Cher and Latte continue to bond, and Cher is nursing well and growing. I could go on, but that’s the thing about the alpaca farm. You imagine yourself caring for the animals, feeding them, training them, admiring them as they prance through the field, but most of your time will be spent taking care of other things on the farm, like winter.
Winter is an annoyance when you live in a neighborhood. You might have to put on a heavy coat. You may have to shovel your driveway (all 20 feet of it), you might have to brush off the top of your snowy car now and then with a broom, but winter on a farm is like a living thing. It can be a delicate, lightly snowy, chilly charmer, or it can be like a huge dog that has you firmly in its teeth. Every now and then it shakes you hard just to remind you that it can. The winter Cher came will be one of those.
It snows every few days and the temperature refuses to climb above the mid 30s. I am trudging up the hill to the barn to check on the alpacas several times during the day and evening, and I am also driving up and down the driveway to drop off and pick up children from the school bus twice a day, when I CAN drive it. Tom plows it in the evening but half the time the wind blows the snow across the fields all night, filling the driveway back in by morning. If it’s not passable, I hike up and down the driveway along with the kids.
Tom is also hiking in the snow. He leaves his small commuter car at the top of the driveway and trudges up to it each morning before driving to work.
I have given up on dressing in normal clothing. Every day I wear my winter farm lady uniform. This consists of a pair of blaze orange, camouflage overalls from the L.L. Bean outlet and an old, red parka over a pair of long johns. The overalls are designed for hunters; they are insulated and lined with polar fleece. Most importantly, they had been marked down from $120 to $20 dollars at the L.L. Bean outlet. But they are so very ugly. The camo print is not even nice leaves, but something called “Predator” which features jagged, thorny-looking branches. The blinding orange color is supposed to prevent me from being shot by another hunter.
On my feet are military-issue, “Mickey” boots, so called because they are huge and made of shiny black rubber so that your feet seem enormous in relation to your legs, like those of Mickey Mouse. Sometimes I top the whole ensemble off with a “mad bomber” style hat lined with rabbit fur. While inside the house, I remove the outer layers and walk around in the long johns. I am warm but very strange looking all day, every day.
One morning, when I drive up to the bus stop, our driveway seems especially snowy and slick at the top. I don’t want the kids to slip and get hurt, so I pull out and drive down our street a little way, to the entrance of a housing development. Casey and Nick can wait there on the plowed, paved road for the bus, along with the kids from the neighborhood.
This is nice. I am thinking that I might start taking the kids here every school morning, but then one of the parents, gets out of his car, walks up to my window and knocks on it. When I roll it down, he says, “You have a big gray bird on the top of your van.”
At this point, I have to interrupt myself and add that Tom and I had not stopped acquiring farm animals just because we had decided to run an alpaca farm. Animal cast-offs continued to find us, including various chickens and a small flock of guinea hens.
The guinea hens are said to eat their own body weight in ticks each day. They also sound like a loud, rusty gate when they squawk, and they squawk constantly. We have provided them with some nice barrels filled with straw to roost in, and placed these on their sides, against a hill, out of the wind, but the Guinea hens wander about and sleep wherever they like, sometimes on the porch chairs.
So now I am in an actual neighborhood, looking around at these parents, who all know each other, and are all wearing normal clothing, and I want to say, “Hey, I don’t know what that bird is doing up there.” But I DO know what that damn bird is doing there. One of the Guinea hens must have flown into the garage sometime yesterday and perched on top of my van, still warm from one of its many trips up and down the driveway. Whether trapped in the garage, or just too happy to move, the guinea hen had spent the night on top of my van, and she had probably been too startled to fly off it when I drove up our driveway and down the street to the neighborhood. She was, literally, along for the ride.
After a moment’s thought, I decide that the best thing to do is to leave the bird where it is and hope it stays on the van roof until I get back to our driveway. The school bus pulls up and the driver puts out his red stop sign to stop the traffic. Casey and Nick are enjoying the thrill of boarding the bus with the other kids; just one of the crowd, but that is about to change. It is at this very moment that the stupid guinea hen chooses to fly off of my van roof. It flaps around confusedly, and then lands on top of an expensive-looking Jeep that is stopped directly facing the school bus.
Children, parents and motorists all stop to look at this large gray bird that has flown down and perched in their midst. People start pointing and laughing. The bus driver, Mr. Hurley, has to speak sharply to the children to force them to finish getting on the bus. No one wants to miss the impromptu bird show. The Jeep’s driver gets out. He is wearing a business suit. He is not happy.
I force myself to climb out of my van wearing my awful, winter, farm lady uniform. The Jeep’s driver looks from the bird to me as though demanding that I do something. He is on his way to work at some important job. I am a woman in scruffy hunting attire that drives around with large birds on her vehicle. Over the excited shouts of the children, I feel like I can hear Casey inside the school bus saying, “What? No, that’s not my mother! That’s some lady who gave me a ride to the bus.”
More vehicles continue to pull up to the stopped school bus, so there is now a small traffic jam worth of commuters watching. I walk half-heartedly toward the Jeep, having no idea of what I am supposed to do. I can’t reach high enough to grab the bird. Should I shoo it? Just as I get near her, the guinea hen flies off again, this time landing on a neighbor’s roof. The spell is broken.
The school bus starts to pull away and traffic resumes, leaving in its wake the normal folks from the development, and me, the blaze orange, Mickey boot-footed, crazy bird lady. Words fail me. I climb back in the van and drive home.
The next day the driveway is impassible again. The kids and I trudge up the driveway. There are snowdrifts 4 and 5 feet tall that have blown into it during the night, so we try to find the lowest spots to walk in. The kids are so bundled up that they move like awkward, fat mummies. We wait and wait in the cold. The bus is one hour late, but it feels like 10 hours to us. The kids finally get on and I turn around to head back to the house. We have not even gotten through January yet.
Maybe Tom should plow the driveway, pull the van up it with the tractor, (and me steering the van) and we can leave it at the top along with his car. We could use our expensive 4-wheel drive van as a bus shelter where we could sit out of the wind while waiting for the school bus.
The first week of February has passed and snow continues to fall every couple of days. The alpacas seem as crabby as I am. The Altiplano, their ancestral home in the high Andes mountain range, is a desert. It gets very cold, but it does not get humid. There is rarely a significant snowfall there, and it is blessed with plentiful sunshine. While the alpacas are fine with the cold, they’re not willing to walk through foot deep snow. Nor can they graze. They are making do with hay and grain and precious little sunshine.
Cher is the exception of course. Her joy at being alive is keeping us all from despair. As soon as I come up to the barn to feed the alpacas and rake up their manure, Cher begins rocketing around her small outside enclosure. She kicks up her back legs like a horse bucking. Sometimes she has trouble stopping and bonks into her mother, but Latte no longer seems to mind. Seeing Cher so quick and strong makes it hard to believe that 2 weeks ago she was still inside her dam. Seeing her makes me laugh and appreciate my farm life.
One day, my friend Lois calls to tell me that she will drive over to the farm for a cheer up visit. I try to warn her off of our slick, snowy driveway, but she has a brand new 4-wheel drive Blazer truck and feels certain she can get in and out with no difficulty. I’m so starved for company that I can’t wait for her to arrive. We talk and have lunch together like normal people. We take cute photos of the alpacas with her new digital camera. All too soon, it is time for her to leave, and me to pick up the kids.
I have barely finished waving goodbye to Lois when I begin to hear a strange noise. It is like the screeching of metal on metal. It seems to be coming from the wire fence. I follow the sound up the hill and see that Lois and her new truck have somehow slid off the driveway backwards and through the wire fence into the field. Her left wheels are outside the fence line and her right wheels are inside it. Fence wires are running across the top of her truck and under it from the front to the back. Her brand new truck is stuck and getting scratched.
With no time to stop, I slog up the hill to get the kids. The bus is, mercifully, on time. I stop where Lois is stuck and send Casey and Nick down to the house. They are mildly curious about the truck but, being children, do not understand the predicament we are in. I try stepping on the bottom wires of the fence, near the truck, and holding the top wires above my head while Lois guns the engine, but the truck does not move. We try digging out some of the snow under the wheels, and then we try pouring cracked corn (duck food) on the ground for traction. We try sticking flattened cardboard boxes under the wheels. We do this for a couple of hours. Nothing works.
Lois is embarrassed about the fence. I’m feeling terrible about the scratches on her brand new truck. Both of us are dreading the moment when Tom comes home and catches the two of us in our humiliating Lucy and Ethel moment. Soon enough, he does just that. He does not laugh, but looks at us with a less than charitable expression on his face. He goes to the barn for the tractor while I check on the kids. Then he maneuvers the tractor in front of the truck and hooks a chain to the bumper. I am once again standing on some of the fence wires while holding the rest above my head. Tom backs up. Lois tries to follow Tom’s shouted steering directions. Nothing happens.
After 4 tries pulling with the tractor, Tom walks stiffly over to Lois and says, “You do have the 4-wheel drive on don’t you?” Poor Lois realizes that she does not. She thought she knew how the new truck worked, but she misunderstood its 4-wheel drive system. It had not been engaged at all, and neither of us had thought to check it the entire time we’d been frantically trying to free the truck. Tom switches on the 4-wheel drive and stomps back over to the tractor. He reattaches the chain and backs the tractor up again. The truck finally slides free. Tom climbs into the tractor and roars off.
I feel terrible that Lois drove all the way out here to visit me and now has to drive home and explain to her husband what happened to the new truck. She’s still concerned that Tom is mad about the fence. We’re both telling each other not to worry about that part of it. We finally hug and go our separate ways.
The weekend comes and Casey and Nick want to spend the time playing in the snow. Being children, they are not tired of it at all. Casey figures out all by herself that, if you dump enough snow in the cold stream behind our pond, and stomp on it with your boots, you can create an ice bridge. Nick joins in but is only allowed to be the helper, not a bridge engineer like his big sister. Even Sammie the dog is willing to traipse around in the snow for a little while, if it means sharing an adventure with the kids. My children have reminded me of something; trying to get through the snow is not the same as being in the snow. One is a chore, the other, a pleasure.
Though we may have come to see snow as an annoyance in our modern lives, real farmers love snowy winters. Snow acts as an insulating layer, a sort of chilly mulch that protects the bulbs and roots in the ground from freezing, and allows the nutrients from plant debris to be trapped and broken down more thoroughly. The moisture in snow is released slowly, in a way that won’t run off or cause erosion. Snow is like a blanket on the earth that allows it to rest peacefully so that it can wake up refreshed in the spring.
January 1st of the year 2000, has come and we still have no alpaca cria born out of our girl Latte. We spend a very quiet day on the farm, checking on the alpacas every hour and recovering from a New Year’s Eve celebration at the house of our neighbors, the Rogers. Just before midnight, their son-in-law, Ed snuck down to the basement, waited until the stroke of midnight and threw the breaker, turning off the electricity. We all gasped, frozen there in the dark, thinking that the cataclysmic Y2K event, constantly predicted by the news outlets, had actually occurred! Then we all realized that it was an excellent practical joke. A quick roll call made clear which smart ass was missing from the gathering. Our laughter was tinged with relief. We had escaped the 20th century without an apocalyptic societal meltdown after all.
Tom and I think that Latte is acting funny. She is lying on her side lately and she seems to be humming all the time. She lifts her tail when we come near her like she is showing us something. I spend a good bit of my “free” time sitting in the dirt against the outside wall of the barn, watching the cria kick against the swollen side of Latte’s belly. At least I know it’s alive inside her and that’s reassuring. On January 3rd I see Latte’s vulva look a little more open. I can see a bit of bright red there when she lifts her tail. Is she cushing a little more? I think she is. The weather is unusually warm for this time of year, so at least I have a break from worrying about the frozen, broken-off ear tips scenario.
By January 12th I am not only ogling my alpaca’s vulva but staring at her teats as well. Are they larger than normal? Could her milk be coming in? She is starting to act like standing is a chore for her, poor girl. She begins to eat her grain lying down on the ground with her long neck stretched out and her head just reaching the bowl in a posture that is both sad and comical. The waiting is starting to seem endless! Why can’t she get on with it already?
