Feeding Turkeys: What They Can Eat, Shouldn’t Eat and Substitutes

Turkeys eat a variety of wild foods (1)

Turkeys are a great animal to have on your farm, but knowing what they eat is important as they don’t eat the same foods as chickens or ducks. For both large and small flocks, there are various options for the best and most cost-effective ways of feeding turkeys.

What do turkeys eat? Turkeys eat various foods that range from small reptiles and bugs to fruit, seeds, and grain. Their exact diet depends on the season and available food and their age and stage in life. Turkeys eat insects, snails, slugs, lizards, snakes, and grasshoppers. They enjoy nuts, acorns, seeds (including many wild weed seeds), corn, grain, and peas. They eat berries, flowers, bulbs, foliage, and fruit.  

Domesticated turkeys have different needs than chickens or ducks and should be fed either a turkey formulated feed or a wild or game bird feed to meet their needs. 

While turkeys are quite resistant when it comes to diseases and illnesses, proper feed management can help ensure your birds get a great start and remain healthy throughout their lives. This article will go over a range of feed categories, including the best general feed options, what your turkeys can safely eat, what foods should be avoided, and some alternative ways to reduce your feed bill!

Commercial Turkey Feed

For the small flock owner, purchasing bags of commercial turkey feed is often the easiest and most cost-effective way to ensure your turkeys are getting the best nutrition. These bags are readily found at local feed stores and are often labeled as gamebird feed. They are nutritionally balanced for different stages of growth, from hatching to adult, so you can easily find the one that works best for your flock.

As turkeys grow, their protein requirements change. Young turkeys require around 28% protein from the start to ensure they grow quickly and safely. Once they reach about two months of age, you can reduce their protein requirements to around 20%. At maturity, turkeys can thrive quite well on protein levels as low as 16%, though there is no harm in keeping them at a higher protein content if that is the only feed you have available.

If no turkey feed is available, your turkeys can also eat game bird feed. That is more similar to the nutritional needs of your turkey than a chicken layer feed. 

Custom Mixed Turkey Feed

Mixing your own feed ration can be the best option if you want to focus on a more cost-effective sole ingredient to provide the right nutrients or if you have a larger flock and prepackaged bags of feed are not enough. Additionally, mixing your own ration can be a great way to ensure your flock is receiving only organic or antibiotic-free grains.

Ensuring you have the right variety of grains and a balance of nutrients and vitamins is important for the long-term health of your flock. Turkeys require a higher protein content than some other poultry, and they can also benefit from other micronutrients that chickens or waterfowl might not utilize. In addition, heritage breeds and meat breeds might benefit from unique blends of grains and pellets different from each other, which a general-purpose commercial feed might not be able to offer.

Many custom rations for turkeys include a variety of grains and seeds, including:

  • Corn
    While corn is not the most nutritious food on its own, it can be a great option for providing fat and overall energy. This can be especially useful in the winter, so corn is common in most winter rations. Ground or flaked corn is better than whole kernels.
  • Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
    These seeds are widespread in custom mixed feed rations. The oil in the seeds helps provide a beautiful shine to your turkey’s plumage. Additionally, the seeds contain around 17% protein which is excellent for turkeys of all ages. Seeds should be out of the shells for your turkeys to take advantage of them. 
  • Flax Seeds
    These extremely protein-rich seeds are usually found in most custom rations. They also provide a great amount of B-vitamins and trace minerals. Flax seeds are a favorite grain for young turkeys or those that need a higher protein diet in general.
  • Millet
    This is a great source of iron and amino acids, which help aid in neurological function and most other vital processes within the body. You can find millet in both red and white varieties, and both are equally great in custom rations. Additionally, wild millet is native to much of the United States. 
  • Dried Peas
    Peas are a great option to add in place of corn for summer rations. They are often one of the first things eaten by turkeys of all ages and provide a great amount of protein for growing birds. Peas are also very cost-effective for large amounts of your custom feed.

Feeding Turkeys for Optimal Growth

If you are raising meat turkeys and need a quick boost of healthy weight gain, there are a variety of feeds you can offer to help get your birds to harvest size in a short amount of time. Turkeys, in general, have a much higher protein requirement than other poultry, especially when they are young and growing. Finding the right sources of protein, vitamins, and nutrients is vital for getting the best and fastest growth from your flock.

