June 25, 2024

Sawatzke upholds family turkey legacy amid avian flu challenges

Young Emma Sawatzke cradles a chick, surrounded by the gentle bustle of life in the brooding house.

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Jake Sias
Grant County Herald

As families across the nation prepare for a festive Thanksgiving, the story of Erica Sawatzke, a sixth generation farmer, weaves a tale of heritage, resilience, and modern agricultural acumen. Sawatzke’s lineage traces back to 1866 when her great-great-great-grandfather, Ole Sarsland, first homesteaded the land that today flourishes with corn, soybeans, and, notably, turkeys.

The introduction of turkeys to the farm by Ole’s daughter, Julia Nelson, marked a turning point. Initially a strategy for supplemental income, these birds have now become a prime feature of the family’s agricultural practice. However, maintaining this legacy hasn’t been without its challenges, especially in the wake of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak.

Minnesota confirmed the presence of the H5N1 strain of the virus on March 25, 2022, prompting stringent measures to protect the birds. Access to the turkeys was restricted to essential personnel, a necessary step to shield them from HPAI. While the CDC reassures that the bird flu poses a low risk to the public, its impact on poultry farms can be severe. In this current outbreak, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health reports 14 affected commercial flocks, two backyard flocks, and a staggering 1,350,650 birds impacted.

There is a seasonal trend to the waves of HPAI, as migratory waterfowl, like ducks and geese, make their ways across the continent with the turning of the seasons. This makes it difficult to pin down and treat the disease on a macro-scale. Farmers are then reduced with isolating their flocks and keeping access to a minimum from outsiders. 

As a member of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, Erica Sawatzke offers insight into the complexities of managing such outbreaks. She points out that while vaccinations for HPAI are possible, they pose two major challenges. First, the vaccinated birds produce antibodies that could be mistaken for a real HPAI infection during testing, which could make them unsellable. Second, considering the short lifespan of turkeys raised for meat – light hens at about 13 weeks and heavy toms at 22 weeks – vaccination might not be cost-effective. Laying hens, with a longer lifespan of 18 months, could be better candidates for vaccinations, potentially passing some protection to their eggs.

In preparation for Thanksgiving, the Sawatzkes sent their turkeys to Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall in late October. These birds, reared with care and tradition, are now poised to grace dinner tables, symbolizing a harvest of hard work and careful stewardship.

Reflecting on the industry, Sawatzke observed its fluctuating nature, akin to any agricultural sector. Yet, she highlighted an exceptional quality amongst turkey farmers: their ability to communicate and adapt. This collaborative spirit, coupled with foresight in planning a year ahead, ensures that the turkeys thrive and meet the logistical demands of the season.

As Thanksgiving approaches, the Sawatzke farm stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of American agriculture, where tradition blends with innovation to overcome contemporary challenges, ensuring that the nation’s tables are never without the Thanksgiving staple – the turkey.

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