Meanwhile, Primrose is getting far more aggressive about getting some food when I come out with the bowls for the girls. She dives her head right in and ignores me if pet her on the neck or even between the ears. Her pregnancy is moving along as well, and the desire for food is suddenly outweighing her fears about being touched by people.
Polo has grown much taller in the couple months that we have had him, and is now unusually leggy for an alpaca. I will later find out that this legginess is common in male alpacas that were gelded early, at closer to one year old rather than two or two and a half years of age. Polo is still a little skinny, but Lindy, who is getting the same handful of grain as Polo is now a little chubby. He will never grow to be very tall, but he is amazingly cute, like a little caramel-colored teddy bear with huge dark eyes.
On January 13th, Tom runs down from the barn at 9:45 yelling that the cria was coming! He had seen Latte lying down on her side, and her vulva was completely open and very red. Of course I had just taken a shower and was all wet! I dressed and ran up to the dusty barn, wet hair and all, only to find Latte standing up and calmly eating her hay, no sign of any impending birth. I stayed in the barn watching her for another 40 minutes, but nothing thrilling happened. I gave up and returned to the house.
I continue checking on the alpaca girls each hour that day, and at about 12:30 p.m., I think, “This is it!” I see Latte cush and then roll over on her left side. She lifts her tail and the skin under it bulges out a few inches like there are feet pressing against it from the inside. She makes a sound like a moan. My heart is racing. I am momentarily happy that the cria will come in broad daylight with the warm sun shining, but nothing further happens.
More than an hour later, I am still sitting outside the barn with the alpacas. The winds pick up sharply. There is going to be a storm. The alpacas are all cushed and Sammie, the dog, lies in on the ground near where I sit. The wind turns everything around us alive. Young trees bend over and snap back, and dried leaves skitter across the ground in large clumps looking like bands of brown mice that are running through the field. Miniature tornados made up of dust and small bits of hay whirl around in the air and some of them seem to attack the alpacas. I have to shield my face from the onslaught and Sammie has decided that he’s done with this. He trots back into the barn. A few minutes later I also give in and the two of us retreat to the house.
That evening the temperature begins to drop dramatically, down from the 50s into the 20s, and winds are now gusting up to 40 miles per hour. I still climb up to the barn to check on Latte every hour or so, but now I am bundled up against the bitter cold. So much for the cria birth in warm sunny weather! I lock the alpacas in at nightfall with just a couple of barn windows open for fresh air. I don’t want to find a frozen cria on one of these nocturnal visits! Of course this means extra poop shoveling for me, as the alpacas are forced to poop in their pens all during the night.
On January 17th I call the vet and report that Latte is now more than two weeks overdue, and we are freaking out a little bit. The vet feels that this is nothing to worry about and explains that due dates for alpacas are a pretty fluid concept. They consider any birth between 11 months and 13 months of gestation to be in the normal range. Some of this may be due to the difficulty in knowing which breeding took, but some of it is definitely a variation in gestation time between alpaca females. Some girls tend to go early and some tend to go late. The chain of anxious waiting that links me to the barn may not be loosened up any time soon.
The last few days have been much colder. Our pond is almost completely frozen over. There is one small, un-frozen area where the underground springs feed it, and the poor ducks are crowded together, frantically paddling around this tiny spot, trying to keep what’s left of their water from freezing. They only desert their post when I bring the corn container out and dump the hard kernels on the ground for them to eat. There were snow flurries last night, but it was too cold for any real accumulation. Around midnight, I lock the alpacas back into the barn and crawl into my warm bed. Latte seemed her usual self, so I will not worry about her until morning.
Tom checks on the alpacas at 5:00 a.m, before driving off to work, and runs down the hill to tell me that the baby has been born in the night! He leaves for work, and I run up though four inches of fresh snow to the barn. The cria is a beautiful, female. She is a rosy fawn color that reminds me of a peach, and her fleece is still damp. There are pieces of partially dried amniotic sac sticking to her face and legs. She is tall and her legs seem spindly, but she is already scampering around and seems very healthy. The broken off stump of her belly button hangs down, reminding me that I need to fill a film canister with Novalsan and dip the stump in it to prevent infection. The cria puts up quite a struggle when I grab her to do this. She’s a little fighter. I dry her off with a towel and velcro a green cria coat on her to keep her warm. She races around the pen when I let her go. I feel a brief spurt of joy. Our first cria is born and she’s strong!
Latte seems bewildered though. She is not nudging her cria or even very interested in her. This is bad, as the cria begins to try to nurse, and Latte seems unwilling to let her. Meanwhile, Primrose is acting like the cria is hers. She is nudging her and humming at her. She is more worried about the poor little thing than her own mother is. I am forced to halter Primrose and put her in a pen next door so that she can’t interfere in the bonding between the new mother and baby. The thermometer in the barn reads 17 degrees!
At 6:15, I see Latte hold very still and push, and a giant purple bubble begins to emerge slowly out of her. It grows and grows, and finally a large gelatinous mass of placenta splats onto the ground. It looks like a whole, unbroken blob with some white streaks in it. I spend some quality time trying to shove this gooey mass into a plastic trash bag without wearing it all over me. This is one of those parts of alpaca farming that never make it into the glossy ads or television commercials – placenta wrangling. I hang a sling scale onto a rafter, pass the bellyband under the cria, and hoist her up to weigh her. She weighs 17 lbs. which is a good weight for a baby alpaca.
I spend a few hours in the barn, only leaving to get my own offspring ready for the school bus. They are very excited about the baby and eager to tell their friends that an alpaca was born on our farm. When I return to the barn I realize that Latte is still not wanting anything to do with her little girl. The cria tries to duck under and feed every couple of minutes but Latte kicks at her and moves away. At 10:00 a.m. I warm up a bottle of cow colostrum from our neighbor the dairyman, and then I tie Latte up and milk out some of her colostrum into the bottle as well. Neither of us enjoys this process. Latte is pissed and tries hard to kick me, but I am pretty pissed off at this point too. We have a new baby to feed damn it!
Alpaca teats are not anything like as big as cow teats, even when full of milk, and the motion required to get the milk to shoot into the bottle is a difficult one to master. I am frustrated because I end up shooting some of the precious colostrum on myself, but I manage to get some of it into the bottle to mix with the cow colostrum. The cria sucks down the warm colostrum as fast as she can. She seems elated to finally be allowed to eat, but in less than twenty minutes, she tries to nurse again and Latte rejects her again. And she keeps rejecting her. What the hell? This is very hard to watch. Two hours later, all three of us go through the same routine again.
Tom comes home early from work and Latte is still being a complete bitch to her daughter. At 3:00 p.m. he holds Latte tight up against the pen gate, I crawl under her with the cria on my lap and hold the cria up to Latte’s teats. She sucks eagerly and I can hear her swallowing. Latte tries hard to kill us both by alternately kicking us and trying to collapse her legs and crush us underneath her, but we manage to get some nursing in for the cria. I keep thinking that Latte will calm down and realize that she must feed her baby, but she is acting like the cria isn’t hers.
Tom chains a space heater to the side of the pen to keep the cria warm while I frantically re-read my alpaca books. The cria should nurse within six hours of the birth, or it may not receive enough antibodies to fight off infection from common bacteria. Alpacas are born with no natural immunity. They are entirely dependent on getting the antibodies that recognize the bacteria from their mother’s colostrum. The antibodies are absorbed through the cria’s gut, but the receptors that can absorb them begin to close off after six hours, and they disappear completely within 12 – 24 hours after the birth. We don’t know the exact time of our girl’s birth, but she is certainly past the six-hour window now, and I doubt the small amount of milk we have been able to squeeze out of her struggling mother has been adequate. This could turn into a fatal situation for our beautiful little girl.
I call Antoinette and tell her what is going on. She says she is going to FedEx us a homeopathic remedy consisting of Bach Flower Essences containing Star of Bethlehem and Violets and that should help, but it won’t arrive until tomorrow morning, and it will take a few days for the dose to build up. She wants to know if we have tried the trick of taking the placenta and rubbing it all over the cria to remind the new mother that the cria is hers. We did not know this trick. The placenta is now gone. It turns out that the shiny, new cria coat might not have been the best idea either. It may have changed the cria’s appearance and smell at a time when her dam was already confused. Of course THAT warning is not on the package or advertising for the cria coat. Antoinette suggests rubbing a little bit of vanilla on the mother’s nose and the cria’s rump, which I later try to no avail. She also tells me to call the vet and ask them to do an IGG transfer on the cria. On her final point Antoinette is adamant, we should NOT end up bottle-feeding this cria! We HAVE to keep forcing the issue until the mother takes her back and begins to feed her!
We have well over 6 inches of snow on the ground now and the temperature will drop again tonight. I am praying that this new little life will survive. I have to think of a name for her. I cannot describe the feeling that I had when I was crouched under Latte with the cria on my lap, holding her little mouth to her dam’s teats. She was so soft and brand new and perfect, and she wanted to live so badly. I wish I could wrap my arms around her and take her to the warm house with me and hold her on my lap, but this is how berserk alpacas are created; someone wanting to treat livestock like a baby.
At 7:30 p.m. Tom and I perform our routine. He holds Latte immobile while I scoot under and hold the cria’s mouth to her dam’s teats. It is exhausting work to hold and direct the baby’s head all crouched down under there. My back is beginning to protest. Since her mom is still fighting us and refusing to let her daughter nurse, I put the cria coat back on. The temperature is supposed to get down to 15 degrees tonight. In between forced feedings with her dam, I feed the cria more warmed-up cow colostrum.
I feel discouraged that so much has gone wrong with the very first birth on our farm. While the alpaca ads claim that most crias come in the daytime between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., ours came late at night. We failed to figure out that the dam was due for winter when we bought her. Then the dam rejects her own cria and refuses to let her nurse. Where was that chapter in the book? Also, I am sick. My head aches and my throat feels like I have swallowed a burning coal. I take the night off to get some sleep while poor Tom does bottle-feeding duty in the barn.
The next few days are a blur. Al Rogers plows our driveway one morning because it is covered with more snow. I now have swollen glands so I begin to take a course of antibiotics that we have laying around the house, rather than waste time trying to go to the doctor. Sometimes I trudge down the hill from the farm between cria feeding sessions and don’t bother to take off my snow boots or jacket. I lie on the guest room bed with my feet hanging over the edge and sleep like that for an hour. At one late night feeding, when Latte is particularly adamant that she’d rather squash her cria than let her eat, I lose my temper and yell at her and smack her hard on the side. Latte’s expression changes from furious to shocked. I am so ashamed of myself for losing my temper. I hate myself, but I hate her a little too. We are locked together in this battle of cold, dirt, stubbornness and anxiety with this bright little life awaiting the outcome.
The vet has located a bag of plasma from an alpaca dam whose cria had been stillborn. The next day we hang it from the barn rafter so it can drip though a tube and needle into the cria’s abdomen. The cria is lying on her side, on a hay bale with a blanket over it and I am practically lying on top of her. Small as she is, it takes all of my strength to hold her down while we do the IGG transfer. This treatment costs a fortune too, but at least she will not become septic and die due to a lack of antibodies – I hope. The vet gives Latte a shot of Banamine and a shot of Lasix, thinking that pain and swelling may be making her unwilling to nurse her cria.
Latte has now been tied up and forced to feed her cria several times a day for several days, and I am seeing a slight change in her demeanor. She still fights like hell when she is tied up and when the cria is first scooted under her, but she seems to give up fighting after a minute and stand there looking mad. The cria is fine with this routine, but does not like the bottle as much as she once did. I have to work to get her to suck it. Sometimes I let her suck my finger a moment and then switch the bottle into her mouth quickly to fool her, a trick I learned when trying to get my own children changed over from breast to bottle. I have no idea if she is getting enough, but she is very active.
Life goes on. I fit my cria feedings into the rest of our activities. One morning I drive the kids up our long, gravel driveway to meet the school bus, but later, when I try to drive back up to meet their bus in the afternoon, I get the van stuck in a snowdrift halfway up the hill. Continuous use of the driveway for a hundred and some years had caused it to sink a couple of feet below the level of the corn and hay fields on either side of it. Sometime between morning and afternoon, the wind had blown fiercely through the cornfield and pushed the powdery snow from there into the much lower, freshly plowed, driveway. The snowdrift is a couple of feet high.
