John Richardson – Father of Saskatchewan’s Turkey Industry
John Richardson examined the turkey egg closely, turning it over in his hand. The first egg seemed as large as the hailstones that flattened his crop that fall of 1938. He was pleased that his first three hens and tom were getting along so well.
“Violet.” He said to his wife, “every time you get one of these, save it!”
She saved each egg so well that she soon had 400 poults under a hot water brooder on their quarter section farm at Boakeview, southeast of Yorkton, Sask.
A broken leg is really what put John in the hatchery business, though! When they took him to the hospital in 1943, Violet moved into town. She had a little electric incubator and an electric brooder for 2,000 poults. When the hatching season was over she went back to the farm. She did this for several years.
“That year John was in the hospital,” she added, “I hatched so well that I couldn’t handle them all. I had 93% fertility and 87% hatchability.”
“We’ve never been able to touch that since,” John interjected.
“We could if you’d break your leg again,” she joked. “People bought those extra poults and I taught them how to raise them because they just didn’t know anything about them at all.”
“You see,” said John, “when we first started, hatcheries weren’t hatching turkeys, only chickens. When we opened our hatchery at Saltcoats in 1945 we were the first in Saskatchewan to hatch turkeys exclusively as a licensed hatchery and the second in Canada. We now have a 38,000 capacity and our peak year was 1958 with a hatch of 72,000 poults.”
That first small flock of John’s is the reason why today Yorkton loudly proclaims itself the turkey capital of Canada… the local plant processes upwards of 4 million pounds of turkey a year. Its rival city, Melville, makes the same claim, but probably more for the sake of argument.
John started sending entries to the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto after the war. In 1957 John’s big triumph was the Marsden Memorial Trophy for the best eviscerated hen. At the 1963 Royal he shared victories with 65 other turkey growers from Saskatchewan, who collectively led all Canada in prize winning entries in the frozen eviscerated turkey classes. John’s recognition came in the “single tom over 22 pounds” class.
It is hard to say what course the turkey industry in Saskatchewan would have taken if John had stayed in Chicago. He was born there, the son of a Methodist minister who eventually became a medical doctor. His mother, however, was left to raise him and his brother Louis when his father died early in life. An uncle, who was a clerk of the court in the County of Toronto, owned some land in Saskatchewan. This land was 15 miles southeast of Saltcoats. That was to be their home for the next eight years, after which John moved to a quarter section at Boakview, renting additional land.
In 1922, he married a school teacher from Shoal Lake, Manitoba.
In 1942 – hatching for their own use – only 5% lived out of 10% which hatched that year.
“We had 100 banded hens and only 400 turkeys that year,” said John. “It wasn’t the incubator, because we tested chicken eggs and they were okay. With the help of government experts we learned that the commercial feed we were using was suitable only to birds on the range and not for early birds in confinement. The eggs were very soft shelled.”
“We started mixing our own feed then,” said Violet.
“I was using a mixture recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said John. “I believe that if feed is short of riboflavin, egg shells will be soft.”
“In those days,” he explained, “I always added some milk powder or alfalfa. It’s different now, because commercial feeds are scientifically formulated.”
On his turkey ranch at Saltcoats, John had a mill that ground the grain and mixed in the concentrate. For example, his turkey grower mash was 3 to 1 – 500 lbs. each of wheat, barley and oats, and 500 lbs. of concentrate. His mature birds were receiving a mixture of 400 lbs. concentrate, and 45 pails of wheat and 45 pails of cracked grain.
There was much to learn about raising turkeys during those first years of World War Two.
“We thought we had to keep a big flock of breeders and that you had to buy toms from other flocks,” said Violet. “So we bought the best we could. Sometimes we paid as high as $25.00 for a banded tom. In those days we were concerned about inbreeding. These were very profitable years as our breeders were very much in demand by small flock owners. Unbanded breeders sold at $12.00. Eventually we learned that when a flock reached the size of 400 birds you didn’t need to worry about inbreeding.”
John Richardson’s philosophy in life was ‘serving others’. His service to the industry over the years has not gone unrecognized. This man, who was President of the Saskatchewan Turkey Association from 1946 to 1950 and again from 1959 to 1960, was honored at the annual meeting of the STA in January, 1963, with a certificate of life membership.