Game Changing Technology

A textile manufacturing company in Union County produces a high performance tape strong enough to protect soldiers in Iraq and gentle enough to be used for dental floss and surgical sutures. Based on Japanese technology, Integrated Textile Systems began manufacturing the high strength material Tensylon at its plant in Monroe in 1999. Two major acquisitions over the past two years have created international attention for the versatile product.

Integrated Textile Systems was acquired by Armor Holdings in July 2006. A year later, Armor itself was acquired by BAE Systems, a giant in the global defense and aerospace industry. BAE Systems delivers a full range of products and services for air, land and naval forces, as well as advanced electronics, information technology solutions and customer support services. Renamed Tensylon High Performance Materials, the company is a subsidiary of their Land and Armaments operating group.

“These acquisitions are very positive for this little business,” says Lisa Owen, vice president and general manager of Tensylon. “Armor offered $3 billion in sales, while BAE Systems gives us a $27 billion pie to go after.”

The acquisitions have also impacted the Monroe facility, which has recently added 18,000 square feet to its original 30,000 square feet of manufacturing space. The plant expansion cost an estimated $7.9 million and supports 42 jobs, more than doubling the plant’s work force. The company is expected to employ about 60 people by the end of this year, when additional production lines may be added, Owen says. The facility also houses the research and development operation.

The reason for all this attention is that the Monroe site is the only place in the world that manufactures Tensylon materials, which are derived from an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene polymer and utilized in a wide variety of applications, including advanced fiber composites in ballistic products.

The Tensylon high performance fiber or tape can be processed into any number of specially tailored composites, depending on the unique application. It is one of the materials being used for ballistic protection in the crew cabin of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicles currently deployed in Iraq. It can also be used in the M1114 Up-Armored HMMWV.

“BAE Systems acquired all the technology, assets and know-how associated with Tensylon,” says Owen. “The only machines in the world that produce Tensylon are here in Monroe.”

Armored Personnel

Owen, a native of South Carolina, earned a bachelor degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Carolina in 1986 and spent 10 years working in high performance fibers for Allied Signal, now Honeywell International. After acquiring an M.B.A. from the Richard S. Reynolds Graduate School of Business at the University of Richmond in Virginia, she joined the rigid packaging business of NatureWorks LLC, an international biopolymer manufacturer. In this role, Owen was responsible for the commercialization and global implementation of a new platform of renewable thermoplastic polymers for rigid packaging.

“For twenty years, I was a real ‘material girl,’” laughs Owen, “working with plastic, fibers and armor materials. I loved it; I understood the end result and liked developing strategies for commercialization.”

In the 19 months since joining Armor Holdings in 2006, Owen has faced a different set of challenges, overseeing two acquisition assimilations, managing the site expansion, dealing with equipment and technology vendors from all over the world, and, perhaps her biggest challenge, staffing the plant.

“We run 24/7,” she says, “and it is a physically intensive environment. We plan to reach 60 employees by late 2008 or early 2009, and I’m not sure we’ll stop there.”

In her current position, Owen is responsible for the integration of the Tensylon business and technology into the BAE Systems products portfolio. Linda Hudson, president of BAE Systems Land and Armaments based in Arlington, Virginia, is well-known to many in the Charlotte business world from her active work with the Chamber of Commerce while she was president of Charlotte-based General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products.

Hudson still maintains a home in Charlotte and she attended the special grand opening ceremony which BAE Systems held in December to celebrate the expansion of the Tensylon facility in Monroe made possible by a $40,000 One North Carolina Fund grant and an economic development grant of up to $86,820 provided by the Union County Board of Commissioners. BAE Systems invested $7.9 million in Monroe in 2007.

“We have a very dedicated work force and Monroe is a terrific community,” Hudson told the congressional and community members who gathered for the ceremony. “We appreciate the support we have received from the state and the county and look forward to contributing to the economic vitality of the region.”

