Bison Milk and the Orphan Calf

I feel so lucky to be able to publish all this information for our bison calves. Look at all the people that contributed! This would not have been possible without them. (further down the page is the most recent articles)


Can you milk a bison? No, we do not milk American Bison/Buffalo. (generally)

Yes we have milked a bison cow in recent years, ONLY to study the milk. Their bag is extremely small compared to other Bovidae or Bovine. Bison are a wild animal and its best not to put your hands them anymore than absolutely necessary. 
Buffalo milk is what you are thinking of. While researching ‘bison milk’ I found several countries that use their buffalo for milking. Italy, Germany..etc. … some countries call their buffalo bison as we do, but there are only two types of bison. American bison (bison bison) and European or Wisent (Bison bonasus) . Neither are milked. Water Buffalo

1840’s Robert Wickliffe, of Lexington, Kentucky, dated November 6, 1843 (his experiments started in 1813)
As the milk of the buffalo cow, while small in quantity, is extremely rich, it is evident that a strain of buffalo blood in the domestic stock would greatly improve the quality of the milk over that of the common cow.

1860’s Mr. James P. Swain of Bronxville, New York, who in 1868 made a number of experiments in crossing the buffalo with Jersey cattle, records some interesting observations in regard to the milk of his cross-breeds. These animals were much larger than the Jersey, almost black in color, with a somewhat woolly coat. They were quite tame and exceedingly domestic, allowing a boy to handle them, and stood to be milked as well as any cow in the herd of Jerseys.

Mr. Swain made some careful tests of the milk, in comparison with that of his choicest Jerseys, and found that though the quantity was small—being about ten quarts a day when fresh—it was however astonishingly rich, yielding fully twenty-seven percent of cream, while the best of the Jerseys only marked twenty-five percent. One of the striking peculiarities that he noticed in the cream was, though perfectly distinct, it was almost colorless, that is, white like the milk. The milk was much sweeter than that of the common cows and contained but little water, and when curdled made a remarkably tenacious curd, having not more than half the usual amount of whey.

1874 Around this time, William and Charles Alloway of Manitoba, Canada, with the aid of a milk cow, captured three bison calves to start their own herd.

1877 (View page)
The calves were weaned, and the mothers, although showing some of the buffalo characteristics, proved to be very good milkers, quite gentle, giving an average of 14 quarts of milk per day for at least five months, and such rich milk I never saw. Cattalo Cows 50/50

Catalo/Beefalo (View page)
But, in the 1880s, 100 years later, a Nebraska and claimed 14 quarts a day from one cow that “almost all the cheese is made of buffalo (bison crosses)  milk” in this area. Also, James P Swain of Bronxville, New York, found that his catalo, a cross with Jerseys, gave milk with twenty-seven percent, almost-colorless cream. His…They were no favorites as they yielded less milk.”

1888 (View page)
I think if we could have had cows to suckle the youngsters at once more would have been saved, not on account of the milk, as ninety-nine out of 100 would suppose, but on account of their being the nearest substitutes to their mothers in the way of company, etc. All of our calves not actually dying of fright on the field reached all the milk they could use before they could have been very hungry after such a fright and chase as was needed in order to capture them, while a calf that had had its mother killed by some soldiers on another trip and that was allowed to run among the horses and followed them got nothing to eat for three days until it reached a post, and yet lived.  Kansas 1888

C.J. Jones -“Buffalo Jones” (View page)
The robe of-the catalo is as far ahead of the buffalo robe as a buffalo robe is ahead of a sheep pelt…. The pure-blood buffalo cow gives the richest milk in the world.  J Jones 1893

1893 (View page)
On his first expedition Mr.- Jones captured eleven buffaloes, but saved only four. He was 200 miles from a ranch having a cow, and he had to feed the little fellows on condensed milk, which did not agree with them. On his third trip he took cows with him to the staked plains of Texas, and out of thirty-seven buffaloes saved thirty-two.

