Feeding Wild Animals

Intermittently, I receive a phone call asking me about the interpretation of a feed analysis for a wild animal as opposed to domesticated livestock whose nutrient requirements I am more familiar with.  These phone calls usually make me do a little more research and I learn something new about animal nutrition with each inquiry.

The first time this happened, I was new to consulting here at Ward Laboratories, INC.  A producer called asking why his pheasants were suddenly losing their feathers and then dying.  The situation was dire, and his story was quite startling.  As it turned out, he was offered a very good deal on some wheat grain and had decided that would be the feed source for his pheasants.  Luckily for me the nutrient requirements for pheasants are listed in the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Poultry, so I was able to make a direct comparison between the grain he was feeding and the bird’s requirements.   It turned out that wheat grain was very high in energy, however much lower than the protein, and mineral requirements of ring neck pheasants.  The moral of that story was to have a solid understanding of the nutrient requirements of the animal you are feeding along with knowledge of the nutrients the feed is providing.

A common wild animal I get asked about is deer.  Most of these questions are about supplemental feed for deer for hunting purposes.  Deer are unique in because antler growth is very important to hunters.  For optimal antler growth deer have a very high requirement for protein.  It is recommended that a supplemental feed be greater than 16% crude protein.  Deer are also browsing animals not grazing animals meaning that they select the most nutritious portions of plants for consumption.  So, it has been shown that the total diet of a deer in the wild can be between 20-24% crude protein.  A lot of livestock producers want to utilize leftover feed supplements to feed deer on their property.  These supplements were formulated for livestock species consuming roughages not wild browse therefore, those feeds may cause health issues for deer.  Sheep and goat feed is low in copper and other important minerals and may cause a deficiency for deer.  Horse supplemental feeds are typically for active horses and therefore high in starch which may result in acidosis when consumed by a deer.

Most recently, I was asked about feeding bison.  Being unfamiliar with nutritional requirements of bison, I did a little research.  Nutrient requirements of bison have not been studied as extensively and are not as well defined as beef cattle.  Bison are more efficient utilizers of fiber than beef cattle.  They prefer to consume large amounts of grass to smaller amounts of legumes.  For the most efficient finishing production bison should be provided with a diet at about 14% crude protein and 70-90% concentrate diet so that energy does not limit growth.   Crude protein requirements for bison at other stages are not well defined but are thought to be just below those for productive beef cattle.  This is because nitrogen recycling is more prevalent in these wild ruminants than in cattle.  A management challenge bison producers face is the sensitivity of bison to cool temperatures and shorter photoperiods.  Instinctually, these animals conserve energy during the winter and consume less feed, gain less and are less productive in the winter months.  However, during summer months, bison consume more feed, gain weight at a quicker rate and are more productive.

When feeding wild animals, be sure to do some research and familiarize yourself with that animal’s nutrient requirements, as well as common feeding practices by other producers or game promoters.  Then be sure you understand the feed ingredients and how they are going to meet those nutritional requirements. Ward Laboratories Inc. can test your feeds to get an accurate report of the nutritents in the feeds you are supplementing and I am here as a consultant to help you research the nutritnet requirements of different animals.   After meticulously formulating a diet or supplement, monitor the animals you are feeding to ensure they are healthy and productive.

Feeding the Bugs Part 2: 7 Feed Additives to Modify Rumen Metabolism

The two most common issues that occur when feeding ruminant animals are bloat and acidosis.  Bloat is the result of gases not being able to escape from the rumen.  It can occur on a forage-based diet due to rapid fermentation of soluble protein and readily available carbohydrates resulting in a frothy entrapment of rumen gases.  In the feedlots, bloat is typically a secondary symptom to rapid starch fermentation and acidosis and froth may or may not be present. Acidosis occurs on grain-based diets and is the result of decreased pH in the rumen due to rapid starch fermentation and excess lactic acid presence in the rumen. While bloat is an issue on forage diets, ruminants were adapted to consume a mostly forage diet, but it is not conducive to efficient animal production.  Therefore, cattle are often placed on high grain diets for growing and finishing at a high rate of efficiency. Along with increased production on a grain-based diet comes the increased incidence of acidosis and bloat.  Here are how 7 feed additives modify the fermentation process in the rumen to prevent bloat and acidosis.