Global Gameboard

So, what is Tensylon and why is there so much interest in it? Tensylon is similar to other high performance fiber materials, including para-aramids, fiberglass and other ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibers, but Tensylon products create a unique combination of ballistic and structural performance, weight and cost savings when compared with these other fibers.

The polyethylene used in Tensylon is a powder. This powder is subjected to extreme pressures and tightly controlled temperature as it is passed through rollers to make a very thin sheet that is then slit to form fibers. The fibers are then either woven or laid parallel in the same plane and crossplied at angles to one another to produce specially tailored composites, depending on the application requirements.

“It has the strength and ability to absorb energy,” says Owen. “It floats in water; it is chemically and abrasion resistant. It is very strong and durable.”

Tensylon will not stretch out over time, as nylon does, for instance. With no “creep properties,” it can be used to tether offshore oil platforms to the ocean floor. Other applications include aerospace, sporting goods, high performance sails, ropes, cordage and netting. Johnson & Johnson uses Tensylon in one type of its Reach dental floss. However, Tensylon’s most immediate applications have been for troop protection products, such as wheeled-vehicle systems, helmets and body armor for military customers.

“This is a young technology and our team is proud to be pioneers in the development, manufacturing and marketing of Tensylon for the protection of our troops,” says Owen.

The Monroe plant produces about 100,000 pounds of polyethylene fiber per month. Further growth next year may double that, Owen says. While all of that capacity is currently being used to support military programs, Owen expects that some of the plant’s production may be funneled to commercial applications in 2008. Tensylon has shown great promise in everything from tennis racquets to fishing nets, but the applications development program has been put on hold to meet the needs of the U.S. military.

Military Coup

Utilizing innovation, state-of-the-art engineering and technology to support military forces is a tradition at BAE Systems which dates back to 1560 when the Royal Powder Factory was established at Waltham Abbey in Essex, England. Today, BAE Systems’ Land and Armaments operating group encompasses major business operations in South Africa, Sweden, across the United Kingdom and the United States.

BAE Systems is currently playing a major and increasing role in protecting front-line troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from roadside bombs and ambushes through the design and manufacture of three different vehicles for the U.S. Department of Defense’s MRAP armed vehicle program, which is being spearheaded by the U.S. Marine Corps. MRAPs are the Pentagon’s top acquisition priority to meet today’s threats and BAE Systems-designed and built vehicles account for more than 4,300 of almost 6,400 ordered so far, with total potential defense requirements in excess of 20,000 vehicles.

The Caiman 6×6 is one of the variants of the MRAP armored vehicles currently deployed in Iraq which uses Tensylon in the composite anti-ballistic door panels. There are currently 1,838 Caimans under contract. Tensylon can also replace fiberglass in the M1114 Up-armored HMMWV driver door. The Tensylon liner is thinner and lighter than fiberglass, but provides equal ballistic protection. Tensylon can also be used for personal armor protection and helmets for troops.

Tensylon panels retain stiffness and delaminate less than other polyethylene composites after initial hits, resulting in better multi-hit performance and making it ideal for protecting soldiers in armored vehicles. Owen compares it to a catcher’s mitt; while the outer steel and aluminum shell deform and slow a projectile, the Tensylon panel inside absorbs the interior spall resulting from the projectile impact, stopping these secondary projectiles.

While Owen believes Tensylon has unique attributes for armor and non armor use, early exploration of its properties has been concentrated on the military side.
“There are similar benefits for the commercial side, but that’s in the future,” she says. “The immediate future, based on demand/capacity, lies in meeting the needs of the domestic military, as well as the military abroad.”

Even if the war in Iraq were to end tomorrow, the replenishment of lost vehicles and the need for future military readiness will keep the military demand high. Owen expects that long term the manufacture of Tensylon will continue to expand and grow. She envisions that growth may even result in the opening of other facilities to produce even more of ­the innovative fiber.

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.

Bo’s Got It Made

Coming from a long line of country folk, I can tell you two things: our men knew how to work long hours, and the women prided themselves on their homemade biscuits.

