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Belle of the Butterball: Utah County students raise turkeys fit for Thanksgiving tables

By Isaac Hale daily Herald - | Nov 23, 2020
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Brady Orton, a 2020 graduate of Spanish Fork High School, feeds his eight turkeys at his family’s farm in Salem on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Maple Mountain High School senior Jaxon Corona, left, helps sophomore Ashley Ferrell weigh a turkey as students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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FFA advisor Hannah Branch loads a turkey into a trailer as Maple Mountain High School students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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FFA advisor Yadira Fregozo removes the innards of a turkey as turkeys are processed at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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4-H coordinator Marci Borg places a turkey into a vat to chill for a few hours as turkeys are processed at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Chilled turkeys are stored in a cooler room as turkeys are processed at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Turkeys mill about in an enclosure at the Holt family’s farm in Spanish Fork on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Kami Holt, 17, a senior at Spanish Fork High School, feeds her six turkeys at her family’s farm in Spanish Fork on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Maple Mountain High School sophomore Stran Fredrickson, left, and FFA advisor Hannah Branch seek out turkeys to wrangle and weigh as students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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FFA advisor Hannah Branch carries off a turkey to be weighed as Maple Mountain High School students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Ty Gardener, 5, hands spray paint to Maple Mountain High School sophomore Ashley Ferrell to designate the weight of a turkey as students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. The different colors of spray paint designate different weights of the birds. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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as Maple Mountain High School students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. The different colors of spray paint designate different weights of the birds. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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A tom turkey struts his feathers as Maple Mountain High School students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Maple Mountain High School sophomore Ashley Ferrell wrangles a turkey to weigh as students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Maple Mountain High School senior Jaxon Corona holds a turkey to weigh as students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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FFA advisor Jen Gardner tags a turkey as Maple Mountain High School students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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FFA advisor Jen Gardner tags a turkey as Maple Mountain High School students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Turkeys mill about in an enclosure as Maple Mountain High School students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Maple Mountain High School sophomore Stran Fredrickson wrangles a turkey to weigh as students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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FFA advisor Hannah Branch loads a turkey into a trailer with the help of Ty Gardner, 5, as Maple Mountain High School students and their teachers prepare turkeys to be processed at the school’s animal lab in Spanish Fork on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Turkeys are corralled before being processed at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Advisors take turkeys out of a machine that removes their feathers as turkeys are processed at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Utah County 4-H extension educator Katelyn Hepworth cleans a turkey as turkeys are processed at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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4-H coordinator Marci Borg weighs a turkey as turkeys are processed at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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4-H volunteer Lisa Olsen, of Spanish Fork, scoops ice to chill turkeys as turkeys are processed at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Maple Mountain High School FFA advisor Jen Gardner dumps ice into vats while turkeys are chilled after processing at the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant in Bothwell on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

For many Americans, thoughts of purchasing a turkey to prepare for a Thanksgiving meal generally don’t enter their minds until a few days or weeks before the holiday. However, for students participating in the Utah State Junior Turkey Program, the preparation of a turkey for Thanksgiving begins in July.

The program, which is a collective effort among Utah chapters of Future Farmers of America and 4-H, along with support from the Utah State University Extension, aims to give kids the experience and life skills that comes with raising an animal from start to finish in a relatively short amount of time, without needing to spend a lot of money or requiring sophisticated equipment.

Animal science courses are offered at schools throughout Utah, and this extension program is available to any students who want a more hands-on agricultural experience.

“FFA is so broad; there’s something literally for any kid,” said Chaleesa Warren, an FFA advisor for Spanish Fork High School and animal science teacher at Spanish Fork Junior High. “If a kid wants to be involved, whether they live in an apartment or on a farm, there’s something for them to do.”

For this particular program, educators, like Warren, talk to students at the end of each school year to gauge interest and then contact perspective participants in July to see if they’d like to start off with one, two or several newly hatched turkeys, called poults.

After being hatched, poults are sensitive creatures, especially to temperature.

“When they’re little you want to make sure they have a heat lamp, so they can get big enough to grow their feathers before you get them off the heat lamp,” said Kami Holt, a 17-year-old senior at Spanish Fork High School. “Once they fully grow all their feathers, then they go in a pen.”

Caring for Holt’s three female (hens) and three male (toms) turkeys is hardly something new for the high schooler, seeing as she’s grown up raising and showing lambs, goats and steers on her family’s Angus cattle farm in Spanish Fork, which has stood for more than a century.

“I’ve grown up here, and in 4-H and FFA,” she shared.

Once turkeys become fully feathered, roughly in 4-6 weeks, their needs become more basic, like more consistent food and water and protection from predators. However, just because their needs are simple doesn’t mean that their care is always easy.

“It teaches kids responsibility,” said 18-year-old Brady Orton, a 2020 graduate of Spanish Fork High School. “You have to come out here, no matter if it’s raining, snowing, or hailing; they have to have feed and water. In the morning, I make sure they’re fed before I am.”

Orton has grown up on his family’s 2-acre farm in Salem, on which they raise cattle. He has raised turkeys with the FFA and 4-H program for 4 years.

