Supplementary feeding

If you have to offer your reindeer supplementary feeding

Reindeer husbandry is based on the use of natural grazing grounds, since this is the natural adaption of the reindeer. Sometimes the natural pasture might not be enough for different reasons, and we are forced to start the reindeer on supplementary feed. The supplementary feeding can itself cause health problems in reindeer, such as disturbances of the gastrointestinal system.

Many different types of feed exist, all with their advantages as well as disadvantages. For the reindeer, adapting its ruminal flora to the new diet might take up to 3 weeks, and this is important to keep in mind. New types of feed need to be introduced carefully and in smaller quantities. Monitoring your reindeer is essential, once a reindeer is used to one type of feed, it might guzzle it down, while others might not eat at all.

Below you can find more information about common types of feed and their qualities.

Pellets (grain)

Different brands and types of pelleted feed suitable for reindeer are all based on the same main ingredients: grain (barley, oats, wheat) and biproducts from the sugar industry (beet pulp, molasses). Sometimes hay flour (early harvest ground hay) is added. Vegetable oil, for the fat content, and soy flour, to increase the protein content, are also added as well as vitamins and minerals.

Advantage: Pellets is a “mixer”, meaning that all nutrients necessary for the reindeer will be found in the feed. The nutritional content is somewhat consistent despite that the composition of ingredients may vary.

Disadvantage: The reindeer will finish the feed quickly meaning that rumination and production of saliva are not stimulated in the same way as when they chew plants found on pasture or roughage (hay/silage). It is therefore important to ensure that the diet also contains pasture/roughage.

Keep in mind!

The most common problems when feeding pellets are diarrhoea and “slosh stomach”. To prevent this, supplementary feeding must be introduced carefully. The transition period should last at least 3 weeks to allow the sensitive stomach and gut of the reindeer to properly adapt to the new feed. You can start off with offering a few fistfuls a day and gradually increase the ratio, but do not exceed an increase of more than 2 kg a day. Pellets always need to be given together with roughage, such as lichen or hay/silage unless natural pasture is available.

Hay/silage (roughage)

Drying and ensiling (fermentation) are ways of preserving grass and other plants. Silage usually has a higher nutritional value than hay, since less nutrients are lost in the process compared to the losses that occur during drying.

The nutritional value and hygienic quality of silage can vary greatly. If you plan to purchase larger quantities of silage, it is recommended you request a feed analysis. The silage bales must be intact. At degrees above zero, opened bales can quickly become spoiled due to growth of fungi and mould. Mould can produce poisonous substances, toxins, that can be dangerous to the reindeer, and fungus/yeast will reduce the nutritional content of the feed.

Hay/silage for reindeer

Silage suitable for reindeer must be rich in leaves and preferably consist of a mixture of different grasses and herbs such as dandelion, mantle and clover. The silage must not be too wet since this can cause it to freeze more easily. The dry matter content should be at least 35%. Dry matter content is the proportion of dry matter in a material, the dry matter contains all the nutrients in the feed.

If the silage is made from the first harvest of the year, the grass should be harvested early in the season, before the grass has formed ears. A second harvest is preferred since it is usually richer in leaves. Sometimes in Norrland, getting a dry enough second harvest can be difficult.

Advantage: Hay or silage stimulates rumination, provides nutrition and promotes activity. For these reasons, hay or silage is used in combination with pellets. Since the rumen of the reindeer is not adapted to the high fibre content of hay/silage, this cannot be given as the only source of supplementary feeding but must be provided in combination with natural pasture or pellets.

Disadvantage: If the fibre content of the silage is too high, the reindeer, with its relatively small rumen, will fail at breaking down the cellulose and thus be unable to make use of all the nutrients in the grass. This means that reindeer might starve even though their stomachs can be filled with silage. Silage that is too fibrous can also cause “grass stomach” which means that the omasum and abomasum become congested. This prevents the natural passage of digestive matter through the rest of the digestive canal.


  • Plastic waste and strings from feed bales can be life threatening if ingested by the reindeer.
  • Since all supplementary feeding takes place during the winter months, the dry matter content needs to be minimum 35%. Silage that is too wet will freeze more easily and become hard. This makes it more difficult for the reindeer to make use of the supplementary feed and it will cause unnecessary wear on the teeth

Reindeer lichen/moss (Cladonia species)

Reindeer lichen is a part of the natural diet for reindeer and needs no transition period to allow for adaptation when introduced. Lichen needs to be dried and stored in a way that prevents growth of mould.

Reindeer lichen is well utilised by the reindeer and high in energy. However, the protein content and levels of important minerals are very low.

Other types of lichen

Different types of hanging lichens make a perfect component for supplementary feeding to reindeer. These lichens are high in energy (particularly black/dark grey species).

Mineraler och vitaminer

Minerals and vitamins are essential for the reindeer. A reindeer in poor condition will always have both a mineral and vitamin deficiency.

If the reindeer are chewing the bark off tree trunks and roots, this can be a sign of mineral deficiency. If the reindeer is severely emaciated, supplementing extra vitamin B is crucial. This can be done by adding animal feed yeast to the feed. Injections with vitamin B can be used to treat a smaller number of animals, after consulting with a veterinarian.

Currently there are no specific mineral or vitamin products tailored to the needs of the reindeer readily available on the market. Therefore, we recommend the use of sheep mineral buckets.

Feeding routines

Adaptation to new feed types

The reindeer must be allowed a transition period to allow the stomachs and gut to adapt to the new feed. You can start by feeding small quantities to the reindeer out on open pasture. Arrange the feed in rows across the ground to allow for all the reindeer to access the feed. The initial ration should be 0.1-0.2 kg per reindeer per day. Gradually increase the ration over a period of at least three weeks until the full ration is reached, about 2 kg per reindeer per day. Change the feeding point continuously to clean grounds.

Reindeer for slaughter

Reindeer intended for slaughter, who need to gain weight, should be fed a minimum of 2.5 kg of dry feed per animal and day (less for calves, more for bulls).

Breeding stock

The breeding stock do not require the same amount of feed as the animals destined for slaughter. It is more important to ensure that all the reindeer have something to eat and can access the feed. This can easily be done by arranging the feed in rows (if the snow is clean and hard) or use a few feeding cribs well spread out within the enclosure.

Feed types

The dry matter content needs to be taken in to account for a large number of different feed types. Pellets and dry hay are almost completely dehydrated (about 90% dry matter content). Silage, however, can vary greatly, from “hay silage” with a dry matter content of above 50%, to very wet silage with a dry matter content as low as 20%. Ordinary feeding nets with reindeer lichen/moss contain 1.5 – 3 kg of dry matter content depending on how densely they have been packed.


To maintain good hygiene around the feeding cribs and stimulate the reindeer to move around, feeding cribs should not be placed where the reindeer normally lie down to ruminate.

Old feed should be emptied out outside the enclosure and feeding cribs need to be cleaned out on a regular basis. If the reindeer are kept in a limited space and are being fed larger volumes of feed, proper feeding cribs on legs should be used.