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South Dakota is home to largest goose producer in the U.S.

SISSETON, S.D. — Most people likely think of beef and dairy when they think of South Dakota livestock, but one processor in the northeast corner of the state is North America’s No. 1 provider of domestic geese and capons.

Schiltz Foods Inc. of Sisseton, processes more than 90 percent of the domestic geese on the American market. The processing plant started here in 1981, but the family’s history with the enterprise goes back to the 1940s.

The company grew from just five geese in 1945 to about 100,000 per year. Year-round, the company employs 30 to 40 people, and seasonally up to 140, across several entities. The plant is large enough for three U.S. Department of Agricultural inspectors.Richard, 69, the oldest brother, took over the reins in the mid-1990s, and about 10 years ago the youngest brother, Jim, 52 — often referred to simply as “The Goose Guy” — was named president of the company.

Getting into geese

The Schiltzes’ parents, Marlin and Kathryn Schiltz, were farming on a diversified livestock farm in Bancroft, Iowa, when they accidentally wandered into the goose business.

“My mom and her sister found some domestic goose eggs on a walk on a Sunday and dad decided to try and put them under some ‘setty’ chicken hens that hatched them,” Jim says.

The next year, Marlin bought more eggs, and the third year, he bought a small commercial incubator.

Things got serious in 1952 when Marlin bought a new incubator for $50,000 — worth considerably more than the rented house they lived in.

“My mom was pretty upset about that, but it all worked out,” Richard recalls.

From there, the family started hatching other chicken producers’ eggs for a cost. By the 1970s, the family started selling breeding geese, the only ones in North America.

The Schiltzes bought an Iowa-inspected plant in Swea City, but it was too small. In 1981, they purchased the John Landsberger Processing Plant in Sisseton, S.D.“We had all of the growing experience, the hatchery experience, and the breeding stock,” Jim says. “At the time, there were four U.S. competitors and two Canadian competitors. As of now, we’re all that’s left.”

Building the farm

The Schiltz Goose Farm was rebuilt in Sisseton, with some buildings brought and reassembled from Iowa.

Initially, the processing plant worked with a number of custom growers — small growers of fewer than 500 birds from Montana, South Dakota, Canada, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. Eventually, the family shifted toward raising their own. About half of the birds that go through the Schiltz plant are from their own farm. The other half come from three farms in Manitoba, including two from Hutterite colonies.

“You’ve got to be so quality-concerned with geese,” Jim says. “It’s a pricey meat and a pricey bird. You cannot mess it up.”

One mistake growers sometimes make is not providing enough room. Jim likes to see 5 to 6 square feet per bird in buildings, plus access to the outdoors. Birds raised only indoors need at least 25 square feet each.

The goose farm sprawls on about 70 acres, with barns and pens that have automatic feed lines. Initially, a pen is planted to barley or rye, so the geese start with a whole pen of fresh greens to eat. After that, the farm brings “green chop,” Jim says — a mix of alfalfa and corn.

“They like their salad,” says Jeff Krieger, who has worked with the farm since graduating high school in the late 1970s and is the farm manager.

Goose pens are protected from predators by a Great Pyrenees dog and blinking night guard lights. The pens are tall and some are protected by electric fences.

In 2006, the company bought property for Schiltz Goose Farm North in Tolna, N.D., to raise breeder geese. The facility employs three or four people. Geese lay eggs only in the spring.

“As soon as it gets hot, the breeders quit,” Jim says. “That’s why we like the breeders further north.”

Normally, the Schiltz Goose Farm keeps geese only up to 8 years old. Yearlings produce 30 to 40 percent of their maximum production, which happens in their second, third and fourth years when they produce 35 to 40 eggs per year.

From March to late July, a van transports the eggs from Tolna to Sisseton, where they are placed in coolers to suspend development, but are turned hourly. Every week and a half, a large group is gathered to place in an incubator.

“Geese take 31 days to hatch,” Jim says, noting that chickens take 21 days. “They’re about five to eight times the size of a chicken egg.”

Collected eggs go into an incubator, and are kept at about 99 degrees and 90 percent humidity, with strong biosecurity measures, including filtered, fresh air.

The Schiltz staff starts the goslings in “grower barns” for four to seven weeks, depending on weather. After that, they are out of the barn until they are ready for processing in about 18 weeks. For the first seven weeks, they convert feed at 1.9 pounds per pound of gain, but average about 7 pounds of feed per pound of gain, similar to beef.

“You need to finish them properly, and that last pound or two, that’s a very pricey one to put on, but it’s necessary,” Jim says. “Nobody wants a skinny goose.”

