Feeding Elk after a Drought

The drought facing western Canadian farmers this year has devastated many farms. It has affected all types of farmers, elk and deer farmers included. A friend of mine was giving directions to a trucker who was hauling hay from Manitoba to his farm. After the directions were given, the trucker humorously stated something about us being “a little crispy out there.” Well, we’re sure not hauling hay from Manitoba because we like the shade of green that Manitoban alfalfa has! Yes we’re crispy!

Finding ways to get through the drought that has stunted, and in some cases annihilated, the first cut of hay and any pasture growth, is no laughing matter. It can involve some tough decisions. There have been several articles written about strategies for coping with the drought.

Elk digestive anatomy

To properly understand the nutrient requirements of elk, and how various crops and storage methods may work with elk, a brief examination of their digestive anatomy is useful. Elk have been described as intermediate or mixed feeders that will naturally select a mixture of food from grasses to browse material such as leaves. This is different from cattle or bison, which are classified as roughage/grass eaters and will select almost exclusively grass.

The implications this has when considering feeds for elk is that they have a smaller stomach size relative to body weight and their digestive systems are designed for more rapidly digestible feed. Conversely, cattle and bison hold feed in their rumens for a longer time to allow for digestion of more fibrous plant material. These anatomical differences should be considered when making feed decisions for elk based on information from cattle research.

Elk will consume around 2.5% of body weight under ad lib feeding; this is a similar predicted intake to what would be expected for beef cattle. In trying to manage a feeding program through a drought, it may be wise to feed less roughage, and balance the ration accordingly with a concentrate. An elk can be fed less than 2.5% of body weight total dry matter diet, provided that nutrient requirements are met in the diet. Generally, the higher the quality of the feed, the less space it takes, and the more of it elk can consume. Lower quality and high fiber forages, straws and some green feeds take up more stomach space. Elk won’t eat more if their ‘gut’ is full.


Alfalfa grown during a dry year has been shown to have significantly lower fiber than that grown in a regular moisture year. Full bloom alfalfa grown in a drought will have similar fiber levels as pre-bloom alfalfa grown in a normal year. Therefore, it would be a wise thing to test nutritive value of hay – this year in particular. If it is of higher quality than “usual” hay due to the drought, it would be important to know this when calculating least-cost rations.

Green feed

Green feed can be fed to elk effectively. The animals will typically select the more choice parts of the feed first, and leave the coarse stem material. Removing the bale feeder, once the bale gets low in the feeder, will allow the animals to root through the remaining plant material and select out any remaining leaves or grain kernels, allowing for more complete usage of the bale.

Many crops may be salvageable as grazing or for winter feed as green feed.

Drought conditions can cause nitrates to be elevated in green feed. It should therefore be tested to prevent nitrate poisoning.


If forage plants show signs of drought stress, caution should be exercised when using them as fresh forage because nitrate levels may be high. Silage is a preferable option since the fermentation process reduces nitrate levels. Making silage offers the opportunity to put up high quality feed with minimum harvesting losses.

Making silage is a practical method of salvaging weedy, hail-damaged, frozen, or otherwise damaged crops to produce a palatable and nutritional feed supply. However, changing the diet of any livestock should be done over a period of time (10-14 days) to allow the digestive system to adjust to the new feeds.

Hay silage

Round bale silage is a flexible, low-capital cost method of preserving forage. However, variable costs and spoilage losses can be high. Mixing hay and hay silage in a bale chopper works well to make the feed more uniform, thus decreasing selection by the animal. It can also be used to incorporate a lower quality hay in the total diet.

Brassica crops

Canola (all varieties except industrial-use oils) and mustard can be fed as part of an elk’s diet. Protein levels range from 10-12% to as high as 16%. Ideally, crops should be cut in the early podding stage, just after flowers have dropped. For cattle, it is recommended that no more than 30% of the total feed intake is canola or mustard hay or silage.

Testing forage quality

Particularly in this year of drought when feed is expensive, having your forages tested can enable you to feed a diet that is properly balanced to meet the needs of your elk herd. Whether you’re wintering pregnant cows or feeding a velvet bull herd, efficient management decisions about how much of each feedstuff to use can be made based on the results of feed analysis of your specific forages.


The drought has not only affected the price of roughages, but also of grains. Corn has become a viable alternative this year to traditionally used grains. Research in cattle indicates the performance can be equal to, or greater than, traditional free choice silage rations. The cost effectiveness of using corn will depend on the price of alternative forage and the price of grain, as well as storage and feeding capabilities available on the farm.

Using grain screenings for feed

Dockage is the unwanted material that is removed during grain cleaning. The composition of grain screenings will vary with the plant material. Nutrient content of grain screenings pellets have been reported in the 12-16% crude protein range. Talk to your local feed mill to see if lower cost screenings may be available reduce your costs of feed.

Hopefully next year we’ll see plenty of moisture and ideal growing conditions. Then we won’t have to be talking to truckers hauling hay across the country about being “crispy out here.”


Source: Jayson Galbraith, M.Sc., Elk/Bison Production Specialist, Alberta Elk Centre, Leduc, Alberta, Canada.