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Biodiversity seen as key to sustaining poultry industry

Fourth-generation poultry farmer Frank Reese, who raises heritage breeds of turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese near Lindsborg, sees the lack of biodiversity as the downfall of the country’s commercial poultry production system.

The vertically integrated model of mass production of turkey and chicken meat has resulted in an explosion of inexpensive poultry products, but has also created concerns, Reese says.

Near the top of the list of those concerns in Reese’s view is the uniformity of genetics in flock after flock of birds.

“You basically have one set of genetics in both chickens and turkeys,” he says. “I think any time you have that uniformity of genetics you have risks. At the top of the list of those risks is disease. You have massive numbers of animals that are all susceptible to the same pathogens.”

Another leader in genetic concerns, Reese says, is that the birds created by prevailing genetics are neither strong nor healthy. They grow too fast for their lungs and hearts to keep up. They are overly large in the breast area, making them unbalanced, awkward and slow-moving. They are so clumsy they cannot reproduce naturally, and their very existence depends on the mass production system that created them.

What Reese would like to see is far greater numbers of people, like him, growing traditional breeds that thrive in wide-open, free-range conditions and offer a broad range of genetic diversity — and protecting that diversity for future generations of poultry growers.

Key Points

• Genetic diversity is key to sustaining poultry, grower says.

• Traditional breeds are healthier and hardier than industrial breeds.

• Value-added products are important to profitability for poultry growers.

“One thing I do see is that poultry ranching in the old-fashioned way is very hard work. I routinely have potential producers who buy breeding stock from me and try it for a year or two and give up. It sounds romantic and exciting, and people get caught up in that. Then they find how hard it is, and they give it up.”

It is also difficult to make money with heritage poultry ranching, Reese says. He is a proud fourth-generation farmer, but he also has a “sideline” as a nurse anesthetist. He says he would love to think that the ranch could be self-supporting for the next generation, which will be a nephew and his wife.

“I grow turkeys like my father and grandfather grew turkeys, because this is what I like to do,” Reese says. “I believe in biodiversity and I like these varieties. We are closer to making a living with the ranch than we have ever been.”That said, it is still very hard to make ends meet, he says.

“The system and the infrastructure are all about sustaining the industrial model,” Reese says. “Our industry is totally built on that. I have trouble even getting a processor for my birds. You have to guarantee 10,000 birds to get a slot with a processor. And even then, I pay twice as much per bird.”He says that too many consumers get caught up in issues such as “organic.”

“It isn’t about growing systems. It is about genetics,” he says. “If you put these animals that have been bred for generations for one kind of growing system into a traditional growing environment, they die. Look at the mess in California. You don’t move animals that have been bred to live inside cages in houses outside on the ground without creating problems. They die in huge numbers from parasites and diseases.”

At the same time, he says, moving to “organic” production with industrial genetics doesn’t result in a different product.

“The animal is the same, no matter the growing system,” Reese says. “You can call it ‘organic,’ but it is going to be the same meat on the same animal. It isn’t going to slow down its genetically created higher metabolism to raise it with organic feed.”

What has made a huge difference for his business, he says, is the ability to gain a market for value-added products.

“When people think of turkeys, they think of the whole bird on the Thanksgiving platter,” Reese says. “But in reality, whole-bird sales are only a tiny sliver of the market for turkey. The real money is in the value-added products of ground turkey — and especially deli turkey, the sliced turkey for the sandwich market. With our arrangement with Krehbiel Specialty Meats in McPherson, we are able to take advantage of that.”

At the same time, he says, there is a growing interest in raising the heritage birds. In just one week in October, he has sold breeding birds to potential growers in California, North Carolina and Canada.

Breeding animals sell for about $100 per hen, he says, or up to $500 for an exceptional tom.

“One of the biggest advantages of the heritage breeds is their hardiness,” Reese says. “They survive well in pasture conditions. They grow at a slower rate and are stronger and healthier. I hope that we will see more people willing to start businesses growing these birds.”

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BABY BIRDS: Poultry grower Frank Reese says that you can feel the metabolic difference in baby birds as early as a few days old, with the industrial birds having a measurably faster heart rate than the traditional breeds.

This article published in the November, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.