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New "cage-free" egg-laying systems offered by Big Dutchman company of Holland, Mich., were among the wares farmers were perusing at the Minnesota Poultry Federation convention and trade show, March 13-16, at the RiverCentre convention halls in St. Paul, Minn. About 3,000 people attend the event. Photo taken March 15, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

Poultry growers eye trade, immigration policies

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Turkey growers have a huge stake in U.S. trade with Mexico, so they're concerned about saber-rattling in the Donald Trump administration — but not panicked, officials said at the nation's premier turkey and egg farmer events.

National regulatory issues and trade dominated policy discussions at the Minnesota Poultry Federation Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on March 14-16, but producers are also keeping a wary eye on avian influenza incidents that rocked their industry in 2015.

Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, told attendees that U.S. turkey producers export about 15 percent of their product to overseas markets and about 7 percent of the total goes to Mexico — the No. 1 export destination.

He assured them the industry is watching and involved in trying to keep Mexican trade on track and said it's too soon to judge the Trump administration.

Officials have underlined that "wanting to reset the discussion on trade is not the same as being opposed to trade," he said. "Nobody has panicked on either side of the border, at least as far as our industry is concerned."

Carl Wittenburg of Alexandria, Minn., who runs a marketing company at Brooten, Minn., and a turkey farm at Wyndmere, N.D., recently was elected 2017 chairman of the NTF. He said farmers must remember that the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world population.

"Ninety-five percent of the world is out there to be fed," so trade policies are increasingly important, he said.

Brandenburger added that Trump administration's dismantling of the Waters of the United States rule by the Environmental Protection Agency will be a substantial relief for farmers because it takes the EPA back to enforcing the Clean Water Act as Congress initially intended it — to involve surface and navigable waters.

"I don't think anyone disputes that it has done some good things over its life over the last 40-plus years," he said. But he believes the "reset" of the regulatory climate is good.

Steve Olson is executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers, Midwest Poultry Federation and Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota. His organization puts on the event, which has grown by 85 percent over the past 15 years.

The gathering brings in more than 1,000 producers from several states and a total of about 3,000 people over the three days. More than 240 exhibiting companies displayed their wares in the St. Paul RiverCentre. The show covers the three major poultry species — turkey, egg-layers and broilers — but also the game birds and organic growers.

Minnesota has been No. 1 in turkey production for the past 16 consecutive years and ranks seventh or eighth in egg production nationwide. Companies based in Minnesota have operations outside the state. The industry uses feed production equal to about 1,800 corn and soybean farmers in the state and has significant processing, along with some sixth-generation turkey farmers.

Olson said the organizations are looking at ways to improve food safety by cutting the incidence of salmonella, improving the environment and "helping people understand what it takes to raise food."

He said birds raised today are far more efficient than in the past, going to market at 45 pounds in 21 weeks — twice the rate of gain as in the past, using less feed, at lower cost and higher quality.

The Turkey Research and Promotion Council invests in research, developing birds with more muscle and stronger skeletal structure. As the industry adjusts to restrictions on antibiotic use, they are also studying more closely how to accomplish some of the same effects by managing bacteria in the bird digestive system.

Olson says the industry has to contend with market forces, but also with people who disagree with meat production or production techniques.

John Burkel of Badger, Minn., a former state and national president who is in his last year on the NTF executive committee, said networking is the main attraction at the event. He is on the board of Northern Pride, a cooperative turkey processing plant at Thief River Falls, Minn., which he said could be heavily affected by immigration rules put in place by the Trump administration. The plant relies on the H2B visa program for seasonal help, largely from Mexico.

The co-op handles "whole-bird, hen-in-a-bag" markets for Thanksgiving. Burkel's farm has about 100,000 birds a year, which is significant for his part of the country.

His farm was hit by avian influenza, April 13, 2015, costing him two-thirds of annual production.

"Refreshing yourself on biosecurity and bringing that back to the farm is a good thing, too," he says.

The organization is helping to fund studies that could help understand its movement in the environment.

Marie Culhane, a veterinarian from the University of Minnesota, asked farmers to cooperate with a new Minnesota study of the incidence of influenza viruses in gull-type birds that migrate through the region. Farmers who have frequent gull presence on their fields can contact her at grame003@umn.edu, or at her office 612-624-7423. The researchers trap gulls and test them for viruses that could affect poultry or other species.

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