1900’s (View page)
I have buffalo milk which is sweeter, richer, and more nourishing than the milk of any other breed of cows.  C.J. Jones

Cree(View page)
The choice parts of a buffalo were the tongue, shoulder, fat from the teats, and heart. The liver was often eaten raw. Sometimes a part of the muzzle and the kidneys were also eaten raw. Men drank warm blood so that they might not be perturbed at the sight of blood in battle. Old people sometimes cut out the teats of milking buffalo cows and drank the milk.

Golden Gate Park 1922-TripletsThree babies born


Louisa of Woods’ Crossing: A Story of the Texas Frontier

By James Kaye  (Special thanks to his publisher and James Kaye)

[“Anything sweet-tasting was enjoyed by the Comanches” (Carlson and Jones). Newcomb wrote that lactating animals taken in the chase such as deer and bison were “drained” of their milk from slashes to the udders that mixed milk with blood.” Such milk was considered a delicacy Slashing of udders made milk bloody but how drained” exactly is left unsaid). Fehrenbach wrote similarly that Comanches “loved the taste of blood and of curdled milk in the bellies of suckling calves or fawns.” Herman Lehmann, a “White Comanche,” told of “cutting calves open. Eating their livers, and drinking the milk from their stomachs.”

It can be surmised that milk was a delicacy from any source in the chase and, one might assume, in any manner of the taking. (It is doubtful however that milk from a breast, even one severed, would flow like water from a canteen and Indians didn’t drink from cups.) Joutel wrote of Caddoes drinking human blood though it was left unsaid if mixed with milk or how drunk, but based on a historic massacre Hurons “knelt to the earth and drank freely the blood of their victims as if it flowed out onto the ground” (Cooper). (It is logical to assume that American Indians drank human blood, and milk, in any manner when available.)]

For T.A. “Dot” Babb, who was abducted by Comanches at age thirteen along with his nine-year-old sister, the taste of a dead bison calf’s freshly ingested milk was so intense he could recall it fifty years later.  A women split open the calf, scooped the milk from its stomach, and distributed it among her children. “It was the sweetest stuff I ever tasted, and was thick like our gelatin,” he said.

Bison calf on milk cow
Antelope Island 1905-1907




The Tennessean
Nashville, Tennessee Aug 25 1929

Warden Milks Buffalo Cow
She Balk at First But Perseverance Wins.

Great Falls, Mont (UP) Few men have milked a buffalo cow and lived to tell of their experiences. Frank Rose, warden on the bison reserve In Lake county, is one of the few, and he’s probably the only man in the Northwest who ever tried to’ say “so-o-o bossy” to buffalo.

Rose received a request from Salt Lake City for some bison milk for laboratory purposes. He obtained the milk but declared that the operation – would have to be performed by somebody else hereafter.

So far as he could determine, nobody had ever written a book of instructions telling the novice how to go about coaxing a lady buffalo in being milked. He found that milking; buffalo cow was somewhat different from milking the average dairy animal.

First herding the reluctant and rebellious, cow into a crate. Rose made an attempt to obtain the milk. One side of the crate was smashed away, and the milk pall was kicked across the lot. Rose then tied a leg of the cow on each side of the crate. No better results. All four legs were tied but the buffalo continued to object. – Then a maze of ropes were passed around the cow’s body and she was trussed so completely that she could neither kick, bite, butt, rear nor- cast about in any direction. Rose obtained a pint of milk from the indignant animal. The milk tested 7.9 percent butter-fat and had only half the sugar content of ordinary cow’s milk. Rose was glad to find that out anyway.


Bison Producers of Alberta  (

It is normal for them to overeat if you give them as much as they want. This often leads to digestive upsets and diarrhea. It is best to keep them a little bit hungry at the end of each feeding. How much milk to give at each feeding depends on a few things but I usually recommend about 500-800 mL (2-3 cups) of milk replacer 4 times a day for the first few weeks. As the calf gets older the frequency decreases and the volume increases. By the time it is 6-8 weeks old twice a day feedings of a 1 1/2 -2 litres would be OK. You may have to adjust these numbers a bit for your own calf once you get to know how much it takes to almost fill him up.