Feeding your birds a high-protein feed right from the start can give them a good boost for growth. Feed rations up to 32% protein are not uncommon for meat breeds to consume, and custom feed mixes can go even higher than that at times. Since meat breeds are often harvested around 5-6 months of age, the long-term health of the bird is not a focus; rapid growth and weight gain are.

Fermented feed is often used with smaller flocks of meat turkeys, but it has also become somewhat more common in commercial operations. It helps the feed go further, and it increases the usable protein levels, and allows the birds to more easily digest and utilize a variety of nutrients within the feed.

What Is Fermented Feed?

Fermenting is a way to take advantage of lactic acid fermentation in your commercial or custom mixed turkey rations. It is a simple and highly effective way to make digestion easier on your flock, leading to larger-sized birds with less feed required. 

The fermentation process includes soaking a pellet or grain feed mixture in water to start a metabolic process of breaking down individual nutrients with the help of beneficial bacteria. Add roughly 2 parts water to 1 part feed. These bacteria can change the chemical makeup of your feed, leading to higher usable protein levels, lower pH levels, and better overall nutrient composition for your birds.

Additionally, the process of fermentation makes both pelleted mixtures and grains expand and become softer, which means your birds will eat less and waste less while still getting optimal levels of nutrients needed for proper growth. This leads to a much better feed to growth ratio in your birds, leading to a lower monthly feed cost for you.

Fermenting grain or pellets can take 1-3 days, depending on your climate, and can be done in small or large batches to suit your needs. Whether you have a small backyard flock or a large commercial operation, fermenting can be highly effective and beneficial for your birds’ overall health.

Raising Turkeys on Pasture

With proper pasture management and periodic flock rotation, raising your turkeys on the insects and vegetation, they forage on their own is an excellent way to raise both heritage and meat breeds. Your flock of turkeys will help to keep bugs, flies, ticks, and other insect pests under control. A good rule of thumb is to keep no more than 100 turkeys per acre of pasture, so farms keeping smaller flocks will have a much easier time with proper field management.

Turkey’s pasture should be seeded with a diverse selection of legumes, clovers, grains, and grasses. The birds can access these fields when the plants have taken a good root-hold and are growing nicely. Turkeys raised on pasture will not only eat the vegetation itself but will also scratch around in the dirt, which may uproot young plants. That is why rotating your flock to different pastures is important. It gives the previous pasture time to regrow and become lush again.

Raising turkeys on pasture through the winter is also possible, but they may need to be supplemented with grains, commercial pelleted feed mixtures, or alfalfa. Some farms avoid feeding their meat turkeys alfalfa as it can cause a bitter taste to the meat.

Feeding and Attracting Wild Turkeys

Having wild turkeys visit your farm is an excellent way to ensure you have plenty of options during turkey hunting season. Attracting wild turkeys can be as simple as clearing out some dense brush and leaving large trees available for roosting or as elaborate as planting a diverse selection of plants to attract them. Native nut-bearing and fruit-bearing bushes, shrubs, and small trees help attract turkeys, quail, and deer to the area as they will feed, rest and nest in areas where food is abundant.

turkeys eat bugs (1)

Some of the best plants to attract wild turkeys can include:

  • Wild Plum
    The Wild Plum matures as a small tree. They are good for providing cover and nesting areas for turkeys and providing small berries the birds can forage in the late summer to early fall.
  • Carolina Buckthorn
    Don’t confuse it with the Common Buckthorn, which is invasive in the United States, the Carolina Buckthorn grows as a large shrub or small tree. It produces pale-colored berries in the fall that turkeys and quail highly favor.
  • American Beautyberry
    This short and thick shrub produces clusters of bright purple berries in the fall that attract a wide range of wildlife, including turkeys, quail, pheasants, deer, hogs, and more. Additionally, due to the natural odor of the plant, the Beautyberry can double as an effective mosquito deterrent, so it might be worth planting some in your hunting areas.
  • Blackberry Bushes
    Extremely attractive to turkeys, blackberries are quite easy to grow and can quickly spread to cover large areas of your property. Blackberries provide dense cover for young turkeys and plenty of edible berries and leaves for adult birds.

