Feeding Orphans

Gerald Hauer
Bison Production Specialist
Bison Centre of Excellence, Leduc, Alberta Agriculutre

Reprinted from The Tracker, volume 4, Issue 5, June 2000


Every year a few newborn calves need to be bottle raised. Here are a few tips on how this can be successful on your farm.

Feeding Orphans

Spring has arrived and so have many new babies. Calving season is an exciting time of the year as the new calves are welcomed to the world. Fortunately for elk and bison farmers there are usually few problems associated with calving. Occasionally, however, a calf is abandoned, a cow dies, or for some other reason a calf must be removed from the pasture and raised artificially. The subject of raising orphan calves has been covered in detail in a few other sources that I have listed at the end of this article. I will not attempt to make this article a complete guide to raising bison and elk calves but I will however cover some tips that may help you successfully raise your orphan.

To start I will discuss the importance of colostrum. Calves are born with no resistance to bacteria and viruses and must absorb antibodies from their mother’s first milk or colostrum to be able to fight off disease. There are high levels of antibodies in colostrum and the calf’s intestines have the ability to absorb these antibodies from the inside of the gut into the bloodstream for the first few hours of life. The intestines loses this ability within 4-12 hours after birth so it is very important that the calf receives its colostrum within this time period. Always give colostrum for the first few feedings. Cattle colostrum or commercial dried colostrum replacers can used as a substitute for real elk or bison colostrum which is hard to obtain.

Once the calf has had a good start with colostrum, it is time to feed milk or milk replacer. Some people have had good success by finding a nurse mother for their orphans. A recent article in the Smoke Signals outlined one producer’s success with using a highland cattle cow as a surrogate mother for his bison orphans. Elk farmers over the years have used goats to nurse their calves successfully. If you have access to these animals and they are willing to nurse a calf of a different species it is certainly a good option to explore. If you are considering using goats to raise your calves I would recommend having them tested for malignant catarrhal fever and Johne’s disease.

Often surrogate mothers are not readily available so artificial rearing is the only option. What to feed is a common question. Bison calves have been raised successfully on cow’s milk, cow milk replacer, sheep and goat milk replacer, and goat’s milk. There is now a commercially available bison milk replacer made by Brown’s Feeds. Sheep milk replacer is frequently used because it closely resembles the composition of bison milk. One experienced producer uses real sheep milk available from one of the few sheep dairies in the province. She reports that there are fewer digestive problems with the real sheep’s milk and is worth the extra cost. It would be a good idea to pasteurize the sheep milk to decrease the chance of introducing MCF virus into your calves. Elk and deer seem to do very well on sheep milk and milk replacer. There is a commercially available ungulate milk replacer designed for deer species and there are also several formulae for elk milk substitutes given in the articles listed below.

How often should they be fed? Frequent feedings of small amounts will decrease the chances of digestive upsets. Bison calves are usually fed 4 times daily for the first few weeks and this is gradually decreased to 2 times daily by two months of age. Elk calves are generally fed 6-8 times daily at first but within a few weeks can be cut back to 4 times daily.

How much to feed depends on the size of the calf. As a rule the calf should be a little hungry at the end of each feeding. If they are allowed to drink their fill they will be prone to digestive upsets and diarrhea. Experienced producers like to keep the calves a little hungry at each feeding. Most calves require about 10-20% of their body weight in milk each day. This works out to about 500-800 mL per feeding for bison calves; 400-500 mL per feeding for elk; 150-200 mL per feeding for deer. As the calves get older and the feedings become less frequent the volumes fed at each feeding can be increased. After feeding it is important in elk and deer to stimulate their rectum with a moist towel to stimulate defecation.

Once the calves are few weeks old it is a good idea to introduce them to some grain and hay or grass so that they can nibble on some solid feed. By the time they are a few months old they should be eating a significant amount of feed. Calves can be weaned from milk at 3-4 months of age and put onto a good quality diet.

Some other tips to help keep your calves healthy are as follows:

  1. Wash the bottles and nipples after each feeding to decrease the bacterial buildup. Good hygiene can prevent problems associated with contamination of you equipment.
  2. Allow access to soil so calves can lick it as this may provide some nutrients.
  3. Salt and minerals should also be available.
  4. Build a pen that allows lots of room for exercise.
  5. Try not to keep one calf by itself. Provide another calf to keep it company.

Raising an orphan bison or elk is a lot of work. Before undertaking the job you should become familiar with the husbandry that is required. Below is a list of sources of information that can be used to learn more about hand raising elk, bison, and deer.

Farming Wapiti and Red Deer, by J. Haigh and R. Hudson
Elk Farming Handbook, Alberta Venison Council
Bison Breeder’s Handbook, National Bison Association

Bringing Up Baby, by Peter Haase, Smoke Signals, April 2000

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