Category Archives: barn

Chapter 10 – Saving Cher

 

girl hugging newborn alpaca
Casey hugging cria Cher

 

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?

 

very pregnant alpaca eating lying down
very pregnant Latte eating lying down

 

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.

 

newborn alpaca cria
newborn alpaca cria

 

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.

 

bottle feeding alpaca cria
bottle feeding alpaca cria

 

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.

 

alpaca cria in coat with space heater
alpaca cria in coat with space heater

 

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.

 

Tom, bottle feeding alpaca cria
Tom, bottle feeding cria

 

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 a 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.

 

cria and dam enclosure
cria and dam enclosure

 

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.

 

alpaca cria curious about human boy
Cher curious about Nick

 

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.

Chapter 8

Tractors and Tiaras

 

skeleton of barn
Tom and my brother admire the ongoing barn construction

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.

farm trenching
Tom in a ditch witched trench in our front yard

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.

farm trenching
Tom in ditch witched trench

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.

telephone pole farm fence
Tom’s 90 year old father helping set a telephone pole fence post

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.

farm guys working on fence
Al Rogers admiring the telephone pole fence

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.

two barns on alpaca farm
Tom’s home built barn with main barn in background

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.

kids with alpaca in front of blue barn
Entrance to our blue alpaca barn

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.

Chapter 6

 

The Hand of Fate

alpaca fleece
alpaca fleece for hand spinning

 

“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.

flyer and bobbin on castle style spinning wheel
flyer and bobbin on castle style 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.

drop spindle
hand spinning alpaca on a drop spindle

 

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.[5]

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.”[6]

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.

antique saxony style spinning wheel
Saxony style spinning wheel antique

 

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.

castle spinning wheel with alpacas
My castle style spinning wheel with painted alpacas

 

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.

drum carder with alpaca fleece
drum carder with alpaca fleece

 

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.[7] 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.

hand carders
hand carders for fleece preparation photo:  Linda Spashett Storye_book

 

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.”[8]

 

hand spun skein wound on niddy noddyhand spun skein wound on niddy noddy

 

[5] Women’s Work, The First 20,000 Years,

Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Elizabeth Wayland Barber 1994

W. Norton and Company, New York, London

[6] P13, Genome

The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

Matt Ridley Harper, Perennial 2006.

[7] Never allow sheep lanolin to go down your drain as it will clog the drain and ruin your septic field!

[8] p256, Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Elizabeth Wayland Barber 1994

W. Norton and Company, New York, London