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To Bottle Feed or Not to Bottle Feed

A discussion about saving the life of an abandon bison calf

One of the greatest pleasures I have had to date is hand raising a bison baby. I use the word pleasures uniquely because it was one of the most exhausting and frustrating things I have done in this bison business. It was hard. It was repetitive and it was stressful for me and for the little bison baby.

Before getting into why I think one should or should not bottle feed bison, I want to paint you a little picture of how I got into this situation in the first place!

Our first 30 head of bison were purchased from 6 different ranches. Within the 30 we purchased eight bred bison to eventually give us 8 calves to be born April - July 2021. On April 26th 2021 we welcomed our first 2 calves. Not just first calves of the season but the first calves on our ranch ever! They were born to a set of sisters about 5 minutes apart. One calf ventured through a cross fence and the mom couldn't get to her. When we intervened and opened gates, mom ran past the other calf/cow pair and she decided that was her baby. The two moms fought over the one calf while leaving the other to die. We waited 12 hours and then went and got the baby bison to start feeding. By this time, the entire herd left her in one 16 acre paddock while they were in another 16 acre paddock so there was no danger from the rest of the herd when we went out to scoop her up. World, meet Caramel! This is where the *fun* begins.......

We knew colostrum was the most important and we knew she needed it within 24 hours of being born. We quickly got some from a neighboring Angus Beef producer. We called every bison producer we knew and got some valuable advise but many have never bottle fed a bison baby. The common theme was, we needed lambs milk, feed little amounts every 2-4 hours even throughout the night for the first two weeks. We purchased new bottles as the bottles we had on had were more for beef cattle and not bison. Fun Fact... Bison have milk teats about the size of lamb teats.

Bison are fascinating y'all! Or I should say that creation is fascinating. Knowing what we know about bison and the warning signs they often will show off when they feel threatened (raised tail, thrashing head, pawing the ground, false charging, charging) then watching this 12 hour old bison baby doing ALL those things without any sort of influence from the herd was simply amazing. This baby buffalo knew her God given instincts and she used them all just as she should. Lucky for us, she was all of 50 lbs so we were able to control her without hurting us or her. If you missed the link above it is worth a watch.

Onto more nitty gritty. We started with 12oz of lamb milk replacer every 4-5 hours. She was definitely acting like she could drink WAY more. There is a high risk for scours (diarrhea that could lead to dehydration) at such a young age and bison have a smaller esophagus than beef cattle so the traditional tools and pills don't work for bison. We continued the feeding through the night feeding for two full weeks. By week 3 we starting to slowly increase the milk and decrease the number of feedings and feeding about 24 oz for her last bottle to get her through the night. At 4 weeks we were only feeding during the day. She was eating grass and hay along with her four 20-24 ox bottles per day. By 6 weeks old we were down to 3 bottles. Side note, even following the more bottles less milk rule she did scour. We used paste available at our feed store to help with that. The pill pushers can tear right through the esophagus so we didn't attempt that.

We continued bottles until November. In November we purchase three new bison calves to introduce to our bottle baby. When we brought those newly weaned calves in, we also weaned Caramel. Together the four calves spent time separated from the herd. When Caramel met the other baby bison, she was less than impressed. She didn't want any part of them. After a few weeks we brought the rest of the herd up to meet the 4 calves but kept the calves separated. Finally on November 21, 2021 we released the calves and my bottle baby to the herd. I was flooded with emotions wondering if she would be ok.

It took a while for her to adjust. Now, in March 2024 she still keeps a bit of a distance but stays close enough to the herd. She loves ALL new babies. Her favorite herd members are still the calves we purchased to put in the pen with her. Her mother Cow 619 has never shown any kind of attachment for her at all. She does get pushed out sometimes but never too bad.


National and State Parks as well as Reserve and Restoration Herd Management does not allow for bottle feeding of abandon calves. There may be exceptions to this but I am not aware of any exceptions. Many people believe that because bison are non domesticated animals we should let nature take its course.

A baby bison that has been abandon may have genetic or physical disorders that we as humans may not see or understand like that of a bison mother. In larger herds with more predators, a sick or underdeveloped bison calf would slow the herd down. This is all part of the natural selection in Nature.

Many producers feel that bottle feeding a bison baby should not be done. 1) I may have created a generational bottle baby. 2) I may have a bison that will not get close enough to allow breeding. In a herd that is selling calves each year every head counts. 3) Some bottle baby bison become the very bottom of the pecking order if they are released back to the herd. 4) Bottle baby bison that are not able to go back to the herd may have a harder time living a healthy life because they are designed to be herd animals and they are very herd bound.

On the flip side, many bottle babies reunite with their herd and become happy, healthy, thriving and reproducing animals. Some grow up nicely and steadily and can still be used for butcher.

Some can go on to do other jobs like training cutting horses or being in rodeos. Some can be trained to be mascots for football games. None of these are good options in my opinion just because I don't like seeing bison used this way. Other people have other opinions.

Should they be bottle fed? Should they be left to nature? I don't have the exact answer for you. I do know that bottle feeding bison is a HUGE FEAT! It is not for the weak hearted. It is a lot of work. It is stressful and when they thrive it is so rewarding.

*I personally will NEVER support bottle baby bison as an industry or moneymaking gig. I have seen people that deliberately pull bison from the mamas early to sell as a bottle baby buffalo and I will never believe that is an ok thing to do. Yes people do it and Yes people support it, I am just not those people!

Pictured below is Caramel

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Great video. Did you keep a journal on the labor of love being a bison mama. I know we talked early on about you writing a children's book about Caramel the bison baby you could sell at your ranch store !!!

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