On top of getting the van stuck, I had foolishly brought Sammie along for the ride. I jumped out of the van, holding his little body against me and began to push my way through the snow, desperate to make the school bus drop off at the top of the hill. No bus driver would let two elementary school kids out alone at the top of a long driveway, in the snow, but if the kids were returned to school how would I pick them up with a stuck van? Half jogging through the snow, dog in arms, I made it to the bus stop sweaty yet on time, but there was no sign of the school bus.
So Sammie and I wait in the bitter cold wind and boot-chilling snow for the next 35 minutes. I am holding him against me to keep his little paws off of the snow, but he is shivering terribly in my arms. What if the school bus has slid off of the road? It does this with some regularity on the hilly, rural roads here. I can’t just leave when my children could show up any minute, but what if my elderly dog freezes to death? What I would not give to have a regular house with a front door a few feet from the street like a normal person right now! I am about to stomp over to the house down the street, at the next bus stop, and throw both the dog and myself on the unknown homeowner’s mercy when I finally see the bright yellow of the school bus approaching. My kids are home! The driver had to get around some accidents in the slippery snow, causing the delay. I am so relieved to be free of the endless, anxious waiting that I almost don’t mind the slog back down the hill. The kids are super-happy with their snow hike adventure, blissfully unaware of their mom’s earlier anguish. I just have time to get them settled in the house before going up the hill to feed the cria again. Farm life is not for people who value personal comfort.
January 22nd is a Saturday. Tom and I do the forcible nursing thing at 2:00 a.m. 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and give the cria her bottle as well. Then I give Latte another treatment of the flower remedy. The cria has gained 1 lb.! Meanwhile I have checked the International Llama Registry for possible names and found that all of the variations of Peach, Peachy and Apricot are taken. Since this plucky little cria has fought so heroically to stay alive, through so many bitter nights, despite her dam’s mistreatment, I decide to name her Scheherazade after the heroine of 1001 Arabian Nights. We will call her “Cher” for short.
Desperate for some kind of breakthrough, Tom and I begin to experiment. We let Primrose back into the pen with Cher and Latte to see if it would cheer up Latte to have her friend back, and make her more willing to nurse Cher. It seemed to make no difference during the nursing ordeal, but after we untied Latte and let Cher go, Primrose acted very interested in Cher again. She sniffed and sniffed her and blew on Cher’s behind like she was encouraging her to poop. When Cher peed, Primrose got even more excited and sniffy, but then Cher tried to duck under HER and nurse and Primrose kicked out as her in an all too familiar way. Suddenly, Latte seemed interested in sniffing Cher for the first time, but still didn’t let Cher nurse. I have no idea what this all means, but based on the similarity of Primrose and Latte’s reactions to Cher’s attempt to nurse, it does seem like Latte thinks Cher is not hers.
Antoinette calls again and tells us not to do any more experimenting! Keep the same routine and do it quickly, but try to see if I can sneak out from under Latte halfway through and leave Cher nursing under her dam alone. We try it and it works! It’s not like Latte is not still tied up with Tom holding her, but she is not trying to kick or smash down on Cher anymore. She’s just standing there. We have hope! Antoinette also insists that I give Cher a baby enema. This is done routinely on her farm to make sure crias pass the meconium; otherwise it can make them sick. I’m not sure about this, but I do the enema and Cher does pass a little, dark poop afterwards. I have now milked one alpaca and given an enema to another. I’m living the alpaca lifestyle dream here.
Over the next few days we see progress. Latte still must be tied up, but now requires a lot less holding during the nursing sessions. I can stand up soon after putting Cher under, and now I talk to Latte and stroke her, and this seems to help. Latte can’t decide what she wants anymore. Sometimes she bites my coat nervously; sometimes she leans into me and hums softly and mournfully. Sometimes she looks angry and makes a gurgley, noise like she is hocking up some chewed cud into her throat so she can’t spit it on me, but she doesn’t actually spit. She just wants me to know she could spit on me. Every now and then she rears up and throws her chest at me, just to remind me that she doesn’t have to put up with this B.S. if she doesn’t want to, and I have to jump backward out of her way. A few weeks ago I would have found this intimidating, but now I see it as an expression of frustration on her part. Latte really does not know that Cher is hers and she does not understand why we are making her feed some other dam’s cria.
Midnight and 2:00 a.m. in the barn are pretty weird. I feel like the only person awake in the whole world, walking up the gravel driveway in the snow, the crisp air and the moonlight. I hear animals moving and breathing all around me. Last night, I kept hearing an owl that was so loud I thought he must be very close, but I couldn’t figure out where he was. Still the moon has been so bright, and the snow so reflective, that I can see every tree branch and dark shape in the woods behind the barn. It’s beautiful and exhilarating out here. I feel like I have more in common with the wild animals outside than my neighbors, inside their warm, comfortable houses. Do any of them wonder about the life and death struggles going on outdoors in the midst of this cold, windy night?
On Sunday evening we finally have a breakthrough. Tom held Latte by the halter and got Cher under her nursing without having to tie Latte up. As soon as he haltered her, Latte stood still and let Cher under. I try the same thing at midnight and I am able to do it too. Latte has decided to give in and feed Cher – at least while we are there watching. We begin to believe that our feeding ordeal might end.
By January 25th, 10 more inches of snow have fallen and we still had not gotten rid of the last snowfall. The new storm came with howling winds and the hard-driven, icy kind of snow that stings your face. Tom drove off to work, of course. Having lived in Rhode Island for years, he refuses, on principle, to consider bad weather a reason to skip work.
Sammie would not go out and pee during the storm. I have to physically carry him outside and drop him on a shoveled spot on the driveway. Up in the barn at 9:00 a.m. things are looking very good. I hold Latte lightly while Cher scoots under and gets down to nursing. Latte hardly seems mad or distressed at all anymore, but she does still chew on my coat in a whiny way. Since she was being a good mom, I gave her a bowl of extra grain as a reward. She bent her head down to eat out of the bowl and Cher ducked right under her and began to nurse again. I was about two feet away from them. This is working!
Four feedings later I am tired and don’t know what to hope for. We got more snow. I am not sure how much, but it is over a foot, and some forecasters are saying we will get 20 inches total. Getting up to the barn is getting harder. The gravel driveway to the barn has not been pIowed yet. I have to slog my way up the hill through the deep snow. I start pulling one of the kids’ sleds up with me for each nursing session so that I can ride it back down the hill but my sledding skills are questionable. I have to roll off the sled at the end of the hill to avoid hitting our front steps or the propane tank. It’s not a graceful maneuver.
Latte seems to be in the holding pattern. She will let Cher nurse if I halter her and talk to her, but she still seems very stressed out. She has progressed from chewing on my clothing to chewing on the walls of her pen now. The poor gal has not been able to go outside in the fresh air for a week and she looks miserable when the other alpacas trot outside. But the snow is too deep for little Cher to walk through. Tom and I rig up, and shovel out, a small pen outside so that Latte and Cher can at least get some fresh air and sunshine.
On January 26th Latte and Cher went into the outside pen. They couldn’t go more than a few feet outside, but they had a great time out there. Cher raced back and forth and tasted the snow every few minutes. Latte just stood in the sun and looked happy for the first time since Cher’s birth. Casey and Nick came up to play, but they had a hard time keeping away from Cher and the feeling was mutual. Cher was thrilled to see these new creatures enter her world. I had to remind them frequently not to touch Cher too much.
That night, at midnight, I trudged dejectedly up the hill to the barn, through the deep snow and bitter wind. When I walked inside and shut the door I saw Latte and Cher cushed together! They both jumped up when they saw me. Cher immediately scooted under Latte to nurse, and Latte stood still as a statue and let her. I can’t believe this. It finally happened! I got some grain for latte, quietly put the bowl down in front of her and left. I hated not giving Cher her usual bottle-feeding, worrying that she might be hungry in the night, but I didn’t dare intrude on the fragile, new bonding between dam and cria. I feel hopeful again.
Tom checks the alpacas at 5:00 a.m. the next morning and sees the same behavior, mother and daughter cushed together, then getting to their feet and nursing. I check them every few hours during the day and each time see the same beautiful, gratifying scene.
Sometime, during one of those long nights in the barn, I began to wonder why we only thought about buying, young, inexperienced alpaca females. Certainly the maidens are the only females we would have seen at an alpaca show. In addition to a show venue being way too stressful for a pregnant dam, no female ever looks quite so perfect after she has given birth and nursed a cria. The following year she may be gestating a cria while nursing last year’s cria. This process uses up a lot of energy that could have been used to grow a large fleece or store up some extra fat on the dam, making her more attractive.
It’s not possible to say with 100% certainty that choosing a dam that had already produced a nice, healthy cria, had plenty of milk for it, and had demonstrated a good mothering instinct, would have spared us the mess we lived through with Latte and Cher. It’s not unheard of for an experienced dam to get confused about whether a cria is hers, if she and her cria get separated somehow, or another female butts in too much, but this confusion is far more common in first time dams. Latte will live to have many more cria, but she will never refuse to nurse the others. In fact, she will one day take on an orphaned cria and successfully nurse it along with her own, a feat that is relatively rare in alpacas.
Why are humans inclined to find young, inexperienced animals more beautiful than those who have successfully produced and nurtured their young, even when the purpose of those animals is breeding? Why are we not hardwired to see signs of experience as physically attractive, especially when that experience produced a healthy offspring? It feels like Mother Nature may have gotten this one wrong somehow.
In my future life as an alpaca breeder, I will try over and over to convince first time buyers that they ought to choose an experienced dam, with a proven track record, to start their own breeding business, but I will end up convincing no one but myself. The next alpaca I buy will have a female cria at her side.
While we wait for our first four alpacas to be delivered, we continue to visit alpaca farms and look at their herds. Our goal is to begin with five bred females. One of the largest alpaca farms in the country is fairly close to us. When we visit, I ask about using the fleece and mention that I am a hand spinner. The owner replies, “I think hand crafts are nice, but I’m an alpaca breeder!” This owner, I will call her Breeder B., is physically attractive and clearly smart, but has comically poor people skills. How is she selling anything? Her alpacas are beautiful, but there are so many that they all wear a number around their necks on a plastic chain. Her barn looks brand new, immaculately clean and was obviously built to impress would-be buyers. It’s like something out of “Southern Living.” I try to warm up to her but I can’t get there. I can’t imagine myself calling her for help when I need it. Tom and I decide to go look at some Suri alpaca farms.
Huacaya and Suri alpacas are sometimes referred to as separate breeds. They aren’t. Scientifically, they are more like varieties of the same breed of animal. The Huacaya has a fluffy, wooly coat, while the Suri has long, silky locks with a little bit of wave in them. Those who breed only Suri alpacas are constantly pointing out that their alpacas are more valuable than Huacaya alpacas because the Suri type is more rare. They also go on about how Suri fiber sells for a much higher price than does Huacaya fleece. Both of these claims are true, but these breeders were quoting the prices fetched by the Suri alpaca fleeces in Peru, where there is industrial-scale processing of alpaca fleeces for the fashion industry. We weren’t planning to provide alpaca fleece to some huge international market, and none of the Suri breeders we met had ever sold to the huge international market either. The prices they were quoting were not based on the anything that existed in the U.S. Only one Suri breeder showed me a processed Suri fleece, and it wasn’t one of his own but one he’d bought from a Peruvian mill.
Unlike Suri fleece, Huacaya fleece has crimp and what knitters call “memory”. It can be used to knit a close-fitting garment. Suri fiber is more like silk; better suited to drapey, dressy garments such as shawls or suit cloth; you’re not going to use it to knit warm socks or a crew neck, raglan sweater, two of my favorite things in life. Suri fleece is quite a bit harder to spin than Huacaya as well. Since I’m not a drapey, dressy kind of gal, and the snob appeal of the rarer alpaca type was not appealing to me, I end up deciding that Suri alpacas were not going to be part of our business. We go back to shopping for Huacayas.
