Let’s talk turkey: UMN research finds turkey antibiotic alternative

Minnesota is the nation’s top turkey producer and processor.

Turkeys gather in a holding pen at the Rosemount Research & Outreach Center at UMore Park on Thursday, Oct. 31. A study lead by Tim Johnson, a University associate professor, found that customized probiotics perform the same as low-dose antibiotics in maintaining turkey health. 

Nur B. Adam

Turkeys gather in a holding pen at the Rosemount Research & Outreach Center at UMore Park on Thursday, Oct. 31. A study lead by Tim Johnson, a University associate professor, found that customized probiotics perform the same as low-dose antibiotics in maintaining turkey health. 

Jiang Li

With Thanksgiving swiftly approaching, a University of Minnesota research team published a study last month detailing an alternative to antibiotics that can benefit turkey health and overall production in the industry.

The six-year-long study found that customized probiotics perform the same as low-dose antibiotics in keeping turkeys healthy and fat. The probiotics, or healthy bacteria that aid digestion, match certain types of bacteria in the turkey’s gut. This helps the bird ward off diseases without using antibiotics, which if overused can make diseases hard to treat and pose a risk to human health when they consume it. 

The customized probiotics can bring change to the turkey industry, said study lead Tim Johnson, a University associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Johnson said the idea for the study stemmed from nationwide efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics by the United States government and consumers. 

Usually, many turkeys are fed with low-dose antibiotics when they are young to help them gain weight and maintain health.

“The challenges are that when you have been using antibiotics to maintain health for more than 50 years, and you have to suddenly reduce the use dramatically, it becomes difficult sometimes to control [the] disease and to also maintain the typical growth that [the industry] expect[s] with turkeys,” Johnson said.

The research team worked with turkey farms as part of their study, providing customized probiotics for the farmers to test on their livestock.

“It is encouraging to have researchers connect with turkey growers and take the research out on the farm level,” said Minnesota Turkey Growers Association board member Jill Nezworski. 

The research team collaborated with their lab in Willmar, Minnesota, which Johnson said is the heart of turkey production in the state.  

Last year, Minnesota ranked first in turkey production and processing in the U.S., with roughly 42 to 45 million turkeys raised annually, according to the MTGA. The state has about 600 turkey farms. 

Johnson said his team hopes to develop a product that farmers can use in the next one or two years.

Ashley and Jonathan Klaphake are third-generation turkey farmers currently raising eight-week old turkeys in the Melrose, Minnesota area. The couple has been using the University research team’s probiotic feed for about a year and a half.

“We’ve seen improvement in our older birds,” said Ashley Klaphake. “I can actually tell their guts are tightening up so their stool isn’t so loose and then it’s not creating so much ammonia and wetness.”

Second-generation turkey grower Kent Meschke runs a farm near Little Falls, Minnesota, with his turkeys going to 65 brands around the country. Meschke is also on the research committee for the MTGA.

Meschke said the team’s research helps the steady growth rate by keeping turkeys healthy.

The research team hopes its findings can also be used to substitute the use of antibiotics in other poultry and perhaps even humans, Johnson said.

“In humans, each person has a different microbiome, health challenges, so the goal would be that we can customize our approach to every person,” Johnson said. “My hopes are that this first product will lead to a discovery of additional probiotic products.”