It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and 10,000 turkeys are staring at me. Their naked heads crane upward, their beady eyes unblinking.
I’m at Dougherty Farms in Alto, and Phil and Jen Dougherty are giving me a tour of the barns. Theirs is one of only two turkey farms in Kent County – Jen’s brother owns the other one – and each of the four barns here holds 10,000 birds.
We walk forward, and the turkeys part like the Red Sea. As we pass, they close ranks around us. At 24 pounds apiece in this particular barn, it occurs to me that if the birds want to revolt, we are vastly outnumbered and outweighed.
As an electrician and a civil engineer, respectively, Phil and Jen didn’t set out to become turkey farmers. But when the opportunity presented itself in 2016, they embraced it. Today, the farm raises more than 80,000 birds per year and provides meat for countless turkey sandwiches and turkey roasts.
Farmer’s Daughter Meets Pastor’s Son
Jen isn’t a stranger to turkeys. Her dad was originally a dairy farmer but switched to turkeys when she was in high school. Still, she wasn’t looking to take over the family business, and her brother now runs her father’s former farm.
Instead, Jen became a civil engineer and at one point ran into Phil. As the son of a pastor, Phil had some experience working on farms as a teenager, but it wasn’t on his mind as a career path. Becoming an electrician was his choice for an occupation.
The two met, married and raised four children on 40 acres in Alto. Then, in 2016, Jen’s brother was asked if he’d be interested in expanding his turkey farm. He wasn’t, but Jen and Phil thought it was something they could handle. They built four barns, and the turkeys arrived in 2017.
Today, Phil works full-time as the main turkey wrangler while Jen continues her civil engineering work during the week and helps on the farm on the weekends and during the week as needed. Thanks to the power of automation, they are able to care for 40,000 birds at a time by themselves.
Bird Health a Top Priority
As we tour the farm, we see the smallest birds first. Known as poults, these yellow puffballs are only eight days old. We walk in, and a crowd stands up and runs toward us. Then, they stop and stare.
Before getting to this point, though, we have removed our shoes outside the barn, stepped into boots and walked through a sanitizing bath. And even before that, I sign a logbook and am asked if I have chickens at home. Much to my children’s chagrin, the answer is no, but I get the impression that if the answer were yes, we’d be staring at turkeys through a window rather than walking among them.
Phil has a separate cap and coveralls for each barn and always makes his rounds starting with the smallest birds. If he is going to inadvertently carry disease from one barn to the next, better it be from the poults to the grown-ups than vice versa.
The brooding barn, where the poults are kept, is 10,000 square feet and kept at a steamy 91 degrees. The small birds stay in this barn for four weeks before being herded to a larger 30,000 square foot barn where they will spend the rest of their lives.
Baby turkeys arrive on the day they hatch, 100 to a box. They don’t gobble at this point but make a shrill chirping noise. Most are good natured although a few stare at us with tiny, featherless wings puffed out – “two ounces of fury,” as Phil describes it.
He picks up one poult and hands it to me. It is soft and quiet and I want to tuck it into my pocket and take it home.
Member of Michigan Turkey Producers Co-Op
All the birds on Dougherty Farms are toms – that is, male birds. The occasional hen sneaks in, but toms are the bird of choice here.
That’s because Dougherty Farms is a part of the Michigan Turkey Producers Co-op, which processes their birds. The co-op’s equipment is designed to handle the larger toms instead of smaller hens.
The co-op also provides the poults to the farm, and the birds alternate between hybrid and Nicholas breeds. Both are white turkeys that look similar and are bred for meat production. Fully grown, the toms can be as heavy as 46 pounds.
However, in the second barn we visit, the birds are about six-and-a-half weeks old and only about 7 pounds each. As with the poults, they crowd near to greet us although some use the sides aisles of the barn as a runway. Jen notes that this is a favorite pastime for the birds at this age: cruising up and down the side of the barn with their wings outstretched.
Turkey Happiness is a Goal
“I was surprised how technical it is,” Jen says when asked what was most unexpected about turkey farming. “We spend a lot of time and energy on water treatment.”
While sick turkeys can be treated with antibiotics, Phil and Jen strive to never use them. “Our goal is to keep them as happy and healthy as possible,” according to Jen. The couple subscribe to the line of thought that their birds should have a comfortable life that ends with “one bad day.”
“Monitoring the daily bird health is huge for us,” Phil says.
That means Phil walks through each barn two or three times a day looking for sick and injured birds or any sign that something may be amiss. The couple are also alerted by alarms to potential problems, as which happened one night when they received a water alert. A check on the birds found them all drinking like mad. The cause was quickly determined to be too much salt in their feed and remedied with a switch to a different food supply.
Industry standards require the birds be given four hours of total darkness each night, but the Doughertys turn off the lights for six hours. That helps the birds settle down and encourages healthy legs. Good legs, Phil says, are one key to happy turkeys.
A turkey that can’t stay on its feet during the day could get trampled on or pecked by another turkey. And once a bird is sick or injured, the flock apparently shows no mercy. About 1% of the birds won’t make it to processing day, and while some of those early deaths are inevitable, the farm tries to limit the number of birds it loses to injuries. “Good legs” is one way to do that.
Turkeys also apparently like music, and the barns at Dougherty Farms are being wired with speakers. “No heavy metal,” Jen says with a shake of her head. Enya is apparently more their speed.
What is good for the turkeys is also good for business with reports indicating that birds that listen to certain music tend to grow an extra pound. That may not seem like much, but when you are talking 80,0000+ birds a year, it adds up.
We’ve reached the third barn now where the birds have hit their “ugly teenage years,” as Jen describes it. They are no longer cute puffballs but have an almost dinosaur-like quality. These birds are 13 weeks old and about 24 pounds each.
Destined for Turkey Sandwiches
At the final barn, we don’t walk in to see the turkeys. Phil opens the door and lets the turkeys come to us. They crowd close to stare, and as we talk, the ones at the front begin to inch over the threshold of the door until Phil shoos them back.
They are 18.5 weeks old, taller than my waist and about 43 pounds at this point. The ugly teenage period is behind them as they puff out their fully grown feathers. Their heads have transformed into a striking blue.
Two days after my visit, under the cover of darkness, nine trucks and a team of workers will arrive. Phil will raise the feed and water lines, and the birds will be herded onto conveyers and into the trucks.
This is the birds’ one bad day.
At the processing plant, they will be dipped into a carbon dioxide bath that will put them to sleep. Then, they will be slaughtered before they wake up, and a combination of an automated system and human workers will remove feathers and prepare the poultry for consumption.
Although the transport is likely confusing for the birds, the goal is to keep them as calm as possible and ensure a painless end to their existence. Again, what’s good for the birds is good for business. The Doughertys don’t get paid for turkeys that don’t arrive alive to the processor, and the processors don’t want the birds to injure themselves either.
No one will be putting a Dougherty Farms bird on their table this Thanksgiving, though. At 40+ pounds, these birds are too large for home ovens. Instead, they will be made into turkey lunchmeat, turkey roasts and similar items. If you buy turkey meat from Costco, Sam’s Club or Gordon Food Service, it could be from one of Phil and Jen’s birds. Meat from their birds also goes to restaurants such as Bob Evans and Firehouse Subs.
“We’re still learning a lot after seven years,” Phil says. He adds that it is gratifying to watch something grow and then know it is being used to feed others.
And how do turkey farmers prepare their Thanksgiving bird? Don’t ask Jen. “It wasn’t until 2020 that I cooked a whole turkey,” she says sheepishly. With the exception of that pandemic year, she leaves the Thanksgiving turkey preparation to Phil’s mom.