Tag Archives: livestock

Chapter 9

Spit Happens!

 

alpacas check out new neighbors
new neighbors Latte, Primrose, Polo and Lindy check each other out

 

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 Twiggy with child
Bud allowed Casey to walk Twiggy at the Fair

 

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.

Mom leading the alpaca
My Mom & Polo – we call this pic, “The Hair Twins”

 

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.

halter training alpaca
halter training Latte -the grain in the large cup  gets her to come over to me

 

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.

alpaca toenail trimming
Tom, doing some alpaca toenail trimming

 

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.

alpacas sniff little girl
Lindy and Polo sniffing Casey’s hair

 

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?

Chapter 5

Alpaca Research Rant

Suri alpaca with children
Casey and Nick visit a Suri alpaca at The Great Frederick Fair

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. [2] 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.

 

photo of The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM
The Alpaca Book

 

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)[3]. 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.

 

Alpaca DNA registration card
Alpaca DNA registration kit with 3 drops of blood

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.”[4], 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.

 

Children showing llamas at The Great Frederick Fair 1998
Llama Show at The Great Frederick Fair 1998

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.

[2] Later editions of this book would have a much higher page count as our knowledge of alpacas grew.

[3] The ILR maintained the alpaca registration database before the existence of the Alpaca Registry.

[4] 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.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Goatterdammerung!

goat on playset
Heidi goat queen of Mount Airy

Judging by the frequency with which one sees their image represented on cozy, “country” décor, ducks and chickens can be seen as charming.  So cute in wallpaper motifs and ceramic kitchenware!  Goats are another story.  Once you have gone goat, there is no going back. Nothing screams “hillbilly” quite like owning a goat.  And, if you own a goat, don’t choose a billy!

 

Our goat came as a cast off from an NRA-hat-topped, tobacco pipe smoking, rodeo belt buckle-wearing neighbor.  He informed me that he had a goat he planned to shoot, if no one wanted her, because she was jealous of his kids and kept trying to kill them.  I know he planned this statement happily anticipating my confusion and resulting horror.  Good old boys are like that; they like to get a rise out of the “city folk.”

 

Of course the “kids” in question were of the newborn goat variety.  I realized that in time to avoid an embarrassing verbal outburst, but he did get the satisfaction of my momentarily horrified facial expression.  He also got the satisfaction of unloading an unwanted goat from the back of his pickup truck into our paddock and driving off into the proverbial sunset.

 

Heidi the goat was our first four-legged livestock acquisition.  A goat is neither dumb like a chicken, nor meek like a Pekin duck.  They are technically domesticated, but in no way are they lacking in wildness.  They will obey when they feel like it because they are very sociable.  If they don’t feel like it, good luck doing anything about it!

 

Heidi was white with large, irregular, brown spots on her fur, and she weighed about 60 pounds.  Her cutesy name turned out to be the only thing girly about her.  Heidi was no demure little lass. She had a beard and horns and a big, big attitude.  She was like a small, but powerful tornado, and she loved her new family very much.

 

Casey and Nick were anxious to play with Heidi, and she was equally excited about playing with them.  She trotted right over to them, lowered her head, and quickly butted each of them in turn.  She moved so fast that it was like watching a badly edited movie.  One minute the child was standing in one spot and a second later the child appeared a foot behind the previous spot.  No actual movement seemed to occur.

 

Heidi was not trying to hurt the children, she didn’t even knock them down; she just wanted them to understand that they were lower than her.  Goats have a simplified social order based on the fact that the animal who is higher up – literally – is the one in charge.

 

This was the last time that my kids would consent to be around Heidi if she was not on a leash.  They still liked her; they just didn’t trust her.  I, being considerably taller than Heidi, had no trouble with her unless I let her climb up something and get higher than me.  In fact, Heidi accepted me as her mother immediately, and would follow me around with or without a leash whenever I allowed her to.  She often rubbed the side of her face on my thigh, scent marking me as hers.    If I sat on the ground, she would plop down beside me and allow me to scratch her between the horns.

 

pet goat with children
Heidi with her family

While we set out to build a goat barn in the paddock previously occupied by the cow, I read two books on goat care from the local library.  Both books advised that goats must never be kept alone.  They are herd animals and suffer terribly when they have no herd. Poor Heidi was living alone in a large “dogloo” dog house with only the intermittent company of her human family.  We would need another goat.

