Updated January 21, 2021
Animal caregivers know that providing residents with an appropriate diet is a fundamental component of responsible care. Unfortunately, for some species, it can be difficult to find information regarding the nutrients they need outside of the context of commodification. Such is the case with turkeys. Almost all of the available information is focused on “productivity” and not what turkeys need to live long, healthy lives. This is especially true of large breed turkeys who have been bred to grow so large they can no longer mate naturally. Just as with large breed chickens, the available information on turkey diets focuses on rapid growth and profit margins. Because of the lack of scientifically-proven recommendations for sanctuary turkey residents, it can be difficult to know exactly what and how much to feed individual turkeys. In this resource, we will look at a combination of anecdotal information from the sanctuary community and industry recommendations for turkeys forced into breeding, since efforts are made to prevent obesity in those individuals.
Let’s Talk Protein
Industry-based information suggests that turkeys require more protein than chickens, and most commercial foods formulated for turkeys have a much higher percentage of protein than foods intended for chickens. However, lower protein diets are usually recommended for sanctuary avian residents, where the goal is health and longevity rather than exploitation and rapid growth. When discussing the nutritional needs of sanctuary turkeys with avian nutritionists or other experts, they often reference “breeder” recommendations, which are different from the recommendations for turkeys who are being raised for their flesh. While the recommendations for turkeys raised for breeding purposes are not a perfect match with what sanctuary residents need, when it comes to protein, it can be a good point of reference.
While many commercial foods labeled specifically for turkeys have a protein content of 20% or higher, according to Nutrient Requirements Of Poultry, after turkeys reach 16 weeks of age, those who will be used for breeding should be maintained on a different diet than those being raised for their flesh, so as to reduce the risk of obesity. They recommend a 12% protein diet for these individuals during the time before females start laying eggs and a 14% protein diet once they begin to lay.
Consider The Calcium Content
In addition to looking at the protein content, it’s important to also pay attention to the amount of calcium in various foods. A diet designed for use in birds who are actively laying is going to have a higher calcium content to accommodate the toll of egg production. Male turkeys and females who are not currently laying do not need this additional calcium. Though we know of sanctuaries who have fed a “layer” food to non-laying turkeys with no obvious complications, too much calcium can put individuals at risk of certain health challenges such as gout. With so many different commercial foods available, in addition to the prospect of ordering food online, sanctuaries likely have many more options to consider than they would have had a decade or two ago, when their only option may have been a “layer” food.
Types Of Food For Turkeys
Complete diet commercial foods typically come in pellet, crumble, or mash form, and are preferable to mixed grains because they prevent individuals from picking and choosing (and possibly missing out on essential nutrients as a result). Because of how quickly large breed turkeys typically eat, feeding a pelleted food, rather than a mash or crumble with small particles that could be inhaled, may be best. Soaking crumble or mash food in hot water to form an oatmeal-like consistency can prevent this issue (pellets can also be soaked in this way). Individuals who have been debeaked may do best with soaked foods, which are often easier for them to eat.
If we consider the information above regarding turkeys forced into breeding and extrapolate upon what we have learned about large breed chickens, it makes sense that, in a sanctuary setting where the goal is health and longevity, healthy adult turkey residents will do best on a lower protein food. This means that foods labeled for turkeys, which often have a protein content of at least 20%, will probably not be your best bet. There are a few commercial foods available that are intended for turkeys who are being used for breeding, but the vast majority of those we have come across still have protein contents that are higher than the 12-14% protein recommended above. Even those with a lower protein content might not be the best fit for all sanctuary turkey residents, because the calcium content is often higher than what non-laying individuals need. So where does that leave us? We don’t have one set recommendation to offer, but will instead look at a few different options that sanctuaries have had success with. You can then decide which makes the most sense to try with your residents.
Feeding A Maintenance Food
Maintenance diets are intended for individuals who are considered “non-producing” and can be a good option for sanctuary turkey residents, especially males or females who are not currently laying eggs. These diets have lower amounts of calcium than diets designed for individuals who are actively laying, and while different brands and formulations have different protein contents, they typically have less protein than diets formulated specifically for turkeys. In different regions there will be different brands available, but two popular choices are:
Purina Game Bird Maintenance Chow
Foods labeled for “game birds” often work well for turkeys and are frequently recommended for them, but it’s important to note that there are a variety of game bird foods available- not all are maintenance diets. Purina Game Bird Maintenance Chow has a protein content of 12.5% and between 0.9% and 1.1% calcium (be aware that there are a variety of Purina Game Bird Chows with almost identical packaging, so always be sure to check the label).
