The Hermanson family began raising turkeys on their Story County farm seven decades ago to provide more income diversity. It’s been a successful strategy; raising turkeys has, over the years, helped the farm add value to its crops.

But the Hermansons have also found another important benefit in raising turkeys; the litter from the bird has become a key element in their ongoing efforts to conserve soil and improve water quality.

“Turkey litter is really an excellent fertilizer source, has a good organic matter, and it works very well in the strip-till system that we adopted about a decade ago,” said Nick Hermanson. “It’s a closed-loop system that has worked out very well for us, both agronomically and environmentally.”

In the strip-till farming system, the turkey litter is placed in a 10-inch strip in the fall where the corn will be planted. The litter is then incorporated into the soil until it can be utilized by the crop in the spring.

The strip-till system reduces tillage and improves soil quality. It’s good for the environment because fertilizer is placed precisely where the corn will be planted, reducing the chance for nutrient loss, Hermanson said.

And the strip-till system has helped the farm reduce costs, including fuel and repairs once required in a conventional tillage system.

“It’s better for the environment and helps us reduce costs, so it’s a win-win all around,” said Hermanson, the president of the Story County Farm Bureau.

The Hermanson family, like most of Iowa’s 130 turkey farmers, raises tom turkeys that are used to make deli meats and other processed items. Whole birds, the kind that will be the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, often come from neighboring Minnesota or other states.

Still, Iowa was the country’s seventh largest turkey-raising state in 2016, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Iowa turkey farmers raised 11.7 million birds last year that were worth $380 million, creating jobs and adding to the demand for the state’s feed grains.

A turkey co-op

The Hermansons are independent turkey growers and one of the founding families of West Liberty Foods, a farmer-owned co-op that processes and markets turkey and other meats. The farmers formed the cooperative in the late 1990s to purchase a turkey processing plant in West Liberty in southeast Iowa that was slated for closure.

The farmers in the co-op, mostly in central and southeast Iowa, bought the plant, kept it running and agreed to supply it with turkeys.

Over the years, West Liberty Foods has grown into a leader in processing and marketing turkey and other meats. Its products are sold to national sandwich chains, into foodservice and in supermarkets. Along with the plant in West Liberty, the co-op operates a cooking and slicing plant in Mount Pleasant, as well as facilities in Utah and Illinois.

Nick Hermanson, who is currently on the West Liberty board, sees a strong future for turkey as a source of lean protein both in the domestic and export markets. “We’ve seen a real growth in demand for turkey over the past several years, and we want to keep that going,” he said.

A family farm

Like most Iowa farms, the Hermansons’ is a family operation that stretches back many generations. The family lore is that Nick’s ancestors had actually planned to continue moving west to Kansas, but changed plans and settled near Story City after scarlet fever struck some of the children.  

Today Nick farms with father, Al; an uncle, Peter; a cousin, Mike; and Chris Royer, Mike’s son-in-law.

The family, which raises corn and soybeans and once operated a dairy, began raising turkeys to add value to their crops and for natural fertilizer. Over the years, their turkey production has moved from pastures into climate-controlled barns. Computer-controlled systems monitor the barns and alert the farmers if there is a mechanical malfunction that could put the birds in danger.

“The barns are much better for the birds, because they are protected from weather, disease and predators,” said Nick.

Vigilance on disease

Preventing disease outbreaks has been a primary focus for Iowa turkey growers, and all poultry raisers in the state, since the devastating avian flu outbreak in 2015. That outbreak forced Iowa poultry raisers to euthanize approximately 34 million birds on 77 premises. Turkeys accounted for about 1.1 million of that total, with the rest either chicken layers or pullets.

Most of the infected flocks were in the northwest and north-central parts of Iowa. The disease came within a few miles of the Hermanson farm in Story County, but did not reach it. Still, the Hermansons, like all Iowa poultry farms, have boosted their biosecurity procedures to help prevent a disease outbreak.

“We really are on high alert now and will have to stay that way,” Nick said.