The dirt licking is normal for young calves. It serves 2 purposes. One is that is one of the ways that they explore their environment. They taste it. The other is that need are colonizing their rumen (first stomach) with bacteria and other micro-organisms that are important for the digestion of feed once they start eating. It important that calves have access to a pen with dirt and grass for the normal development of their stomachs. Calves will nibble at grass, hay, or grain when they are a few weeks old but don’t really consume very much until they are a little older. When the calf is a couple of weeks old have some grain or hay available to help supplement his diet. He will eat when he is ready. The sooner you can get him eating solid feed the less milk replacer you will need to buy.

The dirt licking does not indicate a mineral deficiency but it would be wise to have a free choice mineral for him to lick if he wanted. Don’t expect him to each very much because he probably won’t at first.

Using a surrogate mother is another option for feeding your orphan. I know of 2 bison calves being raised by beef heifers this summer and I know of people that have used goats in the past. It certainly cuts down on the work.  (If you are considering using goats to raise your calves I would recommend having them tested for malignant catarrhal fever and Johne’s disease.)

Once the calves are few weeks old it is a good idea to introduce them to some grain and hay or grass so that they can nibble on some solid feed. By the time they are a few months old they should be eating a significant amount of feed. Calves can be weaned from milk at 3-4 months of age and put onto a good quality diet.

Some other tips to help keep your calves healthy are as follows:

  1. Wash the bottles and nipples after each feeding to decrease the bacterial buildup. Good hygiene can prevent problems associated with the contamination of your equipment.
  2. Allow access to the soil so calves can lick it as this may provide some nutrients.
  3. Salt and minerals should also be available.
  4. Build a pen that allows lots of room for exercise.
  5. Try not to keep one calf by itself. Provide another calf to keep it company.

Raising an orphan bison or elk is a lot of work. Before undertaking the job you should become familiar with the husbandry that is required.

There is some information on our website about feeding orphans. It can be found in the Resource Library under Production Information for Established Producers in the Nutrition section.

Gerald Hauer, Bison Specialist  Download full pdf from 2000
Bison Centre of Excellence


This research was done in 95′, I have found compositions for 1929, 1964, 1974 The one in 74′ was lower results than the others, less protein and fat and higher lactose. The result from 64′ matches the one below almost perfectly.

*Bison milk is closest related to mare’s milk.

Cow avg. (Ayrshire, Brown  Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey, Zebu)

Table is adapted from course notes by Robert D. Bremel, U. of Wisconsin and from Handbook of Milk Composition,by R. G. Jensen, Academic Press, 1995.



By Peter Haase, Buffalo Horn Ranch
April 2000

This spring we were triply blessed with a set of triplet bison calves. Actually, it was

Buffalo Horn Ranch Triplets
Copyright-Buffalo Horn Ranch, Alberta Canada

something of a mixed blessing getting three heifer calves and then being confined to the ranch with the numerous feedings. We have some experience working with abandoned calves over the past three years with mixed results and one of our foundation cows is bottle raised.


The birth of the first recorded bison triplets has given us a great deal of publicity in numerous newspapers, magazines and on two national television networks. Perhaps someday they will even be in the Guinness Book of World records. With the publicity, our babies have also become the poster girls for “Brown’s Bison Milk Replacer” a new product that is now becoming commercially available. We were fortunate in that many experienced bison producers were able to give us advice on how to raise these girls properly.

A bison cow normally only has enough milk for one calf, so both are compromised when it comes to competing for the limited milk that mom is able to offer. Often one calf won’t get quite enough and will begin to fall behind, while its sibling grows stronger. It may take only a few hours or it might take a few weeks, but the usual scenario is that one calf is left behind as a meal for the predictors. In the confined pastures of a ranch, the likely hood of a cow raising twins is perhaps somewhat higher than in the wild. From our research, we have found that most abandoned calves are twins. Are twins more common today? I don’t know, I suspect that we are discovering more twins for a couple of reasons aside from there being more bison. Firstly, we producers are checking our herds more closely than before, so perhaps we discover the twins before the coyotes do. Secondly, we are more careful with the bison’s nutrition and health care and this too might contribute to more twins.