So, you can imagine my grandmother’s chagrin once she and grandpa moved to Charlotte in the late 1970s and he discovered…Bojangles’! Though they hardly ever went out to eat, grandfather would frequently take a side route during his ‘errands’ to sit down for some biscuits with gravy, grits, and sausage. I’ll never forget how great it was to sit with him while enjoying Bojangles’ warm southern smells and country surroundings. With grandpa it was always, “Let’s go to Bo’s.”

This is but one example of why Bojangles’ continues to prosper since Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas founded it in 1977. The vision of these men was three-fold: to develop a quick-service restaurant featuring a distinctive, spicy flavor profile; to offer wholesome, made-from-scratch foods; and to present it in a fun, festive restaurant design with fast and friendly service. They developed a menu with the chain’s legendary fresh buttermilk biscuits, unique Southern side dishes like Dirty Rice and Cajun Pintos, and a recipe for fried chicken that has come to rival not only quick-service fried chicken competitors, but also many roadside mom and pop stores as well.

Since its humble beginning as a single store here in Charlotte, Bojangles’ trademark dedication to fresh food and friendly service has sealed its reputation for Southern cooking and Southern charm, and garnered a legion of fans and a loyal following for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Growth has catapulted nationally to over 350 locations in the Southeast, Midwest and New York/Pennsylvania region, and internationally to locations in China, Honduras and Jamaica. In addition to its 35 new locations opened in 2004, the company anticipates a total of 40 to 50 more by year-end.

Charlotte’s little chicken franchise has truly spread its wings.

The chicken and the egg

Bojangles’ has had its share of ups and downs, just like any other food chain, concomitant with its frequently changing ownership. After experiencing a solid start that carried the chain through the mid 1980s, it suffered a fate common to quick service restaurants: overexpansion, asset drain by venture capitalists, and discontented franchisees. Bojangles’ recipe for success appeared to be going stale.

Enter Joe Drury, a seasoned restaurateur who began his career at the age of 14 sweeping the floors in an Akron, Ohio, fast food restaurant. His passion for the business and seasoned work ethic helped him rise quickly through the ranks; Drury was supervising eight restaurants by the time he was 20 years old. From there, Drury joined Wendy’s International as a manager-trainee under the tutelage of CEO and mentor Jim Near, and moved to vice president of the company after decades of learning the business inside and out. Today, Drury is one of the central cogs credited with facilitating Wendy’s remarkable turnaround in the late 1980s.

Drury left Wendy’s International in 1991 to become CEO of the Carolina Restaurant Group, which purchased a number of Wendy’s franchises in the throes of bankruptcy. By implementing a powerful formula of hiring, training, refurbishing, remodeling, and marketing, Drury and his partners purchased the group and led the franchises to 172 percent growth in eight years.

Recalls Drury, “What we saw in the late 1980s and 1990s was that the fast food industry simply forgot what had made it a success. By creating a climate of incredibly low expectations with regard to quality, cleanliness and friendly service, while at the same time growing too rapidly, it basically brought about its own problems.”

While spearheading the rehabilitation of the stores he purchased, Drury says he was always eyeing the Bojangles’ concept. “What really called out to me was Bojangles’ distinctive food and presentation. You should be able to take down all the signage from a location, de-identify it entirely, and still be able to recognize it. The founders, Jack and Richard knew this and were well ahead of their time when they created Bojangles’.”

In the early 1990s when Drury was visiting Charlotte on a Wendy’s business trip, he was so taken with the restaurant he went back to Wendy’s founder and chairman, Dave Thomas, and suggested the two restaurants build side-by-side locations: “Everything about Wendy’s and Bojangles’ compliment one another, their flavor profiles, day part percentages and presentation.” Thomas agreed that the pairing couldn’t hurt, and Drury’s passion for his Wendy’s family and his future venture was cemented.