 

Tom laid a foundation for the small barn and moved an old shack onto it with the help of my brother Kevin.  He then walled off half of the shack for hay and grain storage and added a hinged goat door that Heidi could walk through on her own.  We christened it “the goat palace.”

 

A few weeks later, I waltzed into the show goat barn at the Great Frederick Agricultural Fair and stupidly announced to the teenaged girls present that I wanted to purchase a goat as a companion animal.  Never do this!

 

I knew these goats were usually sold after the goat show, but failed to realize that they were being sold for meat.  What DID I think they were raised for?  Milk?  Fancy soap? Pulling a cart with granny in it like in a Heidi movie?  I don’t know.  I am a stupid person.

 

The typical goat here has been raised by a young girl as if it were a pet.  It is bottle fed, trained to walk on a lead, groomed and fussed over.  Many have fancy collars.  All have cute names.  They are loved as pets but sold as meat.

 

A crowd of desperately hopeful little girls rushes toward me.  Apparently goats are not perceived as livestock for guys, because there are none here, just sweet little girls and the goats they adore.  I feel like I am choosing who gets a reprieve from the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but I pick one goat, refusing all others, even if those with teary owners.    I am a terrible person.

 

Our new goat has markings that make him look like a miniature Holstein cow but he is reddish in some spots.  He is wearing a pink, rhinestone collar.  His name is Cinnamax, but we  will end up calling him Max.  He is sweet and hornless and does not butt the children, but he does butt Heidi right back when she goes after him.  They race around together joyfully.  They smack their foreheads together alarmingly.  We now have goats – plural.

goats with human family
Heidi and Max

 

The goat paddock is quite large, and it was mostly made up of very large weeds.  Its fence line encompassed part of our brook, so there was plenty of clean water to drink, but very little grass.  Looking at it closely, I wondered if the cow might have been a prop used by the wily former owners of this place to make it seem more bucolic.  One cow with very little grass and no shelter?

 

I needn’t have worried because it turned out that Heidi and Max did not like grass, but loved to eat weeds.  It is not true that goats will eat tin cans as they sometimes do in cartoons, but they will eat huge multiflora bushes with inch long thorns, and they will eat these right to the ground, killing them completely.  They will eat bull thistle, poison ivy and tree bark.

 

Goats are often used to clear underbrush and weedy lots, and they will do this better than a bush hog or any other machine.  As they will only eat grass as a last option and their manure is a very good fertilizer, the paddock would wind up looking like it was maintained by a high-end lawn service.

 

Heidi, and Max could often be seen perfectly balanced on the branches of the apple trees in their paddock, happily stripping the bark off with their teeth.  We lost two nice apple trees in this fashion.

 

When Heidi escaped from her enclosure, which she did regularly, she had several favorite pursuits.  One was to climb the steps of the children’s play set and slide down the slide standing up.  Another was to jump on top of any available car, truck or tractor and do a little tap dance of glee, gaily scratching the paint.  Then she would eat any available roses, race around the pond over and over as if she were a demented track star, and end up on the back porch looking into the sliding glass door trying to find her family.

 

If you have not seen a goat in action, it would be hard for you to believe just how well-coordinated and agile they are.  I have seen Heidi race through her paddock at top speed, leap into the air with all four hooves apart like a Kung Fu master and come to a dead stop on top of her slippery dogloo. I would not have believed this to be possible if I had not seen it more than once.

 

A friend told me about a goat of hers that would race across her lawn and leap onto the outside ledge of her living room window  to tease her dogs and make them bark frantically.  And the goat would do this over and over again, landing on a 4 inch ledge, next to a large glass window without ever touching the window itself, until the dogs were mad with frustration and rage.

 

Max was equally good at escaping.  He eventually taught himself to jump a five foot stock fence by ricocheting at an upward angle off of a nearby tree.  We saw him do this.  He grew to be larger than Heidi, but he remained her second in command.  His genteel upbringing and his gelding may have accounted for his slightly calmer behavior.  He was every bit as funny as Heidi, but far less manic.

