Cargill veterinarian talks turkey about the work he loves 

By Carl Peterson November 11, 2014

Bob Evans was standing on the White House lawn, the President was due to arrive any minute and Bob’s prize turkey was nervous.

Cobbler, a 45-pound tom turkey, had been upset since the night before, when a stay at a downtown Washington hotel had left him stressed out. Bob had been up all night trying to calm Cobbler: playing music he liked, adjusting the lighting and feeding him crackers by hand.

Now, waiting for President Obama, the crackers were helping a still-antsy Cobbler, but Bob wasn’t sure how much longer the animal, out of his usual environment, could keep cool.

It was the day before Thanksgiving 2012, and Bob, also known as Dr. Evans, was on hand at the White House for the annual presidential turkey pardoning on a picture-perfect fall afternoon. Cobbler, raised on one of Cargill’s contract farms in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, was the turkey being pardoned. It may not have been an average day, but visiting the White House is just one of the many tasks in the life of a Cargill veterinarian, the role Bob has filled for Cargill’s North American turkey business the past eight years.

Taking extra care

In Virginia and Texas, two of Cargill’s main areas of turkey production that Bob oversees as a vet, the company works with a few hundred independent farmers to raise the birds from its hatchery. After three to four months growing on these farms, the turkeys eventually head back to a Cargill processing plant, where they continue on their way to the dinner table, probably as a family’s Thanksgiving meal.

Bob and his team of about a dozen flock supervisors monitor conditions on the farms and help solve any problems that come up. If, for example, an illness emerges in a flock, they will work to nip it in the bud, keeping the turkeys as healthy as possible.

They also do preventative planning and treatment. This includes at times dosing moderately healthy flocks of birds with antibiotics, something that has raised controversy in social media and with the public. Despite the debate, Bob feels strongly about the importance of this.

“I’m absolutely adamant that I will not allow turkeys to suffer because people don’t fully understand antibiotics,” he says. “If the turkeys are sick or in danger of becoming sick, they need to be treated. That’s good animal welfare.”

Preventative treatment with antibiotics can actually lower overall treatment levels, according to Bob, because if an illness is allowed to get a foothold in a flock, higher dosages will be needed to solve the problem, increasing the total amount of antibiotics used.

Cargill’s turkey business did make the decision in July to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, in line with new guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published last December and commitments from the industry. The transition by Cargill’s turkey business will be complete by 2015, although the business will have fresh whole turkeys raised without antibiotics for growth promotion in time for this Thanksgiving, under its Honeysuckle White® and Shady Brook Farms® brands. Cargill also offers antibiotic-free turkey, for consumers who want it.

A new understanding

The antibiotics issue isn’t the only one where Bob feels the public misunderstands the work he does.

“People have very skewed perceptions of what they’re eating and what they think is going on to produce it,” he says.

For instance, the public may have a romanticized view of how farming should take place, with animals like turkeys roaming free outdoors. But not only does that carry significant disease risk for the birds, it also consumes far more natural resources. Feed conversion rates in Cargill’s modernized operations have been cut in half, meaning that the birds are twice as efficient at converting feed into protein, leaving more grain for other uses or, if the grain isn’t grown at all, reducing the amount of water, electricity and greenhouse gases in the overall food system.

“We’re raising thousands of birds that are physiologically very good at turning feed into protein for food to nourish people, while also producing nutrient-rich waste,” he adds, referring to the fact that Cargill helps farmers capture large quantities of bird manure to use or sell as fertilizer, manure that couldn’t be captured nearly as well if the birds were outdoors.

The current production system also makes turkeys far more affordable, something families appreciate when it comes to putting that Thanksgiving meal on the table.

Healthier, happier birds

For his part, Bob is proud of the work he and his teams do to ensure the turkeys are content and healthy. He points to the fact that Cargill is the only turkey producer to train and certify all of its contract growers on how to properly handle the birds. Cargill also consistently scores 98 or higher out of 100 on its animal welfare audits.

“One of the things I asked when I started was, ‘Are we doing this just because it sounds good, or because we’re actually committed to the principles behind it?’ And it’s been very clear that it’s a commitment, from the top of the company down,” he says.

Whether it’s visiting the White House with Cobbler (who ended up doing great in his meeting with the President; the crackers did the trick) or just stopping by farms to check on flocks, Bob says he’s excited by the chance to work with these animals.

“If you ever have the opportunity to go into a barn with month-old turkeys, turn over a bucket and sit with them, you’ll see they are very curious and accepting of people,” he says. “One of the things I can say is that with Cargill, when turkeys are on the farm, we try to give them the most respectable, high-quality life we can.”