To this day Drury credits his mentors, the late Jim Near and Dave Thomas at Wendy’s for the opportunity to grow, for important lessons on how to run the business, and for having the faith to take risks. Comments Drury, “To this day, Wendy’s is still a family to me. If it weren’t for those guys seeing something special in what was once just a rough-necked kid, and the faith of my original partners, Cami and DeeDee Harris, Keith and Luddy Stowman, and Darryl and Andrea Ferguson, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Cooking up good management

Commanding his experience rebuilding bottomed-out eateries, Joe Drury was given the opportunity to jump on board the Bojangles’ bandwagon in 2001 as CEO and the chain’s fifth owner. Wendy’s Dave Thomas helped Drury with his non-compete agreement and introduced Drury to Hugh McColl, who was courting Wendy’s business. McColl facilitated the financing for Drury to buy out the previous CEO, Glenn Gulledge.

Right out of the gate, Drury attacked the company’s management structure. By combining veterans and new-blood alike, his immediate goal was to create a management force whose vision extended beyond immediate profits, to one that would see the brand well into the future. Explains Drury, “The industry had been drained by investors interested in making a quick buck, but the food service industry is not constructed that way. To survive in the long haul, you must be committed to devoting all the resources possible to your product, your teambuilding, and your presentation. What we saw were stores suffering from outdated equipment, poor-looking decor and uniforms, run-down facades, no promotion and an extremely dispirited morale.”

He continues, “Our plan was to stop planning new locations and start cleaning up our own backyard.” The new team updated operations, and focused on training and employee incentives. Says Drury, “We needed great operators, and an environment where our employees could feel secure and appreciated, as well as being given growth potential. I don’t care if you are 14 or 45; everyone needs these things to perform and to feel good about what they are doing.”

Drury recalls a memory from his Wendy’s International days, “People always noticed that Dave Thomas would walk right by all the ‘suits’ at Wendy’s. His first conversation would always be with those employees at the serving line. He knew that that was the backbone of the whole operation.”

Training is very much Bojangles’ spinal cord. Drury says, “The biggest and best investment we have made is in our franchisee training.” The corporate headquarters in south Charlotte clearly heralds this mission; its facade carries the bold red and yellow Bojangles’ signage, and the inside of the office is a combination of offices, conference rooms, and an on-site restaurant training area. At this facility, franchisees undergo carefully formulated and formalized classes in surrounds the same as their locations.

In addition to a carefully guarded regimen of ‘training up’ its employees, Bojangles’ also empowers its franchisees and managers with the voice and responsibility of making their own decisions.

“We had to overcome the perception that a corporate office was little more than a vulture looking for licensing fees. We care about our franchisees’ success, and they know they have an advocate within these walls. Our people work their heart out on the line, and they know we support their initiative. I am proud that they also know that there is someone behind this desk who has been there as an employee and a franchisee, and can see issues from their point of view,” he smiles.

Feeding a hungry market

While the nutritional demands and aesthetics of the food service culture have evolved considerably, Bojangles’ recipe for success has changed little. Bojangles’ traditional menu offers a variety that pleases its customers, while also introducing some newer items for the calorie/carbohydrate-conscious set.

Explains Drury, “We have introduced wraps, grilled fillets, and salads in many locations, and we are constantly considering ways to provide the tastiest product in the healthiest manner. At the same time, we are dedicated to providing the essence of who we are. Fried chicken is a tasty treat; nobody suggests eating it every day of the week. We are proud of what has satisfied so many customers over the decades, and we simply will not apologize for who we are.”

At the same time, Drury says his team is working to update the interiors and exteriors of its restaurants. “Given today’s environment, we want to remove the neon lights and hard seating that gives people the feeling they are being rushed. And the outsides of the stores are being built with tasteful aesthetics, like nice brick and well-placed windows that mesh well with the communities that surround them. The intent is to create a warm, comfortable appearance.”

Despite the popularity and continuing growth of the restaurant chain, Drury refuses to sacrifice quality. “We are very careful in our expansion. We spread out, rather than hop around, and we make sure that every new location has the components in place to be successful, especially in terms of operators. We plan smart growth. But there is no doubt in my mind that Bojangles’ has got legs; it will travel.”

