The Care and Feeding of Bison

By Vern L. Anderson, Carrington Research Extension Center, North Dakota State University and Dennis Sexhus, North American Bison Cooperative

Reprinted from Bison World, volume 22, number 4, Oct./Nov./Dec. 1997, pages 70-71


The authors of this article surveyed bison producers who sold bison to the North American Bison Co-op to determine the common feeding practices of bison farmers. They also asked the farmers what were their greatest concerns for the bison industry. The information collected in the survey is summarized below.

Feeding bison bulls for meat production is receiving increased emphasis with the formation of the North American Bison Cooperative. This cooperative operates a slaughter plant exclusively for bison, with a target market of white tablecloth restaurants and upscale consumers in the United States and abroad. The feeding of bison bulls for slaughter at a relatively young age has not been well studied. Feeders are using experience and peer communication to develop more efficient rations and feeding systems. The rapidly developing bison industry may benefit from research on feeds, feeding systems, and feedlot management. Before extensive feeding research is undertaken, it would be useful to know what current practices are being used and what producers consider the priorities for future work.

Materials and Methods

In an effort to determine current practices and priorities of bison feeders in the Northern Plains, all 123 feeders who had delivered bulls to the North American Bison Cooperative slaughter plant at New Rockford, North Dakota, in the previous 12 months were sent a survey in December 1995. The survey requested information on the scope and scale of the operation, facilities available for feeding and care, feeding methods, concentrate ingredients and amounts used, rations fed, performance of animals, health management, and concerns for the feeding enterprise. Producers were asked to list their three greatest concerns, in order. To summarize and describe the relevant topics, a point system was used, with three points given for the top priority, two points for the second priority, and one point for the third priority.

Survey Results

Twenty-six surveys representing 1,019 head of feedlot bison were returned and summarized, a 21 percent response rate. Twenty-three respondents were owner/operators of bison cow herds and feedlots, two were cow herd owner/operators only, and one was an absentee owner. Tables 1 and 2 give basic information on the feeding operations.

More bison bulls are purchased for feeding than are raised on the farm. Pen space varied highly. Pasture feeding is used by three feeders. Only one-third of feeders own a scale, which makes it difficult to determine weights for market selection. All feeders provided bulls some wind protection in the form of shelterbelts or windfences or both. Just under half of the feeders provide light, which may be associated with reduced winter gains due to a strong photoperiod response. Feeding systems are primarily self-feeders (87.5%), with some producers using feedbunks (25%), or both systems (12.5%). Drainage appears to be a problem in some yards, but most feeders use bedding to provide a dry place for the animals to rest. Bison feeders deworm bison an average of twice. Fly spraying is done on 23% of the feedlots and 16% of the animals, but several respondents indicated the use of predator wasps as an effective method of fly control.

All feeders offered poor to medium quality hay in self feeders. The most frequently used concentrate ingredients are shown in Table 3. Wheat screenings were the most commonly used feed, followed by corn, barley and oats; however, corn was used at a lower proportion than other ingredients. Other ingredients used less frequently include wheat (2 respondents), corn silage (1), and potato processing waste (1). Two feeders fed their herds a complete commercial diet. Feed processing was done by grinding or hammer milling (8) or pelleting (5).

Animal performance was reported by only 12 of the respondents, who indicated individual bison with an average daily gain (ADG) of 1.61 pounds. The six screenings-based diets produced 1.54 pounds ADG, three barley-based diets produced 1.59 pounds ADG, and three completely different diets produced 1.84 pounds ADG. Only four respondents reported carcass data, with too few numbers to be worth- while. Highly seasonal variation in carcass traits warrants further investigation.

Topping the list of producer concerns is feeds and feeding (31 hits out of a total of 67 responses), genetics (9), health (9), marketing (8), facilities (7), and animal welfare (3). Six major topics were listed under feeds and feeding, five under genetics, three each in marketing and facilities, two in the health category, and two in animal welfare. Table 4 presents the number of hits by subtopic and average score based on the three-point system described above. Feeds and feeding dominate the concerns, with rate of gain and feed cost mentioned the most often. Feed-to-gain ratio and feed source/quality were also of great concern. Identifying good genetics and deworming were the only other topics mentioned five or more times. Feed to gain and dry pens were highest in priority.


The number of respondents to this survey were limited, so the results must be interpreted with caution. Most bison feeders are relatively small scale and have limited facilities. The possibility of combining feedlot operations should be considered to develop economies of scale that would allow more timely and precise feedlot management. Research is needed to determine the optimum or most profitable feeding systems and rations. Bison feeders are interested in improving on the current performance of their animals, with priority concerns in feeds and feeding and genetics. The bison industry has a bright future, but improvements in the feedlot phase will be needed to improve and sustain production.

Table 1 Description and management of Northen Plains bison feedlots









Number of head fed




Number of head raised on site




Number of head purchased




Number of pens




Number of head per pen




Pen space per animal (sq.ft)**




# of times animals worked/yr




# of times animals dewormed/yr




*Standard error is a measure of the variability of the response.
**Excludes three respondents who use pasture feeding with 5-40 acre pastures


Table 2 Northern Plains bison feedlot enterprise


Percent of feeders responding

Own a scale


Have a shelterbelt protection for feeders


Have windfence protection for feeders


Have lights in feedyard


Use self feeders


Use feed bunks


Consider lots well drained


Consider lots acceptable


Consider lots too muddy


Use bedding for feeder bulls


Spray premises with insecticide for flies


Spray bison with insecticide for flies



Table 3 Ration ingredients used in bison feedlots


Number of feeders

Average Usage*


Wheat screenings




Corn grain












*Average usage of ingredients in concentrate portion of bison diets.
**Range of ingredients usage in diets, percent


Table 4 Concerns of bison feeders, by frequency and priority*

  Frequency Mentioned (%) Avg. Score**
Rate of gain 39 2.00
Feed cost 35 2.37
Feed efficiency 26 2.67
Feed source/quality 22 2.20
Balancing rations 9 2.50
Identifying good genetics 22 2.20
Carcass grading system 17 1.50
Calf prices too high 13 2.33
Pen drainage 13 2.67
Lot size 9 2.50
Handling facilities 9 1.50
Deworming 26 2.16
Fly control 13 1.67
Animal welfare/happiness 9 1.50

*Only topics mentioned by more than one respondent were included in this table.
**Score is averaged from total points awarded on three-point scale.

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