Roudybush Maintenance Diets
Roudybush is a high quality brand of bird food, formulated primarily for companion birds such as parrots. Compared to many other brands, Roudybush is more expensive, so it may not be an option for everyone. They offer a variety of formulas, including Roudybush Maintenance and Roudybush Low-Fat Maintenance. The latter has been a food of choice for many compassionate chicken caregivers, and may be a good option for turkeys as well. However, we spoke to one turkey caregiver who found that the large breed turkeys in their care did best with a combination of the two formulas after seeing a change in their behavior and feather condition when solely on the Low-Fat formula (they found that feeding two parts Maintenance to one part Low-Fat Maintenance was a good mix for their companions). We reached out to the company and were told that the Maintenance diet has 11% protein and 0.42% calcium, whereas the Low-Fat Maintenance diet has 12% protein and 0.44% calcium.
These are certainly not the only options. It’s a good idea to talk to your local feed store to see what they have available, or what they can order for you. If you are having trouble finding a suitable food in your area, don’t forget to check out online suppliers. A few other foods that might be good options are Kalmbach 16% Flock Maintainer, which has a higher protein content than the maintenance foods listed above (at 16% protein, which is comparable to a “layer” food), but has a lower calcium content than a “layer” food, with 0.75%-1.25% calcium. Bluebonnet Premium Poultry Maintenance might be another option with 14% protein and 0.65-1.15% calcium.
Feeding Turkey Residents A “Layer” Food
In recent years, it seems more sanctuaries are moving away from regularly feeding a chicken “layer” diet to their turkey residents (especially male turkey residents), but for many years it seemed fairly common to hear that a sanctuary used a “layer” food for both their chicken and turkey residents. However, as mentioned above, the additional calcium could cause health issues in individuals who are not actively laying, so you may want to reserve this option for your female turkey residents only. Some sanctuaries feed a combination of a “layer” food mixed with a maintenance diet, and some feed a “layer” diet only to female turkey residents during the egg-laying season. If you go this route, be sure to transition them slowly from one food to another, watching closely for any adverse effects.
Feeding Non-Large Breed Turkeys
In general, non-large breed turkeys (often called “Heritage breed”) can be fed free-choice throughout the day. This means you can offer unlimited food, and individuals can eat as they wish. Unlike large breed turkeys, non-large breed individuals will self-regulate and will not gorge themselves on food. In addition to their primary food, scratch can be served as a treat or motivator for non-large breed turkeys, but should comprise no more than 10% of their diet as it is not nutritionally complete. A scratch grain-only diet may result in nutritional deficiencies and is not recommended. Consider also offering supplemental fresh produce such as daily greens and the occasional treat.
Feeding Large Breed Turkeys
While non-large breed turkeys tend to do best on a free-choice diet, healthy, adult large breed turkeys will absolutely need to have their diet restricted to prevent obesity and other health challenges. However, the amount they will need to eat will vary depending on the individual. While most people think of Broad-Breasted White turkeys when they think of large breed turkeys, this is not the only breed that falls into the large breed category. Some breeders have created hybrid breeds who, while resembling smaller non-large breeds such as the Midget White in stature, more closely resemble Broad Breasted turkeys in terms of their disproportionately large breast and propensity for overeating. These individuals will require less food than a larger turkey, and females will typically require less food than males of the same breed.
Because of this, and because there is not a universal standard when it comes to a healthy body condition for large breed sanctuary turkeys, it is difficult to give a specific food amount to recommend. If you are able to supplement their primary food with fresh greens, such as kale, or other produce (more on this below), you should be able to feed slightly less primary food than if you did not supplement (while keeping them similarly satiated).
Over the years, many sanctuary caregivers have been reducing the amount of food being fed to both large breed turkeys and large breed chickens and reassessing what they consider a healthy body weight and body condition. Depending on the size and sex of the individual, as well as the type of food and whether or not they receive supplemental produce, we’ve heard of sanctuaries feeding anywhere between about ⅔ cup (especially for smaller females) and 2.5 cups (for large males) of food per day, split into at least two well spaced out meals. We realize this is a pretty wide range; some caregivers may feel that the lower end is too low or the higher end is too high, and for many individuals, they may be right. It’s important to find what works best for the individuals in your care, and watch closely for signs they are too heavy, too thin, or showing signs of a nutritional deficiency.
We recommend tracking each turkey resident’s weight monthly and considering it in the context of their general body condition and comfort. Turkeys who are overweight may stand with their legs splayed and may display greater effort when walking (though this could also be the result of an unrelated mobility issue). A very prominent keel would be a sign that they are underweight. By tracking their weight and observing their body condition, you will likely get a sense of what is a healthy weight range for each individual in your care. If you find that your residents are gaining or losing weight, adjust their food as needed, but keep in mind that small fluctuations in weight are normal. Don’t automatically adjust their food every time their weight changes. Instead, track weight trends and make adjustments slowly. You may find that you need to reduce their portion sizes during the seasons when there is more grass or other vegetation for them to eat in their outdoor space.
