What do you get when you combine high temperatures, heavy turkeys, lots of moving parts (mechanical and animal), family members and friends unaccustomed to working together, lack of sleep and a case of 5-Hour Energy? Must be a summertime loadout.
We finished shipping turkeys yesterday. Nearly 10,000 birds averaging 43 pounds farm weight.
One week prior, we began pulling the feed away from the turkeys at 8:00 a.m., re-starting it at 7:30 p.m., training the birds for the heat and for shipping. We also added electrolytes in the water.
Five days prior, temperatures rose to 90 degrees plus.
Starting Monday, we loaded 12 large trailers, four trailers each morning for three days. I was up before 4 am, turning off the feed lines, and raising them so we could build a corral to herd the turkeys into. Overall they responded well as they were a fit and healthy flock. They had excellent walking capabilities, which made it much easier to herd.
Yet, by Monday afternoon, temperatures peaked at 96 degrees. Large turkeys are not designed for this weather. They do not sweat, but pant… utilizing their lungs to cool their bodies, like dogs and cats do. When my father raised turkeys in the fifties and early sixties, turkeys would weigh 19 pounds in 19 weeks… now are turkeys are over 40 pounds in 19 weeks, albeit with the same lung size/volume. Despite all the genetic improvements of turkeys, we have not increased their lung size. So it’s a challenge to keep birds fit in high heat.
Of course, with the pressure of heat and loading… sleep hours in short supply. By 5 a.m., help arrived including two brothers, sister in law, niece, nephew, cousin and two friends. And, my 79-year-old mother helped out for a few hours. Truly a family event. Admittedly we weren’t the Super Bowl champions of loading crews, but we have many years of experience of what to do and what not to do. Keep in my mind, we are independent producers… if we lose a bird because of heat or mishandling them during the loadout, that’s our loss. It was highly demanding physical work and the body wasn’t ready for it, but the adrenalin was flowing freely…..
Our automated loader required a few adjustments but handled the 12 loads easily… I kept the belt speed at an even, steady rate…. Wasn’t trying to break speed records for loading, but just aiming to match loading speed to the people around me, the turkeys, and the hot conditions. I choose caution versus bravado in these events. Frankly, it doesn’t pay to be a hero…. yeah, I’ve tried….
After the last load departs (below) there is a sense of satisfaction. Working with family is more delicate than with regular employees, yet when everyone is on the same page I think we could match a veteran loading crew…
During intense times, you tend to see mundane things in a different light. Before loadout, a younger brother going on vacation had asked us to watch his dog, Tanner: a yellow lab, a big dog yet in its puppy stage. She started following me around. Everywhere. When I was walking in the turkey barns, she was walking outside the barn with me… no matter how hot it got. In the evening she was waiting for me or my older brother. Not in the way, but just wanting to be nearby. Surprisingly, it added some comfort to what was a stressful seven days.
In the end, the timing of this loadout was fortunate as the forecast for this coming weekend and early next week calls for more intense heat… mid nineties for five or so days. I imagine there are many turkey farmers and other livestock farmers who will be on the edge keeping their livestock alive… and I definitely understand their burden now.