Global Food

Keeping Minnesota Turkeys Heavy and Healthy

By Fran Howard

When growth-promoting antibiotics are phased out of poultry rations later this year, Minnesota turkey farmers stand to lose money due to increased disease and lower-weight turkeys. “This is a problem, since some Minnesota turkey growers already experience extensive losses in revenue due to a condition called Light Turkey Syndrome, which occurs even with the use of medicated feed,” says College of Veterinary Medicine researcher Tim Johnson, PhD.

To attack the problem, Johnson is developing oral alternatives to antibiotics that commercial turkey farms will be able to use to maintain both growth performance and health in their birds.

Minnesota is ranked number one in turkey production, and Minnesota turkey farmers raise between 44 million and 46 million birds annually. Each year these birds generate more than $600 million in income for farmers, processors, and other related industries. Moreover, each turkey in Minnesota generates $17.46 of direct economic activity to the state, a total economic impact of $807 million, up from $507 million in 2002, according to a 2011 University of Minnesota study.


Due to global concerns over the growing issue of antibiotic resistance, veterinary pharmaceutical companies agreed to voluntarily revise the FDA-approved use conditions on the labels of veterinary antibiotics to remove growth-promotion indications by January 1, 2017. In addition to lost revenue from lighter turkeys, Minnesota farmers could see system-wide disruptions from the elimination of low-dose antibiotics in feed, including disease outbreaks, according to Johnson and other CVM researchers.

The current phase of Johnson’s research, Systemic design of an antibiotic alternative to improve performance and gut health in commercial turkeys, is funded by a Global Food Ventures award provided by Minnesota’s Discovery Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE). Johnson’s work on the issue, however, began in 2008, and has been supported by a previous MnDRIVE award as well as grants from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

“The goal of this phase of the work is two-fold,” Johnson says. “First, can we find a probiotic-based solution to the removal of low-dose antibiotics in feed? There are lots of probiotics on the market but none are designed for turkeys.” Currently, he says, probiotics made from human and chicken strains of Lactobacillus and other species of bacteria are produced and sold for use across species, but to work effectively, these types of probiotics need to colonize the gut of their host or they will not be beneficial over time.

“The needs of Minnesota’s turkey industry are not being met by the pharmaceutical companies,” says Johnson. “Turkeys need a commercially available probiotic. Giving turkeys human- or even chicken-source bacteria isn’t the optimal approach.”

Johnson is now identifying probiotic strains in healthy turkeys. For the past year and half, he has sampled multiple flocks and more than 1,000 birds to collect beneficial bacteria to grow in a laboratory setting. From these samples he has grown between 1,000 and 2,000 strains of beneficial, or commensal, bacteria, mainly Lactobacillus species.

Through sequencing the genomes of these commensal bacteria, Johnson will be able to determine which strains are most promising. “Our ultimate target is to find 10 strains to create a cocktail of probiotics to enhance growth and production in turkeys,” Johnson says. “So far we have narrowed the list to a few combinations that look promising.”

In the next phase of the research, Johnson will work in partnership with a major pharmaceutical company and a local poultry company to run field trials on 25,000 turkeys at a time. This phase of the research will be partially funded through a recent $464,000 grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The MnDRIVE funding has created a springboard to the next phase of the research,” Johnson says. “Without MnDRIVE funding, we never would have been able to collect the amount of data we needed to apply for the USDA grant and continue this work.”

By the end of the MnDRIVE-funded phase of research, Johnson expects to have identified the best combinations of bacterial strains to field test. In less than five years, he hopes a turkey probiotic will be available for commercial use.

“We hope to lead the way in the development of these types of products,” he adds.

MnDrive is an $18-million annual investment by the state of Minnesota. Global Food Ventures provides awards to scientists in the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, School of Public Health, and College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. In addition to Global Food Ventures, MnDRIVE’s research areas are: Advancing Industry, Conserving Our Environment; Discoveries and Treatments for Brain Conditions; and Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing.