Elk are ruminant animals and as such, have many similarities to cattle. There are, however, some important differences. Elk are highly seasonal with changes in appetite, growth and reproduction closely associated with changes in the seasons. Elk are intermediate feeders which means they both browse and graze. Cattle and sheep are grazers while white-tailed deer and moose are examples of browsers. Although elk use both feed types less efficiently than true grazers or browsers they have more flexibility in choosing feed. Intermediate feeders and browsers have some differences in their digestive physiology which also make them relatively immune to bloat.
Elk adapt well to a wide variety of feedstuffs. Rules that apply to balancing rations
for all livestock species also apply to elk: feed test, know your requirements and
formulate rations accordingly.
The feeding year of the hinds can be broken down into four periods each with different nutrient requirements.
The breeding period or rut occurs in the all (September 1 to November 1). Mature hinds should be fed to maintain body weight while jinnocks (yearlings) should be fed for a small increase. Poor quality pasture may need to be supplemented with 1 to2 kg oats per elk per day.
Winter Feeding Period
The winter feeding period (November 1 to April 1) corresponds to early and mid gestation. Over the winter a 10% weight loss in hinds is acceptable. A small weight loss will reduce the possibility of overfat hinds and the associated calving difficulties. It will also allow for the compensatory gain in the summer which is part of the elk's natural cycle. Alfalfa grass hay forms the base of the winter feeding program.
Spring Feeding Period
The spring feeding period (April 1 to May 15) corresponds to late gestation. Elk should be placed on pasture as early as possible. This assists in regaining body condition and provides exercise to improve muscle tone. Feeding grain during this period must be done carefully as overfeeding concentrates may lead to lactation failure.
Summer Feeding Period
The summer feeding period begins with the start of calving in late May and continues to
the start of the rut in the fall. The demands of lactation are high. Hinds produce a
nutrient dense milk containing 8% protein and 8% fat, more than double that of a dairy
cow. At 40 days in milk a hind can produce 4 litres of mik per day. Good quality pasture will not
need supplementation, however, pasture lacking in quality or quantity should be
Elk can be fed a wide variety of grains. Whole oats is a popular choice among elk producers as there is little chance of digestive upset and animals adapt to it quickly.
Free choice mineral consumption is very low and variable. It is best to mix the
minerals into a supplement which is provided in a small amount year round. Elk have
vitamin and mineral requirements similar to other domestic livestock. The minimum copper
requirement is higher than the minimum copper requirement for cattle but at 15 mg/kg dry
matter (ppm) is not higher than the minimum requirement usually followed in practice.
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Farm Production Extension, Animal Nutritionist
Manitoba Agriculture Food, and Rural Initiatives