Minn. invention Barn Boss cuts turkey trot
APPLETON, Minn. — If necessity is the mother of invention, then tom turkeys are fathers of Barn Boss, an invention designed to make working in turkey barns a whole lot easier.
Appleton turkey farmer Brad Mitchell and his colleague Jeff Stitt led the creation of the machine that can help cut the workload in large turkey barns.
The Barn Boss has a standing platform with a joystick control at the front. It has a sturdy chassis with a "live box," with up to a 1,600-pound load capacity. The oscillating, articulating chassis is designed to smoothly negotiate uneven terrain found inside a typical barn.
Mitchell, 49, is the owner of Shadowland Farms, a turkey confinement operation with two locations eight miles apart in the Appleton area. He's been raising turkeys since college.
Shadowland Farms produces nearly 1 million turkeys a year in 16 barns. The company produces "heavy toms" — male turkeys destined for the Jennie-O Turkey processing facilities, mostly in Willmar or Faribault. These farms typically bring in poults at six weeks old — about 4.5 to 5 pounds. They raise them to nearly 21 weeks of age — about 40 to 45 pounds.
"It's not uncommon to find turkey barns 1,000 feet long," Mitchell says. As barns have gotten longer, turkeys have been bred larger. Some can get aggressive or territorial.
Doing turkey chores can be "physically daunting," for employees, he says. "It's nothing for a guy to walk six miles a day — through turkeys. You have to carry tools, and move birds (mortalities) out of the barn. You're physically worn out at the end of the day."
In 2003, Mitchell and Stitt, who manages one of his farm sites and now has been with the farm for 18 years, sat down with a group of employees to discuss whether they could invent a machine to help with chores.
"We drew it up on a napkin in a cafe," Mitchell says. They built the prototype from the "cheapest components we could find, stuff laying around the shop."
He says the first two machines they built worked well, and they put 12,000 hours on each of them.
"We proved the concept, and we knew in a day this is something we needed to make more of and make better," he says.
In 2014, Mitchell and Stitt built their first commercial run of 20 machines. Their first sale was to another Jennie-O grower, who paid about $14,000 for the machine.
And then came avian influenza.
On April 14, 2015, Shadowland Farms was hit with the disease. Avian influenza is such a virulent disease that an attack can wipe out bird flocks but doesn't damage the food supply.
"We lost everything, on both sites," Mitchell says, of his own flock. The government urged destroying the bird carcasses on-site, using composting. Standard "straddle" and "side" composters didn't work so well, so the Shadowland crew built another invention — a compost machine. It cut processing time to one-seventh the other methods.
"We found ourselves doing custom work from central Minnesota to Wisconsin. It was a very, very challenging year for a lot of good guys," Mitchell says. The custom composting helped blunt Shadowlands' financial losses that year.
But the disease financial impact also made it tough to sell the Barn Boss.
The first challenge was that Barn Boss had no peer — not like a four-wheeler or ATVs where there are several manufacturers.
"The real way to sell them is to get people to try them," Mitchell says. "Once they try them, they don't want to give them up."
Secondly, the disease crisis made turkey producers anxious about investing money in capital purchases.
"There was a lot of uncertainty in that time about how the industry was going to handle it, how the indemnification process would work — whether the industry would come back or not," Mitchell says. "We've been through three 'high-risk' periods since then. Biosecurity protocols have improved, and the industry knows how to more quickly recognize and control the disease."
In another way, the disease increased the potential demand.
"We used to drive our machines between buildings, but post-AI we've put one in every barn," Mitchell says.
Mark to market
In December 2014, Mitchell showed his cart to neighbor-farmer Mark Reidinger.
"Brad talked so passionately about it. I asked them why they weren't marketing it to other farmers," Reidinger says.
By March 2015, Reidinger had become a partner and chief marketer taking the machine to trade shows and arranging farm demos. Reidinger estimates that 90 percent of the demo models are purchased.
"The machine pretty much sells itself," says an enthused Reidinger. "I've had people tell me it's the greatest thing since they put a skid-loader in their barn."
He thinks most turkey barns will have one within a decade and they'll find other uses in horse barns and other applications.
The price has gone down to about $13,500 but the quality has gone up. Riverside Industries LLC, in Huron, S.D., manufactures steel parts for machine and has helped improve them. Metrix Corp., of Watertown, S.D., does powder-coat painting.
Mitchell says the big story of the Barn Boss is its effect on labor. The turkey work isn't as physically draining with a cart. Workers have more energy to do more while on the job, and they have more energy to enjoy life after they go home.
Mitchell has in mind the worker who's been on the job for 15 to 20 years.
"He knows your equipment, knows your birds, your barns. He knows the diseases," Mitchell says, adding that an employee can stay on longer if they choose thanks to Barn Boss.
"You don't lose all that knowledge," Mitchell says, letting that fact sink in, before concluding, "That's a big deal."
CHORE CART FEATURES
Here are features of the Barn Boss chore cart, some covered by a patent obtained Nov. 17, 2017.
• Front operation, for visibility.
• Joystick steering, leaves the operator's other hand free.
• Rounded front allows gentle movement among turkeys.
• The standing platform is about 7 inches off the ground, about the height of a standard staircase step.
• Employs a "leaning post" on logic that a seat requires more physical energy. The post housing is a tool box, equipped to handle routine problems.
• Box capacity is 1,600 pounds of cargo, with a chain mechanism, similar to a manure spreader.
• 3-horsepower Honda motor, with hydrostatic drive and pump, similar to a zero-turn lawn mower.
• Low-maintenance. Regimen includes change of oil, fuel filter, hydraulic filter and three grease zerks.