Reindeer: “Cattle of the North”

Jessica Herzog

Sun Star

Three calves have already been born this season at the at the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station farm, also known as the Reindeer Farm.

They are part of UAF’s Reindeer Research Program, where the “cattle of the north,” as Darrell Blodgett, program data specialist  says, are housed and studied. The herd started when 20 deer from a Seward Peninsula were brought to UAF in 1997. It is now the program’s 15th year with calves, Blodgett said.

Reindeer are synonymous with Santa in the Lower 48, Blodgett said. But at UAF, the 74 reindeer enable agriculture, research about nutritional studies and meat quality and a relationship with natives on the Seward Peninsula.

The first calf of the season and her mom live in a pen with other deer who have never calved before 2015. Photo by Jessica Herzog

The first calf of the season and her mom live in a pen at the reindeer farm with other deer who have never calved before 2015. Jessica Herzog/Sun Star

The Reindeer Research Program is the only one of its kind in the world, George Aguiar, program research professional, said. People across the globe “tap into our database,” discovering the farm’s applied research, which starts with calves.

This is student-farmhand Haley Heniff’s second calving season on the farm. She is a junior studying wildlife biology at UAF.

“I feel like I have been trained to sense what to do and how to handle any calving situation,” she said. She has helped with several births, ensuring the best care for the deer.

“It’s easy to get attached to the deer, especially calves,” Heniff said. “I certainly have my favorites, but don’t tell them.

Although Heniff gets attached to the animals, she “has no reservations” about reindeer research, she said.

Studying aspects of meat quality is vital when choosing a product to feed yourself and your family. The farm educates people about reindeer, which aren’t studied in many other places, she said.

Workers grow different grasses and experiment with food sources, exploring reindeer weight gain and food preference. Meat is presented to taste panels to create a satisfactory product, Blodgett said. Workers test satellite collars on the herd for use on the Seward Peninsula herds. The farm even made a portable slaughterhouse to encourage the presence of inspected reindeer slaughterhouses in Alaska, Blodgett said.

The research is crucial to promoting reindeer agriculture, especially for Alaskans and natives who own the Seward Peninsula herds, Blodgett said. The farm herd has been an indicator for the Seward Peninsula herds since the mid-1980s.

Applying research from the farm to the Seward Peninsula herds can help make reindeer production viable to benefit the natives, Aguiar said.

People from the farm used the mobile slaughterhouse to teach residents of Nome how to process their own animals, Blodgett said.

Without a slaughterhouse, people field-slaughter their deer on frozen ground. Meat is sold across Alaska, but outside of the state the meat is labeled “eat at your own risk,” Aguiar said.  This causes meat prices to decrease in value.

However, reindeer meat is very valuable if grown and marketed correctly.

“Reindeer can live where other livestock can’t,” Aguiar said, and reach market weight in 27 months. This makes them great livestock for Alaska and elsewhere.

The meat contains 25 percent protein and tastes sweeter than other meats.

“Its good quality threatens beef,” Aguiar said. People will pay $30 for prime cuts, but there are no deer auctions so putting a “tried and tested” auction price on the meat is challenging, he said.

To determine a base-line meat price,the farm will auction some non-producing steers during the summer of 2015 to see what people will pay for the meat, Blodgett said. 

The Reindeer Farm is “an animal production facility focusing on producing meat,” Aguiar said. They have and will continue to research and improve reindeer agriculture and production with their herd. Educating, encouraging and supporting reindeer producers benefits people. After realizing this, everything done at the farm makes sense, Aguiar said.

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