In addition to evaluating their weight and body condition, also consider their general behavior and feather condition. If you see that their feathers are curly or don’t appear healthy following a molt, this could be related to their diet. If, especially following a change in their diet, you observe that one of your residents appears cranky, agitated, or dull, or if they appear to be more interested in eating non-food items (including their feathers or those of their companions), these could also be indicators that something is amiss with their diet (but could also be related to certain health challenges). Work with your veterinarian to rule out non-diet related causes and then make adjustments to their diet, watching closely to see if the issues resolve.
Insoluble Grit For Turkeys
Turkeys do not have teeth to chew and break down their food; instead, food is broken down in the gizzard (also called the ventriculus or muscular stomach), and insoluble grit assists in this process. Turkeys naturally eat small pebbles and stones which then stay in the gizzard for some time and help break down food. However, depending on their housing arrangement, you may need to offer insoluble grit, which can be purchased at most feed stores (and is not to be confused with soluble grit). Turkeys who are solely fed a complete diet food (vs. a mix of whole grains) technically do not need grit as this is able to be broken down without it. However, if you are feeding fresh produce or your residents are eating grass and other vegetation in their outdoor space, these types of food do require pebbles or grit in order to be broken down in the gizzard.
Insoluble grit comes in different sizes. Using an insoluble grit that is too small could result in it passing through without spending time in the gizzard, which defeats the purpose. Smaller sized grit is also more likely to be over consumed by some individuals.
Water For Turkeys
Like every sanctuary resident, turkeys need fresh, clean water every day. In warmer climates, where freezing temperatures are not a risk, providing fresh water is fairly easy. Water sources should be cleaned at least once per day and checked regularly so they can be refilled as needed. Offering water in poultry water founts can help keep water clean between water changes, but open water containers can also be offered- depending on the design, they just may need more frequent cleaning if residents kick bedding into them or manage to poop in them.
In areas where temperatures dip below freezing, water sources may need to be provided in water units that contain or can be used in conjunction with a safe heat source. If using a galvanized water fount, be aware that you need to avoid using anything acidic in them (including solutions used to clean them) as this can cause them to corrode and potentially contaminate water, which could result in zinc toxicity or other issues. Metal water containers should be replaced if they begin to rust.
Suggestions For Food Storage
In addition to feeding a high quality food, you must be sure to store the food properly to ensure your residents reap all the nutritional benefits. Food will keep best if stored in a cool, dry, dark place. All food, including unopened bags, should be stored in tightly sealed metal cans or bins to prevent rodents from getting into food.
You can contact the supplier to determine their food’s recommended shelf life, but in general, properly stored bagged food will last about 3 months. Storing food too long or in undesirable conditions can not only lead to rancid or moldy food, but can also cause food to become depleted of vitamins and minerals. Be aware that you should never feed rancid or moldy food to residents as it can make them very sick.
Safe Treats For Turkeys
Supplementing a healthy base diet with turkey-safe produce is a great way to offer residents more variety, and for large breed turkeys, it can help keep them feeling more satiated than if they were simply to receive their two portioned meals. Not all fresh produce is created equal, especially when it comes to your large breed residents- for example, greens can be offered regularly and in larger quantities than starchy vegetables or sugary treats, which should be given in limited quantities. Produce your turkey residents may enjoy include:
- Lettuces (avoid iceberg)
- Summer squash
- Cooked sweet potato
- Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries
- Dried fruits like raisins or craisins
- Watermelon, cantaloupe, and other melons- can cut in half (can leave the seeds in)
- Apple- seeds removed
- Banana- peeled
Things That Are Toxic To Turkeys
There are a number of plants and human food that should absolutely not be fed to turkeys, due to toxins and substances that turkeys cannot digest or tolerate. As with the other topics covered above, there is not much information available specifically focused on foods that are toxic to turkeys. The following list was compiled based on turkey-specific information and more general information regarding foods that are not safe for birds. Do not feed turkeys the following:
- Uncooked raw or dried beans
- Seeds or pits of apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, or plums (the fruit is fine if cored)
- Coffee or other sources of caffeine
- Processed foods or human foods containing added salt or sugar
- Nightshade plants- especially raw green potato skins and the leaves of potato, eggplant, or tomato plants
- Rhubarb leaves
- Anything visibly moldy or rotten
- Anything sprayed with pesticides or herbicides
For more information on things that are toxic to turkeys, check out our resource here.
We certainly don’t have as much evidence-based information as we would like, but hopefully the information provided above will give you a starting point to work from when determining the best diet for your turkey residents. As more information becomes available, we will update and refine these recommendations, so be sure to check back in!
Nutrient Requirements of Poultry: Ninth Revised Edition, 1994 (Non-Compassionate Source)
Gout Management In Poultry | The Poultry Site (Non-Compassionate Source)
What NOT To Feed Turkeys | Farmhouse Guide (Non-Compassionate Source)