You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Comet, and Vixen … may have come from a reindeer farm?
That’s correct, Santa’s sleigh fleet is an agricultural commodity in real life. In fact, there are quite a few organizations dedicated to reindeer ranching: the Reindeer Farmers Association based out of Alaska and a Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association based in Wisconsin are two out of many. One simple Google search of “Reindeer Farming” yields quite a few results showing how popular it is and reveals that domesticated reindeer are found in most of the U.S. There is even a reindeer research program at the University of Alaska!
Reindeer were hunted as far back as the ice age. They were domesticated as pack animals, as well as used to attract other animals to hunters, according to paliskunnat.fi, the website for the Reindeer Herders’ Association out of Finland.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, reindeer are used for their milk, meat, cheese, and hides, much like other livestock. The University of Alaska states that reindeer meat is high in protein and vitamins, and low in fat. Some people compare its nutritional value to fish.
The milk and cheese nutritional profiles from the food culture and science foundation Alimentarium state:
- Fermented milk plays a major role and, among the many types of cheese, juustoleipä (aka Leipäjuusto) is undoubtedly the most typical. This specialty from northern Finland is a “squeaky” fresh cheese made from reindeer milk or from cow’s milk, preferably the beestings or colostrum produced following delivery of a calf. After having been drained, the curd is pressed and placed by the fire or in the oven to grill the top.
- Reindeer milk is rich in dry matter and far more calorific than cow’s milk. It has a relatively low lactose content: 100 grams of reindeer milk contains 15 grams of fat, 9.9 grams of protein, and 2.5 grams of lactose. In comparison, 100 grams of cow’s milk contains 4 grams of fat, 3.2 grams of protein, and 4.8 grams of lactose. The high amounts of lipids and protein in reindeer milk ensure the calves grow quickly — since the summer is very short in northern regions, they must develop rapidly if they are to survive the harsh winter climate.
However, much of the appeal for these animals is more for entertainment and tourism purposes. Holiday parades, parties, photo ops, and the like where reindeer are featured are sure to bring a crowd of curious people who love the magic of Christmas — and those who, perhaps, thought reindeer were only mythical creatures. In fact, there are opportunities for interested people to rent reindeer for various reasons!
Another draw to raising reindeer, besides their diverse abilities to bring a profit, is that they are relatively easy to keep. While people may think they are escape artists, reindeer are actually easy to train and fence in smaller spaces, according to the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association. They have a diet that includes grasses, sedges, forbs, and shrubs, but the association shares that there are feed formulas for commercial feeding, and research continues on the effectiveness of supplemental feeding rather than just grazing.
Reindeer are categorized the same way cattle are — with terms like, “bull,” “heifer,” “calve,” and “cow,” used to identify animals.
In a magical mix between the Western cowboy culture and North Pole tales, reindeer herding is a slightly different type of endeavor that involves rounding up large herds, in areas of Alaska for example, where animals are processed for meat, tagged for breeding and nutrition habits-tracking, or castrated. In Alaska, there are over 18,000 reindeer that mostly graze rangelands, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and these herding events are a large part of the community tradition.
Perhaps a couple of the most interesting facts about the reindeer ranching industry are the parallels between it and cattle ranching. According to Reindeer Herders’ Association, “The amount of the reindeer owned is private information for every reindeer herder. It is never said out loud. When a reindeer herder is asked about how many reindeer there are, you will always get a vague answer,” something every rancher is familiar with.
While it may be a growing industry, some states are strict on the importation and ownership of reindeer. Thankfully, the aforementioned organizations are willing and able to help interested people get started in the industry!
Markie Hageman majored in agribusiness at Fort Hays State University. She is actively involved in her state Cattlemen’s Association, Young Farmers chapter, and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Her AGDAILY.com articles can be found here.