By Jennifer Latzke
On the edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills, tucked in the heart of cattle country, there lies one of the largest feeding operations in Nebraska.
This is no cattle ranch, though. You won't find cowboys roping calves or on horseback riding the range. Instead, the workers here wrangle a different sort of an animal.
At Shinn Turkeys, Inc., near Dunning, NE, turkey--not beef--is king.
"My dad came out from Lincoln in 1922," says Richard Shinn, who, together with his wife, their sons and their families, runs Shinn Turkeys.
"He got a job on a ranch out here, and most ranches at the time had a herd of turkeys. He grew interested in turkeys from his work and rented some land north of Brewster, NE, in what is known as 'German Valley.' He herded turkeys and laying hens on grasshoppers in the summer and trapped in the winter to make ends meet. In 1934, he settled here on 80 acres," Shinn says.
Since then, the family has stayed in the area and kept the turkey-raising tradition alive. Shinn and his wife, Marilyn, have four sons. The oldest, Doug, manages the Dunning facility. Another son, Bruce, manages Nebraska Turkey Ranch, Inc., as well as Shinn Turkeys Feed, Inc., in Gibbon, NE. Son, Mike, also works in the family business, and his brother, Brad, works in Broken Bow, NE, as a bank manager. The family has turned the business into one of the largest turkey finishing operations in the U.S., growing from one small flock of laying hens to three large production facilities. They also are a member of Norbest, the largest independent turkey marketing cooperative in the world.
In nearly 70 years of operation the family has tried several ways of hatching, growing and finishing turkeys. Today, Shinn turkeys begin as pullets which have been sexed, or divided between male and females. The Shinns bring in 23,000 to 25,000 pullets in each batch and raise only hens.
"We used to hatch out turkeys until the 1970s, but we now buy pullets and grow all hen turkeys. We used to also raise all toms , but hens are more cost effective." Shinn estimated a tom will cost nearly $1.65 each, whereas a pullet will cost only about 65 cents each.
"There is a starve-off period when the pullets are brought in, when we will lose a few. Between the brooding and the grow-out period is about four and a half to six weeks. With confinement buildings, we have protection from weather. That helps us keep more turkeys alive," Shinn says.
The confinement buildings are about 20,000 square feet, with automatic curtains, waterers and feeders. Shinn says their operation produces about 330,000 turkeys each year, at only the Dunning location. At any time, he estimated the operation holds 60,000 to 70,000 turkeys, in various stages of finishing. He estimated more than 1 million turkeys are produced overall by Shinn Turkeys each year.
"Most of our pullets come from Minnesota, some from Moundridge, KS, and some from Missouri, too. It was just too much to maintain 5,000 turkey laying hens when we used to hatch all our own birds," Shinn says.
Shinn says the most important input in the operation is the feed.
"The nutrition of turkeys is very delicate. We probably are more particular in the needs of the turkeys than we are of the kids," Shinn says, with an ironic smile. "We buy all the ingredients for feed and manufacture it all ourselves," Shinn says.
The Shinns have seven different feed rations, from starting the pullets out to a market ration for peak growth performance. They start the turkeys out on feed that is 30 to 32% protein and move them down to 15 to 16% protein later on.
"Turkeys are really efficient, as far as the feed to gain ration. Hens will use only 2.8 pounds of feed per pound of gain, and toms will use 3.6 to eight pounds of feed per pound of gain," Shinn says. "At 13 weeks, a hen will weigh 14 to 15 pounds. At 19 weeks, she should weigh about 23 pounds; whereas, toms, at 19 weeks, will weigh anywhere around 36 pounds."
Hens are classified as consumer size turkeys, or those that most consumers find in the grocery store. Toms usually are larger and are sent to processing plants, where they want birds weighing 35 to 38 pounds. The nearest processor that is a partner in Norbest is in Gibbon, NE. After processing, turkeys will yield 82 to 83% of their weight in meat.
