By Treena Hein
Bringing knowledge and passion to Saskatchewan’s turkey industry
By Treena Hein
Joni Rynsburger-Rathwell describes herself as “born and raised” in the poultry industry, and her enjoyment of it has never waned.
“We have a great industry with great people and I love being a part of it,” she says and smiles. “I’ve always loved being with the birds.”
In the past, Joni and her parents also owned a feed mill in Regina and a hog farm just outside of Regina. But her turkey farm is the second poultry business she and her family have operated.
“At our original farm in Melville, Sask., owned by me and my parents, Jack and Olive Rynsburger, each year we raised 1,000,000 broiler chickens and 950,000 kilograms of turkeys,” she explains. “We also had over 450 head of commercial cattle.”
Eight years ago, in an effort to downsize, she and her parents sold the poultry farm in Melville and Joni purchased a turkey farm 15 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. Here, they raise 1,022,000 kilograms of turkey every year.
“Between my father and I, we take care of the business end of things and weekend bird care,” Joni explains. “My dad has been in the industry a long time and still enjoys working on the farm. It’s so great having him around because he has such vast knowledge of business and raising poultry. And my mom keeps everything running smoothly, and keeps everyone organized and motivated.”
The farm employs a day-to-day manager and uses a group of local school-aged workers for bird loading tasks. “At this time in my life with two young children and a very busy husband, I seem to have less time to dedicate to the farm,” Joni says. “It’s great to have such a great team to help me out.”
The farm has two brooder barns where the poults are raised until they are approximately six weeks old. They are then moved to one of three finisher barns and shipped either as broilers (at approximately 10 weeks of age) or as light or heavy hens (at 14 to 15 weeks of age).
“We haven’t built any new barns or done any expansion since we purchased the farm,” notes Joni, “but we have made some small improvements to operations and equipment, and significant improvements to the ventilation systems in an effort to improve animal well-being and growth. It has worked out well.”
Meanwhile, the land around the farm is rented out to a local farmer who manages all its aspects, including poultry manure management and crops.
Along with poultry-rearing experience that goes back to childhood, Joni also has a substantial amount of formal poultry-related education. In 2001, she began attending the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon for a bachelor of science in agriculture with a minor in business. During the first three summers of her degree, she worked as a summer student with the Poultry Research Group at the university. In her fourth year (2004), Joni took her skills on the road, travelling overseas to Australia to the University of New England to work again as a summer research assistant.
All this exposure to science left her wanting to do some of her own, so upon the completion of her undergraduate degree, she decided to do a master’s of science degree in poultry nutrition that she finished in 2009 – which focused on protein digestion in young broiler chickens.
Joni had married her husband Kent Rathwell the year before, and during October of the same year she graduated as a master’s student, their daughter Kaidan was born. “And in October 2012, one day prior to our daughter’s birthday, our son Xander was born,” Joni says.
On top of the farm business, Joni and her husband own and operate Sun Country Farms, a wild bird food manufacturing company, which supplies wild bird food to stores across Canada and the United States. “We are also heading the Sun Country Highway initiative, which involves the installation of charging stations for electric vehicles across Canada,” she explains.
In addition to all of this, Joni is currently a director on the Turkey Farmers of Saskatchewan (TFS) board. “It’s great to be able to share ideas and to be able to work together to improve our industry.”
One of the ways they do this is by facilitating poultry research. “Saskatchewan is unique in that we have a poultry extension program run by a poultry veterinarian and an extension person,” she explains. “Their work is completely funded by industry, and provides producers with up-to-date information and support at all times.
The board has also helped fund the Poultry Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan to create a dedicated facility for turkey research.
The TFS has also been working to update its regulations and board orders. “Although this has sometimes been a slow and challenging task, I’ve learned a lot of valuable information about the way we are supposed to operate legally and how our board is governed,” Joni explains. In addition to provincial association work, she is also a member of the On-Farm Programs Committee at the Turkey Farmers of Canada.
“It’s very important to understand about other producers and their operations. Developing the On-Farm programs has also been a great learning experience. The poultry industries are leading the way in developing these programs and implementing them on the farm. It is our goal to create a program that promotes food safety and animal well-being while still being attainable on the farm.”
Meeting Consumer Needs
Joni recognizes the food industry is changing, and looks forward to continuing to meet the challenges.
“Consumers are becoming more concerned about how food is produced and the effect of that production on the environment,” she says. “At the same time, more and more of those consumers are further and further removed from farming and animal production. This creates both a challenge and an opportunity for us in the agriculture industry.
“We are providing a product and must therefore listen to our end consumers, but we must also be vigilant in promoting and explaining our methods. Our On-Farm Food Safety and production programs are an effort to do this – to instil consumer faith in our practices while creating consistency in the on-farm operation standards. It is a way to show the world that we are proud of what we do.”
Joni believes we are fortunate in Canada that we have supply management of the poultry industries. “We need to work together to maintain this system to ensure that our farms remain viable and sustainable,” she says. “This system also ensures that we have high-quality Canadian poultry products for our valued consumers with high standards of animal welfare and environmental management.”