “poults” to full grown birds. Seeing the results of my work brings me a lot of satisfaction.

Being a turkey farmer, do you eat turkey, and why?
I love that turkey is an affordable and lean source of protein that’s easily incorporated into most recipes. Its mild flavor can be enhanced to match almost any dish. It’s so versatile as it’s easily swapped for other types of meat in recipes. We eat it all the time!

Defining Buzzwords: Antibiotics, Hormones, Responsibly Raised

We often hear about the idea of “responsibly raised”, what’s your idea of responsibly raised?
For me, when I think of responsibly raised, I think of the environment in which we and the turkeys live, sustainability of that environment, and healthy birds. Because we live in the same area we grow our turkeys, it’s utterly important for us to make sure the environment is as clean as possible. We reuse and recycle our turkey manure as fertilizer for our corn and soybean crops, which eventually become food for our turkeys. We look for modern technologies, like LED lighting, solar power, and recycled bedding, to reduce our environmental impact. Our turkeys grow best when they are stress free and healthy, so we strive for the best conditions possible for optimal growth and health.

We’ve heard the statement “turkeys are so big today, they must have added hormones”, can you explain whether this is myth or fact?
First and foremost, there are no hormones added to turkey.  It is illegal.

I often talk about this when I’m giving presentations and I share a slide with a Presidential Pardoned turkey from 1963 and another picture from 2013, and they are very different sized birds. But it isn’t attributed to added hormones. It’s because we are really good at providing a low stress environment where turkeys can just thrive and grow! And they are efficient at it, mostly due to good genes and good nutrition.

What about antibiotics? Should we be concerned with antibiotics in our turkey?
Just like when my son gets sick and needs antibiotics, we do use antibiotics to treat illness within our turkey population. I believe it’s inhumane to allow an animal to suffer when there are the means to make them healthy again. However, the thought of “pumping our birds full of antibiotics” is completely false. We only use them when absolutely essential. Our veterinarian will diagnose and prescribe an antibiotic if warranted and we provide this under our vet’s supervision. We do everything possible to avoid using antibiotics by maintaining a safe and healthy environment for our turkeys. Plus, we will vaccinate against disease, as well as use probiotics to keep our birds healthy and safe.

Note: By law, all poultry you buy is technically “antibiotic free” – as federal rules require that if any antibiotics are used on a farm they must have cleared the animals’ systems before they can leave the farm.

Types of Turkey Farms
We often hear “Turkeys are raised on factory farms.” Is this true or false?
Most turkey farms are multi-generational family farms. We use modern technology and science to raise our birds in a way that is both environmentally responsible and economically efficient. It may not look like the same farm grandpa had 20 years ago, but when you compare any industry today to what they were doing 20 years ago, you will definitely notice changes and new technologies to improve their product.

Okay, so how do you define free-range, cage-free, conventional, and organic phrases we see in the grocery store?
There are many different ways to raise a turkey and each one has its own benefits. Yet, so many times these buzzwords can just be a way to differentiate a product rather than a health or safety term. Here’s a great way to look at it:

Free range: The USDA defines free range as “having access to the outside.” But this is hard because of our climate, as turkeys need steady temperatures to survive.

Cage free: All turkeys are cage-free.

Organic: A turkey labeled “organic” has a certification from the USDA, which means only certain types of food can be fed to the turkeys. Turkeys must have free range access, and no antibiotics can be given.

Conventional Turkey Farming: This is where turkeys would typically be raised in a scientifically designed, environmentally controlled barn providing maximum protection from predators, disease, and bad weather. Antibiotics can be given if medically needed.

What type of production method do you use?
I would be what would be considered a conventional turkey farmer. Our birds are raised indoors and are fed a conventional diet of corn and soybeans that we grow ourselves. Sometimes we grow turkeys for the “raised without antibiotics” label.  We can do this because many flocks never get an illness that requires an antibiotic treatment due to good environmental conditions the birds live in. But on the rare occasion we have a sick turkey, we feel it is our ethical and moral responsibility to treat them. And then they are sold in the grocery store without the label of “raised without antibiotics”.

However, that doesn’t mean the turkeys in the store without that label have antibiotics in them at the time of purchase. They don’t. There are no antibiotics in the turkey meat you purchase whether it has a label to denote that or not. By law, our flocks are tested for antibiotic residues at the time of taking them to market, plus, there’s a withdrawal period involved with any dose of antibiotics, where we have to wait for the medicine to clear their system before it would be safe to take them to market. We always have health and safety in mind for both our birds and families that eat our birds.

To read the full blog and more from Jen, visit http://www.jenhaugen.com/one-on-one-with-a-farmer-the-truth-behind-the-turkey-package/.

Jen Haugen is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance's Digital Voices Council. To learn more about the program and bloggers who participate, click here.