We had a situation with our second calf ever being born. This calf was born at night and in the confusion of 60 heifers, all but one without a calf, the heifer calf bonded with the one young cow who already had a two-week old calf. The new mother was frantic looking for her calf and the other cow was running around with two calves. After about 30 hours she didn’t want anything to do with this calf and abandoned it. We grabbed her at that point, gave it colostrum and bottle raised it for three weeks before she died of Navel Ill. The colostrum we gave her was too late and did nothing for her immune system. The mother of this abandoned calf found another heifer calving about the time that we grabbed her calf. She bonded with the new calf and this calf sucked on his ‘twin’ mothers all summer. The lesson here is that the calf must have colostrum in the first 6 to 12 hours or its chances of survival are slim. Another note here, we have a five-year-old bottle raised cow that we purchased as a calf. One thing that she really lacks is mothering ability. She never licks off her calf, nor does she look out for it very well. Fortunately, she has had two very persistent calves who have done very well despite the shortcomings of their mother. There is more to being a mother bison than instinct, there must be something learned as well.

There is much more to this paper written by By Peter Haase, Buffalo Horn Ranch, for the full content, please visit Bison Centre


Bison Milk and the Orphan Calf
Two orphan calves from two different ranches will keep each other company growing up. April 2018


Vern Anderson, Dale Burr, Tim Schroeder, Chris Kubal, and Eric Bock
Carrington Research Extension Center
North Dakota State University
Managing Very Young Bison Calves (2001)

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 dependent on mother’s 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.


My talk with Bitterroot Bison – March 2019

In June of 2010, it was published that Troy Westre and Chriss Mack, in May found themselves in a stressful situation. Having a set of twins and the mother only taking one and leaving the bull calf on his own. Prior to this, another cow having lost her calf was grieving. The perfect storm. The now orphan bull calf tried to nurse on the grieving cow and she would just kick him away. They were able to catch the now 45lb calf, which was losing ground after not being able to eat for two days. Using the deceased calf as a lure, they were able to get the cow in a secure outbuilding. They skinned the dead calf and secured it on the orphan bull calf. After several times trying to feed, the grieving cow accepted her new calf and was completely bonded after two weeks.

Bitterrott Bison cow and orphan bull calf
On loan from Michael Gallacher Photo of Montana

So after reading this first article, having to find out more, first talking with Candy, his wife, then a phone call to Troy. I find this all so interesting. He was very forthcoming and told me how he became a bison rancher and eventually meeting his future business partner, Dr. Mack in 2005. They have about 90 cows on one location and in the past 18 years have had at least 5 sets of twins. All from different cows and bulls. The second time the bison calf grafting occurred in 2014. For it to happen once in 2010 was huge news for the bison industry, it had never been done before. Now we have a second time and can now say these guys either have the best luck in a sometimes bad situation or they know what they are doing by pure instinct of being that close their herd.

The hide from the calf that died is removed and tied with biodegradable twine to the single twin calf and then it is introduced to the cow that lost her calf. When I asked how the hide was tied on, Troy said, “It only needs to cover the butt, because its head will be trying to nurse and the cow will sniff the rear of the calf.” It takes a couple of days before the calf is able to slip out of the hide and by then the mother cow is attached to her new calf.

The calf will nurse about every hour and a half for five to ten minutes. One of my goals is to find out how much milk a bison cow carries. Looking at a young bisons udder and seeing the graphs of how they are built to deliver milk, I never thought they could hold very much. I asked Troy if he could guess,  he said, maybe a half gallon.” My guess was a quart. He said, “the older cows that have produced a few calves already, their bags are larger, calves are bigger and better than first calves. “

My next question was shots. I read from so many others that they give vitamin shots to help the calf. I never have and worried maybe I should?  Troy does not give any shots to an orphan unless they are in trouble. He sticks to the more natural husbandry of what nature planned. If the calf never had a chance at colostrum, then, of course, that is given. The window for colostrum is only about 24 hours, after which he uses lambs milk replacer and has had great success.

