Grass and Feedlot Requirements

The bison industry is composed of two segments. One is breeding herd and replacements, where you are a grass rancher. The other segment is the feedlot. The feedlot requires intensive management and ration design that gives you growth, condition and finish.

The winter feeding program varies from one area to the next. It may consist of swath grazing, winter foraging, hay and products of other agriculture production. Protein level will range from 10% to 11%. Bison are poor users of protein levels higher than this, and it is expensive. Bison, if fed in the summer for the winter, can loose 10% to 12% of body weight between November and April. This is ideal because they will go into summer gaining weight. Be careful because any more loss of weight can be detrimental to calf survival and rebreeding. The trick to feeding bison is being aware of the fee value of your forage base and balancing your ration with adequate energy and minerals. A program of this type assures performance and is less expensive than taking shortcuts and decreasing performance.

A general rule of thumb is to condition score your cows during the fall deworming and weaning. Cows in a 3 to 3.5 condition score (based on a 1 to 5 system) can decline to a 2 to 2.5 going to pasture. Calf heifers should enter the winter at least at a 3.5 and go back to pasture at 2.5. This should assure that the heifer rebreeds, provided there is adequate pasture, fertile bulls and a good mineral program.

The key to good cow performance is developing replacement heifers. There are many opinions on this subject but the answer is in the bottom line of your cash flow. The inventory must produce and if the figures are not in the black, then the banker will be visiting. Nutritionally, the first twelve months of a heifer’s life can seriously affect her start as a breeder. Mother cow looks after the first five or six months. The remaining period is your responsibility. At this age these replacement heifers cannot consume enough hay to maintain adequate growth. They require a supplement of 3 to 5 pounds (pending hay nutrition content) consisting of about 13% protein and a T.D.N. of more than 72%. Keep in mind that this is not a finishing ration but a growing ration. Always provide adequate mineral supplementation.

At one year of age the decision to continue feeding supplements depends on the quality of pasture and quality of roughage to be fed the following winter. The mineral and slat program must continue.

Some producers feel that mineral supplements are not necessary. Again, this depends on the geographical area. But in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, areas of Alberta and many of the grazing areas in the U.S., copper, zinc, magnesium, selenium and vitamins E and A are important minerals and vitamins. If insufficient amounts are available, then fertility and performance in the feedlot decline. Bison are very sensitive to deficiencies or borderline deficiencies in these elements.

The nutrition chain is very complex. Just increasing protein and energy does not assure gain. Mineral needs have to be met before the energy and protein kick in and you obtain your growth curve.

Minerals specifically for bison are usually custom-made for individual producers. Unfortunately, most companies will only custom-make 2 tons at a time. This means either you combine your needs with other bison producers or you use another source. If you use another source, use a mineral for high-producing dairy cows. This mineral is available from most companies.

The finishing or feedlot phase of the bison industry is where a producer’s nutrition program, genetic program, health program and management abilities are combined together to produce a quality consumer product. This phase of the industry provides the test of your past and helps give you direction for your present genetic program. If you are selling breeding stock (bulls or females), this is where you as a producer can formulate your future genetic program, as well as prove to the buyer the genetic abilities of the selected stock.

The actual feeding program in the bison lot depends on the availability of various feed services. The trick is to have a balanced ration to provide sufficient nutrients for the young bulls to reach slaughter at 20 to 24 months for optimum consumer acceptance.

Whatever you do, do not skimp on feed. Keep the feed through full and maintain at least 19% roughage in the diet. Supply a good source of fresh water to finalize your feedlot ration. Water can be and often is the reason animals do not gain.


Some bison you just want to leave with the seller. Considering the number bison once represented, and when they became almost extinct, bison have passed through a remarkable bottleneck. Considering how the population has increased, I think the herd average has maintained optimum (for the size of the herd) genetic variation. This situation would have likely been reversed if the bison population had been forced to remain at a smaller number, generation after generation.

Private herds provide ideal situations for breeding. They usually start with a few foundation animals in a closed group and at low numbers.

In-breeding is continually emphasized. I’m not so sure the same concern is not also warranted for continual out crossing. Continued random-type mating seems to produce rather random, inconsistent types of offspring. What is usually required is a better understanding of the factors due to heredity and those due to environment.

The bison industry is a meat industry. The carcass quality is of extreme importance. Inherited factors that influence carcass quality in bison are of substantial economic value. Fleshing ability, carcass leanness and tenderness are affected by feedlot handling, transportation, slaughtering methods and nutrition. The genetic expression of heritable characteristics can be expressed only if the relating environmental conditions are in balance.

The carcass evaluation of any herd is key to genetic selection for both the replacement females as well as their sires.

The major principles of selection for most bison herds are:

  1. Fertility
  2. Fleshing ability
  3. Carcass quality
  4. Longevity

The feedlot industry will be interested only in fleshing ability (gain) and carcass quality. The cow-calf producer is interested in all criteria, especially if he is involved in conception-to-consumer program. If the individual is strictly in a cow-calf program, then fertility and longevity are tops, with fleshing ability and carcass quality next.

Longevity is one of the areas of genetic importance least referred to. The problem appears to be that we just assume longevity in bison. A word of caution: man usually screws up something and this will be one of the first important heritable factors we will lose in bison if we are not careful.

The bull contributes half of the genetic potential of each annual crop. In short, he or she is 50% of the herd. The bull selection program of any herd, especially the smaller private herds, is important.

Remember, “it’s a rich man who can afford a poor bull.”

Replacement breeding bulls, whether selected from your own herd or another breeder’s herd, should be selected on a number of factors.

  1. Fertility – viable semen test by 18 months and at least 22 months
  2. Weaning weights – should be at least in the top 10% of the sire group; the dam’s actual weaning weight should be the average of all calves and be higher than the average weight of herd
  3. Fleshing ability – yearling weight, average daily gain, and where possible, weight per day of age
  4. Carcass data sire progeny
  5. Maternal performance – performance of sire’s daughters in the herd and performance of dam’s daughter’s in the herd

Records are important. Without records it is very difficult to make good economic decisions. Without a scale it is difficult to have records. Reputable breeders of quality breeding stock will have records and a scale that is used.


A proper health program requires an identification system. This also goes hand in hand with good records.

The key to any good health program is preventive medicine. In bison this means good nutrition, 7 or 8-way clostridium vaccination, a deworming program and a stress-free environment.

Compared to other species, a bison health program is very cheap. The selection process that will likely take place in the bison industry as a whole will result in the gradual decline of the strong immunity of the present bison. Man will gradually interfere with the natural selection process of the weak dying and the strong living.

The best health program for any producer is designed in consultation with your local veterinarian. But a word of caution is required at this point. Because of the good immune system of bison, I don’t believe we have to go needle-happy, vaccinating for everything possible. In due time, and sooner than later, we will have to vaccinate for many of the same problems that plague the beef industry. With good common sense though, I firmly believe that we have some breathing space before many of the beef vaccinations will become part of the bison program.