Feeding turkeys has many variables, depending on the variety, age, use and type of ranching technique used, as well as available grains. That said, there are 3 different feed blends used for raising each turkey- Starter, Growth, and Finisher.Besides differing protein levels, they also differ in vitamin, mineral and amino acid make-up.
Be aware that chicken feed cannot be substituted for turkeys. The required protein and calcium to phosphorus ratio (among other trace elements) is completely different.
Let’s begin with the Starter. It has a protein level of 28%, and is fed from birth to about 6 weeks (when the poults first feather out). It has higher levels of lysine and methionine to help promote feather growth.
After first feathering to sexual maturity, they are fed Growth formula- having a 20% protein ratio and higher calcium and phosphorus levels (bone growth).
After sexual maturity has been reached, they are fed Finisher with 17% protein level.
Turkeys being kept for brooding purposes are fed a diet with more fiber to keep body fat and protein levels down. (High protein levels reduce egg hatchability.)
[Note: The Broad Breasted White, the most common market turkey, cannot breed naturally and must be artificially inseminated.]
Free range turkeys, those raised in pastures rather than corralled in pens, will supplement their feed with what is growing around them. Do not overgraze your pasture. Even the lushest field will succumb if there are more than 100 birds per acre. Move the feed and water troughs a couple of times a week to prevent the ground beneath being trampled barren. After marketing the birds, let the pasture overwinter with legumes and winter wheat. You will want to reseed your pastures on a regular basis, even if it is only lightly.
Avoid Johnson grass as it has high levels of insoluable fiber, and the turkey will want to dig it up to eat the roots, damaging the field. Alfalfa is another grass to watch, as it is reported to impart a bitter flavor to the meat.
Water is an essential part of feeding turkeys. They must always have fresh, clean water available. Turkeys are easily stressed by overheating and easy access to water can help prevent it. Stressed turkeys are problematic in that at the very least, they quit growing. Depending on the level of stress it can lead to fights and even cannibalism. (Other stressors include overcrowding, wide temperature fluctuations, and lack of space at the feeders.) Freely available water is also an easy way to get supplements into the turkey.
Both food and water troughs should be at a height where the head is above the tail (as they grow, height adjustments should be made) so the poults do not drop as much food. (Being 2/3 of the cost of raising turkeys, loss is be kept to a minimum) Additionally, dropped food will be eaten, along with whatever is being used as an absorbent litter, possibly causing digestive issues or even death.
So- what are you feeding turkeys?
In the wild, turkeys eat grasses, insects, nuts, berries and grains in the form of grass seeds. Farmed turkeys primarily eat grains supplemented with necessary trace elements, sometimes pelletized for balanced distribution of nutrients. Free Range turkeys add grasses and some insects.
Corn is the single most common grain used, comprising up to 2/3 of the bird’s diet. It is high in linoleic acid, which increases egg size, so watch for hens that may be egg-bound.
Sorghum (Milo) has a lower energy content than corn, and that grown outside the US has a high tannin content, reducing protein digestibility. Adding fat can help offset the lowered energy availability and can make up 40-50% of the turkey feed.
Barley also needs additional fat content, and can be up to 40% of the diet if enzymes are added; 15-20% if not.
Wheat has a protein content that varies widely, between 10-17%. Milling can balance this out, but increases the chance of necrotic enteritis. Wheat should make up no more than 25% of the diet.
Oats have too much fiber for market birds, but is good for breeders and can be up to 50% of their diet.
Rye is NOT recommended for use in turkey feed and there should be no more than 2%.
Various fats and meals are added to provide trace elements, amino acids, and vitamins. They also help aid in the even distribution of these necessary ingredients.
In order to insure maximum usable energy and vitamins, there should only be an on hand supply of feed for 2-4 weeks, kept in a cool, dry area.
If buying pre-mixed feed, watch for clumps. If a bag has a lot of clumping, it has probably gotten wet, increasing the risk of mold and other fungus. Wet feed also loses vitamin value very quickly.
Turkeys raised for market are generally ready in 20-28 weeks. In order to reach 18 pounds, a tom turkey will require 42 pounds of food, and a hen will require 57 pounds.
The toms will be ready on the shorter end of the timeline, the hens at the opposite end.
If you would like to raise turkeys I would recommend reading the book How To Raise Turkeys. It not only covers which foods to feed your turkeys but it covers a lot of other issues that are important to your turkeys health.