During the past 30 years, the US turkey-processing industry has evolved from a holiday-oriented business focused on whole-bird production to an integrated industry with a diversified product line. As a result, US turkey consumption has more than doubled since 1970 – totaling 16.1 lbs. per person in 2011, according to National Turkey Federation statistics.

One processing facility benefitting from this ongoing increase in turkey consumption in the US is Cargill Value Added Meats-Retail’s massive Dayton, Va., turkey complex – one of the largest such complexes in the world that processes an average of 84,000 birds per day.

Manufacturing approximately 400 million lbs. of products per year, the complex has everything in place to ensure continuing success: seasoned management and experienced plant employees; a steady supply of consistently sized, top-quality birds; and the use of progressive harvesting and processing technology to optimize yield and efficiency.

“I am fortunate we have a lot of tenure at this complex,” says Randy Batson, general manager and 26-year Cargill veteran. “My plant manager, Mike Shanholtz, has been with Cargill for 38 years and our engineer, Troy Oberdorff, has been with Cargill 25 years – about 17 of those years at the Dayton complex.”

Now on his second tour at the Dayton complex, Batson was operations manager there for seven years. After that stint he became general manager at a Cargill cook plant and returned to the Dayton complex as general manager two years ago.

Initially built by Spencer Products in 1950, the complex was next owned by Marvel from 1957 to 1981; Rocco Turkeys from 1981 to 2001; and Cargill Value Added Meats-Retail purchased it in 2001. Over the years, the complex has been upgraded and expanded numerous times. Today, it measures 327,000 sq. ft. and processes whole birds and portions, as well as further processed ground turkey and turkey burgers, among other products. It focuses primarily on products under Cargill’s Shady Brook Farms and Honeysuckle White brands, but also produces a variety of value-added, private-label products.

High-tech stunning

In harvesting its big tom turkeys, the complex employs Praxair’s CO2 controlled-atmosphere stunning. Beginning at 5:05 a.m. each day, harvesting is a two-shift operation that ends at 10 p.m. Toms are raised in North Carolina while hens are grown within a 60-mile radius of the complex in Virginia and West Virginia. Birds start getting picked up on farms at 11 p.m. the night before harvesting and begin arriving at the plant early the next morning.

Each day, approximately 75 large semi-truckloads of turkeys housed in multi-tiered cages are delivered to the Dayton complex. Once on site, the trucks enter one of two newly built, shaded, ventilated holding buildings for arrival processing. Next, the trucks transporting tom turkeys park inside a dock where the cages on the truck are sealed and then administered the CO2 treatment.

This controlled-atmosphere stunning (CAS) system employs a multi-step cycling of carbon dioxide to render the birds insensible. Quickly stunning the tom turkeys on the truck eliminates handling active birds, which improves animal welfare and product quality. According to Praxair, the system results in less wing, leg and thigh damage than active shackled birds, and less bruising in breast meat compared to electrically stunned birds.

The toms are then shackled, cut, bled, scalded and defeathered before evisceration. Hens are shackled live and electrically stunned before moving through the harvesting process.

“We’ve used this CO2 stunning system for about two years,” Batson says. “We’re very happy with it; it’s a very humane stunning process.”

Cutting-edge processing

The complex’s primary plant was built in 1988, while further-processing operations are located in 12 surrounding buildings built between 1961 and 2012. Operations include harvesting and fresh processing; whole bird; cutting; deboning; tray pack; cutlets; and further processing, where ground turkey and turkey sausage are made. The plant employs approximately 1,180 people. Deboning runs one shift per day while the remaining operations operate two shifts per day. A nighttime cleaning and sanitation shift is administered five days a week.

In further processing, turkey sausage is processed in a building built in 2009. This operation is an automation showcase. “You can see from our automated case erecting and case packing…no one touches the sausage once it’s in the tray or chub packaging,” Batson says. “We also operate six robotic palletizers in this complex. They’re fully computerized and do an awesome job.”

Batson further explains: “Palletizing cases of products is a hard job for people to do. These robots are very reliable. Employees used to stack the cases up on pallets manually and we used to get smear marks at the top of the label film from handling.”

One system that has been used in its sausage manufacturing for almost a decade is the Handtmann ConPro system. Two vacuum fillers provide a regular product flow under continuous pressure. The co-extrusion head smoothly encases a layer of vegetable-based casing around the product.

In the grinding operation, “We run ground turkey on one shift on one line and on the second shift we’ll convert and run turkey burgers on that same line,” Batson says. Ground turkey, the complex’s best-selling product, is processed in various tray sizes and lean points. Ground turkey chubs are also produced.

More than 200 people work in the deboning room. “We practice staff rotation so deboning workers don’t do the same jobs for eight hours straight,” Batson says. “About every hour, we rotate jobs. They learn different tasks and receive ergonomic benefits, which benefits everybody.”