In October, we drive up to Alpaca Farms in Pennsylvania. We have come to buy a rose gray female alpaca that we originally saw at the Great Frederick Fair. Her name is Twiggy, and she is the daintiest, most beautifully colored alpaca I have seen so far. Her coat is like soft, smoky lavender. Her owner, Bud Griffith, was one of the first people in the U.S. to own alpacas. He bought his first alpacas from a zoo, and established the enviably named “Alpaca Farms” in 1986. In a business with far more new breeders than old, Bud is an old hand. In a business full of slick, misleading salesmanship, Bud radiates honesty and common sense. He is fond of children and had been particularly taken with Casey at the fair, due to her old-fashioned braids and shy manner, but he commented that he preferred to see little girls wearing dresses. He mentions his own daughter, Natalie and how proud he is of her. She has grown up very smart and very pretty, but Bud does not approve of her boyfriend. In his gruff honesty, Bud kind of reminds me of my dad.
Alpaca Farms is situated on rolling Pennsylvania hills with huge Autumn-leaved trees and a long gravel driveway leading up to a very old house. The fencing is nice but not fancy. Instead of one large barn, there are many smaller, cross-fenced fields, each with its own run-in shed. Bud welcomes us like old friends and asks us how our kids are doing. He introduces us to his sister, who happens to be a children’s author. The two regale us with fascinating and sometimes frightening stories such as the time one of Bud’s alpacas gave birth in cold weather and no one was home on the farm. The cria, still wet from the amniotic fluid, nearly froze to death outside. It survived, but the frozen tips of the ears broke off. Bud offers this story as a good reason why farms without staffs should not breed for winter. In a few weeks, when we take delivery of the alpacas we bought from Lanark, I will look at the paperwork that accompanies them and realize that Latte is bred for late December. I had not thought to ask her due date; I had assumed that she was bred for spring like Primrose. The frozen ears story will be haunting me until Latte’s cria is safely born and I have dried her off with a towel and blow dryer. Tom and I will never breed for winter.
We end up buying Twiggy but, after we agree to pay his price, Bud magnanimously lowers it. He says that he likes us and wants to see us do well. He seems to genuinely mean this. We are very moved by his unexpected generosity. Twiggy will stay at Alpaca Farms until spring, when she will be bred to a silver gray male named Allegheny. When I receive Twiggy’s registration papers, I realize that her mother was named Uhura. The fanatical Trekkie in me realizes that Twiggy was meant to be mine all along. We now own three female alpacas!
Finally it’s the first week in November and our agreed upon delivery date comes. Milt drives the livestock trailer up from Virginia to deliver Latte, Primrose, Lindy and Polo. We have alpacas on our farm! Never having imagined our lives beyond the point where the alpacas are actually in the barn, I’m not sure what to do next and I become an over-cautious, neurotic mess. The temperature is predicted to be in the 40s on this night so, fearing that the cold wind here in Mount Airy will be too much for our Virginia-bred alpacas, Tom and I lock the them in the barn with all of the Dutch doors tightly closed. My karmic reward for this silliness will involve some serious spit.
When I climb up the hill to the barn the next morning, I am unaware that Lindy and Polo have been rough housing and spitting at each other inside their pen. I happily open the top of their Dutch door, excited to see my precious boys, just in time for Lindy to duck out of the way so that Polo’s can shoot a huge wad of greenish, foul smelling goo directly into my face. My first spit. My God but it smells awful! Imagine an animal that can vomit up a bunch of half-digested grass, mixed with stomach acid and a little bit of fermented grain and turn it into a weaponized puke projectile. That will mitigate the cute and cuddly factor pretty quickly. I am close to losing the contents of my own stomach at this point, and some of this filth has gotten in one of my eyes and it burns, but I hold my breath and quickly let all four alpacas out of the barn. Then I race down the hill to the house stinking, half-blind and desperate for a shower.
“Do alpacas spit?” This is a question that I will be asked literally hundreds of times in the next ten years and it’s a very frustrating one. Yes, they spit, and yes, it’s nasty, smelly stuff but, as soon as I try to explain WHY they spit, most people become visibly disinterested. They don’t want to know the reason for the behavior. They want to write off the animals as “bad” and be done with it. Dogs bite, cats spray piss and horses kick, but most people never ask themselves why. Trying to understand the behavior from the animal’s point of view ruins the fantasy of owning a cute, fuzzy pet in the first place. I realize that I sound bitter, but it’s hard think about all the misery and suffering that animals go through because people don’t want to give up their fantasy version of them.
Locking up the alpacas inside an unfamiliar barn with new pen mates, little room to move about, and no window to even look through, was a very dumb move on our parts and guaranteed to cause anxiety. Spitting in alpacas is usually caused by anxiety, but it can also be a tactic to express dominance over a herd mate. Herd animals always have dominance issues that must be resolved and re-resolved each time the roster of personalities is shuffled. Every member of the herd must know their status in the dominance order. In addition to feeling anxious, Lindy and Polo needed to work out which one of them would be the top guy in their herd of two. Some spitting was almost a given in this situation. Alpacas should not spit at people, but they will do so if you make them feel anxious and trapped. It is also possible to get in the middle of a dominance fight. I did both of those dumb things.
There is a third, more heartbreaking reason that alpacas will sometimes spit at people, accidental imprinting. We humans insist that the key to having a docile, loving animal companion is to cuddle and handle it from the time it is very small so that it “gets used to” people. Alpacas that are over-handled at a very young age will become very friendly with people and thus very attractive to buyers, at least until the alpaca reaches sexual maturity. When these over-handled crias mature, they will exhibit aberrant, overly-familiar behavior toward humans. Females will usually become prone to spitting (a dominance behavior) and difficult to handle. They may invade the personal space of people or refuse to walk on a lead. Over-handled males will usually become aggressive towards humans in the same way that they show aggression to one another. They may spit, bite or ram into humans with their chests. If these males are not gelded before they reach maturity, they will usually have to be destroyed. They are dangerous to people because they no longer see people as something different than alpacas. This used to be called “berserk llama syndrome” but it should have been called stupid owner syndrome.
By the time winter arrives, we will have gotten over our ridiculous over-protective behavior, and routinely be welcomed in the early morning by the sight of our entire herd of alpacas happily cushed on the icy ground in temperatures below 20 degrees. They will only seek out the shelter of the barn in heavy rain or very hot weather. They will come to view the barn as a place to get shade and the relief provided by our huge, industrial fans.
Two days after the alpacas arrive, I get freaked out by a greenish discharge from Polo’s nose and call Milt back at Lanark for advice. Milt patiently tells me it’s fine, Polo probably has a cold, but I can take his temperature if I want to make sure he has no fever. Of course Milt doesn’t mean that I should stick a thermometer in Polo’s mouth but … elsewhere. I have the proper thermometer, new, still in its shrink-wrapped box, but I am not ready for this step into livestock owner reality. The under the arm thermometer trick won’t work for this either. I make the cowardly decision to wait and see if Polo recovers on his own.
Since I have Milt on the phone, I quiz him about feed. I am sure that I am either feeding the alpacas way too much or way too little. Milt hems and haws a bit on this one until I begin to see that he wants me to understand something without his coming right out and saying it. Large farms usually feed all of their animals the same amount because it takes too much time to figure out an exact amount of feed for each individual member of the herd, but that’s not the best way to feed the alpacas. This is not a critique of large farms, but it is an advantage that small farms have over large ones. Some animals will seem to get fat on air alone; farmers call these “easy keepers”. Others can be fed larger amounts and stay thin. Small farm owners can make adjustments in feed according to which animals have more trouble gaining weight, which are pregnant, are still growing, or just fat. They can also spend more time watching their alpacas eat. It is important to notice if one alpaca is getting bullied and is not allowed to eat its share of hay or grain. It’s also important to know if an alpaca cannot chew well and drops grain out of its mouth as this may indicate a tooth infection or other problem.
Another thing that is much easier for small farms to do is to halter train all of their alpacas. I go to the barn every day and halter up each alpaca in turn, and then walk it around the field on a lead rope. Polo is a little bit of a hysteric at first. While he dislikes the halter, he is more worried about some of the stuff that I try to walk him near. He’s terrified of the yellow tape that we use to mark the wire fence at intervals to prevent deer from not seeing the fence and running through it. Later on I will realize that most of the alpacas are afraid of my yellow raincoat as well. Shiny yellow is not a common sight in nature; it’s weird and scary. The alpacas also hate all of my wool sweaters. They sniff them loudly and dramatically and comically shake their heads as though trying to figure out what animal I am wearing. Real wool has a distinctly sheepy smell when wet, but I did not realize that the smell could be detected by animals even when the wool is dry.
My caramel-colored Lindy seems resigned to life as a fluffy toy. He obligingly lets me halter him and he walks around on the lead. He allows me to touch his neck, lift his feet and look in his ears for ticks. He is the smallest of the herd but he seems to have taken top spot over his pen mate, Polo. He is less fearful by nature than Polo and he is older by a few months as well. He gazes at me with his huge brown eyes and I feel as though I want to throw my arms around him and hug him but I don’t. I try to respect his adorable, manly little self.
Primrose is a delicate, frightened flower. She squeaks when I try to put the halter on her and lifts her head skyward making it hard for me to slip the halter on. She does not walk on the lead as much as hop from here to there skittishly. Having her feet or legs touched is also very frightening for her. She requires a good deal of patience and calm on the part of her handler.
Latte is the queen of the herd. The same regal bearing that made her stand out in Lanark’s large herd of females is making her a pain in the butt at our place. She is not afraid of any tape, any halter or any thing. She is large for a female and uses her muscle to resist anything she doesn’t want to do. She will move her head sideways to avoid being haltered and, if that doesn’t work, she will turn her whole body around. She is also willing to kick if you piss her off. An alpaca’s kick doesn’t hurt like a horse’s kick, but it does sting if you get it in the thigh or the knee. The queen bee routine will turn out to be highly heritable. Latte will produce three daughters for us and all will become Queen bees of their herds. Years later other breeders will tell us humorous tales of queen bee behavior from Latte’s granddaughters.
While training alpacas to walk on a lead and allow their feet and bodies to be touched sometimes feels like a bad comedy show, it is very important for their health. If you cannot lead your alpaca back into the barn, you cannot worm it or shear it. If you cannot touch its feet, how can you trim the toenails? Like horses, goats and cows, alpacas can become lame if their toenails get overgrown. An un-wormed alpaca can easily become a dead alpaca. If an animal is super difficult to handle, it will be too tempting for the owner to avoid performing routine care for it. Training an alpaca to tolerate handling also makes it far easier to sell. It’s pretty hard to keep a buyer interested after they have seen you run all over your own field like a rodeo clown trying to catch the alpaca they were interested in.
In a few weeks the alpacas have begun to lose their fear of me. If I stand very still in one of their fields, they will walk near me to see what I’m doing. If they are cushed, I can usually sit down near them and hang out without them jumping to their feet to flee. When I come out holding their grain, they are more than willing to shove their faces in the bowl before I can put it down. I struggle to place their bowls far enough apart so that they cannot steal food from each other. Their dominance issues now settled, the alpacas have begun to act very friendly with each other. They will sometimes walk alongside their pen mates when I am walking them on the halter and lead. They don’t want to be separated. They even get used to my elderly Papillion dog, Sammie. At first the alpacas screeched and fled from him, recognizing him as a predator, but they have begun to understand that he is no threat to them. They will sniff him and then ignore him.
Casey and Nick also take part in some of the alpaca feeding and training, and the alpacas treat them very differently than Tom or me. They somehow realize that these two are not adults. They will walk up and sniff the children and try to taste their sneakers or their hair. They will allow them to put their arms around their necks for a hug, something they do not want me to do. They will eat grain out of the kids’ hands but I don’t encourage this as I worry about spilled grain attracting rats to the barn.
Another question I have been asked countless times over the years about alpacas is, “Are they friendly?” and this one is also frustrating. A herd animal is not meant to be friendly to people the way a dog might. They should not beg to be petted by us or want to lie down at our feet. They will learn to trust us if we feed them and spend time with them. They will let us take care of them when they need it. We can love them on their own terms. Isn’t that enough?
