N.D. turkey capital taken over by geese

TOLNA, N.D. - On a former turkey farm, near a town that once was the self-declared "Turkey Capital of North Dakota," 8,000 geese are honking. Besides bolstering the economy of Tolna, N.D., a farm town of about 230, the geese are aiding researcher...

TOLNA, N.D. - On a former turkey farm, near a town that once was the self-declared "Turkey Capital of North Dakota," 8,000 geese are honking.

Besides bolstering the economy of Tolna, N.D., a farm town of about 230, the geese are aiding researchers in the fight against West Nile virus.

The Schiltz family, which operates Schiltz Goose Farms and Schiltz Foods Inc. of Sisseton, S.D., which expanded into North Dakota.

"We're excited about coming to North Dakota. We think it's going to be a good partnership," says David Schiltz, one of the owners of the family operation.

About 8,000 breeder geese have gone to a farm near Tolna, which has a vacant turkey processing plant. Another 6,000 breeder geese have gone to sites near Lidgerwood, N.D., and Hatton, N.D., each site receiving about 3,000 birds.


West Nile treatment

And the Schiltzes are working with the University of North Dakota Research Foundation to develop a treatment for West Nile virus and vaccines using geese and goose antibodies.

Most of the work is done under confidentiality agreements, says Richard Schiltz and James Pettel, executive director of the UND Research Foundation.

Major breakthroughs in the fight against West Nile virus, which infects mainly birds but also can infect humans, could be coming in the next few years, Pettel says.

The Schiltz began raising geese in 1944 in Iowa and moved in 1980 to Sisseton.

The Sisseton site was getting crowded, so company officials decided last fall to move some of the geese. Moving well away from the current site was important to reduce the possibility of contamination from one farm to another, and geese do better in a colder climate than a warm one, Schiltz says. The area around Tolna, about 125 miles northwest of Fargo, N.D., once was home to 500,000 turkeys, guessed Bob Engen, president of Farmers and Merchants State Bank of Tolna.

Industry change

But that changed when major industry players increasingly began producing their own turkeys rather than buying the birds from others, he says.


Engen estimated about 50,000 turkeys remain in the Tolna area, down from the peak of 500,000, leaving vacant turkey barns for the Schiltzes to occupy.

The Schiltzes bought a Tolna-area farmstead on which turkeys once were raised.

The empty turkey barn and other buildings on the farmstead are ideal for raising geese, Schiltz says.

The family business moved one of its managers and his family from South Dakota to the Tolna farmstead.

"For a community our size, the impact of what the Schiltzs are doing is significant," Engen says.

Six jobs have been created on the three North Dakota farms.

The economics of geese and turkey production differ, Engen and Schiltz says.

The geese industry is far smaller than the chicken and turkey industries - so small that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has little data on it.


The Schiltzes say they're confident they're the largest producer and processor of geese in North America.

Growing the businessMore jobs could be added in Tolna if the Schiltzes take over the turkey processing plant, which has been idle since the late 1990s, and convert it into a goose hatchery.

Schiltz officials have talked with the North Dakota Department of Commerce about getting some help with the project, but no decisions have been made, says Shane Goettle, the state commerce commissioner. But he says, "these guys really seem to know what they're doing."

The contributions the business can make to rural North Dakota and the fight against West Nile are significant, Goettle says.

Of the 14,000 Schiltz geese in North Dakota, about 75 percent are female and lay eggs in the late winter and spring.

Each of the female birds will lay about 35 eggs this year, producing a total of about 367,500 eggs. Unless a North Dakota hatchery is established, the eggs will be taken to South Dakota, where they'll hatch under tightly controlled conditions.

Some of the eggs will be infertile or lost to cracks. Of the 367,500 eggs, roughly 200,000 will develop into goslings. Some will be held back as replacement breeders.

About 150,000 of the birds will be sold this fall when they weigh an average of 16 pounds, of which about 11 pounds are meat. Other parts of the geese, including the feathers, are sold, too.

Much of the meat is sold on the East Coast to customers of European descent, often during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.

Some Schiltz geese have been served during the annual U.S. presidential Christmas meal, most recently during the administration of the first President Bush.

Schiltz geese were seen in "Sneakers," a 1992 film starring Robert Redford. The film company rented the geese, transporting them to California for filming and then back to South Dakota.

Schiltz says he hopes for a long relationship with Tolna and with North Dakota.

"We're just real optimistic things will work out for everyone," he says.

What To Read Next
Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions says its pipeline project will help ethanol plants. The project aims to capture greenhouse gas emissions and pipe the CO2 to western North Dakota for underground storage.
The number of cows going to slaughter is far above the five-year average. Attendees of the annual Cow Calf Days tour in Minnesota heard the latest on cattle trends.
As Mikkel Pates approaches his retirement from Agweek after 44 years in journalism, he talks to Rose Dunn about learning TV, covering ag's characters and scandals and looking toward the future.
Members Only
“In our industry there aren’t a lot of young people in it. I like the fact that there are a lot of young people in agriculture here,” he said of the Mitchell area.