 

Owning a goat will not only make you question the laws of physics, but also your Judeo-Christian upbringing. Goats are scary smart, while sheep are famously dumb.  Sheep are easily frightened and seem unable to act independently.   Goats are exuberant, funny, brave, and very independent.  They have big personalities.  Sheep can literally get stuck if they fall over and then die within hours because they cannot right themselves.  This is called being “cast.”  Goats are survivors.

 

Why are sheep the ideal biblical metaphor for God’s people while goats are so often portrayed as demonic or devilish?  Goats express a fierce joy in daily living and a will to survive that is incredibly inspiring.  They make us laugh and they love us .  Are they sometimes a little devilish?  Well, yes.  But I’d still rather be a goat than a sheep.

 

With the goats came worming, never-ending fence repairs and trips to the farm store for straw bales and sweet feed in 50 lb. bags.  The goat barn had to be mucked out and fresh straw put down.  The goats had to have their toenails trimmed.  Our lives were getting ever more farmy.  Our friends begin to include “They have goats!” as part of our introduction to other people.  We pose with the children and the goats for a Christmas card photo but find it too hard to control two excitable toddlers, two excited goats and one remote camera.  We use a photo of ourselves on the tractor instead.

 

 

Farm family on tractor
Christmas card

 

Chapter 2

The incredible duck caper

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that persons possessing a small farm must be in want of free livestock.

ducks2

If you recognize the paraphrased first line of a famous novel above, please thank your English teacher.  (Thanks Dr. Ruth Sharp!)   Aside from the fact that I have always wanted to paraphrase that particular bit of genius, I feel it is rather fitting for our small farm situation.

There really are loads of people who feel that anyone with a cute farm will be thrilled to have their cast off ducklings, their child’s incubated chicks/science project, their unwanted cats, and even a goat or two.  We ended up with all of the above.

By 1996, we not only have the two children, but we also have an abandoned, white cat named Caspar, and a perpetually revolving cast of unwanted chickens and ducks.  I say, “revolving” because it turns out that chickens and ducks are quite difficult to keep alive on the farm.

Most of our ducks have come to us from the Southern States farm store, by way of my own sister, Beth, who suffered from a lifelong duck obsession.  Beth had moved from New Jersey to the town of Mount Airy a few years after Tom and I moved to our farm.  As she had recently divorced, and was raising three children alone, it made sense for her to move nearer to her family.

Our mother was a duck feeder.  She often took us children, to various ponds or parks to feed the ducks stale bread, but Beth was the only one of the 5 kids who would try to grab and hold the ducks.  She was often duck bill-pinched, but remained undeterred by these painful rejections of her adoration.

Having never lived in a rural setting – yet, years would pass before Beth realized that one could buy live ducklings.  After moving to Mount Airy, she began to do just that.  Beth would raise these in her bathtub, in her house in town, and dump them in our pond when they outgrew her place.

She did not ask permission for these duck relocation projects.  In fact, she was wont to show up when we were not at home so that her ducks could just appear in the pond, as if they had flown down for a stopover during their yearly migration.  This might have been credible if the ducks had not been Pekin Ducks.  Domesticated ducks do not migrate without the help of irresponsible, former duckling owners – with bathtubs that need a good scrubbing.

Pekin ducks are quite tame, and they will follow your children around nipping at their fingers and ankles on a regular basis.   I can say, from personal experience, that once human-fed – they will allow little girls to hold them and carry them about without too much fuss.  They will happily swim with your toddlers in their kiddie pool.

ducks3

However, they will also want to breed. Ducks are loud and rambunctious breeders.  The male flaps across the surface of the pond, loudly honking, in pursuit of the female.  She, is either completely unwilling, or really playing hard to get.  This behavior can go on for half an hour or more, several times per day, for many days.    This will occasion uncomfortable questions from your small children.  It is also advisable to caution your small children not to discuss this duck behavior in public.

Sadly, where there is breeding, there will, inevitably, be brooding.  The female duck will want to make a nest in which to lay her eggs and care for them.  Will she make this nest in a place where she can easily escape from predators?  No, she will not.  Duck after duck chose the same spot under the back porch.  This is a spot that makes sense only to a duck’s brain.  It is far easier for a fox or a raccoon to crawl under a porch quickly than it is for a duck.  This point was proven time and again and punctuated with the tears and sobs of small children.