With the actual purchase of our first alpacas accomplished, it was time for us to finish our fencing, barn building and the buying of all of the weird supplies we would need to care for the animals. It was also time for me to have a little identity crisis. We now OWNED alpacas. We were actually alpaca farmers. Were we really ready for this giant lifestyle change? Were we crazy? I quickly realized that talking about this with others wasn’t going to help. The non-farmers I talked to thought the alpaca farm was a terrible mistake, a hilarious sitcom, or worse, the self-indulgent whim of a bored housewife. At my friend Carol’s party, one of her friends made a rude remark about me joining the “Tractor and Tiara Set”. Ouch! I was used to the dire warnings of financial ruin by now, but the idea that people might think me a spoiled dilettante really hurt.
Talking with farm people didn’t go any better. I found out that “real farmers” do not approve of “exotic” livestock. In fact they vehemently disapprove of them. They didn’t know the difference between an emu, a llama and an alpaca, and they didn’t care. Nor did they care for miniaturized horses! Real farmers think people who buy exotic livestock are gullible fools with more money than sense. Due to a childhood of politeness training, I was forced to listen to some lengthy rants about exotic livestock and their dimwitted owners from several farm neighbors, my own county agricultural extension agent, and even from a couple of the sheep breeders in my hand-spinning club. I wasn’t expecting the agricultural community to welcome me with open arms, but I didn’t expect quite this level of hostility either.
Tom’s efforts at farming didn’t help our reputation any. If most of the farm world is separated into “real” farmers and tractor and tiara farmers, Tom would fall into a third category that I called “funny farmer.” He loved his tractor and other farm machinery a little too much, and was as happy as I have ever seen him when doing manual labor, but he always took his projects a little too far.
Take Tom’s love of ditch witching for example. The first time I heard about ditch witching I thought the conversation was about someone trying to locate underground water with a magical forked stick. I soon found out that there is an actual machine called a “Ditch Witch”, and it is used to dig trenches. The official logo of the Ditch Witch Company is somewhat confusing. The silhouetted witch appears to be wearing a very tight-fitting shirt with flowing sleeves but has somehow forgotten to put on either pants or a skirt. She is pictured riding a shovel rather than a broom, and she is riding it in a way that is very sexually suggestive. This is the logo of a company that is not worried about offending female customers. They clearly don’t have any. Men, on the other hand, love this machine and Tom was no exception. He ditch witched trenches for water and electric lines to our 3 barns, and still couldn’t stop ditch witching. He ditch witched a line from our house, down the hill to a tree by the pond so that he could put an electric socket and a spotlight in the tree, “just in case we decide to have a party in the back yard.” Our lawn was ditch witched so thoroughly and so often that our neighbors began relentlessly teasing us about our severe groundhog problem.
Tom’s ideas about fencing were equally funny. Gentlemen farmers buy fencing, usually white, three-board, horse fence, and they pay someone else to install it. Real farmers buy posts, dig the holes themselves with a posthole digger and a tractor auger, and run high tensile wire from post to post. This can be barbed wire or un-barbed, electrified wire. This is not nearly as beautiful as white board, but it gets the job done economically, and requires far less upkeep. Tom decided to build our fence with posts and wire too, but couldn’t resist adding his own crazy “improvement.”
Since the meningeal worm is the most disastrous of the parasites that can affect alpacas, and its natural host is the white tailed deer, Tom decided that he could devise a fence too high for the deer to jump over. White tailed deer can easily jump a standard 5-foot fence, but what about a 7-foot fence? The obvious problem with this plan is that fence posts are not manufactured to be 7 feet high. Tom, however, had a plan for this. He had heard of a local, pick-your-own-pumpkin operation that needed tractoring help during the pumpkin harvest. This pumpkin farm had a deal with the local utility company that allowed the utility company to discard old telephone poles on the pumpkin farm property rather than having to haul them to the trash dump. Tom arranged for the owner of this pumpkin farm to pay him in telephone poles for helping with the pumpkin harvest. When the neighbors saw that Tom was erecting a 7-foot high fence using telephone poles as fence posts, we were in for another round of teasing, this time about “gorilla farms” and Jurassic Park.
Another eccentric farmer, our beloved neighbor, Alden Rogers, aided Tom’s progress on the funny farm fence. Al was certainly no stranger to hard work or crazy schemes. You may remember that he sent us a child’s sled with diesel tractor fuel tied to it during the blizzard. During another heavy snowstorm, this old gentlemen hiked the half mile from his farm to ours, wearing snowshoes, to see if WE were okay. Despite having a brilliant mind, Al had once made the tragic error of cutting a strand of barbed wire on his own farm fence without using eye protection. A piece of wire under tension that is suddenly cut will move with astonishing speed. Al did not have time to jump back or close his eyes before the wire struck. The mistake cost him an eye. Al sometimes wore a fake eye, but more often wore a black eye patch like a pirate. He kept right on working on his fence, and those of his daughters and neighbors, well into his 80s. If the weather were warm Al would often drive his golf cart over to our place wearing his trademark white undershirt, baggy shorts and huge mud boots. There is something so beautiful in one neighbor casually joining in on another’s farm labor without even being asked. We were lucky enough to experience that many times, and often dropped in on the Rogers and pitched in on their farm work as well. It saddens me to think that most people in our society no longer have the time or inclination to form these kinds of relationships with their neighbors.
Al is not the only farm guy in this story who was prone to accidents. Tom hurt himself badly and often, but always refused proper medical treatment unless absolutely forced to do so. This was all part of the fun of having a farm to him, but not so much to his long-suffering wife. In one such incident, I was standing on a playing field in town, coaching our son’s soccer team when Al’s wife Mary appeared and asked me, “How’s Tom?” (Her grandson was a member of the opposing soccer team.) “He’s fine, I think?” I trailed off uncertainly. “Is there some reason you are asking?” “Well Al said he offered to take Tom to the hospital after he cut his head open with the post hole digger, but Tom said you were home and could take him.” replied Mary looking at me quizzically, due to the fact that I was clearly NOT home. Of course I rushed home to find Tom alone, the huge lump and gash on the top of his head covered pathetically by a napkin. This was one of many incidents that cemented our close friendship with the Rogers. Mary and Al thought that Tom’s accident and subsequent lie were hilarious and they teased him about everyone knowing your business in our small town.
But Tom’s overzealousness could also be very useful. He was smart enough to think through the placement of our main barn and each of its 6 entrances so that we could have 5 separate fields, each with an entrance into a penned off interior section of the barn. When we got to the point where we owned breeding females, breeding males, younger males, and maiden females, we would be able keep each group in separate fields, and separate pens inside the barn. We even had a small quarantine area for new arrivals. We had noted that large farms such as Lanark kept their animals separated in this way. It is obvious why un-bred female alpacas and breeding males cannot be left in the same field without indiscriminate breeding occurring, but many new alpaca owners find out the hard way that it can be just as disastrous to keep young male alpacas in the same field with breeding males.
Despite looking like fluffy teddy bears, male alpacas can badly hurt or even crudely geld their perceived reproductive rivals. A fully grown, un-gelded, male alpaca knows that a 6 month old male will be a threat to his position one day, and he will not hesitate to bully or hurt the young male. While fighting, male alpacas will try to bite their rivals either on the tendon of the back leg, below the hock, or on the testicles. Sometimes they will charge the other male, hitting chest-to-chest and damaging the younger male’s shoulder, or they may try to mount the younger male as a sign of dominance. It is important to keep young male alpacas out of the range of older, un-gelded male alpacas. Young males will still fight one another, but they will be less likely to do actual damage to each other. They will not have the size disadvantage with one another that they will have with larger, stronger males, and their dangerously sharp “fighting teeth” will not have erupted yet. Older males should always have their fighting teeth blunted by an O.B. wire, a file, or other method. They will continue to fight one another from time to time, especially when one of them is allowed to breed a female but, without fighting teeth or a size advantage, they should exhaust each other without causing real damage. Male alpacas that are gelded early are generally very docile and disinclined to fight.
Our main barn was 60 x 40 and two stories, and was built by an actual barn builder with Tom “helping” the work crew as much he was able. When the job was finished, there was enough left over material for Tom to make an additional small barn further out in our main field, using his beloved telephone poles as part of the supporting structure. It was these two barns, along with the old “goat palace,” that were furnished with water and electric during Tom’s ditch witching frenzy. Since the foreman on the barn job offered me a choice of colors for the siding, I chose sky blue rather than the traditional red, again amusing the neighbors. I never regretted flouting tradition. I loved my sky blue barn! That barn was the heart of our farm and would soon be the home of our alpaca herd.
Before we accepted delivery of our first alpacas, we drove to Lanark farm one last time. Part of our deal in buying the alpacas was that we would be able to work as farm hands during Lanark’s monthly herd health day. Most alpaca farms do monthly worming, toenail trimming, weighing and vaccination of their herds. By aiding Lanark farm’s employees in this effort, we would be getting hands-on training in how to care for our own alpacas. As we worked our way through the herd, Amanda and I chatted like old friends. At some point she told me a harrowing story about drawing blood from a young alpaca cria’s jugular vein for a DNA test and slicing the vein instead. She knew immediately that the cria was bleeding internally and clamped the fingers of one hand tightly on the neck to stanch the flow, even as she frantically dialed the veterinarian with a cellphone using her other hand. Some skillful suturing on the part of the veterinarian saved the cria’s life. Years later, this story would be remembered during a more tragic occurrence on our own farm.
Despite the “it’s all about the fleece” hype, no one makes enough money on alpaca fleeces to recoup the price of their live alpaca purchases, much less the expense of feeding, worming, vaccinating and paying for vet care for their herd. If you don’t plan to run a petting zoo, the only way to recover your original investment is to sell live alpacas to others. To do this, you must become alpaca breeders, not just alpaca farmers.
There are so many aspects of animal breeding that seem strange or even uncomfortable to people who did not grow up on a farm. Most of us have never given much thought as to how animals mate and reproduce. We’ve seen two dogs sharing a candlelit, spaghetti dinner in a Disney movie, or a cartoon skunk in love with a fancy cat. We learned in church about the two by two procession of animals into Noah’s ark. We might know that some animals mate for life, but we rarely remember that the majority of mammals do not, and this is especially true of herd animals. Nature seems to prefer a system in which the strongest male breeds all of the females in the herd, and the remaining males are unlikely to ever pass on their genes. The losers form “bachelor” herds and hang around the periphery watching one lucky guy get all of the action.
We may not like this, but it makes sense in a mathematical way. If a female alpaca can produce only one offspring per year, every female is valuable in the numbers game of reproducing and growing the herd, but it only takes one fertile male to breed every adult female in the herd. While the female spends up to 12 months contributing to one birth, the male can reproduce his genetic material hundreds of times per month. In the wild, the top alpaca stud will keep his harem for a few years, passing on his superior genetic material, until a younger, stronger stud can fight him and win. Remember this next time you hear someone trots out the old biology is destiny argument. Yes, Mother Nature does think that female mammals should raise the young, and she’s not big on monogamy, but she also thinks most male mammals are superfluous. Nature does not believe in political correctness for any of us. Thankfully, humans evolved big brains that – theoretically – let us make more nuanced choices.
Thus bred females are the most important part of any alpaca breeding business. The ability to gestate, birth, and nurture new life is the most valuable ability there is. Male alpacas are separated into two types, the stud, sometimes called the “herdsire”, and the gelding. The vast majority of male alpacas are geldings. Their job is to produce nice fleeces, be trained and shown by small children in agricultural fairs, participate in parades and petting zoos, or be living lawn ornaments for wealthy people who like to have cute farm animals. In other words, they are cuddly, pets. They are nice to own, but not necessary to the breeding business. Lest you think the female alpacas have the better part of this deal, remember that most are pregnant almost all year, and they are also nursing last year’s cria while pregnant with the current one. This is their natural state, but we can be forgiven if it makes some of us feel glad to have birth control for our human selves.
