By Rae Wagoner
Kentucky Soybean Board
If you’ve ever enjoyed a turkey sandwich made with Boar’s Head brand turkey breast, you’ll understand why the company that grows its birds is named Farbest Foods, and one of Farbest’s contract growers is PPJ Thompson Farms in Daviess County.
Brian Thompson, overseer of the turkey operation at PPJ Thompson Farms, has set the bar high for turkey production.
Chris Cessna, who visits the Thompson family’s farm each week as part of his job with Farbest, said that Brian’s last flock was the highest rated flock out of the company’s Kentucky hub, which contains about a dozen farms. What makes that noteworthy, though, is that Brian’s last flock was also his first.
Brian, 20, grew up on his family’s farm, which includes about 1,200 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat and tobacco, and they used to raise hogs. When asked why the family converted the farm to a turkey-producing facility, Brian shrugged modestly and said, “It was time to try something new.”
“There was a lot to learn about the birds, but it wasn’t hard,” he said. “You have to make sure their air is right, their litter is right, the water and feed are right, and just pay close attention to your birds.”
Chris said that Brian has a really good feel for what the birds are telling him.
“He’s just a natural,” Chris said. “I have had a lot of new growers lately with the expansions that Farbest has undergone, and I have to say that Brian has been really quick to pick up everything we’ve taught him about flock care.
“There is a lot to learn, and sometimes I compare the knowledge these growers have to pick up to getting a drink of water out of a fire hose — there’s a lot coming at you, and it’s coming fast.”
One bad temperature change or problems with the water filtration system could mean big trouble, fast, for the birds. Brian and Chris stay in close contact to ensure the utmost health for the flocks.
The birds brood at a separate facility, so Brian raises them until are 35 days old and weigh about 4.5 pounds. They leave PPJ Thompson Farms near day 140, weighing between 42 and 45 pounds.
“The more we spoil them and the happier they are, the more they’ll grow,” Chris said.
From the certified Akey nutrition to the purified water to the cool, fresh air circulating through the houses, Brian’s turkeys ought to be plenty spoiled. His state-of-the-art barns have cooling pads to produce more cold air on warmer days.
“There is less room for error on turkeys than there is on chickens,” Chris said. “That’s one reason why Brian and his helpers walk the houses twice a day, every day, to visually observe the birds.”
The team monitors several factors inside the turkey houses.
“We make sure they are alert and growing, check the water lines to be sure the birds have plenty of fresh water at all times, and remove any dead or injured birds from the flock,” Brian said.
Turkeys like cool air and good ventilation, so the barns have 14 fans each plus a sidewall fan cooling system. Another important component to raising healthy, happy turkeys is their feet.
“These turkeys weigh about 45 pounds when they leave, so feet are really important,” Chris said. “We want to keep the litter right for them — the right temperature, the right moisture content — so they don’t have any trouble with that.”
As with any animal, feed is important to the growth and health of turkeys. Farbest supplies the Thompsons with feed, and while we don’t know the exact “recipe,” it is safe to say there is a high soy protein content in the rations.
Water is essential to life, and Thompson turkeys are finicky about their water supply. The farm’s sophisticated water filtration system gets a good workout as the birds use about 3,000 gallons each day.
“That’s Daviess County water coming in that line,” said Brian’s uncle, Joe, one-third of the PPJ monicker. (The Ps stand for Pat, Brian’s father, and Phil, Brian’s other uncle). “I can tell you that water may be good enough for me and my kids to drink, but it’s not good enough for these birds.”
The Thompsons are looking at another filtration system that would enable them to utilize lake water to help reduce rising input costs.
The turkey operation currently includes three 60-feet by 500-feet houses, and each holds about 9,300 birds. Farbest practices the “one flock in, one flock out” system, so that all three houses receive turkeys on the same day, and all of the adult birds leave at about the same time.
“It takes 12 to 13 semis per night over two nights to get the adult birds out,” Brian said. “That part takes a while because when they are getting the birds out, we don’t want to scare them, and we don’t want any to get hurt, so it’s a slow and easy process.”
When asked about his plans for the future, Brian said his goal is to add three (or possibly six) more barns to the turkey portion of PPJ Thompson Farms.
If Brian’s plans come to fruition, PPJ could have more than 86,000 same-age birds onsite at a time.
By Rae Wagoner