How To Feed Bison

How To Feed Bison

The method of feeding is often determined by the size of the feedlot operation. Facilities that are small (less than 200 head) can be fed by hand or cart, while in large operations (more than 500 head) it is more practical to utilize a total mixed ration delivered to fence line feedbunks with a mixing wagon.

Initial results of studies have indicated that the method of feed delivery appears to have little effect on the feed intake of bison, although some data supports that bison performance is slightly better when self-feeding concentrates and providing free choice hay versus daily total mixed ration) TMR or bunk feeding methods. While it remains unproven, some believe that lower feed intakes may result from frequent disruption caused by human presence while feeding.

Free-choice using self-feeders

Using this system, the feed is always available in self-feeders allowing the animal to eat at anytime. Typically, separate mobile feeders are used to supply forages and supplements. There are several commercial designs available along with countless custom designs. Each design must be carefully investigated to ensure that there is minimal wastage, contamination by manure, weather spoilage and bridging or lodging of feed within the feeder storage.

Feeders must be constructed rugged enough to withstand tractor towing and rough use by the bison.

The design must also resist overturning by the animals.

The self-feeder design should facilitate the easy maintenance of the distinct herd hierarchy. This means that there must be adequate feeding space and that the bison are able to see other animals approaching. The early visual recognition of dominant or subordinate animals will greatly reduce fighting frequency within the pen.

Round bale feeders must be kept reasonably full. Nearly empty “tomb-stone” style feeders may become a hazard if animals are forced to reach for the hay remaining near the bottom. There have been cases reported where bison have become trapped in hay feeders.

There is less than five per cent wastage of hay when using a well-designed round bale feeder. There is also less wastage when a shorter supply of hay is offered (one-day’s supply rather than a four-day supply).

The use of self-feeders may reduce the labour required to feed the animals. The mobility of the feeders provides benefits. The buildup of manure associated with a stationary feeder can be reduced or avoided when using a mobile feeder.

The producer must carefully consider the design and location of the feedlot when choosing a livestock feeder. Self-feeders may be inconvenient to refill if pens are muddy or filled with snow. Refilling requires that machinery must enter the pen, which necessitates disturbing the animals.

How To Feed Bison

Mixed ration using bunk feeding

Using a mixed ration system, the feed is delivered once or twice daily to fence-line bunk feeders. The ration may be a total mixed ration (TMR) that offers the complete diet or the ration may be provided to supplement self-fed forage. Typically this system is utilized by large feedlots.

It is very important that there is enough bunk feeding space so that all the animals can eat at the same time (upon delivery). If there is insufficient space, subordinate animals may never have the opportunity to reach the bunk. It’s been estimated that, for cattle, limited or regulated feeding requires approximately three times the feed space per animal than self-feeding systems. Bison feedlot operators report that about two feet of bunk space is typically required per animal. This amount increases to about three feet to accommodate bison with horns.

To capitalize on economies of scale, feeding a TMR may require specialized equipment for mixing and delivering the ration. This system is most practical in large feedlots. Feed can be delivered efficiently to the fenceline feed bunks by a single operator. There is less hay wastage when feeding ground forages as part of a TMR than when utilizing round bales. It is also easier to incorporate minerals and vitamin in a TMR.

Typically, TMR’s are dry and therefore the animals may develop associated health problems. For example, dust from feeds may irritate the eyes and lungs of animals.


Unlimited access to fresh water for all animals must be ensured. There are two basic types of water systems that may be used in a feedlot: conventional and constant flow.

The conventional system is familiar to most producers. Water is kept pressurized throughout the system by a pump and pressure tank. A float valve that reacts to the animals’ water consumption regulates flow at the hydrant. The advantages of this system include low initial cost and that it only operates on demand. The disadvantages include possible mechanical problems with the float valve system and the need to heat and insulate the bowls.

A constant flow system operates by constantly recirculating the water throughout the system. The advantages include that there are no valve problems and no requirement for heating. Disadvantages include a high initial cost, a pump that runs continuously and higher maintenance to ensure that the waterers are clean.

It is recommended that waterers be shared between no more than two pens. This will reduce the number of pens affected by failures and reduce the possibility of disease transmission. To further reduce the risk of disease transmission, treatment or isolation pens should have separate and individual water sources.


Minerals are most effectively delivered as part of a feed supplement. However, many producers have reported success offering minerals free choice. Offering minerals in a separate station increases the chances of wastage and spoilage. Competition and fighting frequency can be reduced if the station design allows bison to see other animals approaching.

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