Outstanding Young Farmers winners ‘talk turkey’

Exceeding expectations is what Marc and Hinke Therrien like to do daily in their approach to farming. The two have turned their passion for agriculture into a thriving turkey operation that has, in just a few short years, become one of the largest in Alberta.

With eight barns on their farm, located south of Redwater, the couple produce nearly 1.7 million kilograms of turkey annually (that’s about 140,000 birds), as well as broiler chickens. While that’s impressive enough, the enthusiasm the two have about raising quality food made them a fitting choice for the 2017 Outstanding Young Farmers’ program award for the Alberta/NWT region.

Marc Therrien proves that growing up urban can still sprout an interest in agriculture. He caught the farming bug working many summers on his grandparents’ dairy farm. That led him into agriculture studies at the University of Alberta. After trying out a variety of farm jobs (he actually even owned some beef cows at one point), he eventually entered the world of poultry.

Hinke Therrien was born in the Netherlands, and immigrated with her family to the Ponoka area, where they set up a dairy farm. She had already decided her future was in agriculture when the two met at university. “We met in dairy production class in my last semester, and that’s when we connected,” says Marc.

His career began in the feed business, while hers was in milk testing. They married in 2009. In the meantime, Hinke’s family had switched gears and now had two turkey farms (one in Devon, the other in Redwater) and offered the younger couple the opportunity to get involved.

“We thought, well, farming is farming and we’ll take whatever we can,” says Hinke. With her parents’ retirement timeline set, it was up to Marc to “pass the test”, which required him to get some handson experience first, which he did by working for another poultry producer in the area.

“Being a city kid, I had to prove to them I was capable of doing it,” laughs Marc. “They had the single biggest broiler farmer at the time in Alberta, so it was a pretty steep learning curve. But I was adamant that if this is what we want to do for the rest of our life, we would have to sacrifice and do it,” he explains. “It was a huge investment and risk for Hinke’s parents, so they had to make sure they were entrusting someone with the farm who was going to do the work.”

Marc says those two “apprenticeship” years gave him valuable training in both the practical and the business aspects of poultry production. “I would do it again. I would make my kids do the same thing,” he smiles.

About a year into their full-time farming career, a fire took two barns at the Redwater site. In the end, they made the decision to shift all turkey production to that location, which made for a challenging time for the young family. Marc lived mainly at Redwater, supervising the rebuilding and consolidation plans, while Hinke stayed back to manage the Devon farm. The transition was complete by the fall of 2014, and Marc and Hinke became full owners in 2015. Even with all this going on, the Therriens were still able to double production annually during their first five years operating the farm on their own.

Marc’s detail-oriented management style is a great fit for the turkey business. “I try to manage and set systems for the birds, and not cut too many corners,” he says. “We’ve implemented standard operating procedures to make sure we avoid the birds getting sick or stressed, giving them every opportunity to succeed.

“The whole thing with turkeys is stress. Limit, limit, limit stress. If you have stress, you’re going to lose animals. Turkeys are very sensitive to change. They’re more challenging to grow than broilers.”

Marc likes the fast feedback that comes with poultry production’s fast turnaround times.

“You get a really quick response to your input,” he says. “With chickens, I can make a management decision every cycle and 38 days later, I know if that’s succeeded or failed. Turkeys are the same way.”

Focusing on quality water, making sure the barns are cleaned and disinfected, and properly rotating supplies has made a big difference in flock health and bird survival rates. “We had some existing disease challenges when we took over both farms,” recalls Hinke. “Now, for as big as we are, our mortality is about half the industry average. It’s an impressive benchmark for Marc.”

The two newest barns, built after the fire, were the right place to try out technology, like a five-minute timer ventilation program, which uses air speed and fans, rather than heat, to control humidity. Computerized systems allow Marc to montitor every aspect of the barn from his smartphone, and they’ve also got computers for weighing feed, which enables the Therriens to buy wheat from local farmers and blend their own rations.

The family also made some energy efficiency and maintenance improvements to the existing barns — some of which were decades old — like switching the whole farm to more efficient LED lights.

One of their animal welfare practices is to put big straw bales in the barns. “Turkeys are very cannibalistic, so we thought about starting this program,” says Marc. “We were blown away by how the birds reacted to it, how they played with it, how they re-bedded the barn, and spread the straw for us.

“It’s an extra step in our production system and an extra cost, but at the end of the day, it’s our way of trying to enrich the system. We tried soccer balls, milk jugs, all kinds of stuff, but the bales always seemed to be the best way to go. It’s improving their environment, not just their welfare.”

Marc and Hinke are always eager to share their story with the community and consumers, and have already hosted several farm tours. Hinke is also a Classroom Ag Program volunteer and she’s been helping the Green Certificate Program for youth ag training to set up a poultry learning module.

Marc is always looking for ways to go forward with their appropriately named operation: Ment-2B Agribusiness Ltd. “Because I’m a city kid, I’m a little more open to taking the science of what people tell you and implementing it, not being too afraid or stubborn to do it,” says Marc.

“My advantage is that no one’s ever told me how to do it, so I’ve taken ideas from the research and science I learned at school and in the field selling feed and just applied it, and it’s been tremendous.”

Hinke agrees and says that their willingness to take advice from professionals has been key to their success. “We consult with vets, industry people and breeder experts.”

“I want to always strive to learn more and do better. There’s always something to learn,” adds Marc.