Talking turkey comes easy for the manager at Fairholme Colony

Over 40 years the time to raise a turkey has dropped from 23 weeks to 14 weeks

man and young girl in turkey barn

April 15 marked Jerry Maendel’s 40th anniversary as Andiker Mensch, turkey manager at Fairholme Colony.

Jerry — my dad — says he remembers the day, April 15, 1975, when farm manager Ernie Maendel informed him that he would no longer be travelling to Fairholme’s farm near Pilot Mound, to help with the building, but would stay home and take care of the turkey flock.

Now through years of experience in animal husbandry, he has gained an insight known as “herdsmanship” — the idea that a caretaker can walk through his herd or flock and recognize, by their movements and sounds, whether the animals are happy, content. After two days of observation Dad already knows his flock with respect to health, temperament and mortality rates.

Jerry’s job starts with when poults arrive from Charison’s Turkey Hatchery in Gunton, Manitoba’s only major turkey hatchery. The Charison’s van is too tall to fit in the Fairholme starter barn, so the truck backs up to the door and the boxes of poults are quickly loaded onto a tractor-trailer. Once the boxes are on the trailer, the doors are quickly closed to minimize the temperature drop in the barn. Turkeys are fragile: a 2 C temperature change can cause them to huddle and crowd into corners, resulting in suffocation.

turkey chicks
The first two weeks after arrival are critical for turkey poults. photo: Evelyn Maendel

Some flocks are quiet and newly arrived poults move very little during the first two hours. Others are overactive, which is problematic, as they crowd each other, trying to follow the slightest noise or passerby. Thus, as soon as the unloading is finished and the boxes back on the truck, everyone exits. The birds are left undisturbed, except to be checked once more later that evening.

Critical two weeks

Jerry is meticulous about his young flock — as protective as a new mother. During the first two weeks he does not leave Fairholme, not even for weddings. Social events are on hold to ensure that no quick temperature change or leaking waterers jeopardize the flock. Lighting, feeder height, barn temperature and water quality are carefully monitored and adjusted.

Barn lights are not dimmed for three days so poults can become accustomed to their surroundings. Then lighting is progressively dimmed to 25 watts to prevent turkeys from pecking at and eating litter. For more aggressive flocks dimming starts on day two.

After a week, pens are gradually enlarged; by two weeks the birds have the entire barn in which to roam.

At four weeks turkeys are approximately 10 inches tall and require more room, so the flock is split amongst the available barns. Moving the turkeys from the starter barn to another involves a tractor pulling an open trailer with a walking floor. The turkeys are shooed onto the trailer and transported to the other barn, where they will stay till they reach market weight.

turkey chicks being tended to by farmer
At four weeks turkeys are approximately 10 inches tall and are moved from the starter barn.
 photo: Evelyn Maendel

In the past this took 23 weeks, and meant feeding and caring for a flock till each turkey weighed an average of 23 lbs. Today, with more nutritionally accurate feeding and health care, market weight is achieved in 14 weeks.

Granny’s Poultry, Manitoba’s major turkey processor, sets the desired market weight and the processing dates for each flock. On these dates, the colony men rise at 5 a.m. to load three semi-trailers with 6,000 birds before breakfast.

Once a flock has been shipped, each barn is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Waterers are cleaned and descaled with a high-pressure hose and the barns are prepped for the next flock.

A scientific, inquisitive person, Jerry observes his flock closely and in the first three days can already tell whether this is a good set. Leg defects are a worrisome issue, as is coccidiosis, a single-celled parasite. Jerry learned to recognize the symptoms after observing his flock and confirming the diagnosis with a vet.

Those first years Dad was turkey manager, things were done quite differently. Fairholme had only two barns. Both the spring and summer flocks were let out of the barn free range outdoors. Later they were let in to vast, wire-mesh pens in the bush east of Fairholme. Today, remnants of those fences must be clambered over when picking wild saskatoons.

“Some mornings, when I came to check on the flock I would find 20 to 30 birds killed by coyotes,” Jerry says.

When it was time to ship turkeys the Dienen — young women and children — rounded them up and chased them to the truck. Men standing on planks passed them on one turkey at a time. Today a pre-loader flush with the side of the truck is used.

One of Manitoba’s largest turkey producers, Fairholme raises three flocks annually. The spring and summer flock consists of 18,500 birds each, while the winter flock is around 7,000. Each flock spends the first five weeks in the starter barn, before being moved to the other barns. The pole shed is used only for the spring and summer flocks.

Today at 64, Dad is still turkey manager at Fairholme Colony. In these 40 years he has raised over a million turkeys for Manitobans to enjoy with their families at festive occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Countless times he watched his own family, six children and six grandchildren, marvel at the sight of fluffy, golden, newly hatched poults, and gazed at the softly peeping sea with a mix of wonder and excitement.

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