Reindeer Market Steer Project Makes History
In 2007, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research Program in collaboration with Bureau of Indian Affairs, Reindeer Herders Association, 4H, FFA (Future Farmers of America) and University of Alaska Fairbanks Risk Management launched a market reindeer pilot project. The project was the first of its kind within the United States and was developed with the intent of educating 4H and FFA students in reindeer husbandry. The project's goal was to have the selected students raise their reindeer for a 16-month period and present their reindeer for auction and slaughter at the Tanana Valley State Fair of 2009, in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Reindeer had never officially been included in a livestock market project anywhere in the country. During the first year of planning and preparation (2007), protocols for showmanship and judging were developed specifically for reindeer. An application and screening process for the 4-H and FFA students was also developed along with a teaching curriculum for required training sessions in reindeer husbandry. By mid September the training sessions were completed and the animals were distributed amongst the five chosen applicants and released to their facilities.
All students had very different backgrounds and were introducing their reindeer to different environments. Pumba went to an 8-acre pasture where he cohabitated with an older reindeer steer. Adolf was housed in a 60 ft. X 60 ft. pen with his new herd consisting of ducks and a standard poodle. Chuck and Butch were off together to a pen of similar size with pigs and chickens in neighboring quarters. Winston was also in a similar sized pen where his new peers consisted of a horse, goats and turkeys.
The candidates chose various methods of halter breaking their animals. One individual began his socialization with his reindeer by sleeping in the same barn as him for a week. Others tried sheer force, pulling on their animal's halter even when all fours were planted. And still others fell somewhere in between. Success was ultimately achieved by both methods.
Throughout the project, students used their reindeer market project to write research papers for class and even to give oral presentations. Students gave injections, trimmed hooves and some even had to cut and bandage broken antlers. In July of 2009 a workshop was scheduled to evaluate if the animals and their handlers were ready for the fair. Three of the five reindeer were approved to show at the fair. The two who were not approved, bypassed the fair and went directly to slaughter and processing.
In August of 2009 the pilot project was put to the test. Students and their animals were at the fair for a total of 10 days. Upon arrival at the fair animals were weighed. Winston, Adolf and Pumba weighed in at 204, 171 and 168 respectively. Students were given a horse stall and a stall within the cattle barn for housing their animals throughout the fair. Throughout the fair students and their reindeer experienced much public interaction. Around every corner were kids wanting to pet a reindeer. Cameras came out every time the reindeer made an appearance. The Fairbanks Daily Newsminer published a front page article about the reindeer market project and the students involved. Channel 11 spotlighted one of the students and her reindeer on the evening news. The animals and their owners adapted well to the other livestock, housing facilities and publicity. An excellent impression was made both inside the show ring and out.
As the end of the fair approached the market livestock auction neared. Rabbits, chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, goats and now reindeer were auctioned off to the highest bidder. The reindeer were part of a terminal project, meaning that they must be sent directly to slaughter after auction. The winning bids for each of the three reindeer were $7.25/lb., $5.25/ lb. and $5.75/lb on the hoof or live weight. After the bidding, the students met with the buyers and expressed gratitude for their support and took pictures. They had fulfilled their part of the contract. A yearlong commitment of raising a reindeer to market for slaughter was now over. They had just made history.
As the first group of reindeer and their owners neared the completion of their project, four new candidates had already been chosen to receive reindeer steers to raise for the 2010 Tanana Valley State Fair. Modifications to the pilot project had been made to address some of the handling issues from the previous year. The calves would start training at younger ages. Halters were put on the reindeer at about 2 months of age and animals were handled weekly.
The animals were also released to the candidates in mid August rather than mid September. Classes were modified slightly to emphasize subjects that were more applicable to last year's students and their reindeer. Four new students had been chosen and four new calves had been selected for distribution. J.R., Zesty, Arnold and Bo would be leaving the Reindeer Research Program herd at the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station to join their new owners. Once again a variety of other livestock, including goats and horses would be part of their new every day existence until that August day of 2010 where both reindeer and owners will load up and head for the Tanana Valley State fair to once again be part of the livestock market project.