Taylor Armstrong’s show reindeer named Merlin was a decision Armstrong says she made on a whim. Now, the community of North Pole, Alaska, native is an aspiring large animal veterinarian with a growing reindeer herd.
After showing more traditional livestock such as cattle and hogs, a local family brought reindeer to the county fair, and Armstrong decided to follow suit during her senior year. She purchased Merlin and taught herself reindeer husbandry.
“I thought, ‘That sounds like an interesting last project,’” Armstrong says. “He got Grand Champion Market Reindeer and was bought by one of my family friends. They gave him back to me so I could continue my project with him.”
Several years later, Armstrong’s three-reindeer herd consists of adult female Clara, breeding bull Danny and a young calf. She is hoping for another calf this spring.
“A lot of people use reindeer for tourism or breeding,” Armstrong says, who lives about one mile away from Santa House, a tourist attraction where visitors can feed reindeer. “I’m hoping to have a small herd and work with the local butcher shop because they’re always looking for reindeer.”
It is important to note the community of North Pole is an Alaskan town with a unique name, distinct from the latitude and longitude 90-degree coordinates.
The art of reindeer husbandry
At 14 months, Merlin was 249 pounds during the county fair show, just shy of maturity. Males typically reach between 300 and 350 pounds, and females are between 250 and 300 pounds.
“Their personalities are really different,” Armstrong says when comparing reindeer to her experience showing cattle. “I had to put a lot more hours into helping train them because depending on their temperament they can be more flight oriented.”
Reindeer are ruminants but do not typically eat hay. Instead, they dine on a lichen common in Alaska as “reindeer moss” and enjoy willows Armstrong cuts down from her farm. Rather than drink liquid water, they prefer to stay hydrated by eating snow, which Armstrong says she shovels into their pens during winter.
Milan Shipka, director of Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, says although the university sold its reindeer herd, researchers continue projects on nutrition on nearby herds.
Shipka specializes in reindeer reproduction and says it is unique from many livestock species. For example, females can vary their gestation length based on when they were bred.
“If an animal is born and bred early in the breeding season, she will have significantly longer gestation than if she was bred late in the season,” Shipka says. “Yet those calves were born fully developed.”
Meanwhile, males become violent during rut and have even been known to gore females with their antlers. Therefore, Shipka’s research team specializes in safe semen collection methods. In 2010, they bred the first reindeer calf fertilized with freeze-thaw semen, a practice adopted much earlier in livestock species with calmer males.
Moving an industry forward
Reindeer were first introduced to Alaska from Siberia in 1890 by a whaler and a priest, who sought to build the local economy by supplying meat to sailors short on supplies, Shipka says. Now, he estimates domestic and wild populations between 15,000 and 20,000 reindeer.
However, one challenge for the Alaskan reindeer industry is a lack of large-animal veterinarians. Armstrong says she experienced this first-hand when her reindeer Merlin became sick a few months after her high school show and died.
“Reindeer don’t show when they’re sick until it’s basically too late,” Armstrong says. “I couldn’t get a vet out in time just because right now there’s a real shortage of large animal vets in Alaska but specifically in the interior where I’m at.”
Although tragic, the experience confirmed her long-held goal of becoming a large-animal veterinarian.
Armstrong paused her reindeer husbandry to study animal science at Colorado State University. She now works as a veterinary technician in the community of North Pole while applying to vet school and expanding her reindeer herd once again.
“Realizing just how difficult it is to get a large animal vet kind of solidified that I’d like to stay in Alaska and help,” Armstrong says. “And I’d like to work with other 4-H and FFA members to help keep projects going.”