By the time she is in first grade, Casey will write a memorable school essay that ends with the bitter, misspelled sentence,

 

“The fox alredy ate my duck.”[1]

 

Tom will try to build a floating raft for the ducks to take refuge upon when nighttime predators threaten them.  The ducks will, of course, shun this alien contraption.  One thing they will not shun is the overflow  drain at the far end of the pond.

Our pond was filled on one side by 3 underground springs, and it drained into a creek on the other side.  The drain was an overflow pipe that protruded slightly from the surface of the pond, and went straight down for a few feet.  It then made a right angle turn and continued about 12 feet underground before emptying into a nearby stream.

One chilly morning, I am walking down by the pond.  I have just put the children on the school bus.  The air is crisp, and I enjoy the peaceful sound of my boots crunching on the frosty grass until I hear a faint “quack quack.”  Where is this sound coming from?  All of the ducks are paddling around at the other end of the pond.

The quack quack sound repeats. It is surely coming from much closer to me than any of those ducks on the other side of the pond, but still I see no duck nearby.  At this point, its source seems almost next to me.  What else is next to me?  No!  I refuse to entertain my next thought.  “Quack quack!” Is the sound a little more urgent now?  It is coming from inside the overflow pipe a few feet away.

The pipe is too long for me to reach down into it.  It is too narrow for the duck to raise its wings and fly out of.  Is it likely that the duck brain will say, “The only way out of here is to walk down this long, dark tunnel and see what is at the end?”  No, it is not.  Will I be able to sleep at night, knowing that the duck is slowly dying in the pond drain?  Could I shoot the duck?

I run up the hill to my house and phone my sister Beth.  Soon after, I am standing hip-deep in my pond, frantically pouring bucketfuls of water through the drain while Beth waits near the spot where the pond drains into the stream.  We will attempt to fire hose the duck out of the drain.  The duck quacks louder than ever, not wanting to be washed into the dark unknown.

I pour and frantically refill my bucket and pour again.  I am cold and wet and cranky.  I keep pouring but the quack quack noise is as close as ever.  I am about to give up when the duck finally loses its footing.  It flies out of the pipe and plops into the creek with an undignified splash.  Beth is jubilant.  We have rescued her duck!  I am still cold and wet, but amazed that our Wile E. Coyote-style solution actually worked.

The lucky duck doesn’t seem aware of its dramatic salvation.  It waddles off as though nothing unusual happened.  When Tom comes home, he covers the pond drain with a small tire from a discarded wheelbarrow.

Ducks will continue to die, but some will not die before Tom and I get to doctor them a few times.  This is important to my narrative as – I feel – it reawakens a long-dormant desire in Tom to play veterinarian.

Dr. Tom always gets to clean the duck wounds and suture them.  I, nurse Kate, am supposed to hold the duck as still as possible.  This is often difficult due to the maggots that will crawl out of the wound and over my arms.  I KNOW they are not dangerous, but my brain cannot accept this without silently shrieking.  Maggots!

This could be an inspiring story of duckly devotion, but none of these ducks will end up surviving long, sutures or no.  That fox or raccoon will be back to finish the job.  Cute as they may be, animals that have been bred for food are not really smart enough to survive on their own.  Real farmers know this, and faux farmers learn it the hard way.

Will this keep us from taking on more discarded livestock? Of course it won’t.  The ducks were merely a gateway drug in the acquisition of livestock.  Next we will agree to take on a troubled goat named Heidi. Our slide down the slippery livestock slope begins to accelerate.

A few years later, my sister Beth will find herself trapped in a dark hole of sorts.  She will not be able to see the exit.  No amount of pouring on my part will be sufficient to wash her out into the sunlit, fresh air. This will turn out to be one of my last happy adventures with Beth. She will soon descend into a desperate depression and slowly, inch by dreadful inch, kill herself with alcohol. She will drink until her brain is damaged and her life is ruined. She will lose her job, the love of her children, her ability to walk and yet she will keep drinking until her heart just stops.

Think about Beth and the duck if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. The exit was there for both of them, but the choice to walk through the darkness into the unknown felt more terrifying than staying trapped in the hole. The duck was lucky enough to be forced to move through the darkness, enter the terrifying unknown, and find a miracle on the other side. Forcing another person to do the same is pretty close to impossible.

ducks1



[1] This situation will only be complicated by repeated readings of the Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.