What Do Bison Eat? (Everything About Its Diet)

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Published on August 9, 2022
Last Updated on October 11, 2023

Some people eat to live, others live to eat.

Whether the Bison is in it for enjoyment or not is unclear, but one thing is certain. It eats a lot, and it spends almost all of its time doing so!

Since eating takes up such a huge part of their life, it is what shapes their habits and way of life. If you want to learn more about bison, probably one of the best places you can start is learning about how, and what they eat.

By understanding that, you can see how they live, what their bodies are like, and why they live in certain areas. Perhaps there is more to it than just getting a snack.

Are Bison Herbivores, Carnivores, or Omnivores?

Bison are primarily herbivores, specifically grass-eaters so you don’t have to worry about them eating you. Their diet consists of plants such as shrubs, hanging leaves, and grass, though they can supplement it with other fruits and vegetables.

Do Bison Eat A Lot?

Oh yes, bison don’t get as big as they are by dieting, so don’t think these large bovines aren’t ones to pass up a meal. Like most animals, bison are guided by their base instincts, and the most important is the need for food.

To maintain their size and strength, bison eat large amounts of food, and in particular, grass several times a day. They can spend as much as half the day grazing on grass or an average of 9-11 hours. It is such a big part of bison’s life that herds are known to eat while on the move. 

Their daily meal equals 1.6% of their total body weight or over 24 pounds of vegetation. This eating becomes essential during the winter because that food helps them survive the harsh environment.

What Do Bison Eat?

Bison eat a significant amount of grass, but if they can get the chance, there are several other things that they might eat, including wild plants, fruit, vegetables, and other plant-based foods.

What Is The Bison’s Favorite Food?

There is no doubt that the favorite food of these beautiful bovines is grass. As foragers, they spend their time searching for food, and the grass is one of the most accessible plants out on the plains. As much as 90% of their diet comes from grass alone.

The grass diet is even reflected in where the bison make their habitat. Most bison prefer to live in the vast open prairies, which offer various kinds of grass and sedges. Aside from prairies, they also gravitate to areas that have suffered from forest fires because the grass tends to grow there first. If bison get there early, they can graze the area without any other plants being in the way.

What Wild Plants Will Bison Eat?

Aside from grass, bison occasionally eat other plants to supplement their diet. Outside of the 90% grass they eat, the rest of the bison diet consists of 5% flowering shrubs and 2% vegetation from trees. 

Even in the prairies, bison do not rely solely on grass. Stray leaves, wildflowers, and other plants they see on the ground are some of the things they eat. 

If they can’t find grassland, bison will head into woody areas to eat. Bison can eat different plant life, including leaves, fruits, and vegetables.

As foragers, they know how to find food. Lichen and moss are other common sources of sustenance. They can lick these from trees and rocks for nutrients. Aside from fruits, bison are also willing to eat wooded plants like shrubs.

Hay is another standard part of a bison meal, especially domesticated ones. Many ranchers raise their bison on a diet of hay, and they report that these big beasts do well on that diet.

Do Bison Eat Fruit?

Bison are also happy to eat fruit on top of their usual diet. If they find an apple or some berries while foraging, bison will happily munch on these sugary treats. 

Some ranchers understand this and give their bison fruits as a treat from time to time. It helps keep them happy and gives them some extra nutrients.

Do Bison Like To Eat Vegetables?

It seems like the bison listen to their parents because they also eat plenty of vegetables. As foragers, they go out of their way to find vegetables, even digging for edible roots in the ground. Things like carrots and potatoes are among the many things these big vegetarians like to eat. 

Corn is another excellent addition to their diet, but only in small doses. Many ranchers use corn as a supplement to the diet of bison. While they enjoy it, too much of it can cause problems for their stomachs. 

Pumpkins, on the other hand, make for a great treat as bison eagerly gobble them up. All farmers need to do is smash them on the ground, and the bison will happily eat them.

Will Bison Eat Grain?

