FAIRBANKS - Rob Aikman arrived at work Thursday and found a new occupant in the reindeer pens at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A 17-pound calf was roaming the pasture on wobbly legs, trailing his mother during a chilly April morning.
The discovery meant two things to Aikman, a herdsman at UAF's Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station: Spring has arrived in Fairbanks, and his planned weekend snowmachine trip near Cantwell is on hold indefinitely.
"I think that's on the back burner now," Aikman said with a smile.
Within the next week or so, most of the other 18 pregnant reindeer at the station also will give birth. It's a busy but welcome April ritual in the lower fields at UAF, which are home to the only reindeer research facility in North America.
Within hours of birth, researchers weigh each calf and add a dab of iodine to its umbilical cord nub to prevent infection. An ear tag is added to distinguish the animal from the other calves that soon will join it.
They'll wear gloves throughout the process to avoid leaving any human scent on the calf. Mothers sometimes will reject their babies if they have a peculiar smell, which results in a tedious regimen of bottle-feeding in the farmhouse.
Aikman was pleased to see the mother allowing the calf to nurse after being examined - a sure sign it still accepts the newcomer.
The work is done to contribute to ongoing reindeer research. The facility experiments with feeding and slaughter techniques to aid reindeer ranchers.
This year's crop of calves is unusually low, because of another research project. The farm experimented with artificial insemination last fall, but only one of the eight females became pregnant. That program probably will continue this year, even though the old-fashioned approach is more effective.
During rutting season bulls can be aggressive and dangerous, so some small-scale herders are curious about a technique that could take the feisty males out of the equation.
"They get kind of cranky," said Melody Cavanaugh-Moen, the program coordinator. "They're all jacked up on testosterone."The herd includes 70 reindeer, including four bulls and a few yearling males.