Because of their weight, domesticated geese lost their ability to fly thousands of years ago, Jim says.

“Running downhill into a 40 mph wind, they can get up a couple of feet,” Jim says. “Boy, they can’t land.”

Surviving bumps

Raising poultry is not easy. In 2002, West Nile virus decimated flocks.

“We didn’t know geese could get it, and they did,” Jim says. “That first year, around the Fourth of July, about a third of everything we owned dropped over dead in a two-week period. That was not fun.”

Drug companies don’t go through the expense of labeling a vaccine for the low-volume goose industry, so the company made its own vaccine by saving antibodies from survivors. Today, the flock has its own orally dispensed vaccines and less than 1 percent is lost to West Nile.

Another hit came in 2005, when the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency mandated the goose farm meet requirements of a Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operation. By government standards, 30 geese are equal to one animal unit, or cow-calf pair.

Rebuilding the feedlot to meet environmental specifications required installing some 70 million gallons of holding ponds. The excavation itself triggered an outbreak of fowl cholera, which caused significant losses and influenced the establishment of the breeding farm in North Dakota.

It was a multi-million-dollar hit, and addressing it meant buying more land.

Jim says the bird flu virus that hit so many of the region’s turkey producers hasn’t affected his goose flocks, but it still affects markets, including those to Singapore and the Philippines. About 23 percent of the company’s products are exported. China is the world’s largest goose producer, but Jim says he gets more quality competition from Hungarian and Polish geese.

Pre-cooked perfect

The Schiltzes also have become the nation’s No. 1 processor of capons — male chickens that have their sexual organs snipped at three weeks of age. The birds are slow-grown for another 11 weeks, which produces a large, tender breast.

Schiltz Foods Inc. gets capons from two farms in Iowa with whom they’ve been working for many years, and who possess the special skill of desexing, in a process akin to making beef steers.

But the mainstay product is goose.

The U.S. goose meat market is heavily dominated by customers of northern European and Asian descent, often for holidays. Some people think of goose as greasy, but Jim says slow-cooking can render the fat away, leaving a product that is like high-quality marbled beef. Only it’s goose.

The plant processes goose specialty products, including intestines, which are made into “chitterlings.” A food that looks like egg noodles and is eaten with a sauce.

Goose feet have a consistency of pork ribs, worth about five times what a chicken foot is, Jim says.

The company, in recent years, has expanded its product line to include fully cooked, smoked geese, as well as smoked goose breast.

“You throw pre-roasted bird in the oven, like a pizza, and after about an hour and a half it’s perfect, every time,” Jim says. “You have to try it.”

On the horizon: antibody production

Goose meat is the primary product for Schiltz Foods Inc., and Schiltz Goose Farm Inc. — for now— but the Schiltz family of Sisseton, S.D., is expanding into related products and enterprises.

One traditional byproduct is raw goose feathers — mostly down.

Geese have been bred for white feathers, to give them a cleaner appearance. The down is the most valuable, and the larger primary and tail feathers are discarded. Down feathers can quickly heat to the point of combustion, so must be handled carefully in bulk.

The feathers are washed with “special feather soap,” which is not harsh but leaves no residue. The feathers are rinsed three times and go into large rotary washers, which were adapted from commercial clothes models. The equipment includes sterilization procedures, so the feathers can be exported.

When the feathers are fluffed up, they must be compressed with a press. The feathers are placed in something resembling a wool bag of about 30 pounds. The bags are placed into a commercial baler, which includes a chamber 10 feet into the ground. About 20 of the bags are compressed into a single, 600-pound bale of down.

Antibody adventure

A new product on the horizon is antibodies, produced using geese through a separate company called Avianax LLC, established in 2006.The goose farm has worked with Dr. David Bradley, executive director of the Center of Research Excellence for Avian Therapeutics for Infectious Diseases, at the University of North Dakota Medical School.

“We’re very close to making a parvovirus that would protect dogs and puppies,” Jim Schiltz says. “Our first product is going to be called ‘ParvoOne.’ We’ve done field trials with it and have been very successful at a dozen sites across the country.”

It is a U.S. Department of Agriculture approved trial.

Avianax is owned by Intraglobal Biologics Inc., established in 2005 and based in South Dakota, which includes about 10 shareholders, including Jim and Richard Schiltz of Schiltz Foods, Inc. The UND Research Foundation is a partner in the business. The company hasn’t established a manufacturing site.

Separately, the company is working to develop human antibodies for human applications, with Dr. Jay Hooper, a team leader with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, based in Frederick, Md.