Turkey has gone from strictly a holiday meal to one of the most popular meats in the grocer's case.
"In the mid-1980s, per capita consumption began increasing, because of the health benefits of turkey. Now, consumption is in the double-digit percentages. Turkey is low in fat and cholesterol. It used to be the average person ate only eight pounds of turkey per year. Now, that figure is up to 18 pounds per year."
"The turkey industry is one of the leaders in convenience items. We have everything from turkey pastrami to lunch meats. The housewife really helped consumption. Now, only 40% of turkey eaten throughout the year is consumed during the holidays and the other 60% is eaten throughout the year. The most popular is turkey sandwiches," Shinn says.
Turkey is a versatile meat and there are recipes for every dish imaginable, from turkey chili to turkey pizza, and even ethnic dishes.
"It is a more neutral flavored meat and can absorb seasonings very well," Shinn says.
Shinn adds getting a pullet to market size is an extremely labor intensive business.
"The farm employs four full-time workers. Everything is mechanized with automatic feeders and waterers, so we just have to check every day," he says. "It is a lot of hand work moving from the brooding barns and cleaning, washing and disinfecting and cleaning the litter out of the grow-out buildings. We have a house-keeping unit that takes care of the daily equipment washing, maintaining the ventilation and checking the automatic curtains."
"The brooding units have more climate control with heat. The grow-out buildings have less need for heat in the winter because of the increased number of turkeys per building and the increased body heat," he says.
While Shinn says there is not an outstanding amount of government involvement, there are a few regulations concerning environmental protections.
"Currently, we have to register with the state environmental agency, and it checks how we dispose of litter and dead animals. We spread our turkey litter on meadows and give it to local farmers. We used to have outside range pens for the turkeys, but now we are entirely a confinement operation," Shinn says.
"There really is not a lot of governmental involvement as far as subsidies and such. We are moving closer toward more inspection. Mainly inspection of how we dispose of wastes," Shinn says. "We depend on a market that cannot pick up additional costs very easily. If the government requires additional inspections of processors and plants, they will be forced to pass that back to producers."
"The turkey industry is highly integrated now. Just about all farms are under contract to produce. Norbest has been around for nearly 70 years, and the Gibbon plant has been around 65 years," Shinn says.
He adds the trend is for major companies that have historically produced red meat products, such as Oscar Meyer and Jennie-O, to purchase facilities in order to have a broader array of products, because of the impact of health concerns in the 1980s. He says those companies that are involved in the other meat markets make it tough for all turkey producers.
The Shinns have been leaders in the turkey industry for many years. Richard Shinn has been an active member of the National Turkey Federation for several years, serving on the NTF Executive Committee and on the federation's board of directors, which supervises, controls and directs the affairs of the association and determines its policies. He also has served on the board of directors for the processing cooperative, in Gibbon. He is a member of the Nebraska Turkey Federation.
The producers utilize information from the University of Nebraska and from other research sources. The Shinns also have hired the occasional intern or college student to work on the farm for practical experience.
"The University of Nebraska had a poultry department but that merged with the animal science department a few years ago. Now they have few people on staff specifically for turkey," Shinn says. "There also is a Midwest Poultry Consortium and five or six states are active in it. The university is active as well. The staff helps in training, and placing internships, so we don't get interns through the university itself."
"There is a real need for trained people. Veterinarians have little training. Not many are formally prepared for the industry," Shinn says.
As for the future of the turkey industry, Shinn identified a few topics that folks should watch for change.
"We need to have more efficiency in processing to reduce labor. This is the principle problem in production. The labor force is so tight. I can see automatic processing as one of the primary things to anticipate," he says. "Also, in the future, we should anticipate more use of gene splicing and, someday, we might be able to control sex."
When that day arrives, Shinn Turkeys surely will be in the forefront and leading the way, from the unlikely place of the Sand Hills of Nebraska.