Managing Very Young Bison Calves
Anderson, Dale Burr, Tim Schroeder, Chris Kubal, and Eric Bock
Carrington Research Extension Center
North Dakota State University
Bison calves are seldom orphaned but when they are, most
producers are interested in saving them at all costs. Resources needed
include time, feed(s), and knowledge. Bison are wild animals and behave as
such when confined, even at a few days of age. The conditioning to human care
and feeding apparently needs to start at birth. Any attempt to modify the
behavior and nutrition of these animals after that time is a major challenge.
There is virtually no nutritional information or guidelines on the care of
baby bison prior to weaning. The Carrington Research Center accepted a large
number of very young bison calves and managed them as a group in an attempt to
learn more about their behavior, human interaction, and nutritional needs.
Consultation with a number of experienced bison producers suggested we had a
major challenge on our hands. This paper is not intended to be the
quintessential guide to saving baby bison calves but reports observations on
some management approaches used with this group of calves.
Sixty-nine bison calves ranging in age from two days to two months were
donated and delivered to the Carrington Research Extension Center on June 4,
2001. Their dams had been managed as feeder heifers and were scheduled for
market. Several of the heifers in the group had inadvertently been bred when
on pasture during the summer of 2000.
Calves were initially contained in a small corral to
assess health, age, and condition, after several hours on a truck. Sixteen
animals that were the youngest and obviously smallest, were kept in a small
fenced receiving area. The rest of the animals were moved to a one-acre grass
Repeated attempts were made at bottle feeding or tubing
the young calves with primary effort in the morning and late afternoon. Some
commercially available, very palatable, high-protein, high-energy feeds were
offered in three pans inside the pen. Two pans were used for milk replacer
and fresh water was available in two others. Catching these animals, even in
a small pen, proved to be a challenge. At the young age of the calves, they
were fast and strong, and fought being handled. Roping calves caused severe
stress from chasing with some choking and shock resulting when calves were
Few showed any inclination to nurse from a bottle, and
then only for very brief periods of time. None of the animals adapted to
nursing from a bottle after several days. Little time was spent on each
individual calf due to the large number and limited man hours available.
The animals not confined for bottle feeding were moved to
a one-acre paddock fenced with feedlot panels. The lush, green, grassed area
was next to a tree row which provided shade for the calves during much of the
day. An 18-inch high, 100-gallon water tank was set up in the pen for fresh
water. Several rubber feed tubs were distributed throughout the acre to
maximize exposure to different feeds offered to the bison calves. Water
tanks and all rubber feed tubs were emptied and cleaned daily for the first
several weeks to ensure freshness and cleanliness.
Sheep milk replacer was used in the
attempted bottle feeding and tubing for the smallest bison. To our knowledge
it is the closest commercial product that resembles bison milk to any degree
and was recommended by experienced bison producers.
Commercial sweet feeds were offered to both groups as
well as pelleted barley malt sprouts. Four different commercial sweet feeds
were offered to the groups of larger calves in approximately 20 separate
rubber tubs scattered throughout the paddock. The feeds included three
different commercial calf starter feeds, and barley malt pellets, a co-product
of malting barley. A high quality grass hay bale was also provided to both
groups. The calves initially preferred the barley malt pellets to the other
feeds; however, barley pellets are low in energy and contain only moderate
amounts of protein when compared to the calves anticipated nutritional needs.
The barley pellets were then mixed with corn, peas and wheat midds to increase
the nutrient density of that diet. Barley pellets were also mixed with the
three commercial feeds to encourage intake. When intake improved, barley
pellets were gradually removed so calves were eating only the nutrient dense
commercial diets. On June 27, a specially- formulated baby bison feed was
introduced. This feed was manufactured by Heartland Feeds (Hubbard) at
Bismarck, ND for use in this study. This feed was more nutrient dense than
the commercial starter feeds with higher protein (24%), more energy (est. 95%
TDN) and less fiber. The formulation consisted of field peas, corn, canola
meal, corn distillers dried solubles, soybean hulls, dried milk powder,
molasses, yeast, fenugreek, and highly bio-available vitamins and minerals.
The general health and bloom of the calves seemed to improve once they were
acclimated to this feed. This feed was used to replace all the commercial
None of the calves that were bottle fed or drenched survived longer than
one month. Most simply starved to death because they were unwilling to nurse
or fought the tube at every opportunity and did not learn to eat the dry
feeds. Of the 53 older calves, 25 survived. Survival was highest among calves
that were older and had learned to eat dry feed from the pans. Having a
highly palatable, nutrient dense feed available at the start of this feeding
period would have reduced the number of changes required and could have
possibly increased the survival rate of the calves.
On September 10, the remaining bison calves appeared to
be in good health and were transitioned to a conventional grain mix that was
less nutrient dense and lower in cost. This feed was formulated at 16% crude
protein and approximately 80% TDN. Feed sources included corn, peas, soy
hulls, and wheat midds plus vitamins and minerals. It was offered along with
free-choice alfalfa hay.
Virtually all orphaned calves occur as
singles. Trying to save 69 head is a totally different experience with
limited preparation time, labor availability, and most of all knowledge of
nutrition and management of very young bison. Handling (catching, ear-tagging,
drenching, bottle-feeding) any age of orphan calf is very stressful to calves
and to handlers.
It appears the success rate is very low when caring for
orphan bison calves under the age of 4 weeks unless significant individual
attention can be given to each calf. These animals are simply too dependant
on motherís milk and cannot be acclimated to milk replacer and starter feeds
as a group. However, weaned bison calves older than approximately 6 weeks
attained a 60 percent survival rate with nutrient dense, palatable feeds.
Calves this old probably start ruminating and have the ability to survive on
more traditional feeds.
is expressed to Larissa Helbig, University of Saskatchewan, Masters Degree
Student in Bison Reproduction, for reviewing this paper.