LAKE ANDES, S.D. — Turkey is the traditional meat for Thanksgiving, and the holidays and turkey production is an important of South Dakota’s economy.
An average of 5 million turkeys are produced annually in the state and those birds consume an average of 51,000 tons of soybean meal. Turkey production also makes up a large percentage of the $300 million economic impact the poultry industry makes in South Dakota.
The Hutterite colonies are the state’s top and sole producer, including Lakeview Colony located just north of Lake Andes. Tim Hofer has been managing their turkey operation for the past 27 years and has watched the transition.
“Yes, the colonies are the only growers,” he said. “There used to be a few others, but they’ve gone to the wayside. It’s all colony driven now.”
Lakeview raises about 100,000 turkeys annually to an average market weight of 46 pounds. The birds are shipped between 19 to 20 weeks of age.
“Every five and a half weeks, there’s a flock ready for market. It’s a cycle,” he said.
All their production is antibiotic free, which is now sold under the NAE or “No Antibiotics Ever” label. The turkeys at Lakeview are currently processed primarily into ready to eat meat and marketed on the east and west coast to outlets like Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Panera. The birds are processed and sold through Dakota Provisions in Huron, which processes 200 million pounds of turkey annually. The $120 million plant is owned by the original group of 44 grower-owners in the Hutterite faith community, making them vertically integrated.
Dakota Provisions is launching their first consumer brand under the Dakota 44 label. Hofer says the product is targeted to consumers on the East and West coasts or in big cities like Minneapolis.
“That is where consumers will pay a premium price for antibiotic and hormone free product,” he said.
The Dakota 44 brand was also developed to provide consumers with a flavorful, convenient and healthy protein in a variety of products. The product line includes, snack bites, salad toppers, deli meats, turkey bacon, ground turkey, whole turkey, ready-to-cook meatballs and butcher patties.
Hofer says the colonies also pride themselves on raising a safe, sustainable product and practicing strict animal welfare standards set by the Global Animal Partnership. The farms are all G.A.P. certified by a third-party with an on-farm audit every 15 months.
“We like to do it in a more humane way and follow the animal welfare rules that are out there. Animals perform better if you take care of them,” Hofer said.
With this certification they also provide the transparency consumers are demanding about how the turkey is produced.
They also follow a strict biosecurity protocol, that was tightened after the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak in 2015. Lakeview escaped the virus in their turkey flock but is trying to be more vigilant.
“Oh everyone has gotten tougher on biosecurity,” Hofer said. “It’s a big word and you’re keeping people out and clean and Danish entries all that type of thing is the new buzzword.”
Hofer says he’s proud to raise turkeys because it is a healthy meat. He says they want to give consumers a reason to eat turkey every day and at all different times of the day, not just at Thanksgiving. While most consumers won’t consume a turkey raised in South Dakota for Thanksgiving, Hofer says the holidays are special for turkey growers.
“Thanksgiving is our day. That’s what thanksgiving is all about is turkey and family and traditions,” he said.
According to the National Turkey Federation, Americans eat 45 million turkeys at Thanksgiving and another 22 million for Christmas.