Customers Call the Shots
By Canadian PoultryFeatures Producers Profiles Business/Policy Poultry Production Production Profiles
One family farming operation shares its good-news story
Since the first flock of turkeys arrived in 1959, Oegema Turkey Farms in Talbotville, Ont., has always been family run. Like many farms, the Oegemas’ dream is to pass the operation to future generations, which is why succession planning and maintaining the sustainability of both the farm and business model must always be in focus.
Oegema Farms raises approximately 55,000 turkeys (or 550,000 kilograms) annually. Recently, the farm operation split, with brothers Mike and Wayne Oegema taking over the turkey growing operation and their uncle and cousin taking the field crop division. “This allows us to concentrate on birds, as our strengths and interests differ,” says Mike. While Wayne works in the barns, Mike concentrates on the business aspects and, with wife Annie, works on marketing products at their on-farm retail store, The Turkey Shoppe.
The Turkey Shoppe opened in 1992, offering turkey products direct to consumers, as well as providing relationships with other retail outlets. “Over the years this side of the business has expanded, as it now represents about 50 per cent of our annual sales, so there is still room for growth in this sector,” notes Wayne. “It also means we must listen to our customers’ concerns regarding our production, including not using growth promoting antibiotics (GPAs), and making sure that the birds are produced in a sustainable manner. But the most important things are taste and affordability.”
The Oegemas maintain that goal by raising their birds without adding growth-promoting antibiotics. And over the last six years they have renovated all their grow-out barns into curtain-sided naturally ventilated barns, which allow a lot of natural light and air into the barn. The manure from the birds is used as fertilizer on the land farmed by their uncle and cousin, who return straw for use as bedding. “This means that manure is looked at as a valuable byproduct, and must be treated as such. All in all, we hope to make this a sustainable family farm.”
THE BUSINESS SIDE
The Turkey Shoppe sales during the holiday seasons (Christmas and Thanksgiving) are still the backbone of the business, says Mike. Over 1,100 fresh turkeys were sold during the two days before Christmas last year.
Another important aspect of the business is the growing sales that occur between holidays. “Smaller size whole birds for whole bird deep frying, parts for barbequing, turkey sausages, schnitzel, turkey pies, bacon wrapped medallions, burgers, and filets, are all contributing to steady year round sales,” he adds. Also, recipes, advice and product development are an integral part of the retail business.
As there is such a close connection between the farm and consumer, the primary focus of Oegema Farms has always been on bird quality, which is what led to the cessation of GPAs four years ago.
Litter and bird management, sanitation and the total health program were reviewed and a step-by-step, GPA-free program was created, but is continuously being updated and improved. “Water is a key element,” notes Wayne. “Our farm’s well water is chlorinated and acidified, so the ORP (oxidation reduction potential) reading is consistently 750. Bell waterers in the growout barns have been replaced with nipple drinkers to avoid wet spots in the litter. In the brooding barn each bell drinker is rotated daily to four different spots, again to avoid wet spots in the litter.”
The Oegemas grow birds at a lower density, which means more room for each turkey and less problems. The birds are started with 24 hours of light for the first day, reduced by one hour per day so that on day eight, there are seven hours of darkness. Lighting is being transitioned from fluorescent to LED, partially powered by a wind generator installed in 2006 that currently provides 15 per cent of the electricity for the barns and The Turkey Shoppe.
Ventilation in the brooding barn is provided by fans, of course, but Mike says that since the four growing barns have been converted to curtain-sided barns with circulation fans to keep the air moving, they have been very happy with the health and performance of the birds. “Natural ventilation means happier, healthier birds,” he says. “And all these management practices lessen the need for GPAs, which has not been without its setbacks, but we believe we [are] there.”
In addition to eliminating GPAs, Oegema Farms has eliminated the use of anti-coccidial drugs. The pelleted feed for the turkeys is purchased from a supplier that provides traceability through the feed milling, which has improved feed utilization, economics and carcass quality.
“It has been an interesting time at Oegema Turkey Farms,” he muses. “The business has evolved, and if we are to have a sustainable family farm that will last through subsequent generations, we expect that our customers will continue to help us fine tune our products, that our suppliers will keep introducing us to new possibilities, and that economics will help dictate new concepts.”
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