A variety of products are tray-packed and shrink-wrapped in modified atmosphere packaging. “We tray-pack necks, gizzards, wings, thighs, portions and more,” Batson says.

In the cutlet operation, raw-turkey components are pressed into loaves, injected, refrigerated to harden the protein and then sliced into cutlets. “This processing area is likely to expand in the future,” Batson predicts.

In the whole-bird packaging area, two evisceration lines operate: a hen line and tom line. Once whole birds emerge from harvesting, the offal is removed and the carcasses trimmed to remove non-edible portions plus any defects. From evisceration, the birds move to final trim and final wash and finally to packaging.

All finished products are refrigerated and trucked to a nearby major distribution center.

In order to keep all technology humming, two maintenance shops for primary and further processing employ 44 maintenance engineers and employees. “We try to automate wherever possible to make it easier for our employees,” Batson says.

Creating a more sustainable business is a goal. “Our wastewater treatment plants pre-treat everything,” Batson says. “We use about 2 million gallons of water a day. We reuse some of this water, but not as much as we’d like. We also work to reduce energy use, which we track every week.”

Enhancing food safety and worker safety are other top complex goals. “We do a lot of training in both areas,” Batson says.

Every day, each department on both shifts participates in a ‘Five Minute Huddle’ before the line starts. “Each supervisor pulls their team together and we discuss improvement ideas or concerns in addition to participating in monthly quality and safety meetings,” Batson says.

Behavior-based safety programs are also employed. Certain employees on the floor observe their co-workers performing tasks and give improvement suggestions. “Observers may write, ‘Here’s what I think you might be able to do safer,’” Batson explains.

The Dayton complex also incorporates Cargill’s Valuing Imagination in People (VIP) program. Under VIP, facility workers are encouraged to submit ideas on how to improve working conditions or save money in operations and a committee reviews them. Any ideas acted upon are rewarded monetarily; just how much depends on the value of the idea.

Innovation Center partnership

Cargill’s 75,000-sq.-ft. Innovation Center in Wichita, Kan., which opened in 2011 and offers research, development, culinary, laboratory, pilot plant and distribution capabilities, plays an important role in the Dayton complex’s success.

“The Innovation Center tests new equipment and processes,” Batson says. “If an equipment vendor has a new piece of equipment we’d like to try, it’s easy to test in the Innovation Center’s USDA-inspected pilot plant.”

Cargill’s Dayton complex is active in new product development with the help of Cargill’s Innovation Center. “Our new Italian-flavored ground turkey is one example of a new product success achieved through our collaboration,” Batson says.

Many new product ideas are driven by Cargill’s customers. “They may request a unique new product or a line extension,” says Mike Martin, Cargill’s director of communications. “They will work with our folks on the Cargill Value Added Meats-Retail marketing team and the Innovation Center team.”

Looking to the future, Batson and Martin say the complex will continue investing in cutting-edge harvesting and processing technologies. During fiscal year 2012-13, the Dayton complex’s top-three capital expenditure projects were acquiring palletizing robots for $1.8 million; erecting a turkey holding building for $700,000; and acquiring a new scalder that features a more precise temperature control that helps improves picking, which cost $500,000.

Cargill also invests routinely and heavily in the communities where the company’s facilities are located. “The only way Cargill is going to prosper is if the communities where we are located prosper, too,” Martin explains. “A lot of community engagement comes through our Cargill Cares Councils, which are made up of employees and managers. Cargill Value Added Meats-Retail reinvests in this [Dayton] community through various activities.”

When asked about future plans for the Dayton complex, Batson says his team is always looking for new and innovative ways to improve harvesting and processing. “Each year, we have a certain amount of capital earmarked for better ways to process,” he explains. “I’d like to make our cutlet operation more efficient and user-friendly. Next year, we’d like to auto-palletize heavier product operations, such as whole birds.”

Cargill turkey operations gets new president

Long-time Cargill veteran executive Ruth Kimmelshue was named president and business unit leader for Cargill Value Added Meats-Retail (CVAM-Retail), Wichita, Kan., on June 1. She is responsible for Cargill’s turkey operations and cooked meats businesses.

Before joining CVAM-Retail, she was president of Cargill Salt and vice president, Cargill AgHorizons – Cargill’s oldest business. Her Cargill career began in 1986, thanks to the Continental Grain acquisition. Most of Kimmelshue’s career was spent in the grain and oilseed businesses trading, managing elevators, managing domestic and international product lines (corn, wheat and soy meal), analyzing markets and exploring opportunities in value-added marketing at various locations in the US and in Europe. She also managed Supply Chain Solutions, an internal consulting organization that brings supply chain capabilities and support to Cargill’s global businesses.

Kimmelshue earned both a B.A. in International Relations and an M.A. in Agricultural Economics from Stanford Univ.

She lives in Wichita with her husband and three children.