Apparently the time is ripe for growing the reach of Bojangles’ fresh fixin’s. By identifying key positions in places like Myrtle Beach, Atlanta and Florida, as well as areas along the I-77 corridor, the company is preparing to attract a lot of attention. “By identifying places where we are visible, and providing a very satisfying experience, we are not only creating a new generation of loyal customers, but also the potential for interested operators.”

The company offers several store options for potential franchisees including an in-line design, a co-branded option for the convenience store industry, and the impressive free-standing model.

No matter what the location, Drury also insists that the company give back to the communities that support Bojangles’ with their patronage. Comments Drury, “You can’t just put up a sign and ask people to spend their money. You need to be involved in the community. Take care of the sports teams, feed the PTA, give away cups to non-profit groups.” He adds, “You don’t do it for the PR, and you certainly don’t ask for press. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Drury obviously has all the ingredients right. His full size average unit sales are $1.5 million and rising, and he says, some of the chain’s oldest franchises are the ones planning for the most growth. “That, Drury says, has got to be the biggest compliment I think we, as a company, can get.”

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.

Let’s Talk Turkey

Over the last 30 years, turkey production has evolved from a primarily holiday-oriented business into a year-round product, thanks to an increasing consumer awareness of nutrition and a variety of new processed turkey products like deli meats and ground turkey. According to the National Turkey Federation, total domestic production has increased 110 percent since 1970 to almost 250 million birds every year.

Turkey offers more nutritional benefits than other meats, and its relatively mild flavor makes it also easy to use across recipes and easy to substitute for other meats in recipes.

Compared to chicken, beef or pork, turkey offers more protein per portion, as well as the amino acid required for complete protein usage. Just one serving of turkey provides 65 percent of the recommended daily intake of protein. Also by comparison, turkey is richer in calcium, lower in calories, lower in fat, lower in cholesterol (also less saturated fat and a better ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fats) and lower in sodium.

North Carolina is the nation’s second largest turkey-producing state, raising over 32 million birds annually, trailing only Minnesota’s 46 million. One of the state’s largest vertical integrators in turkey production —Circle S Ranch—is based just down the road from Charlotte in rural Union County, just south of Monroe.

A Circle of Family

It was 1947. Oren Starnes had come back from the war (WWII) and had a desire to make a difference, no matter how small, to alleviate the hunger he had witnessed. Staying true to his farming roots in Union County, he and his new wife Helen started in business to produce eggs commercially. By 1960, they had established wholesale and retail egg routes in addition to selling eggs directly.

In the mid-60s, they decided to become an independent turkey grower raising around 27,000 turkeys annually. In the early ’70s, Oren’s son Sam decided that he wanted to become part of the family farm business. So in 1972, Oren officially incorporated the business as Circle S Ranch, based on the acronym of his and his son’s initials, SOS.

Now the second generation owner, Sam works just about a mile up the road from where he grew up on the family farm. Sam had finished high school in 1969 and enrolled in Wingate College, but because he had a low number in the draft lottery, he went ahead and enlisted. It was after his return from a tour in Vietnam that he joined the family’s turkey business.

“At that time, we were growing about 250,000 birds annually,” recalls Sam. “We had 600 to 700 acres, and we were also growing up to 700 head of beef cattle.”

“In those days,” Sam continues, “after spending their first eight weeks or so in heated brooder houses, the birds were moved outside in April onto a fenced-in range until they were ready to go to market.”

It worried Sam that outdoors the turkeys were vulnerable to wild animals and subject to diseases like cholera. It also meant that the business was seasonal, since North Carolina winters precluded the birds from staying outdoors from December through March. So, after a short brush-up at NC State to learn the latest in poultry production, Sam decided to build houses to bring the turkeys inside.

Circle S Ranch began construction on 18 new turkey houses in 1973, and soon it was transporting a load of turkeys to market every day.

Sam also knew that about 70 percent of the cost of producing a turkey is the cost of the feed. So to gain more control over feed costs, Circle S formed a co-op with a couple other farmers in the 1970s and purchased the Monroe feed mill that had been supplying their feed. By the mid-1990s, the co-op had grown the mill from 30,000 tons to over 300,000 tons a year.