Many small alpaca farm owners begin their herds by purchasing three or four bred females. Stud fees for very high quality males were often in the tens of thousands when we began shopping for alpacas. A national show-winning herdsire might sell for $200,000 or more. It made more sense to buy a female already bred to such a male than to purchase a male outright. It is best to buy a female that also has a well-known sire. The first two questions about a bred female alpaca should be, “Who is she out of?” and “Who is she bred to?” Having both her sire and her breeding partner be well known and of good quality is very important. Mr. No Name alpaca might be a great quality male but, unless he wins big in the show ring, his offspring won’t have the brand name appeal of Mr. Show Winner’s offspring. So buying a pretty, fine-fleeced female alpaca, who is bred to Mr. Show Winner, and whose sire was Mr. Well-known Megastud will ensure that you end up with a great quality, show winning, super salable cria right? Of course not! Nothing is really that simple. We will find that out later.
In addition to purchasing good quality breeding stock, any new alpaca farm will want to figure out what their possible niche could be. As we visited more and more Maryland farms and saw that almost all of them had bought from the three largest farms in the region, I wondered if it were not a better idea to buy some alpacas that were not related to the breeding stock of all of the farms around us. Why not travel farther, make that extra effort to get unusual bloodlines and see if that helped the salability of our alpacas’ offspring? We could still buy from one of the nearby farms if they had a female we really wanted, but we would try to have a more diverse herd.
Our other niche would be a true interest and involvement with our own alpaca fleeces. Every alpaca breeder tries to produce the finest, softest, most desirable fleece, but they differ on the question what makes a fleece desirable. This brings us to a point of tremendous contention among alpaca breeders. I call it the “Cottage versus Industry” debate. In 1999, as in the present time, there were those in the alpaca business who claimed that we should all be breeding identical, superfine, white alpacas to supply an industry that would require huge amounts of these identical fleeces. In this scenario, a future U.S. alpaca fleece industry is somehow able to compete head to head with the huge Peruvian alpaca fleece industry.
Peru has far more alpacas than we do in the U.S., so they have the advantage of economics of scale. Their alpaca processing infrastructure and their buyers are well established and of long duration. The pay scale of their workers is quite a bit lower than ours, but they have a well-trained workforce with multiple generations of experience. Yet there are those who claimed that this imaginary, U.S. alpaca fleece industry would somehow compete with Peru’s and make a good profit. They are still making this claim 15 years later.
In order to breed for this U.S. industrial market, breeders would want to buy only superfine, white alpacas. White fleece is preferred by the Peruvian industry because it can be processed in huge quantities and later separated into batches and dyed any color. Some of the recent proponents of the U.S. alpaca fleece industry model would also have us buy only alpacas with Accoyo bloodlines.
Accoyo is the name of a ranch in Peru, but also a name that some U.S. breeders have “borrowed” to refer to their own bloodlines, those that – presumably – originated on the Estancia Accoyo in Peru. These alpacas were skillfully line bred by Don Julio Barreda to be almost identical in their fleece characteristics. Accoyos are super dense, crimpy, uniform and very fine. They are also all white, and they are inbred. Line breeding is inbreeding done carefully and deliberately. It is known for fixing traits such as body size and fineness of fleece. It is also known for increasing the likelihood of birth defects and reproductive problems.
Since Tom and I never bought into the idea of this thriving U.S. alpaca fleece processing industry, we were free to pick the type of alpacas we wanted to breed. As a hand spinner, I liked unusual, natural colored fleeces, and alpacas come in many beautiful colors, Like sheep, alpacas can be white, black or gray, but they can also have fawn colored fleeces, reddish-brown fleeces, grayish-lavender fleeces and maroon-gray fleeces. Natural-colored fleeces are far subtler in their coloring than dyed fleeces. The lack of chemical dyes makes them softer as well. Really crimpy alpaca fleeces can be used to make yarns with good elasticity that knit up into garments that fit well, and hold their shape without drooping. If I wanted to spin colored, soft, crimpy fleeces, I was willing to bet other hand spinners did as well. We would look for female alpacas with those characteristics, along with good body structure, proper dental alignment and well-known bloodlines. We would become lowly cottage industry breeders and be proud of it. Armed with the knowledge of what type of alpaca we wanted to buy, we began to shop in earnest.
Lanarks Primrose with Lanarks Latte in the background on right
The first alpaca I truly fell in love with was named Chanel. We discovered her at the Mid Atlantic Alpaca Association (MAPACA) show at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in northwest New Jersey. The weather was frigid at this outdoor, agricultural arena. It would have been perfect weather for selling alpaca fleece products, but none of the alpaca farms present were selling them. There was a couple from Ecuador selling alpaca and llama wool blend products from a truck/booth and I bought from them an “alpaca” wool pullover with llamas dancing across it as a gift for my mother. Tom, the kids and I watched the alpacas being judged in the show ring, and we also visited the pens of alpacas lined up along the aisles of the large, open barn. In one of those pens, we found Chanel.
Chanel was fawn-colored. Her face and body seemed perfect, and her fleece was the softest I had yet felt. This was in a time when many alpacas in the U.S. were still imports from Peru and Bolivia. These imports were usually very skittish, if not downright hysterical and spitting with fear. In contrast, Chanel was sweet and calm. She stood still while I reached my hand into her side and rubbed her fleece between my fingers. Just as I did this, her owner said “Just like butter.” It did feel almost moist and slippery to the touch. Chanel was out of a very famous sire, but she had not yet been bred to one. Most breeders will not bring bred females to shows, as the experience is way too stressful. All of the alpacas I had seen that day were pretty, but this girl was gorgeous. I wanted her. She was the first alpaca that really struck me as being superior to all others I had seen. We found out that she was to be auctioned at the 1999 All American Alpaca Futurity. When the auction day came, we bid on her by phone, but dropped out somewhere around $26,000. Chanel would end up commanding the highest price of any female alpaca at that auction. We did not end up with Chanel, but seeing her in New Jersey made us decide to make an appointment to visit the Charlottesville, Virginia farm where she was produced and see the rest of their herd.
Excerpt from my alpaca breeder diary:
Sunday, June 06, 1999
Left the kids at my sister Krissy’s house at 7:00 AM to drive to Lanarks Llamas and Alpacas in Charlottesville, VA. We had met the owner, Antoinette Brewster, at the Eastern Alpaca Jubilee in New Jersey, and really liked the look of her animals. So we made the plan to visit and headed down south.
As you approach Lanarks, you can’t help but notice that you’re traveling back in time to the colonial Virginia of yesteryear. First we passed the Historic Michie Tavern where the former presidents went to hang out and drink with the other gentry. Then we passed Monticello itself, home of Thomas Jefferson. Next comes Ashlawn Highlands, the former home of John Adams, then on past the Jefferson Vineyards to the home of John Kluge, once the richest man in America. Just past the hand-built stone fences of the Kluge estate sits Lanark Farm. This is Old Dominion Virginia with a capital D.
The long, gravel driveway cuts through fields for miles around. Some have grass, but many are red clay dirt, which blows about and hangs in the air. It is the summer of the worst drought on record in Maryland and Virginia, and almost every farm is covered in dust of one color or another. On the right side of the driveway are several fields full of alpacas. There are about one hundred and fifty in all. Some are black, some gray or dark brown, but most look peach colored because the red clay dust coats their white fur completely. It is just past 10 am, but the temperature is already in the 80s. It will reach the mid 90s by lunchtime.
By the barn we meet Milt, the farm manager, and Amanda, the herd manager. Milt is the perfect Hollywood cowboy movie extra, not tall but all wiry muscles with a calm, direct manner. He wears jeans and a white woven cowboy hat. He learned his animal skills on a cattle farm in Vermont back when he was still a Yankee. He’s had his arm inside many a cow’s privates and isn’t afraid to talk about it, but doesn’t brag either. The first time I hear him casually mention “her vagina” (the cow’s) I have to freeze my face so I won’t look shocked. I can’t remember ever hearing any man say that word once, much less over and over the way this guy does.
If Amanda were a character in a movie, she would be played by Debra Winger. She is a size 6 at most, but with well-cut little arm muscles. She wears a tight white T-shirt and old jeans. On the back of her neck, under her upswept, wavy black hair is a small blue tattoo of Sagittarius the archer. Her eyes are blue. She talks to the alpacas in a high breathy baby voice and calls the little ones “my peas” but she sure looks tough when she’s slinging a bale of hay around. She knows each one of the many, many alpacas by name! She sneaks a cigarette here and there as she does her farm chores. I like her instantly.
Antoinette shows up a fashionable 15 minutes late. All attention rivets on her immediately as she is larger than life. She is very good looking, resembling a slightly older Michelle Pfeiffer. Men must have followed her like pathetic little dogs when she was young, but she does not act “Southern Girl” and coquettish. She stands close to me and her voice is a little loud so that I have to fight the urge to back up, but she also has some serious charisma. That can’t hurt if your job is to sell animals. I’m shocked to realize that Amanda and Milt call her “Mrs. Brewster” instead of her given name. She has on a red and white checked shirt that is some fashion designer’s idea of a farm outfit but you can tell it’s not from Southern States or the tractor store. I appreciate her directness. She is very professional, and she doesn’t tell us any fairytales or offer any heartwarming stories. She assumes we are there to buy. She hands us a list of all of the bred females currently on sale along with their prices, dams, sires and birth dates, and our tour begins.
A couple of hours later I am lost in a fog of half remembered animals, the teeth on this one, the color of that one. Which one had the good crimp? Which had the strange legs? I have taken notes furiously, but am not sure they are even correct. It is too much to look at so many animals, and the added strain of trying to remember the sire and dam of each one makes the whole task impossible. I need a scorecard with photos, genealogical trees and pertinent footnotes on it, but no owner is going to remind you that the pretty one whose fleece you love is also the one with the bad bite. I’m panicking!
We break for lunch beside the pool next to Antoinette’s house. The pool has male and female bathrooms, a kitchen area with a sink, and a patio with tables on it. There are large statues of animals along the edge of the pool. For a second I forget why I’m there and wish desperately that I had my camera with me and that everyone else would momentarily disappear. I would kill if only my mother, who has never been rich, but is yet a faithful reader of “Town and County”, could see this setup.
Antoinette discreetly leaves us to compare notes, and not a moment too soon. I am dying to see what animals Tom has fixated on. I turn to him eagerly, demanding that we trade lists. That is when it hits me. He HAS NO LIST! We have been tramping around in dusty hot fields for hours staring at this animal and that, and trying to decide which animal, if any, we will pay a small fortune for and Tom has NOT TAKEN NOTES! I briefly consider drowning him in the nearby pool but realize it cannot go unnoticed so I refrain. This explains why Antoinette all but ignored Tom and talked at me while we tramped around; She KNEW he would have no list. When I confront him, Tom’s defense consists of the lame comment, “I thought you were doing a really good job of deciding.” Oh my God. Men!
We head back out to the fields after a very good lunch at which Tom pigged out as usual, but Antoinette seems to find this behavior endearing and she starts to like him. She smoothly asks which animals we want to look at again. I am sweating bullets but finally decide on Latte and Primrose. Latte is a lovely maroonish color with a white face and a crazy Don King-style afro. Her sire is Pizarro. I disapprove of this name due to its bad Karma, but Pizarro is a beautiful guy. Latte is bred to 5 Peruvian El Cid, a guy with a spectacular fleece. Latte radiates intelligence and self-confidence and so, sticks out in a herd of merely pretty faces. She is a queen bee. Her mother, Marguerita, is one of the animals I initially liked as well, but she is older than I wanted.
Primrose, I pick because I love her face and her perfect, crimpy fleece. Not the fleece on her body, it is summer, and that fleece is pretty short. However, Antoinette has the fleeces of each animal bagged up for prospective buyers to look at, so I was able to see Primrose’s shorn fleece from last year, and it is just what I want. Primrose’s famous sire, Drambuie is now in Australia. I have seen him in an ad in “Alpacas” magazine and he is gorgeous. Her mother, MA Krystal, is still at Lanark. Primrose is bred to Lanarks Peruvian Teddy, who also has a wonderful fleece. I have found my first two alpacas!
