Turkey Hunting: To Feed Or Not To Feed?

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Every spring, a predictable and almost scripted conversation will happen at least once in at a breakfast shack somewhere in rural America.  The conversation will take place amongst a group of camo-clad spring turkey hunters, who vent their frustration stemming from a morning in which “all of their turkeys” were on “Jim Bob the neighbors” property.  The common accusation is that Jim Bob has illegal piles of chopped corn and milo spread around his property that the turkeys simply cannot resist.  They contemplate calling the local game warden, but refrain because they have no hard evidence that Jim Bob is feeding.  They choose to simply seethe in their disdain for the situation they’ll likely face for the remainder of the spring season.

One poet of the spring once said that "an outlaw baits, and a gentleman feeds." There may be no topic more debated amongst turkey hunters than the issue of feeding.  Two people that have opposing views on the issue of feeding are more likely to use expletives than cordial handshakes while discussing the issue.  It is certainly a hot topic amongst turkey hunters and opinions are found up and down the spectrum.

Certain states allow year-round and unconditional feeding, and a turkey hunter can harvest a gobbler over artificial feed if he so chooses (which to me personally sounds like no sport at all).  However, the majority of the states do not allow feeding during the spring turkey season or have stipulations in place that make it almost impractical.  The issue in question here is not whether feeding should be allowed or not, it is if you should feed your turkeys before the season starts.  Let’s dive into this issue.

Setting the Table

After deer seasons come to a close, the wild turkey hunter instinctively shifts into prep mode for the upcoming spring season.  One of the first things the majority of turkey hunters and managers do is head to their local feed store, stock up on chopped corn, wheat, or grain sorghum, and spread it out in areas turkeys frequent.  The intent is to not only draw turkeys from adjoining properties onto yours, but to also hold the turkeys currently calling your property home, all with the hopes of imprinting them and convincing them to stay long after the food source is cut off.  A fat turkey is a happy turkey, and this strategy seems to work in most occurrences.

Just as a whitetail manager uses summer supplemental feeding to take the pressure off his corn or soybean crop (and benefit the herd's health), feeding your turkeys can help save some of your chufa patches or other crops for the season.  The issue lies with when you cut the food source off.  If turkeys have taken a liking to the "artificially provided" food sources, and natural food sources do not exist, they may traverse your property lines in search of food sources elsewhere.  If you have a neighbor who feeds through the season, this becomes a big problem and a risk you take by giving them a taste of a readily available artificial food source.  If you are not careful, you’ll hear “your turkeys” from afar.

Feeding Concerns

In many states, providing supplemental food sources for the whitetail deer has been banned due to outbreaks of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which has decimated portions of the deer herd in certain pockets of states such as Wisconsin.  While CWD has not been known to affect turkeys, my point here is that feeding sites congregate animals and may put them at a higher risk of disease than naturally occurring food sources.  With numerous diseases such as Avian pox and histomoniasis (commonly referred to as “blackhead disease) floating around the country, every step should be taken to prevent an outbreak from occurring.  If you choose to feed, make sure it is spread out over a large area.

Also, certain grains such as corn have the possibility of developing a fungus called aflatoxin, which can cause cancer in the animals that come in contact with them.  Special care should be taken to ensure the feed does not get wet while in storage, as this is the time it is most susceptible to developing aflatoxin.

All Natural

With the previous concerns in mind, the wise move may be to manage the naturally occurring or planted food sources on your property versus preseason feeding.  You cannot control the actions of both the turkeys and your neighbors, so providing your resident turkeys all they need by way of food plots, prescribed burning, and other management practices could be the best long term fix.  If you are pressed for time, do not own the land you hunt, or are a weekend warrior, feeding before the season may be your best route.  However, if you want to hold your turkeys year round, make sure you have plenty of food for them once you cut them off from the bait.

People forget that turkeys need to be managed just as whitetails need to be managed.  In many ways, turkeys require more tender loving care than whitetails.  For instance, wild turkeys are not as tolerant of thick understory as is the whitetail deer, so you need to control the underbrush as well as provide them wide travel corridors to use.   To get a feel for what life is like as a turkey, get on your knees and see if traveling through a timber stand would be possible.  If not, then you may want to either consider prescribed burning or an herbicide treatment to reduce some of the understory. 

As mentioned above, food plots for turkeys are a crucial piece of the management puzzle.  Wild turkeys need crops like Biologic's Clover Plus, Whistleback, and Turkey Gold Chufa, all of which can be planted in tandem with your whitetail crops.  Because a flock of wild turkeys does not require the tonnage that a deer herd would, you have some flexibility in where you plant these crops.  Remember how I said turkeys needed wide roads?  A 100 yard long strip of Whistleback on the side of a road will produce millions of tiny seeds that wild turkeys and other upland game can enjoy.  Two or three half-acre patches of Turkey Gold Chufa in the sandy back corners of your deer patches can make a huge impact on holding turkeys year-round.  Planting and maintaining Clover Plus can benefit both wild turkeys and whitetails; clover patches are especially important in the poult-rearing summer months, because they hold millions of insects that the poults feast on.

Wild turkey management is more than just making a trip to the co-op and buying a pallet of grain sorghum.  That is a temporary fix, and has not been proven to hold turkeys long-term.  Do not get me wrong, off-season supplemental feeding is sometimes necessary, but should be a small part of the overall management plan.  Make sure you provide a “total solution” for your turkeys by giving them all the food, water, and cover they could possibly need
Wild Turkey Report Staff
Wild Turkey Report is the internet's new destination for information on the sport of turkey hunting. Follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wildturkeyreport and on Twitter @wildturkeyreprt!
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