Jared Achen has been raising turkeys in southeast Iowa all of his life, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Henry County Farm Bur­eau member says that raising turkeys as part of a cooperative, while still farming independently, is a great fit.

“One of the things I like about the turkey business is that I’m still an independent grower,” Achen said. “I’m proud of that. I like to own the bird and make my own decisions on what I’m going to do with that bird. I think it’s important in livestock to keep as many independent growers as we can.”

Turkeys have always been part of Achen’s life. His grandfather raised turkeys; his dad was in dairy but then started raising turkeys. That’s where Achen got his start.

Along with family, Jared and his wife, Tawnya, raise about 240,000 turkeys at different farms in the Wayland area. They’re shareholders of West Liberty Foods Cooperative, which supplies Subway and other major restaurant chains and retailers. They’re also part of the turkey farmer-owned feed mill, which has 10 other locations throughout Iowa.

Turkey farming has changed a lot over the years on the Achen farm. Importantly, technology has allowed the family farm to be more efficient.

Turkeys were still raised outdoors until the early 1990s, when the farm built barns. The move was a “no-brainer,” Achen said.

“You moved your birds into the barn, you control that temperature and protect them from predators, and that allows you to grow birds through the winter times as well,” he said.

Making improvements

Over the years, they’ve been able to have further control over the temperature and pressure inside the barns, creating the best environment for their birds.

“We’ve refined it so much … that we get down to just a scientific, perfect environment that you can create. All that progression has just made the environment that much better for the birds,” Achen said. “Today’s technology allows me, as a farmer, to make decisions to create the perfect environment to keep my turkeys comfortable. I look at how they are distributed in the barn, how they are moving around the barn and how much are they eating and drinking water.”

The Achen family continues to add technology to improve their farm.

They are in the process of converting their barns from natural ventilation to tunnel ventilation. It will provide consistently moving fresh air through the barn, Achen says.

The family has also added solar panels on the rooftops of some of their barn to reduce energy costs.

Adapting to the market

Turkey growers are also raising their birds in different ways, making turkey less of a commodity product. 

“There’s different segments in the industry and routes you can go depending on what processor you work with. That’s changed drastically since I started,” Achen said.

Often, consumer demand dictates some of those growth protocols. That’s why the Achens, for a period of time, raised turkeys in an antibiotic-free program.

“There was a need from one of our customers for antibiotic-free meat, and we were one of the few producers within West Liberty Foods that could agree to grow that way,” Achen says.

There was a premium, at first, but an oversupply of antibiotic-free meat eventually eliminated it.

The Achens now raise their birds in a more conventional way, utilizing antibiotics as treatment under the direction and supervision of a veterinarian.

The turkey market is trying to claw its way out of historical lows, caused in part from the reaction to the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in Iowa and in other states.

“It drove up prices, supply was short and then we oversupplied the market and drove the price right into the ground. So in 2017, we probably saw a bottom in breast meat prices. This year, it’s gotten slightly better,” he said.

To offset the tougher market, the Achens have decreased the number of turkeys they’re raising on their farm.

“We’re on a little bit of a cutback to reduce our supply of breast meat in the market. We hope it’s temporary, but when you have a big supply of meat, you’ve got to somehow get the supply down to keep prices stagnant,” he said.

Connecting consumers

For Tawnya farming and raising turkeys was brand new. She is from Wayland, but was not raised on a farm. “I didn’t know much about farming until we started dating in high school,” Tawnya says.

Now, Tawnya uses her background of not growing up on a farm to help her connect with others who have questions about their farm.

The Achens help tell the story of turkey farming through their farm’s Facebook page. There, they interact with heir visitors, provide recipes and show how hey raise crops and turkeys.