Third Generation Still Caring for Mink
Bob Zimbal, president of Zimbal Minkery in Sheboygan Falls, WI believes in providing quality care to produce the highest-quality mink pelts.
“A healthy mink starts with a healthy diet, and in Wisconsin, we’re fortunate enough to have a diverse agricultural community,” Zimbal said.
That diverse agricultural community is one bursting with animal byproducts Zimbal uses every day on the farm. The most common byproducts he uses are beef, eggs and cheese, but whenever it’s economical, he also buys poultry, fish and pork. He raises seven breeds of mink with his family.
Zimbal receives one truckload each week of hamburger patties from fast-food restaurants. The patties are not fit for human consumption, but are still useful in mink diets.
Three truckloads of inedible eggs come in each week. Still in the shells, the eggs go into a processing machine in the farm’s feed kitchen. They come out looking like scrambled eggs and are mixed into the feed.
“We’re a big recycler of animal byproducts, which prevents them from going to a landfill and being wasted,” Zimbal said.
Since the mink require a diet of about 90 percent protein and 10 percent grain, byproducts like meat, cheese and eggs are a great choice to grow that thick, beautiful fur. Animal protein is easily digestible for the mink because they have a very short digestive tract.
“I’m not a formally trained nutritionist, but I do work with nutritionists,” Zimbal said. “At different times of the year, the mink’s needs are different.”
Zimbal uses whatever byproducts are most accessible to keep trucking costs to a minimum, and most of them come from Wisconsin. About 20 years ago, he started using cheese, which goes through a metal detector in the feed kitchen, where all ingredients are analyzed before being made into a feed ration. Zimbal said he has had problems in the past with cheese-processing plants having chunks of metal inside their blocks of cheese, so he decided to take the precaution. Any metal the mink ingest would likely kill them.
Feed samples are sent to a laboratory weekly to make sure the mink’s needs are being met. When a ration is created, it’s crucial to look at its composition to see how much fat and protein it contains.
Zimbal’s attention to detail shows in many ways, but is most evident by the fact that he now operates four farms with his family and is the largest mink farmer in the country. The farm produced 370,000 mink pelts in 2014 and keeps 65,000 breeding females. The state-of-the-art facilities are designed to make the mink comfortable but still be efficient for the employees.
Because mink farming is a relatively small industry in the United States, many farming practices are borrowed from other agriculture industries, such as the dairy and swine industries. These techniques add to the comfort level of the mink.
Each year in the fall, Zimbal, along with his brothers, children and nephews, selects the breeding herd for the upcoming year. Based on natural-daylight requirements, mink breed only in March and give birth to just one litter per year. When the kits are born in early May, they nurse for five weeks. Then they enjoy a specialized diet along with their mother’s milk until they are 8 weeks old, at which time they are weaned. They receive one vaccination each at ages 6 and 8 weeks.
Throughout the summer, the kits grow thin hair that helps keep them cool. By Sept. 1, their skeletons are fully developed. In the fall, they shed their summer hair and grow the thick, soft hair for which they’re known. The beautiful stuff means more cleaning, and bedding is required.
“We really want to keep that pelt clean and beautiful because that’s where the value is,” Zimbal said.
Pelts are taken each fall, and are considered prime when the mink have their full winter coats. The longer the pelts stay on the mink, the dirtier they become.
“We take the pelts as soon as the mink are fully furred,” he said.
The mink are euthanized using pure carbon monoxide, which is a standard within the industry. The pelts are removed and cleaned, and are then sold as dried, raw pelts.
All Zimbal’s pelts are sold at auctions in Toronto through North American Fur Auctions. Even though most of them go to China, the Zimbal family stays in contact with its buyers to ensure satisfaction.
Zimbal is the third generation to operate the farm; his grandfather started it in 1954. He continues it today because he enjoys the farming lifestyle as well as caring for the mink.
“Our success is that we keep educating ourselves on what is going on in the rest of the world and what developments we can take from other industries and adapt them to our own,” Zimbal said.