For Orton, one of the most widespread positives of such organizations is their ability to educate the public about agriculture.

“One of the biggest things I think is curbing misinformation,” he asserted. “A lot of people just read things on the internet and don’t fully understand, and if you come and actually try programs like FFA, you learn that we don’t mistreat the animals, and we love them more than people think.”

While students care for their turkeys, they and their advisers search out potential buyers for their birds after they’ve matured and been processed. According to students and advisors, demand for fresh turkeys is not hard to find.

“There’s lots of people in the community that are return customers every year,” Warren said. “I think it’s so cool that there’s people willing to support these kids, and they’re OK paying a little bit more to help a kid out and the community and buy local rather than go to the grocery store.”

Most of the students’ turkeys are sold to friends and neighbors; however, students also strive to be charitable to standout community members and those in need around Thanksgiving.

“It’s the kids that have said, ‘Can we put something together for a family in need, police officers or first responders?'” Warren said.

She explained, in recent years, turkeys have been donated to officers of the Spanish Fork Police Department, local nurses and several families that likely wouldn’t otherwise had been able to afford a Thanksgiving feast.

“I have fun just raising them, but if I can help someone else in return, it’s even better,” Orton said.

Compared to other livestock, turkeys can be raised quickly and cheaply, which makes them advantageous animals for a youth program. According to advisers, turkeys grow to maturity from birth in about 4-5 months and cost about $25-$30 in feed and water.

There are startup costs for students, such as feeders, water bowls, shelters and — of course — the space to raise the turkeys, but for those who might not have or be able to acquire those resources, animal labs are provided by some schools and utilized year-round for various agriculture and livestock projects.

Once fully grown, in mid-November, turkeys are taken to the 4-H and FFA Poultry Plant, located about two hours north of Utah County in Bothwell. Turkeys are then harvested and processed until they resemble the shrink-wrap presentation often found in grocery stores.

Here, while being processed, some of the science included in the program comes to fruition.

“One of things that’s really cool about the processing facility is that there’s a lot of research that goes into the process,” said Josh Dallin, who has run the plant for the past 3 years and stands as a Utah State University Extension faculty member in Box Elder County.

One important thing to note about these turkeys is that they’re never frozen. After being processed, turkeys are placed in an ice bath and eventually placed in an above-freezing freezer unit.

“There’s a timeframe, generally about two-and-a-half hours, to figure out when the water of the ice bath is effective versus non-effective,” Dallin said in regards to preserving the freshness of the turkeys.

The turkeys are then kept overnight in the freezer unit.

“It’s a lot cooler than a fridge, but warmer than a deep freezer,” Dallin added. “So, what it does is it allows the birds to chill but keeps them fresh.”

In such an unpredictable year, Dallin also sang the praises of those that help programs like the Utah State Junior Turkey Program continue despite roadblocks relating to COVID-19.

“We’ve had FFA advisers and USU extension staff that have really stepped up to come out and get these birds processed,” he said. “Normally we would have the students out here and they would participate in various low-risk spots throughout the process to learn and help.”

Research on how to best raise and care for turkeys is also an integral part of the program.

“We were curious if we could create a healthier turkey, and by a healthier turkey, I mean a healthier turkey to eat,” Dallin explained. “What we did was we did a study and had a control set of birds and a research set of birds. The research set of birds had a flax seed additive in their feed — when flax seed is fed to chickens, you get your omega-3 eggs.”

“So, we were curious if we gave a flax seed additive to these research birds, would we at a molecular level be able to change the fat components to omega-3 fatty acids instead of the unhealthy type,” he added. “We were able to do that — There was a statistical significance between the two groups of birds.”

Dallin said the flax seed yielded omega-3 and -6 fatty acids in turkeys that ate it.

Dallin further explained: “Another study we did is we looked at the difference in efficacy in the types of feed. So, whether it’s a granular, powder type of a feed, or a pelleted feed. What we found is that there wasn’t a huge difference between the two, but we found the pellets had a slightly greater rate of gain — pounds that the turkey gains. However, having feed pelleted is actually a little more expensive, so we found there wasn’t a big economic difference.”

Once chilled and returned to students, they personally distribute their turkeys to their customers a few days before Thanksgiving.

All in all, the program usually yields about 2,800 to 3,300 turkeys, varying in weights, starting at about 14 pounds and going to more than 30 pounds, according to Dallin.

Of those turkeys, Katelyn Hepworth, a Utah County 4-H Extension Educator, determined 1,196 came from Utah County, this year.

Once turkeys have reached tables across the state, advisers say their students feel a sigh of relief and sense of accomplishment.

“When those birds go out of the plant in those bags, it’s a celebratory moment,” Dallin said. “There’s a lot of things that can happen from the time they start to the time they finish.”

On a personal note, Dallin described: “This year was my oldest son’s very first year doing the turkey project. It was fun to see turkeys being raised in my backyard by my boy and him taking on the responsibly and caring for them. It gives me hope to see our youth noticing such things and being aware of the needs of something other than themselves.”

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