I really enjoyed my talk with Troy from the Bitterroot Bison Ranch. He obviously really loves his job and the animals he oversees. I knew it was a place that had been Certified Humane, but I didn’t know they were the first bison ranch that was named certified and still is today. Montana, USA


I found these two Bison Milk Replacers, I would check the “guaranteed analysis” on their sites for any updates.

Guaranteed Analysis Calves on bottle

Crude protein (minimum) 27%
Protein from milk sources (minimum) 27%
Crude Fat 24%
Ash (Maximum) 8%
Calcium (Actual) 0.90%
Phosphorus (Actual) 0.70%
Vitamin A (Minimum) 40,000 UI/kg
Vitamin D3 (Minimum) 4.000 UI/kg
Vitamin E (Minimum) 80 UI/kg
Guaranteed Analysis

Bison Milk Replacer- This feed contains added selenium at 0.15 mg/kg
Crude protein (Minimum) 24%
Protein from milk sources (Minimum) 24%
Crude Fat (Minimum)22%
Crude Fibre  (Maximum)  .15%
Calcium (CA)Actual 1.3%
Phosphorus (P) (Actual) 0.85%



My personal experience has been with foal replacer and later switching gradually to non-medicated calf replacer. I watch my new calves like a hawk until I feel they are stabling. Anything can pop up in a skinny minute. I check mouth temperature, just making sure its warm.  Pulling lids back checking for dehydration. Watching their stools for color, smell and texture. Just all around mobility and attitude. While its normal for a new calf to not want anything to do with you, but sometimes that could be an indication that they don’t feel well. This is a demanding full time job…that little calf is depending on you. Our job is to try and replicate what its mother would do for him. Confidence, [low stress], exercise, quiet and safe environment to grow. ONCE they are strong and stable, you can introduce them to the rest of your life if you have to. (dog, kid….etc) Just as with rearing anything, slow gets the results quicker.Pistol with stall ball

The look on this calfs’ face tells me , in this minute she is healthy, bright, alert and curious.  I keep any new calves in the barn until they follow a milk bottle, making sure they are connected so they don’t run off and get into trouble. In the stall, no buckets with handles. Small tubs for grain and water. The ones I use have ‘no tip’ sides. After I am confident they will follow me, I take them outside to a round pen where they can enjoy the sun and grass and get some fresh air. I dont leave them out all night for fear of a stray or coyote. When they are older they can then be moved to an outdoor pen, still making sure they have all the necessities to continue growing into a healthy bison.
Problems and benefits of twin calves
Animal Health: It is worth the extra management effort to save both calves

By Roy Lewis  March 12, 2018

In my practice, I often hear producers complaining about twins, mainly because often the focus is on the problems they can present.

Bison Twins
About eight percent of most common beef breeds will produce twins, and it is also quite common among bison. Economics show there is value in making the extra effort to save the extra calf. Photo: Roy Lewis

However, research done on a twinner population over the last 10 years in the U.S. found there to be a definite economic benefit with twins. So it is important to look at both the positive and negative aspects that come with these double deliveries.

There is no doubt twins can be a positive if they both arrive alive, are the same sex and you have an extra cow to foster one of the calves. But we all know the opposite — twins coming malpresented (mixed up), then you finally get them out (with or without veterinary assistance) both are dead and the cow doesn’t clean and becomes a problem to rebreed. If we can minimize the bad scenario and come up with more positives, twins would be welcome. Keep in mind they will always require more care, attention and management skills.

Dystocias from fetal malpresentation are the biggest reason twins have a lower survival at birth. Twin or triplet lambs and kids are seldom mixed up at birth, yet calves commonly are. When one ponders all the permutations and combinations of all the legs and two heads coming backwards and forwards, it is no wonder mixups occur. In U.S. twinning research, they selected and kept cows with a propensity to twin resulting in more than 60 percent of cows delivering twins. They knew to watch these cows closely and jump in when problems developed.

The article further goes on about twins and information on the cow side (freemartins). A special thank you to them for allowing me to share this article.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Roy Lewis, Columnist
Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.