Thursday, July 10, 2014

Will "super willow" provide nutritional advantage for reindeer?

Good nutrition, which is crucial to maintain healthy reindeer herds in Alaska, is one of the key components of the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In a new collaboration with the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, RRP has launched a study of "super willows" to determine if they could be beneficial for the reindeer diet. "We'll see how and if it can help reindeer producers, including those on the Seward Peninsula," said George Aguiar, RRP research professional.

Research Professional George Aguiar pounds fence posts to enclose a new "super willow" plot at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm so that moose don't snack there.
Aguiar received a shipment of 92 hybrid willow saplings from New York recently and planted them at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, in one plot that is naturally wet and one that is drier. He got advice and assistance from UAF horticulturists about the best planting strategies and is building a moose fence around the plots. He will be carefully observing their growth. "The first couple of weeks are critical. I'll be checking for insects and trying to keep moose away."

Once the willows are thriving, RRP researchers will conduct nutritional studies and compare the "super willow" to other types of willow. Eventually, there will be a feed trial protocol. "We'll figure out the growth and yield and look into anti-herbivory levels and nutritional profiling," Aguiar said.

"We're going to do scientific research and put numbers behind the quality that has been touted about these willows. It's going to be a learning experience.

"We know that in a free range system reindeer are highly dependent on the high protein of willows for muscle development," Aguiar explained. "Willows are high in protein and the reindeer utilize that in their muscles.
"We're excited about the implications this could have for people raising reindeer behind fence and reindeer herding in general."

Perhaps the willows could be baled and utilized for reindeer production as a supplement at times when required nutrition is not readily available, Aguiar mused. Across the country, reindeer producers are doing the best they can but there are no standard nutritional protocols. "We are the only ones trying to standardize the nutrition requirements."

Good nutrition is especially vital during calving season in the spring. "It's a big deal and almost everyone struggles with it," Aguiar said. "Calves grow so fast the amount of protein and energy they require is quite high."

Free range reindeer are well adapted to the arctic environment and have learned how to use forage. "For producers raising them in fences, any nutrition research will be beneficial."

The "super willow" up close and personal.

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