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From the Turkey Farm to Your Thanksgiving Table: Understanding the Process by which Turkey’s are Raised on the Farm

By on Nov 20, 2014

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Ever wondered about the process by which your Thanksgiving turkey arrived at your table? I sure have, and finally, I’ve got a window into the foreign world of turkey farming!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Sinn of Sinn Turkey Farms in Tremont, IL. This 80-year-old family turkey farm was started by father Sinn and is now ran by his two sons.

Greg Sinn was gracious enough to chat with me about how he runs his farm and what to consider when purchasing a turkey. So if you’ve ever wondered how your Turkey get’s to market, here’s a crash course.

About the Sinn Farm

The Sinn Farm is one of few Turkey Farms in IL due to very few processing plants in our state. The majority of Turkeys come from places like Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Indiana and Arkansas. This family farm is unique in that they solely purchase male turkeys because they can grow to be upwards of 50 pounds each, whereas hens (which is typically what is served as our Thanksgiving bird) grow to 30 pounds. The Sinn family delivers their birds live to Hillshire foods in Iowa, and are paid based on turkey weight. Their niche is not in producing turkeys for Thanksgiving, but rather their turkeys are used for deli meats and other turkey products. According to Sinn, the average person consumes 11 pounds of turkey a year, 9 pounds of which are from other means than just Thanksgiving turkey.

From Poults to Purchase

The Sinn Farm purchases their Poults (baby turkeys) at the Cooper Hatchery in IL when they are just a couple of days old.  The Poults are put into a brooder house upon arrival and remain there for nearly 5 weeks. This brooder house is kept very clean and climate controlled to prevent illness amongst the birds. The building is heated to 95 degrees the first week for optimal feather growth and then the temperature is lowered in the successive weeks.

After the initial 5 weeks, the birds are then moved to a Grower house where they remain for 18- 20 weeks until they are large enough to be sold. Throughout their stay, the turkeys are fed commercial feed which consists of corn and soybean meal. In addition, chlorine is added to their water source to keep the water clean and free of disease.

Hormones, Antibiotics and Fresh Turkeys

You know that turkey at your local grocer that’s labeled hormone- free? Well it is hormone free…phew… just like every other turkey in the cooler (whether it is labeled as such or not). Hormone- free labeling is a marketing ploy to get consumers to spend more for their birds. So don’t “buy” into it (punn intended).

No Antibiotics is also a buzz phrase for labeling. While, I too can understand the average consumers concerns, regarding the matter, my chat with Greg Sinn about Turkey management put everything into perspective. Here’s the scoop:

According to Sinn, “prevention is everything!” By chlorinating the water, keeping the feed at the right height, keeping the birds and their beaks clean and giving them a good go at life in the brooder house, farmers can prevent illness on their farms. Sinn believes that “keeping things clean is most important.” Hence, antibiotics on their farm is a rarity. If there is an outbreak of some sort, the key is to attack the problem quickly by determining what the illness is and then separating the birds that are sick from the well birds.

If antibiotics are administered there are checks and balances in place to ensure that it doesn’t enter into our food supply. One week before every turkey shipment, the Sinns are required to send a blood sample from their turkeys to the processing plant. That blood is then tested for antibiotic presence before the shipment is even received. Besides, with a big account like Hillshire Foods on the line, would any farmer choose to gamble with that relationship by slipping a tainted bird or two under the radar?

Well, it certainly doesn’t sound like the business practices of the Sinns who walk through their temperature controlled turkey houses with their automated feeding systems and chlorinated water 3-4 times a day to ensure the cleanliness and safety of their birds.

Fresh vs. Frozen Turkey

You’ve seen the advertisements for birds that are sold fresh and may have even ranked that as a priority in selecting your turkey. After all, who doesn’t want a fresh product? I like my french fries fresh and my fruits and veggies fresh, but when it comes to turkeys, Sinn brought up a very important question, “how long has [the bird] been detained in the proper temperature?” Excellent question, Mr. Sinn! A frozen turkey (that has been frozen fresh) stands a better chance of being a safer turkey because it was immediately frozen during processing versus a bird that may have been in varied temperatures before arriving at your grocery store. It’s definitely food for thought.

Now granted the Sinn Farm is just one of hundreds of Turkey farms across the U.S., I do believe that this farm’s practices is indicative of the turkey farming practices across the country. As consumers, it’s becoming more and more important that we understand the processes by which are food is raised and processed, especially given that grocery store labeling can be very misleading.

So with that said, here are a few tips for purchasing your Thanksgiving turkey…and ultimately saving a buck:

1. Ignore labeling for “hormone free.” No birds are administered hormones.

2. Antibiotic Free is just a buzz word. USDA approved foods do not allow antibiotics in the foods we consume.

3. Fresh (in lieu of frozen) isn’t always best. 

4. Cook your bird to 161 degrees F.

5. Now enjoy the extra cash you saved on your bird by splurging on dessert!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Do you have any other tips for how you select and/or prepare your turkey at Thanksgiving?

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