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updated 11/22/2011 9:49:09 AM ET 2011-11-22T14:49:09

We all anticipate our favorite Thanksgiving dish -- cornbread stuffing, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes and turkey.

But what exactly does the turkey eat before we eat it?

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In fact, scientists have developed a new turkey feed for mass market turkeys that could change Thanksgiving for many.

The new feed promises to keep prices of the sometime pricey bird low while maintaining quality.


Most commercially raised "turkeys eat a diet that is computer formulated for the least cost and consists of corn, soybean meal, animal by-products, distillers' grains and a variety of vitamin and mineral sources," Jeff Firman, a professor in the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, told Discovery News.

Distillers' grains are leftovers from the ethanol industry. Starch is removed, concentrating protein. The animal by-products come from the rendering industry.

"They include bones, bits of trimmings, and other stuff that we don't eat," he said.

In the wild, turkeys are omnivores whose diet consists of about 80 percent grass rounded out by other vegetation, seeds, insects and small animals.

Some heritage and organic poultry farmers feed their turkeys all vegetarian diets with no synthetic amino acids. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center suggests these alternative markets continue to grow. But data from the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association shows that the vast majority of turkey sales are from mass-market suppliers.

That said, a new study released by 1000 Friends of Maryland found that just 48 percent of the foods, including sides like sweet potatoes and apples for apple pie, are commonly found on a Thanksgiving table are grown locally.

Firman's calls his new feed "the Missouri Ideal Turkey Diet." He says it has the same nutritional qualities as typical pellet feed. It's made, however, at a cost of $13 to $25 per ton loss -- reducing expenses by 8 to 10 percent, which many consumers will see at the supermarket.

Firman believes the industry could save more than $100 million, especially since satisfying turkeys' hunger accounts for 70 percent of the cost of producing turkey meat.

The Missouri Ideal Turkey Diet has "no new ingredients," he clarified, "just a different mix."

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Firman tested the new diet out on 800 turkeys. He found that the birds met health targets and reached market weight within 18 to 21 weeks. S the change would likely not affect how future Thanksgiving turkeys look and taste.

"The industry is slow to evolve, so it could take a few years before any feed changes fully take effect," he said.

Sally Noll, a professor of poultry science at the University of Minnesota, specializes in the nutrition and feeding of market turkeys.

"The key is formulating turkey diets on a digestible amino acid basis, along with the appropriate ratios of amino acids needed to meet the turkey's need for amino acids to grow," Noll told Discovery News, adding that there is very little work done in this area of turkey nutrition, "but it is needed."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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