Reindeer Feeding and Nutritional Requirements

As with all animals, nutrition is a very important part in growth, productivity and development. Reindeer are no different. Although their needs are considerably less than the average farm animal, they still have certain needs that have to be met in order for healthy, happy, productive reindeer.

In the wild, caribou and reindeer have available a very wide range of forage. At least 62 species of lichen and 282 kinds of seed plants are known to form part of their diet in North America alone. In captivity, limited information would indicate that reindeer thrive on a standard ruminant diet of good quality hay and supplement with pellets and grain in moderation. They will graze available grasses and are particularly fond of woody boughs such as willow.

Outlined in the following is a basic view of the requirements of reindeer. Each producer has their own formulations of feed and what works for one may not work for another. It seems that this variance comes from the different types of soil and the different climate, even within the same province. If an animal does not have the proper nutrients it needs for development and growth, unwanted health problems can arise.

You can normally feed 6-10 reindeer on what it takes to feed one beef cow. Reindeer will require 2.1% of their body weight in dry matter, rising to 4.7% during growing periods and lactation times. Nutrients in the feed are very important. Poor feeds that are low in nutrients, although they may be cheap, are rarely good for the animals.

Spring Period

Calves are born from mid-April through May (some as late as June). If the weather is cold, freezing rains can create an impenetrable ice layer over vegetation so the deer cannot feed. In spring, after the hardships of winter, reindeer need green vegetation. Reindeer can graze on pasture areas although this is not an ideal situation. They are not immune to hoof diseases such as foot rot. Therefore, it is best to minimalize their exposure to wet environments. Wet ranges are likely to be damaged by trampling more than other ranges.

Summer Period

In the hot summer, reindeer are harassed by warble flies, mosquitoes, black flies and other unpleasant insects which are so bothersome that they cause the deer to move constantly. Consequently, if not moved to or provided with an “insect free” area, the deer will loose weight because they will not stop to eat. TO get away from insects, reindeer will go to the most unprotected areas of pasture where the winds are the highest or to fully shaded areas where the insects are lower. In the wild they will flee to breezy lake shores, ocean beaches and will seek out snow patches to lie down.

Late Summer / Early Fall Period

Insect harassment begins to taper off in late July, allowing the herd to regain the weight they lost over the winter. On average, deer will weight 25-30 pounds more at peak condition than they will by later winter and early spring. Principal forage items during this time include mature and drying shrubs, herbs and mushrooms. Reindeer eat lichens if they are moist and supple.

Late Fall Period

By late fall, dried and cured leaves are the only available forage and reindeer begin to rely heavily on lichens. An optimal fall diet includes a mixture of dried grasses, sedges, herbs, shrub leaves and lichens. However, if there is only light snowfall until winter, forbs remain important and there is not as great a dependence on lichens. Lichens are “survival” food for reindeer and caribou in the winter. It is rich in energy and is often the only food available to them.

Winter Period

Alaska and Northern Canada lichens make up the bulk of the winter diet and without them, reindeer would starve. Where available, reindeer also eat dried grasses, sedges and dormant twigs of dwarf Arctic birch and blueberry.

Most farmed reindeer are fed diets formulated using local foodstuffs to reduce expense. The average crude protein content in a supplement is usually around 14%. Too much protein can cause problems, as can too little. This is based on the type of pasture you have for summer grazing and the type of hay fed in the winter months. In pastures that are in clover/alfalfas, deer will usually do well with a 14% crude protein supplement. Pastures that are in a poorer grass type (not as much protein as an alfalfa/clover mix) may want to up the supplement t0 15%. Their diet incorporates barley, brome grass, beet pulp, oats, soybean meal, molasses, minerals and vitamins.

Pastures of different types and supplements of varying crude protein percent are being used with varying results. Soft juicy vegetation is preferred during the summer. Reindeer nibble, selecting the best when they can pick and choose. Leafy weeds, such as dandelions, seem to be a favourite of reindeer. The more dandelions, chickweed and such you have in your pasture, the more they thrive. They also do well in treed areas where they can browse a lot. They will eat leaves from willows, birch, poplar, maple and saskatoon bushes as well as many more. Reindeer are selective feeders and, if conditions permit, eat only the top portion of plants. Top-cropping plants, grasses, sedges, herbs and shrubs, the mainstays of their summer diet, stimulate annual growth therefore increasing pasture productivity. You may also find that they are eating bark from trees. Bark has tannins in it which are needed by deer. If your feed has enough of the tannins in it, they will usually leave the bark alone. This will help save your trees, at least up until the time when they shed their velvet (nothing can save those trees then!)

During mid-winter to early spring, reindeer will use their body reserves and lose considerable weight if no good pasture is readily available. Bulls that are emaciated after the rut may improve their condition fairly well if the pasture conditions are good.

Reindeer diets may be altered as the availability and costs of foodstuffs change. It must be remembered that any rapid change in diet can lead to digestive problems. The use of a probiotic may be useful to you in diet changing or simply weaning them into a new diet slowly. Probiotics can also be used in times of stress.

Grains are also being used in the supplement part of their diet. The grains are mixed in with the supplement pellets and fed once or twice daily, depending on each producer. Some grains and supplements being used are rolled barley, rolled oats, cracked wheat, cracked peas, rolled corn, soya meal, fish meal, canola meal, beet pulp and bone meal.

When using grain as an additive with the supplement pellets, it should be noted that too much grain is not good for reindeer. Studies in Sweden have showed that reindeer fed too much (or mainly) grains have had very thin rumens. You can puncture the rumen with your finger whereas reindeer that had very little (or no) grain displayed thick rumen that could only be punctured with a knife.

Weights will vary with each producer, but the average cow weight is between 250 and 300 pounds. Bulls will average between 350 and 450 pounds. This is mature weight. Calves can vary from 7 to 12 pounds.

Reindeer are at their peak weights are August. This is just before going into the rut. Bulls can lose up to 25% of their body weight during the rut period, thus needing a good feed to bring them back up after the rut and to prepare for the winter ahead. Mature reindeer can also lose 10-12% of their weight during the winter months. A reindeer’s body is programmed to “slow down” during the winter months, thus wasting as little energy as possible. They will spend their days out digging for food, but hay and supplements are still recommended. The average amount fed is 1-2 pounds per day per head. Hay is usually fed free choice. Water is not needed in the winter as long as there is sufficient snow coverage. Reindeer will walk away from water when there is snow.

Some producers have their feed analyzed for protein and nutrient content. Your local agriculture department can help you with this. They will also give you a good idea of where to start, or change your feed.

Reindeer newly introduced to the farm should have hay or alfalfa made available to them on the ground. They are used to pawing for food and over concentrates in winter can cause the animal to become fat which may result in weak calves or calving problems. Reindeer do not readily eat hay from feeders, such as those used for round or square bales, because they cannot paw the feed. However, they will eat supplements and grains from feeders. They will still try to occasionally paw at the supplement and even in their water tanks. Consequently, water tanks should be routinely cleansed of the dirt and grass from their hooves.


Source: Alberta Reindeer Association