Do you think Santa Claus is a livestock farmer? The similarities of a reindeer farm in West Central Ohio to more common livestock operations may convince some that Kris Kringle is actually an agriculturalist.
Dan and Linda Downs are owners and operators of Pine Acres Reindeer Farm in Marion County, that is home to 6 reindeer. Though their primary occupation is the insurance business, Dan says the reindeer started out as a fun project that developed into much more over the years.
“Why reindeer? I would have to say because of the deep Christmas spirit that runs through our family,” Dan Downs said. “It just seemed like a natural thing to have on the farm.”
The couple began with two of the magical creatures in 2003 as unique addition to their already impressive array of Christmas decorations. After interest was shown in having reindeer make appearances away at other locations, Pine Acres Reindeer Farm was started.
Since then, the herd reached a peak of 12 animals and has since scaled back. The couple is making preparations to increase to a herd size of 14 as their business changes from what began as a commercial reindeer display to a holiday farm tour operation.
The dedication to continuing the farm puts them within a select group of owners and breeders.
“There are only a handful of us here in Ohio that raise reindeer,” Downs said.
Similar to other livestock industries, reindeer owners and breeders have an international organization devoted to their specific work. The Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, known as ROBA, serves the reindeer industry in the U.S. and Canada. Downs is on the ROBA Board of Directors representing the Eastern Region.
“What ROBA exists for is for us folks to educate each other on reindeer. We work quite closely with the University of Alaska. They have a designated reindeer program up there,” Downs said. “We have an annual meeting as an opportunity for all of us to talk about health issues, different opportunities for income with reindeer.”
For most ROBA members, income is primarily from reindeer breeding and calf sales in addition to Christmas display work. According to ROBA, reindeer do not require large areas or facilities. The relatively calm and docile animals are content in smaller areas as long as they are given everything they need.
Pine Acres Reindeer Farm currently has two males (bulls) and four females (cows). The small acreage they are set up on is made of three main areas. They include a small barn area, a pine tree area, and a pastured open area.
Downs says that though reindeer in the wild live on flat, treeless tundra, he has attempted to make an enclosed area similar to their natural environment. Reindeer farming is not an easy business. The unique animal is suited for a specific environment and is extremely sensitive when compared to other, much hardier livestock like cattle and goats.
One of the many challenges is trying to raise reindeer in the relatively warm Ohio climate. From Downs’ perspective, he says the colder the better.
“That’s a challenge in itself. We have a lot of fans in the barn to keep the air circulating on them,” he said. “We’ll actually use sand for the stall base and spray that occasionally to keep it cool for them.
“We’ve been fortunate. We’ve really not had any serious problems with that,” he said regarding the Ohio heat. “It’s not a situation where you can air condition the barn because the animals have huge antlers. They can’t get in and out of the barn if we put a plastic curtain over the entranceway. Just fans.”
Reindeer are known for their enormous sets of antlers and are the only deer species in which the antlers grow on both males and females. Dan says the antlers are the moneymakers.
“Antlers are everything for us in the reindeer industry. We look for that wide face, good-sized body, and large antlers,” Downs said.
Antlers also bring a unique challenge to the farm. While the points are being grown, the deer are extremely vulnerable to infection. If the thin skin covering the growing parts (called “velvet”) is cut at the wrong time, the animal can be at serious risk.
That, along with many other factors, calls for ample attention each day.
“Our biggest challenge was finding a local veterinarian that was willing to accept the challenge of caring for reindeer,” Downs said.
They are fortunate to have Dwayne Weaver of Greencamp as their veterinarian.
“The reindeer have four stomachs, so the veterinarian equates them to goats as far as the care of them and how to treat certain illnesses,” Downs said. “Part of what we have learned is that you don’t always have the luxury of time on your hands when it comes to reindeer.”
Normal livestock can be monitored for days if sickness is suspected.
“With reindeer, we don’t have that,” Downs said. “If we have an animal that we feel is showing signs of sickness, we have a protocol that we start on right away.
“We’ll have a lot of the medications on the farm so we’ll self treat the animals before the vet comes out. Then we also have the luxury of the Ohio State University in Columbus.”
Like any other livestock, much of the animals’ health is dependent upon their diet. While some companies produce pelletized reindeer feed, Downs says they choose to use milled feed, similar in makeup to horse feed.
The feedstuff is mixed with beet pulp for fiber and the extruded soybean meal for protein.
“When we feed these animals, we try to supplement what their missing from their natural habitat,” he said
Like any other livestock operations, the reindeer business has its share of hard times.
“Probably one of the biggest challenges that we as reindeer owners have is our breeding and the raising of the young ones. This past year was a pretty devastating year for the reindeer industry. There were not a lot of calves born. I would guess in the whole United States, less than 100. That’s not many,” Downs said.
A friend of his in New York breeds 35 to 40 reindeer cows each year. This year, that operation only had about seven calves survive. Reindeer are in gestation for about 224 days and are expected to have one calf a year. Sets of multiples are extremely rare.
“The ideal weight of a calf is 14 pounds. If you can have 14-pound calves, you’re going to have a good level of success. This past year, a lot of folks were having small calves born,” he said.
The reindeer on Pine Acres did not have any offspring this year due to breeding planning. They hope to begin breeding again and grow their herd to their largest size yet in the near future. Because it’s a breeding and exhibiting herd, they are licensed with the USDA.
“Being an exhibitor, they will actually do surprise visits when you are out doing display work,” Downs said.
Overall, Downs says he is extremely happy that he and his wife became involved with the calm, mild-mannered creatures about a decade ago.
“I would say it’s challenging, but it is rewarding,” he said. “I think the first challenge is convincing people there truly is a reindeer, but the reward is the fact that we have the opportunity to take them out and share them with the public.”