Bison will eat grain and actively go after grain if available. They enjoy it so much that ranchers use grain as the primary part of their bison diet.

Grain is acceptable as a supplement, but feeding these big animals too much grain can upset their sensitive stomachs. Bison who eat too much grain can suffer from a thing known as grain overload.

Although many believe that bison aren’t affected by this condition, this is simply not true. If a bison is not used to eating grain, it won’t be able to digest it. This leads to severe bacteria buildup in their stomachs and digestive system which can spread to the rest of their body. If that happens, it is dangerous for the animal.

Can Bison Eat Processed “Human” Foods?

Another common question is whether or not it’s ok to feed bison and other wild animals human food. People think that as long as they don’t contain meat and we remove all harmful bacteria, it should be safe for the bison to eat.

However, you must remember that just because we can consume something doesn’t mean it’s healthy or even safe for animals like the bison. This health risk is why many zoos and reserves discourage feeding animals human food.

Even something like bread which is mainly made from grain isn’t an ideal food for them. Bread contains a lot of preservatives and sugar that, while fine for humans, isn’t healthy for bison.

Will Bison Eat Meat of Any Kind?

This question might sound a bit silly since if they’re herbivores, they should eat only plants. However, the fundamental divide between what counts as herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores isn’t as clean-cut as people realize. Even predators like lions will snack on herbs and plants from time to time, and some herbivores like deer eat meat from time to time.

However, that is not the case with bison. These bovine giants are true herbivores, meaning that meat takes no part in their diet. That includes fish, birds, reptiles, and rodents, the ‘cheat meals’ that some herbivores tend to eat.

So if you were to lay out a fish to a hungry bison, they would likely leave it alone as it’s not in their instinct to hunt or eat meat.

This aversion to meat is because the bison body is not built to handle it. The bison’s teeth and digestive system are much better geared towards plants, so eating something unfamiliar like meat will cause stomach pains and digestive problems. If a bison were to eat meat, it would get sick from bacterial infections. 

Do Bison Eat Insects?

This question is a bit complicated, but the short answer is yes, bison may eat a bug or two. However, it’s important to remember that in many cases, they only eat them by accident. 

Since these big guys mainly eat grass, a bison might accidentally eat some of them. However, you shouldn’t consider them bug-eaters as they don’t actively try to eat bugs. Insects also make up such a small part of their diet that you can hardly count them.

What Do Bison Eat In The Winter?

As primarily plant eaters, food is hard to come by in winter. When the temperature drops, the plants, and grass that bison usually feed on become harder to access. Less food makes foraging difficult, but not impossible, as the bison have learned to adapt to the changing seasons.

They can still eat their usual grass and plants diet; the only difference is that they need to work a bit more for it. 

Some bison migrate and leave the area entirely.

In places like Yellowstone, bison will descend to lower slopes where snowfall is not as bad, and they can find more food. They will go to areas that aren’t as affected by the cold winter weather and still offer the same grass and plants they usually enjoy.

Once the winter season ends, though, the bison return to their original home.
However, not all bison are known to migrate, and some remain where they are well into the winter. Rather than starve, though, these intelligent animals learn to adapt. Some bison push their horns into the ground and use them like shovels. They push the snow aside so they can get access to the grass and plants underneath.

Author: Quade Ong

Hello there, my name is Quade. I have been a writer for three years but an animal lover for over two decades. I grew up in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, which has given me the blessing of seeing all sorts of beautiful animals. Now I strive to learn not just about the animals I am from, but those all over the world!


  • Quade Ong

    Hello there, my name is Quade. I have been a writer for three years but an animal lover for over two decades. I grew up in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world which has given me the blessing of seeing all sorts of beautiful animals. Now I strive to learn not just about the animals I am from, but those all over the world.

    View all posts

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1 thought on “What Do Bison Eat? (Everything About Its Diet)”

  1. I am pleased to learn that the animal’s horns come into play in winter when there is no above ground food to be found. Of course those horns can dig!
    Do both female and male bison have horns?


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