The Development and Mission of the NDSU Bison Nutrition Research Facility

Vern Anderson, Ph.D.
Carrington Research Extension Center
North Dakota State University

The bison industry has been expanding rapidly in the past several years but not without frustration by many producers interested in knowing more about their animals and optimum management.  The lack of biological information led many producers to support a formal research program for bison at North Dakota State University.   A new bison research facility is now located at the Carrington Research Extension Center.  While extensive bison research in several different areas can be carried on with producer owned and managed animals, some trials require very specific and regimented protocol.  Having animals under daily management and care by a research team will provide more data from the same animals as well as more statistical confidence in the results.  Precise sampling and administering of treatments is done more appropriately at a university-operated facility.  The mission of the facility will be primarily nutrition research.  However, other studies or sampling that can take place will be incorporated. 

The facility will consist of 16 pens for nutrition research plus a smaller pen area for two fistulated bison that will be used for digestion studies.  A working area designed especially for bison for weighing and treating animals is also included.  The bison handling equipment was purchased by a USDA NRI equipment grant.  Construction is nearly complete with the final pen structures slated for finishing early summer of 2000.  

Research was initiated in December, 1999 when 60 bison bull calves were unloaded and penned, 10 to a pen in six pens.  The first trials will focus on maintenance needs for bison, quantify gain from incremental increases in grain, and practical comparisons of feeding systems.  Totally mixed rations in a fenceline bunk will be compared with self feeders where hay and grain are fed separately.  Subsequent studies will focus on mineral requirements, especially selenium, nutrient requirements by season, effects of forage quality, natural feed ingredient to enhance digestion, and other topics under consideration.  Producer input is solicited to aid in developing research priorities. 

There are two other objectives to be addressed by the bison nutrition research facility.  One will evaluate fly ash as a soil amendment to stabilize soils in feeding environments.  A number of cooperators are contributing to this project, which is described elsewhere in this publication.  The other objective will be to monitor runoff from the feeding pens in order to establish nutrient content and pollution potential for ground water.  This component will utilize replicated runoff containment structures from the feeding pens (four pens drain into each of the four containment structures) to permit evaluation of different rations for nutrient content in the waste with potential water table contamination being an important issue.  Test wells are in place at three depths below each of the four containment structures and will be monitored for nutrient leaching.  

Funding to date for the bison research facility was made possible by appropriations from the ND Legislature, and grants from the following producer organizations:

Minnesota Buffalo Association
            National Bison Association
            North Dakota Buffalo Association
            Northwest Bison Association
            Northeast Bison Association

A competitive grant from the USDA National Research Initiative, Equipment Grants program provided funds for the Powder River working facilities.   Powder River provided the working equipment at a substantial discount as well.  

In-kind support for site preparation and runoff containment construction was provided by the ND National Guard as part of the training program for the local engineering unit.  The ND National Guard moved approximately 100,000 cubic yards of fill and clay, packing and shaping the area to precise specifications for the pens and runoff containment.  Additional in-kind support was provided by a local contractor, Lee’s Construction, for earth moving and runoff containment.

Proposed bison nutrition research trials

The following are topics in need of evaluation for the benefit of bison growers throughout the continent.  Please relate other issues of concern to us as we prioritize research protocols.  These research topics are not listed in priority order.

1. Protein requirements of growing heifers and bulls fed for meat. Determine optimum crude protein levels in diets of growing animals.

2. Evaluation of forage type and maturity.  Compare animal performance and digestion of cool-season brome grass with warm-season mixed native species harvested at two stages, vegetative or mature. 

3. Compare conventional feedgrains and co-products for growing heifers and bulls in wintering regimes and in regimes for feeding bison bulls for meat.

4. Evaluate naturally occurring additives such as yeasts and enzymes in high forage diets to attempt to improve digestibility.

5. Determine mineral requirements for growing bison.  Focus on calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and selenium.  Compare mineral sources for bioavailability and practical use of mineral types in different regions.

6. Evaluate production systems that minimize grain and maximize forage for bison bulls from weaning to slaughter.  

7. Develop a laboratory to study the rumen environment of bison and digestion of feeds.   Two or three ruminally-cannulated animals that are comfortable being handled will be used in this research program.  Procure appropriate equipment and develop housing and facilities for the bison digestion research..

8. Conduct studies on rumen function and digestion with graded levels of energy (grain) in the diet.    


NDSU Vice President,
Dean and Director for Agricultural Affairs
NDSU Extension Service ND Agricultural
Experiment Station
NDSU College of Agriculture NDSU College of Human Development and Education