Pretty soon they would be needing additional capacity. At the same time, Sam knew they would get a better freight rate if they could increase tonnage on their distribution.

“We were limited to 15 car trains and we needed 65 to 90 car trains to get a better freight rate,” explains Sam. “So in 1996, I bought a piece of land in Richburg, S.C., and began building a new feed mill. It opened in 1998 and we closed the Monroe co-op. Today we make over 500,000 tons of feed annually, and still supply feed for Simpson’s Eggs, one of the original co-op members.”

Oren Starnes passed away in 1987, but the family tradition continues as Sam’s two sons—Chad and Travis—now work alongside their father in the business. Both have been working on the farm since they were kids.

Chad, 39, oversees the feed mill and transportation operations, and is also involved in the administrative functions. Travis, 36, manages over 6,000 acres of corn, wheat and soybean crops, the company’s land clearing division, the Circle S Grain Elevator, and helps Chad manage the company-owned turkey farms. Sam, at 62, remains active in the business and is directly responsible for all grain purchasing.

“Having Travis and me here has afforded Dad the opportunity to grow the business and make decisions that he may not have been able to make if he didn’t have us here,” says Chad. “We understand the whole concept of Circle S and where we are going in the future.”

“I’ve got things now to where I can go on vacation and not worry about it,” Sam sums it up.

Growing Healthy Turkeys

The basic process of growing turkeys has changed very little over the last 40 years. Circle S buys the baby turkeys (called “poults”) from a variety of hatcheries, with most coming from eastern North Carolina and Virginia when they are only a day old.

The poults start out in a brood farm. Brooder houses average 20,000 to 25,000 square feet with about one square foot per bird. At about six weeks of age, the poults are transported by truck to a finishing farm, and over the next two weeks, the brooder house is cleaned, disinfected, and new bedding is delivered for the next flock. This eight-week cycle repeats itself about six or seven times a year.

Finishing farm houses also average about 25,000 square feet in size, but offer three to four square feet of space per bird. The birds stay there until they are ready for market at about 19 to 20 weeks of age. The 16-week finishing farm cycle also includes two weeks allocated to cleaning, allowing for three to four flocks every year.

Circle S sells to two primary meat processors—one in Harrisonburg, Va., and another in Newberry, S.C. Most of the birds they produce are male tom turkeys that are usually made into deli meats or other cooked and processed products. Smaller hens may be sold as whole birds and may wind up on your table at Thanksgiving.

Today, Circle S Ranch has 36 company-owned houses located within a short drive of their southern Union County base of operations. They also work with over 130 contract growers spread around York, Cherokee, Chester, Newberry, Lancaster, Chesterfield, and Kershaw counties in South Carolina, and Union, Anson, and Stanley counties in North Carolina.

Circle S Ranch and its network of growers produce over 350 million pounds of live turkeys every year. This represents about 8 million toms at 40-plus pounds each and about 1.5 million hens weighing less than 20 pounds each.

Some of the contract growers operate as brood farms, while others serve as finishing farms. Keeping the brood farms separate from the finishing farms helps prevent the spread of diseases that can endanger a flock. All of the Circle S company-owned houses are finishing houses.

Each contract grower furnishes the house and the labor to operate it, while Circle S Ranch furnishes the rest—the poults, the bedding, supplies, and the feed. Circle S also provides truck transportation from the brood farm to the finishing farm and from the finishing farm to market.

“We supply all the birds and we own them the entire time,” says Sam. “Our growers own their houses, but they use our procedures and grow the birds to our exact specifications.”

It also takes a large trucking operation to transport the poults and feed. Circle S Ranch operates about 60 tractor-trailer rigs, and many of the firm’s 142 employees are drivers and mechanics for the trucking fleet.

“We deliver over 400 loads of feed every five days, we deliver 33 to 38 loads of turkeys to the processing plants every night, and we have six trucks that move over 200,000 poults a week from the brood farm to the finishing farm,” Sam ticks off on his fingers.

