Turkey Love

November 11, 2011 | By More

Table turkeys seem to live hard and die young. Raised for a few short months in artificial conditions only to be killed and eaten, animal right activists rail at the treatment of poultry raised for food.

But do domestic turkeys really live tortured lives? According to one local turkey grower, turkeys are living the good life and spend their short lives as lovingly cared for as family pets.

“I just love my turkeys and treat them as good as I can!” said Kaffie Campbell, who along with her husband, Eddie, has raised turkeys in west Johnson County for the past nine years. Kaffie calls her turkeys “my babies” and means it.

The Campbells care for up to 90,000 turkeys at two farms as contract growers for Butterball LLC. Each year Butterball delivers up to six batches of baby turkeys called poults and supplies the necessary feed and “rice hull” litter. The Campbells supply the manpower and equipment, with barns equipped with various high-tech feeders and watering systems.

As turkeys are susceptible to changes in temperature, the Campbells closely monitor the temperature and moisture of the barns several times per day and walk through the pens every few hours to inspect their poults and check equipment.

“God put these creatures on the earth to feed us, and we want to make their lives as happy as possible while they are here.”

When we walk the barns, the turkeys get active and go to the feeders to eat, said Eddie. Mechanized feeding and water systems keeps nutritional food and fresh water constantly available to the young birds.

The barns are also equipped with sophisticated temperature control systems with huge fans which were in constant use during the long heat wave last summer.

“We were very lucky this year,” agreed Kaffie and Eddie, describing how the turkey operation made it through the May 25th tornado which touched down less than one mile from their farm and the scorching 115degree heat. That was a blessing in itself!” said Kaffie.

Although the Campbells start each day at 4 a.m., they are on call 24/7 as a computerized “sense-a-phone” automatically warns them if the temperature gets too cold or too hot.

“You’ve got to love animals to stay in this business,” said Kaffee. “It’s not something you can do and just walk away. It’s a 24-hour-a- day job and you worry about their comfort and safety just like you worry about your children’s health and welfare,” said the mother of two grown sons.

“We keep our turkeys safe from diseases and predators and they don’t have to worry about the weather or where their next meal is coming from,” Kaffie explained. “If they get injured we try to save them and even have a little turkey hospital where convalescing turkeys and those being picked on by other birds are kept safe.”

The females don’t much like the Toms (male turkeys) and often pick at their “noodle,” a little bump above the male’s beak, said Kaffie. Most of the poults are female, but some males are usually included, she added.

The turkeys are also kept safe from diseases and parasites. Anyone other than the Campbells must wear a disposable hygienic coverall, a hair net and footies or special plastic boots, plus step in disinfectant before being allowed in the barns. Health inspectors and Butterball specialists also monitor the operation on a regular basis, to insure the safety and welfare of the turkeys on the premises. Birds that die are incinerated, which also helps keep the turkey operation sanitary, said Kaffie.

But, what about the turkeys themselves? Conventional wisdom tells us that turkeys are stupid.

“Turkeys are not stupid. They are curious and happy little creatures. Some people think they do dumb things, but that’s only because they are curious,” said Kaffie. They love attention and shiny things and can even tell the difference between a familiar voice and a stranger’s voice, she added.

“Turkeys love people and will run toward the sound of human voices,” said Kaffie. To prove her point, Kaffie opened the door to the office connected to the growing barn for only a moment. Sure enough, thousands of young poults came running to the door because they heard her voice.

“I’ve got to close this door fast, so they don’t crowd one another and get hurt. If the birds aren’t happy, I’m not happy,” she added.

Poults start out in the “brooder” barn, where they stay until they are 5-6 weeks old. Then the poults are split into two groups so the growing turkeys have more room, with half going into each of two “grow out” barns. Usually, at 12-13 weeks, the grown turkeys are transported by truck to the Butterball plant in Ozark for processing. The litter is then removed and put through a cleaning machine and sold to farmers who use the litter to fertilize crops. Kaffie also said turkey litter doesn’t seem to smell as bad as chicken litter.

“As a turkey grower, you don’t make a lot of money,” said Kaffie. “I’ve always loved animals and this was a way to be close to them. I’d rather work at something I love and make a little bit than make more money and hate the job.”

Does Kaffie feel guilty when her beloved birds end up on someone’s plate? As the Campbells see it, they are doing a service to the public and to Mother Nature.

“God put these creatures on the earth to feed us, and we want to make their lives as happy as possible while they are here,” she said.

Kaffie even has a little prayer she likes to say. It goes, “God Bless the turkeys and all the little creatures and God Bless us, because we all need it.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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