Having finally picked, I feel I can relax, but Antoinette surprises us. She offers to throw in two pet-quality males, and I must choose again. This is easier, because they are free, so I pick two boys just because I like them. Polo, because he is so friendly and has a crazy white afro, and Lindt because he is cute and little, and the color of a caramel candy. (We would later change his name to Lindy because people often thought he was named after dryer lint rather than a fancy chocolate!)
For a big farm like Lanark these not-quite-herd-sire males might be just another mouth to feed. The big money is in selling breeding stock, not pets. But it is a nice touch for Antoinette to offer them AFTER we have made the deal. For us, the boys will be invaluable. They are P.R. machines that can go to fairs and shows, and we don’t have to worry that the stress will make them abort their babies. I am pretty thrilled because I am one of those nuts who can never have enough cute little animals to take care of. Four alpacas feels like a real start to our farm. It is almost 4:30 when we leave and I feel exhausted and anxious but incredibly excited too. We are now alpaca owners!
 The garment labeling system in Peru allows llama fiber and wool blended with llama or alpaca fiber to be labeled as “alpaca.”
“Why breed alpacas?” This is the question that you will have to answer over and over if you own alpacas. In the U.S. the answer will invariably be, “For their valuable fleece.” or “They’re luxury fiber producers.” Every breeder I talked to said this, every alpaca website and magazine I looked at gave this answer, this was, and still is, the only acceptable answer in the U.S. alpaca industry. Since it was all about the fleece, it seemed obvious to me that my next research step should be hand spinning lessons. If we were really going to buy and breed animals whose main value is in their fleeces, I should know how to use my own product. How else could I correctly judge the quality of fleeces we were producing?
Turns out, this simple idea of using your own product, to gain experience with it, was not as much of a no-brainer to most other alpaca breeders as I imagined. The majority of them were not interested in learning to shear or spin, knit or weave. I was one of the weirdos in this regard, a position that is comfortably familiar to me.
I can admit that it wasn’t exactly a sacrifice for me to get into hand spinning. I’d been dying to try it for years, ever since my first visit to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds. Seeing hundreds of women spinning, in public, on spinning wheels and drop spindles, at an event that was all about wool and other spinnable fibers caused a sudden, sharp revelation from deep within me. I wanted to spin too. I wanted to magically transform an amorphous mass of soft, fleece into a luscious yarn. I wanted to knit from yarn that I had created with my own hands. I would be like one of the Three Fates from Greek mythology. They spin, they measure and they cut the thread of men’s destinies. I would be walking in the footsteps of the goddesses!
Meanwhile, the nerd in me was fascinated by the mechanics of the process. A band running around both the large drive wheel and the small, “whorl” wheel on the the flyer mechanism, turns both wheels, and the difference in size between the drive wheel and the whorl, i.e. the ratio between their circumferences, decides how much twist will go into the yarn. It works something like a 12 speed bicycle with the gear wheel standing in for the whorl. How cool is that?
The oldest spinning wheels had no flyer or bobbin, so the spinner had to stop and wind the spun yarn onto a spindle. Sometimes these were pointy, like the one Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on. But, if you can figure out a way to make the spindle also turn, just a little faster than the wheel and whorl, you can make the yarn wind on to it automatically, as you keep spinning. The first person we know of who figured out how to accomplish this little trick of physics was Leonardo da Vinci. He left us drawings to prove that he too, had an avid interest in the mechanics of the spinning wheel.
It is impossible to measure how ancient the art of spinning really is. We have probably been rolling plant fibers along our thighs to make string since humans first appeared on our planet. Eventually, many of us realized that a stick with a weight on the end would spin fiber much more efficiently. You tie a piece of rolled fiber onto the stick, twirl the stick with a round weight on it and keep adding more fiber as your yarn or thread appears. From time to time, you wind the spun yarn or thread onto the shaft of the stick. Thus was the first drop spindle invented. It may have been a stick with a roundish fruit on the end.
In her brilliant book, Women’s Work, author Elizabeth Wayland Barber places the invention of the drop spindle at 20-30 thousand years ago, and notes that, while spun, stone age threads and fibers would not be sufficiently hardy to survive to be found archaeologically, the presence of rows of evenly spaced beads encasing the bodies and heads of people found in archeological digs from this time period, indicates that these beads were sewn onto a garment with thread. It would be impossible to spin a fine thread without some type of spindle, as the rubbing on your leg method is just too imprecise.
Without that finely spun thread and the spinner who created it, there is no biblical coat of many colors, no tapestry woven by Helen of Troy in the Iliad, no goddess Athena jealously turning a rival weaver into the spider Arachne, no linen death shroud for King Tut, no sails on the ships of Christopher Columbus, no Bayeaux Tapestry and no Fates that spin our lives into a thread to be measured and cut. Remarkably, that metaphor is still meaningful today. Referring to the twisted pair of the DNA strand, Matt Ridley, author of Genome writes, “The secret of life is indeed a thread.”
We think of hand spinning as a quaint craft from the past but it has been an integral part of our lives throughout most of human history. The diversity of spinning fibers, spindles and wheels is astonishing. Imagine the person who first thought up the idea of unwinding a moth’s cocoon and spinning it into silk yarn, or the person who first gathered pieces of sheep wool stuck on a bush and realized it could be spun into yarn. Yak undercoat, alpaca, cashmere, rabbit fur, buffalo undercoat, camel undercoat, cotton, flax, hemp, sisal and jute are just a few of the animals and plants whose fibers humans have learned to spin. The more I learned about hand spinning, the more fascinating it became.
My spinning teacher was named Dalis. Her “farm” was one of those farm-ish businesses that depend more on artistic style and ambience than, say, manure and muddy boots. The setting is breathtaking, a classic, white country house, charmingly decorated, and surrounded by lovely, green fields, with an unobstructed view of the blue ridge mountains as a backdrop. She had a small “spinners flock” of sheep, and a few chickens, just enough animals to make it cute, not enough to produce much of the aforementioned mud or manure. A small barn-shaped yarn shop in her backyard provided the setting for the spinning lessons.
Dalis had a talent for arranging and displaying her wares. The shop was full of whimsical touches like the skeins of yarn nestled in Chinese food containers with handmade, glass knitting needles poked into the yarn like chopsticks. This “farm store” setup is perfect for day trippers from the city to drive out to the beautiful countryside, see some adorable animals, try their hand at spinning or knitting lessons, and buy hand-spun and hand-dyed yarn right from the farm artist, but you have to have a certain charisma and sensibility to pull off this type of artsy farm business. I couldn’t imagine myself doing it.
The spinning wheels used in our group lesson were “castle-style” Majacraft Rose wheels, as opposed to the more sideways layout, “Saxony” wheel that most of us have seen in a Sleeping Beauty or Rumpelstiltskin story book. They are made in New Zealand from the lovely, soft, Rimu wood, and have a delicate rose carved on them. We each sat at one and tried treadling it.
At first it is hard to keep the flywheel going in only one direction. It sputters and reverses direction, seemingly at random. If you treadle harder, generating more momentum, the flywheel goes way faster than your hands can move. As your feet treadle, your hands must gently pull apart a continuous roving of fleece and allow just enough of that fleece to be twisted by the wheel and drawn into the “orifice” of the flyer mechanism. From there it should wind on the bobbin inside of the flyer.
Allow too much of the fleece to be twisted and the twist may move up the entire length of the roving, past your hands. Now you will be unable to pull apart the fiber at all, and it is too thick to fit through the orifice anyway. You will end up with a gigantic, spun yarn bigger than 10 or 20 strands of bulky yarn put together, and will have to unravel the entire thing and start over. Allow too little of the yarn to be twisted and you end up with a thread that breaks. Or, you can alternate between fat pieces and thin pieces. This is called “slubby” yarn and spinners sometimes make it on purpose to create designer yarn.
Knowing how badly I wanted to learn to spin, I was certain that I would be one of the first of our small group of students to get the hang of it. I wasn’t. In fact, I think I was the only one who did not manage it at all during the three-hour lesson. I knew what I was supposed to do. My brain got it, but my hands were out to lunch. Every one of my “yarns” was either way over-spun resembling a curly piggy tail, or under spun and broken before it could wind on. Several times I let the twist move up through the entire roving and had to stop and unwind the whole mess. It reminded the time I tried to learn to bowl. The harder I tried, the more comical my efforts became. My confidence crushed, I left my spinning lesson a bitter woman.
Despite this utter disgrace, the desire to spin stayed with me. Inexplicably, I began to shop around for a spinning wheel. I eventually bought a small Kiwi model wheel made by Ashford. This was not the elegant Rose wheel of my lesson. The flywheel was pressed wood that begged to be painted something cheery, and the whole contraption had a blocky, unfinished look to it. Nor was it as fast as the Rose wheel I’d tried to learn on, but it turned out to be the perfect wheel for me. As soon as I sat down to spin on it, I felt the rightness of it. Yarn began appearing and winding on the bobbin where before I had only produced a twisted mess. And so I learned an important lesson. The fit between wheel and spinner matters.
Years later when I, myself, taught hand spinning, I would use five different wheels and make my students try each one. Invariably a student who was a complete train wreck with one style of wheel would suddenly triumph with another wheel. Each wheel is unique in size, speed, stability, height and configuration just as each person is. Some spinners hate the single treadle, sideways layout Saxony wheel while an equal number despise the double treadle castle wheel. My observation of spinning students has convinced me that hyper people with good posture often like double treadle, castle wheels, while laid back, slouchers often prefer single treadle Saxony wheels.
I amateurishly painted my Kiwi wheel with some alpacas and a sunny face and sealed it all with Minwax. Then I spun the rest of my first roving. Next, I bought a sheep fleece from a neighbor, washed it in a tub outside with a ton of soap and some salt, carded it with hand cards and spun that up too. The hand cards were rustic and looked like authentic antiques, but they were also painful for my small hands. I invested in a drum carder before processing my next fleece. Once my hands got the hang of it and I managed to stop over-thinking it, spinning was very pleasurable. It was also kind of addictive. I wanted to try different styles of preparation and spinning as well as all different types of fiber. I needed to learn to ply two spun yarns together if I was going to make a more usable yarn. I read books on spinning and fiber preparation. I subscribed to “Spin Off” magazine. I was well and truly caught in the web of my new obsession.
Having the excuse of doing research for our alpaca business was what allowed me to give myself permission to learn the art of hand spinning. It would have seemed a pretentious extravagance to me if I had taken it up just for my own pleasure. Isn’t that sad? We are taught that it is OK to experience the joy of creating art with our hands as children, but as “grown ups” it seems silly or not worth the expense to many of us. I wonder what our great, great grandparents would think of this. Would they, who worked so much harder, had to fear so many more illnesses, lived with so many less luxuries, had no films, televisions, jet planes or Internet, pity us because we did not have the simple joy of creating things with our own hands as part of our daily lives? It’s hard to imagine how much richer creating things makes your life if you don’t do it regularly.
Once again, Elizabeth Wayland Barber:
“In truth, cloth for thousands of years was the notebook that recorded the woes and joys, hopes, visions, and aspirations of women.”
Mention alpaca farming to a group of random people and several of them will immediately lose their minds and begin to rant about “exotic livestock”, “farming fads”, “pyramid schemes”, “latest market bubble” and also, “emus!” and/or “llamas!” It will be very, very unlikely that these people have experience in livestock farming, any kind of farming, or know what the end product of an alpaca or llama is. This will not stop them from KNOWING that they are right, and you are doomed if you do not heed their advice.
On the other side of the proverbial coin are those who advertise and talk about cute, fluffy “livestock investments” and encourage you to spend your retirement years raising alpacas. You will spend your golden years sitting on your porch watching your adorable, livestock investments frolic through your fields and, also, multiply exponentially causing you to become filthy rich with hardly any effort on your part.
Con artists and their naive followers exist in every type of business. If there is good money to be made deceiving others, someone will be willing to do it, but they can’t do it without people who refuse to do their own research. I know there are people who do not enjoy researching a new and exotic subject, but I don’t really understand them. Doing research is one of the great joys and privileges of life. It’s what separates us from the people who bought Windows ME. I’m not saying that people who don’t do their research deserve to be conned, but remember that it is the alpacas that suffer the most due to lack of research and preparation on the part of their owners, and some suffer pretty terribly.