  1. Proanthocyanidins also known as condensed tannins, are found in plants such as apples, tree bark, grapes and cranberries. These compounds when present in the rumen at 1-5ppm DM intake, can precipitate soluble protein thereby preventing the accumulation of froth decreasing the incidence of bloat. We are in the day and age where crop improvements are often from manipulation of genetic material to suppress unwanted plant characteristics such as in low lignin varieties of alfalfa and corn. Currently, the consortium for alfalfa improvement is researching the possibility of varieties expressing condensed tannins to prevent legume bloat.  This variety may be available in 8 to 10 years if the process proceeds in a similar way to the low lignin varieties.


  1. Poloxalene is a surfactant which breaks up the soluble protein froth thereby preventing pasture or legume bloat. It can top dress a ration or be offered in a molasses lick.


  1. Ionophores are a chemical compound that inhibits the growth and activity of gram-positive bacteria in the rumen. Gram-positive bacteria only have one outer cell membrane as opposed to gram negative bacteria that have two and are therefore not susceptible to the effects of ionophores on the bacterial cell. Common gram-positive bacteria in the rumen include cellulolytic bacteria and methanogens.  Therefore, the fermentation pathways in the rumen are shifted so that less methane gas is produced and more useful compounds such as volatile fatty acids, which can be utilized by the animal are produced.  Ammonia producing bacteria in the rumen also tend to be gram-positive and consequently less protein is degraded to ammonia and by-pass protein increases.  Ionophores were originally fed because they change the feed intake habits of the animal to consuming smaller amounts throughout the day which decreases acidosis occurrence.  The ultimate result of feeding ionophores on animal production is decreased feed intake, increased rate of gain and thereby improved feed efficiency.


  1. Buffers include bicarbonate, limestone and magnesium oxide. These compounds increase rumen pH, decreasing acidity. When animals are fed buffers, cellulolytic bacteria populations increase, amylolytic bacterial populations decline and the rate of starch fermentation decreases resulting in less incidence of acidosis.


  1. Direct Fed Microbials (DFM) are just as they sound, the purposeful feeding of specific microbial species to alter ruminal microbe populations. When feeding DFM the bacterial population is meant to shift from lactic acid producing bacteria to lactic acid using bacteria thereby preventing acidosis. With this feed additive results vary, and they do not always exhibit an impact on acidosis.


  1. Enzymes that are meant to break down fibers are sometimes fed to increase forage utilization in the rumen.


  1. Essential Oils are naturally occurring plant secondary metabolites. They are not well understood, and research results are varying. They are currently thought to have the potential to alter rumen fermentation pathways, but the mechanism is not known.


Although the above feed additives can help prevent bloat and acidosis, they can not replace a properly formulated step-up ration and diet or production practices such as backgrounding.  One of the best ways to prevent these aliments is to test feed ingredients and formulate a diet plan that moves animals from a low energy forage-based diet to a high energy high-grain diet gradually.  This allows those intermediate acid utilizing bacteria with a slower turn over rate to catch up with the diet and reduce the chances of acidosis.

Feeding the Bugs Part 1: Exploring the Interactions of Rumen Microbes

Soil microbes are all the buzz these days, but what about rumen microbes?  Currently, it is very common to go to a ruminant nutrition meeting and hear about feeding the microbes first.  This is especially the case with the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Beef using the microbial protein and bypass protein system.  There are four groups of microbes that can be found in the largest compartment of the four-chambered stomach, the rumen.  These groups are bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and archaea. These microbes make up a diverse microbial community that behaves synergistically to prevent feedback end-products of fermentation, and to ensure rapid fermentation and digestion of feed.  Understanding how these microbes perform and interact in the rumen can help producers to understand why certain feeds have the effects that they do in the rumen, for example why acidosis or bloat is more likely to occur on certain diets and how a step-up ration can help prevent these digestive issues.

Bacteria are small in size and replicate quickly making them the most populous microbe in the rumen at about 100,000,000,000 cells / mL of rumen fluid.  Therefore, they play an important role in ruminal fermentation.