A Self-Sustaining Operation

Circle S Ranch does more than just grow turkeys. They grow grain for the feed, mill the feed, make pine shavings for the turkey bedding, reprocess animal waste to formulate crop fertilizer, and recycle heating and cooling for turkey houses in a truly self-sustaining fashion.

The Circle S Shavings plant in Pageland, S.C., buys pine trees, debarks them (selling the bark for mulch), and makes pine shavings to use as bedding. Circle S and their growers use over 50 tractor-trailer loads of shavings each week.

The Circle S row crop operation farms close to 6,000 acres of wheat, corn and soybeans on land they own or lease in the area. They rotate their fields between the three crops, and the vast majority of that production is used as turkey feed.

“We sow wheat in the fall and harvest it in June,” explains Sam. “We plant soybeans right behind it that will come off in October or November. Then we’ll plant that same field back with corn the next March or April. When that corn comes off around September, we’ll sow wheat back into the corn stubble, and the cycle starts all over.”

“All our corn ends up at the feed mill to be made into turkey rations,” adds Travis. “About half of our wheat also goes into turkey feed, and the other half ends up as milling wheat for bread products. We sell our soybeans to ADM in Kershaw, S.C., and then we turn around and buy the processed soybean meal back to go into our feed mill.”

While the row crops help feed the flocks, the turkeys reciprocate by helping the crops grow. The litter from the houses, made up of shavings and associated turkey droppings, is recycled onto the fields as a nutrient-rich, organic fertilizer.

“Except for some liquid nitrogen that we add to some of the corn and wheat, turkey litter is the only fertilizer we use,” says Travis. “We can send samples off, get an analysis, and then take a soil sample to know exactly how much litter we need to use to grow a crop. We are so much more accurate with it today than we’ve ever been.”

Science and New Technology

While the basic process of growing turkeys hasn’t changed much in 40 years, the science and technology behind it certainly has. In the early 1970s, a fully-grown tom turkey might have weighed in at about 20 pounds. But today, that same 20-week-old bird would likely tip the scales at over 40 pounds. In addition to improvements in housing and production, big changes have been made in feeding and in the genetic selection of the flocks.

Many older finishing houses have curtain sidewalls to promote natural airflow through the house, but newer houses are being built with closed sidewalls and ventilation systems to better control inside temperatures.

“In summer, we can pull the air in through a cooling cell with running water and we can drop the temperature 10 to 15 degrees from the outside,” explains Sam. “In winter, we can control temperature by using the poults’ own body heat and pulling in the outside air and circulating it with fans. The system will do its best to keep the temperature at whatever we set.”

“The technology that’s available now for a turkey house would blow your mind compared to 30 years ago,” adds Chad. “I’m tied electronically into my farms and there are alarms that will call me on my phone and let me know exactly what’s going wrong.”

The biggest changes, though, have been in the genetic selection of the flocks. Sam says that there are really only two main breeds of turkey left, and the various hatcheries will take their stock from the same grandparent stocks and then do their own selection to produce and hatch the eggs.

“We know the genetic stock each flock comes from and we keep track of that from the time they come in until we ship them out,” he says. “When I started, a bird that weighed 20 pounds at 20 weeks of age might have required four pounds of feed to produce one pound of meat. Today, that same 20-week-old bird might weigh as much as 45 po

“We also have a nutritionist on retainer that formulates feeds for us,” he continues. “It’s a corn and soybean based diet. We feed them a certain number of calories each day, and they go through about eight different diets, starting out at about 30 percent protein and finishing up around 16 percent or 17 percent.”

The row crop operation has also seen big changes as GPS technology and equipment automation allows planting and fertilizer applications to be considerably more accurate than in the past. Rows are aligned perfectly with no overlap and no inefficient gaps.

While many things have changed over the years, one thing that hasn’t changed at Circle S Ranch is the concept of a family farm passed down from generation to generation. While some say the family farm is dying, at Circle S Ranch, the tradition is certainly still alive and well.

Photo By Fenix Fotography