So, while people were lining up to tell me how crazy I was, I was in research commando mode. I ordered the only three books I could find about alpacas, two of which were mainly about llamas with a little alpaca information thrown in. My favorite was The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM. It was 255 pages and published in 1995. This book cost $70, and offered a great deal of scary information about alpaca diseases, parasites, infections, developmental problems and a list of possible birth defects printed in very small type, and covering one and one half pages. A thorough reading of this book would cure anyone of the idea that alpacas are adorable,
carefree “investments.” It wasn’t all unpleasant though. The first paragraph offered a lovely, poetic view of the relationship between the Andean people and the Alpaca. I reproduce it here,
“Ausangate is a magnificent snow-covered peak south of Cuzco, Peru, and the legendary source of llamas and alpacas. According to legend, Pachamama [mother earth] loaned alpacas and llamas so people of the puna could survive. Since the animals belong to Pachamama, they must be well fed and never be treated cruelly. If they aren’t properly cared for, Pachamama will call them back to Ausangate and people will disappear.”
The above quotation is attributed to an “ancient Quechua legend.” Some people could read this and think only about the thrilling adventure of raising a mystical, magical animal. Others would focus on the idea that, if you don’t take good care of your alpacas, the Goddess takes them away, and you could be disappearing too! Both parts of the paragraph are important. Alpacas are a link to an ancient way of life, and raising them can feel very magical at times, but we must be committed to caring for our animals to the absolute best of our ability. A big part of that is doing the research.
I already knew that alpacas were one of four members of the South American camel family. The alpaca has traditionally been used for fleece, while the much larger llama was used for packing on steep, mountain trails. The guanaco is even larger than the llama, and usually allowed to run wild, while the vicuña has the most valuable fleece of the four, but has never been successfully domesticated. All four can interbreed and produce live offspring. I knew that alpacas and llamas in the U.S. were not slaughtered for meat.
I was already a knitter, and a serious lover of natural fibers, both animal and plant. For as long as I can remember, I have had the habit of stroking and admiring the weaves, knitting patterns and textures of my own clothing. Thanks to my Bostonian mother, I grew up wearing wool, mohair, linen, silk, angora, camel hair and goose down. A lot of my childhood wardrobe consisted of wool sweaters and skirts, especially Fair Isle sweaters, and plaid, wool skirts. Many of these came from thrift shops because we were not rich, and these materials can last almost forever if properly cared for. Some people would call this wardrobe style, “preppy”, but I think it was common to most New Englanders of my mother’s generation. People who live in cold climates have to know about warm, durable clothing. When it comes to keeping warm while “breathing” and venting sweat, no manmade fiber can do what Mother Nature can do.
In my research, I had learned that Huacaya alpacas (one of two varieties of alpaca) produced a fleece that is very similar to sheep wool, but not nearly as itchy as most types of sheep wool. As I had spent an entire childhood warm but itchy, it seemed that alpaca fleece and I might just be made for each other.
In addition to reading books, I subscribed to Alpacas Magazine as part of my research. It was mostly advertising, feel-good stories about alpaca breeding, and many photos of high fashion alpaca garments from Peru, but it had a useful article in it now and then. I read everything I could find on the website of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), as well as the International Llama Registry website (ILR). From these sources I found out that importation of alpacas to the U.S. began in the mid 1980s, mainly from Peru, but also from Chile and Bolivia, and blood typing for DNA registration in the U.S. began in 1988.
Some alpaca breeders were fighting to close the registry to newly imported alpacas, making the alpaca herds already in the U.S. the only breeding stock available to new buyers. Scarcity of a product is key to keeping the prices high, and alpaca prices were very high in the beginning of the business. They ranged from $18,000 to $40,000 for a bred female, and even more for a beautiful male “herd sire.” Some breeders felt that the size of the U.S. alpaca herd did not contain enough genetic diversity. Others claimed that it already had too much diversity. I was not qualified to have an opinion on this topic in 1998, but I did see many alpacas that looked more like llamas during my early years of alpaca farming. In any case, the registration of newly imported alpacas would be closed in 1999, effectively ending alpaca importation.
I liked what I had found out so far, so I went to a couple of “Alpaca 101” seminars at nearby alpaca farms. The first was run by “Breeder A.”, a female, ex-horse breeder. I would meet many of these during my alpaca farm years. Horses and alpacas seem to appeal to women far more often than men, and a person who is comfortable controlling 1,000 pounds of horse will find a 140 pound alpaca very easy to handle. Horse breeders usually pay a veterinarian to find out when their mare is about to ovulate. Alpacas are induced ovulators, meaning an open female should ovulate when she is bred. That is a very useful trait, and not one that is found in most mammals. Compared to horse breeding, alpaca breeding is far easier and much cheaper.
Breeder A shows us how alpaca breeders use a male to “test” the females that they want to breed, usually by penning up the female inside the barn, and bringing the male to her on a halter and lead rope. The male will get excited, begin to make a loud noise called “orgling”, and then try to mount the female. If she crouches down, bending all four knees, or “cushes” for him, she is open and ready to breed. If she refuses, she may already be bred. This refusal is not very ladylike. The female spits on the male, and what she spits is not saliva but partially digested cud from one of her stomachs. It’s green, gooey and smells like vomit. Adding insult to injury, many breeders use gelded males to test several females in a row.
Each of the females that cush may be bred to a different male; one that is carefully chosen to compliment the female’s phenotype and genetic background. Stud males should, ideally, have some name recognition from a famous bloodline and/or show ribbons and, of course, not be gelded. The fact that the unlucky, testing gelding never refuses to try to breed females, even after he is either harshly refused, or yanked off the willing female, every single time, is a powerful testament to the strength of the breeding urge in mammals. This poor guy never gets the memo that he can’t really have the job.
It is at this seminar that I am allowed to give my first worming shot to an alpaca. Nervous about breaking off the needle, I stick it in too hard. People nearby wince and I feel like a monster. I do much better at trimming the toenails, since they are very similar to those of my goats. Breeder A. impresses upon us the absolute importance of monthly worming, especially for the Meningeal Worm.
This terrible parasite is adapted to the body of the white-tailed deer. The adult worms live in the lining of the deer’s brains and spinal chords, usually without harming them. The larvae are shed in the deer’s droppings and subsequently take up residence in snails and slugs. If alpacas or llamas accidentally eat these snails or slugs in their pastures, the result is paralysis and a lingering, miserable death. Unfortunately, we had many white tailed deer in our area of Maryland.
I tried to pay attention to all of this vital information but the fact that it was my first time being near live alpacas made it very difficult. They are absolutely gorgeous up close. The heads of the tallest ones are still a few inches below my own height of 5’5”. The body seems to be about the size of a female deer’s but the neck is much longer and thinner. The fluffy Huacayas look like long-legged, long necked Teddy Bears. The Suris have shiny, silky locks rather than the springy fleecy coats of the Huacayas. Their eyes are large and luminous. Their faces range from grave to serene to comical, depending on their temperament and coloring. Many are white, but some are fawn-colored, black, brown or a dappled gray. One is a brown and white pinto.
They seem nervous of the crowd of people there, but curious as well. Some let out an alarmed squeak when they are touched. Of course I stick my hand into a couple of alpaca fleeces when I hope no one is looking. They are so soft! There is no lanolin-type oil on the fleece, nothing but a bit of dust. There is a very faint but pleasant smell to their skin. They are nearly irresistible. It’s very hard not to buy one on the spot. Breeder A. knows this of course. That is the point of “educating” would-be alpaca owners, getting them to visit and buy from your alpaca farm first.
Surprisingly, a couple of hours of this seminar are dedicated to a talk by our host’s accountant. I learn about pass through entity tax write-offs, limited liability corporations, farm building depreciation, and how not to be labeled a “hobby farm”. The pass through entity was not a dangerous alien life form, but a way to reduce our income tax payments. As Tom was keeping his job at the FDA, we would be able to write off farm equipment, barn building, fencing and other expenditures against his income, unless we ended up earning the dreaded hobby farm label!
If the IRS decides that a person is pretending to have a farm business, but is not really trying to make money, this business is labeled a “hobby farm.” The IRS will refuse any tax write-offs, and levy their usual financial penalties against the owners of the farm. Apparently, many people who want to own horses, cattle, open fields, orchards, grape arbors, alpacas, emus and the like, also feel that they should be subsidized in this lifestyle by having reduced taxes. They want the life of the “gentlemen farmer,” but they would also like to be able to write off some of their expenses and reduce their tax burden as if they were a real farmer. Why not breed that horse once or twice, or sell a couple of cows, and get a big tax break?
Answer: because the IRS does not agree that hobby farms are businesses. In fact, the accountant warned us that the IRS is likely to audit any small farm business that does not make a profit in two out of five years, especially those containing “exotic” livestock.
The funniest part of the day happens when Breeder A. discusses the size and firmness of the male alpaca’s testicles as indicators of fertility, and demonstrates this by lifting the tail of one of her males and cupping his testicles in her hand. I am in awe of her aplomb. I try imagining myself doing something similar without laughing nervously but I can’t. Catholic school has ruined my chances of being a serious-minded livestock breeder.
Whilst I read, visit, and read some more, Tom is doing his own research about fencing, pasture-seeding and management, barn building, livestock trailers, tractor accessories and vaccination shots. If you have to vaccinate livestock, it is very helpful to have a pharmacist in the family so he can figure out the dosages. Tom invites the county agricultural extension agent to our farm to test and discuss our soil. He later takes some soil management classes from the Agricultural Extension Office. He talks to anyone who might know something about farming, our neighbors, random guys at the Southern States Co-op, the veterinarian who cares for the goats, and the dairy farmer who rents one of our fields for a dollar per year.
Of course our farm research included our local agricultural fair. Since moving to Frederick County, we had always attended the Great Frederick Fair. And this fair was great in every sense. It was not a county fair, but a huge regional fair lasting almost two weeks, and including participants from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware, as well as Maryland. In 1998 the fair was in its 136th year, and a new llama and alpaca show had been added to the multitude of livestock shows offered. We were eager to attend. Llamas having gained popularity in the U.S. before alpacas, there were four classes of llama handling and only one class of alpaca handling that year.
The alpaca class turned out to contain only one entry. We didn’t learn much about alpaca handling, but this indicated that the local market was not yet saturated, and also that this large fair was willing to change with the times and add livestock that some other farmers dismissively called “exotic” to their fair schedule. In fact, we were doubly blessed in our location because, not only did we live very near to one of the largest and most important agricultural fairs in the U.S., we also lived 30 minutes away from the largest fleece and wool show in North America, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Frederick County and Mount Airy seemed like a perfect spot for would-be alpaca breeders and fleece sellers.
Even if you do research your plans thoroughly, and have a good idea of how you can succeed, you will still have the doomsayers trying to drag you down. People buy into the idea that only those who follow the socially accepted paths to success will be rewarded, and all others will be a failure. If people refused to work endless overtime, drive in 2 or more hours of traffic per day, and rarely see their own children, all while doing a job they didn’t even love, what would happen to our society? It’s an interesting question.
In Washington D.C. and its environs, these were just the kind of working conditions that most “professionals” put up with throughout their working lives. I wanted out of that system. I think a lot of other people did too, but it’s frightening to take the risk. If I do it, if I am allowed to give up a well-paying career to go and play with fluffy animals and keep my kids home with me, instead of at daycare, AND it turns out that I make good money, and my family has a fun adventure together, that wouldn’t seem fair to all those who stayed on the corporate treadmill. But life isn’t fair. Taking a chance sometimes pays off in a whole lot more than just money.
 Later editions of this book would have a much higher page count as our knowledge of alpacas grew.
 The ILR maintained the alpaca registration database before the existence of the Alpaca Registry.
 I have mostly avoided naming other alpaca breeders and, in some cases, have even changed inconsequential facts so as to hide their true identity due to the tendency of some breeders to be litigious.