Cellulolytic bacteria are important to the breakdown of the fibrous structure of the plant material.  They adhere to forages to avoid predation by other microbes and utilize cellulase, a membrane bound enzyme, to breakdown plant fibers.  Populations of cellulolytic bacteria are highly affected by rumen pH.  On high forage diets, lots of ruminating is needed to breakdown the feed into small particle sizes for fermentation resulting in lots of buffering saliva present in the rumen allowing cellulolytic bacteria to thrive.  On high grain diets, cellulolytic populations decline as pH decreases and the rumen becomes more acidic. Important species of cellulolytic bacteria include Fibrobacter succinogenes, Ruminococcus albus, and Ruminoccuc flavefaciens.

Hemicellulolytic bacteria degrade hemicellulose into sugars, which can be used as a substrate of fermentation by other microbes in the rumen.  Most Ruminococcus bacteria fall into this category.

Amylolytic bacteria can utilize ammonia as a nitrogen source, and amylase, a secreted enzyme, to breakdown starches.  Like cellulolytic bacteria, their populations are also regulated by pH.  Inversely to cellulolytic bacteria, amylolytic bacteria are more prevalent on a high grain diet and decline with increasing pH and rumen buffers.  Amylolytic bacteria produce lactic acid which sometimes results in lactic acidosis.  Streptococcus bovis is an important species of amylolytic bacteria.

Intermediate acid utilizing bacteria are also very important to rumen fermentation.  These species utilize lactic acid, and succinyl acid as a fermentation substrate.  Intermediate acid utilizing bacteria are key to adaptation to high grain diets, however their reproductive rate is significantly slower than other bacteria, making production management such as backgrounding or implementing a step-up ration that much more important in the prevention of acidosis.  Important species of intermediate acid utilizing bacteria are Megasphaera elsdenii and Selenomonas ruminantium.

Proteolytic bacteria are very important in the rumen as they breakdown protein into peptides, amino acids and ammonia for growth by other rumen microbes. They also produce branched chain fatty acids which stimulate the growth of cellulolytic bacteria.  Some important proteolytic species are Peptostreptococcus and Clostridia.

Ureolytic bacteria only make up 5% of the rumen microbial population and are associated with the rumen wall.  These bacteria can break urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide allowing other microbes to utilize the ammonia as a nitrogen source.

Lipolytic bacteria use both secreted and membrane bound lipases to breakdown fat.

Protozoa make up a smaller proportion of the rumen microbe population than bacteria, but 50% of the microbial mass due to their larger size.  Protozoa cannot utilize non-protein nitrogen in the form of urea or ammonia.  They also predate smaller microbes such as the bacteria discussed above.  Most protozoa digest non-structural carbohydrates such as sugars and starches.  They play a role in acidosis prevention by sequestering some starch away from amylolytic bacteria. There are two classes of protozoa associated with fiber digestion.

Holotrichs have a long replication time, and are very sensitive to low pH, acidic environments. Therefore, exist mainly on a high forage diet and are not present in animals fed a high grain diet.

Entodiniomorphs have a short replication time and a greater population than Holotrichs.  They are also more tolerant of low pH environments. Therefore, Entodiniomorphs are present in the rumen on a high grain diet but are less prevalent.

Fungi have very low populations in the rumen but are very important to fiber digestion.  Fungi utilize their hyphae to physically separate strands of fiber.  Picture the stem of a mushroom as the hyphae and the log it is growing out of as the cellulose bundle it is breaking down.  Fungi also produce cellulase, an enzyme for breaking down the fibrous portion of the plant.

Archaea are not very populous in the rumen, but their impact on the efficiency of fermentation is very important. Archaea are the major methanogen producers in the rumen.  They utilize hydrogen produced by cellulolytic bacteria to produce methane gas, which is eructated by the animal.  This eructation, is considered an air pollutant by staunch environmentalists and a source of decreased production efficiency by producers.  The ionophore Monensin can be utilized to decrease methanogen numbers.  Important species of archaea are Methanobrevibacter and Methanomicrobium.

The four groups of microbes present in the rumen, bacteria, protozoa, fungi and archaea, play a major role in how ruminants utilize various feeds especially forages and high starch concentrate.  An understanding of microbial roles and interactions in the rumen can help a producer understand the importance of feed testing when formulating a new ration, changing the ruminant’s diet from forage-based to grain-based, and preventing acidosis or bloat.