Tim Graber is a tall guy, but surrounded by nearly waist-high turkeys, he looks a little less impressive than does his flock.

Graber, a Washington County Farm Bureau member and fourth generation turkey farmer, raises and markets more than 340,000 turkeys each year from his farms near Wayland.

“It’s one of the joys of the job. I get to take care of these animals,” Graber said. “The American people are getting safe food from this farm. I take a lot of pride in that.”

On this day in mid-November, Graber was prepping his flock to be shipped to West Liberty Foods for processing into deli meat. West Liberty Foods is the nation’s primary supplier of turkey to Subway restaurants.

Graber receives the birds with­in 12 to 24 hours of hatching and raises them to about 45 pounds each.

“These birds wouldn’t fit in the oven,” he joked, noting the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

Graber said flock genetics get better almost every year, which has led to significant size and efficiency improvements.

For example, when he was a youngster, his dad and grandpa would raise turkeys for 24 weeks, with an aim of adding, on average, a pound a week to the birds.

Improved animal care
Today, Graber’s flock averages almost 2 pounds of gain a week. Instead of marketing 24-pound birds raised for seven months, he sells turkeys at about 45 pounds after 19 weeks.

That’s a production improvement of 20 pounds per bird and two and a half months to maturation in just a few decades.

Animal care has also evolved over the years. In his newest barn, which houses the poults, feed and water are distributed automatically, and the environment is under constant surveillance.

Sensors hanging throughout the building can monitor the temperature to one-tenth degree Fahrenheit. That same system then adjusts exhaust fans or the heater to keep the flock comfortable at all times.

“It’s really important to me that the turkeys are healthy, happy and comfortable here,” he said. “It’s rewarding to get a new group of poults in the hours after they’re hatched, then nurture and care for them until they go to market.”

Graber is not only part of a long family history of turkey farming; he also contributes to a regional business that is a boon to surrounding communities.

According to the Iowa Turkey Federation, Iowa ranks seventh in U.S. turkey production, with approximately 12 million birds raised annually. Graber noted that more than 1.5 million turkeys are raised near Wayland, making turkey farming a major contributor to the local economy.

A big economic driver
The turkey industry in Iowa employs or supports more than 38,000 jobs and is estimated to generate more than $10.6 billion in total economic activity throughout the state annually.

In addition to West Liberty Foods, Iowa is also home to Tyson Foods in Storm Lake. Between the two facilities, they process more than 15.5 million turkeys annually, making the state sixth in U.S. turkey processing.

A local grain market
Wayland is also home to a grain mill that turns local corn and soybeans into the feed that goes into Graber’s barns.

And in the final step, manure from the turkey barns is used as fertilizer on area fields.

In addition to his work on the family farm, Graber is active in Wayland and the WACO Community School District, where he serves as school board president. He and his wife, Lisa, have four children, Morgan, Cody, Brenna and Logan.