Elk are versatile and efficient plant eaters. They happily graze and browse an almost endless variety of grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees - but they eat only the choice parts of each one! The rule to remember in supplying forage to elk is YTRG - young, tender, rapidly growing.
If you are comparing elk to cattle, think of dairy cattle, not beef cattle. Elk, except for adult cows for a four-month period from January to May, are high-performance animals. They are fast growing as young calves, highly fertile and productive as mothers and the bulls produce incredible racks of the fastest-growing animal tissue - antler.
"YTRG" implies something very important to remember - "Grass up to their bellies" is not good pasture. Coarse, rank growth must be harvested to allow the pasture to become YTRG again.
Well then, what is good elk pasture? What do elk like to eat? In the wild, elk have access to a huge variety of plants, and they use most of them. That suggests the second key point about good elk pasture (YTRG was the first) - Variety.
A study completed by P.J. Fargey in Alberta showed elk definitely have preferences amongst different grasses and legumes at different times of year.
With these preferences in mind, plus the goal of variety in available forage and browse, begin planning your pastures. First, try to fence in a variety of terrain and vegetation types. Include wooded areas - elk love the shelter and browse. Wooded areas must be managed carefully, as their growth rate is relatively slow compared to grasses and legumes, and elk can quickly kill the shrubs and trees
Second, consider the seasonal patterns of growth of each type of plant.
Using this information about the forage preferences of elk and the growth patterns of available forages, and with advice from knowledgeable neighbours, plan the species mix you'll plant in your pastures. A good pasture management plan will outline where all of your elk will be at all times of the year. Assume that your weather will be average all year, and develop strategies to deal with weather extremes.
Most pasture mixes should aim for 50% grasses, including meadow brome, timothy, orchard grass, Palaton reed canary grass, or ryegrass, or forbs such as Puna chicory, plus 50% legumes including alfalfa, sainfoin, or clover. If the mix is less than this proportion either way, elk will tend to overgraze either the grasses/forbs or the legumes, whichever is less in the mix.
The pasture season can be extended by using annual crops such as fall rye, annual ryegrass, winter wheat or late-planted oats. All of these crops work very well in a warm autumn, an all will survive a light winter to produce early in the spring. Fall rye, in particular, will survive even severe winters. Aim for about 10-15% of your pasture rotation in annuals.
Stockpiling of forage can also extend grazing well into autumn and winter. Stockpiling refers to the practice of harvesting the first flush of forage in June or July, then allowing pastures to grow ungrazed into the fall and harvesting the semi-cured crop after cool weather and frost slows or stops growth. A great variety of forages may work well, ranging from sweet-stemmed forage sorghums and bermuda grass in the South and Southeast, bluestems and gammagrass in the Southern Plains, or red fescue, meadow brome or orchard grass in the northern Prairies and Parkland.
One more comment about pasture management and another entire subject in itself, is rotational grazing. Crossfencing facilitates this strategy, and electric fencing can also be used. Use 5-foot plastic or fiberglass poles, with two strips of polywire tape at 4' and 3' above the ground to allow calves to move freely and not become entangled. Move the fence to allow access to fresh grazing.
Well-managed pasture is always the most inexpensive feed we can offer our elk. It should also be the most healthful diet. To make sure these statements are true, we need to pay more close attention to good pasture management. Every minute, and every penny devoted to this focus, will be very well spent.
Pasture Seed Mix for Elk
Designed for the Parkland area of North Central North America, for medium textured soils and average precipitation. Innoculated and blended.
For medium to well drained soils:
15% Meadow Bromegrass
5% Creeping Red Fescue
20% Able or AC Caribou Alfalfa
15% Rangelander or Spredor 2 Alfalfa
10% Red Clover
5% Puna Chicory
Seed at 15 to 20 lbs per acre, fertilize with Phosphorus and micronutrients as advised by a local soil specialist.
For wet or poorly drained soils:
40% Bellevue or Palaton Reed Canary grass
15% Alsike Clover or Magnum 3 Alfalfa
20% Red Clover
Seed at 10 to 15 lbs per acre, fertilize as above.
Fertilizer required would be 10 lbs. per acre nitrogen, 85 lbs. per acre phosphorus, no potash, 5 lbs per acre copper sulfate.