Additional fruit-bearing shrubs and bushes you can plant include Raspberries, Snowberries, Strawberries, and other similar plants. You can plant them alone or in addition to a variety of other plants and trees. Diversity is key when trying to attract wild turkeys to your property. Always be sure to plant multiple choices to help coax turkeys into the area.

Additionally, consider seeding the area with ryegrass, oats, sorghum, or corn to provide a well-rounded and lush place for turkeys and other wildlife to visit. This helps ensure you have a flock of wild turkeys frequenting and even nesting on your property. 

Safe Table Scraps for Turkeys

While you should place most table scraps and leftovers from your home into a compost bin, you might be considering feeding it to your turkeys. Providing a little extra food in addition to their normal ration can help save on feed costs while ensuring nothing goes to waste. Turkeys, like most poultry, will readily accept scraps and leftovers, but as their caretaker, it is up to you to know which foods are safe for your flock.

Here are some common snacks often offered to turkeys:

  • Watermelon
    This is an excellent summertime treat to offer your turkeys as it can help keep them hydrated even on the hottest days. All parts of the watermelon are safe to feed your turkeys, including the flesh, seeds, and rind. 
  • Apples
    Most turkeys love apples and will enjoy pecking at them cubed or sliced. Seeds should be removed if possible, but small amounts of seed ingested on occasion are not dangerous to your birds. Applesauce is a great snack option for young birds as well! 
  • Peas
    This is probably going to be the table scrap your turkeys enjoy the most! Peas are a healthy snack to offer your birds and can be offered dried, cooked, or frozen. You can even mix peas into your regular feed ration for extra protein!
  • Spinach
    If you really want to offer spinach to your turkeys as an occasional treat or snack, doing so in small amounts is fine. Spinach can block the absorption of calcium, leading to bone density issues over the long term if fed in abundance.

Foods to Avoid Feeding Turkeys

You might find you have a range of leftover scraps and food from your family meals, and while feeding these leftovers to your turkeys might sound like a good idea, it can be dangerous. As with most other birds, turkeys can be very susceptible to toxins found in a variety of plants that might not affect other animals. 

Regardless of how abundant these scraps may be around your farm, these are some of the most common foods to avoid feeding turkeys:

  • Uncooked Beans
    These legumes contain naturally occurring insecticides called phytohaemagglutinin which can be dangerous to turkeys, even if fed in small amounts. This toxin is especially present in red kidney beans, but a wide range of legumes contains it, so all should be avoided when uncooked.
  • Avocado
    Avocados contain a naturally occurring toxin called persin, leading to abdominal lesions and heart failure in a wide range of animals, and turkeys are no exception. All parts of the avocado plant are dangerous and should be avoided entirely for not just turkeys but all animals on your farm.
  • Nightshade Plant Leaves and Stems
    This includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. While you can feed the actual ripe produce to your animals, the leaves and stems of the plant contain a toxic compound known as solanine that can be fatal to poultry and other animals.
  • Onions
    Fed in small amounts on rare occasions, onions can be a palatable snack for your turkeys. However, it might be best to avoid it entirely. Onions contain a compound called thiosulfate, and in large amounts, it can affect red blood cells causing anemia and other illnesses in your flock.
  • Chocolate
    While this snack is safe for you, it should never be offered to your turkeys or other animals. Chocolate contains a compound called theobromine which can cause various potentially fatal issues in your flock, including heart failure, kidney failure, and nervous system shutdown. 

Conclusion

Turkeys are a wonderful animal to have on your farm. From the large and beautiful heritage breeds to the entirely useful meat breeds, turkeys can make a unique addition to your farm. Feeding your turkeys can be as complex as you want it to be, with some farmers choosing to micromanage every nutrient that goes into their custom ration mixes. 

But don’t feel bad if you choose to go with the easier route of purchasing your gamebird feed from the local feed store. It has been properly formulated for turkeys of all ages based on science and proof of many previous years of turkey raising. Regardless of what turkey breed and feed options you go with, these lively and attractive birds will soon make an excellent addition to your farm.

Annemaria Duran

Hi, I’m Annemaria Duran. I moved out to the country 6 years ago, mainly so I could have more land. I love all aspects of country living. First, we got chickens, then ducks. Now we have sheep, goats, and rabbits. I'm always learning and love sharing it!

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