So Cute You Want to Love Them – But Alpacas Are Livestock
Across the fence, a pair of huge, black eyes stare into mine, with pupils so wide and dark that they look like giant, solid-black marbles. The eyes belong to Calleana, an alpaca whose shaggy bangs hang over her forehead, and whose curious gaze seems to be inviting me to touch her.
“Is it okay if I pet her?” I ask our host, Chris Schueller, co-owner of Andaluz Alpacas, near Oxford, Iowa.
“If she’ll let you,” he replies with a laugh. “You know, the worst part of raising alpacas is that they’re so cute, you want to love them; but they don’t want to come to you — they’re livestock.”
I reach out to pet Calleana, but she skitters away. Schueller was right; she’s curious, but definitely not ready to cuddle up to a stranger.
“Be careful,” Schueller cautions, “she spits.”
Fortunately, Calleana doesn’t spit this time. But she keeps a close eye on these humans, as Chris introduces Joe and me to the eight females and one nursling male in this large pen.
“Just don’t try to pet Albert,” Schueller tells us, pointing to the newest member of the herd, born a couple of weeks ago. “Calleana adopts everyone’s offspring. If I try to pick up someone else’s baby, she’ll come after me.”
Llamas on Guard
Calleana is not the only protector. Schueller and co-owner, Karey Rieniets, have two llamas, who instinctively guard the alpacas from predators, such as coyotes. “A lot of people have Great Pyrenese dogs that live with the alpacas and protect them. But llamas provide the same protection,” Schueller says.
Jerome, the llama who generally lives with the females, “isn’t much of a guard,” he says, “but he’s an awesome babysitter. Knight, on the other hand, takes his guard job a bit too seriously” — something we’ll see when we walk to the larger pasture, where the males are grazing.
For now, Jerome is sequestered in an adjacent corral. “He’s gotten too fat, eating everyone else’s feed,” Schueller says. “We’re letting him slim down a bit before we put him back in with the girls.”
The females take turns gathering around the fence, checking out these curious creatures who chatter and point a shiny, metal box at them.
We hear a soft, almost imperceptible, humming sound. “The humming is either ‘I’m nervous,’ or ‘I’m content’; it’s hard to tell the difference. You just have to assess each situation,” Schueller explains. It doesn’t take much assessing to realize that — despite their curiosity — the girls are a bit nervous about having us near.
The other reason the females hum is to get their babies close. “They’re very cool parents,” Schueller says.
Protecting the Pedigrees
“It’s no longer legal to import alpacas into the United States, so they’re a finite resource,” Schueller explains. “Alpacas in the U.S. are registered with the Alpaca Registry, which is the governing body. We breed them both for their genetics and their fleece. And we don’t cross-breed within families. I look at each alpaca’s pedigree to be sure neither adult is related anywhere in their genetics before I arrange to have them breed.”
It’s important to keep the males and females apart until time to breed, as alpacas are “stimulated ovulators, as opposed to having a heat cycle,” Schueller tells us. If the groups weren’t kept separate, the females would likely get pregnant again soon after giving birth. And without careful controls, cross breeding becomes a real concern, as the sale value of an alpaca is largely determined by its blood line.
“The Alpaca Registry is very careful about the animals’ pedigrees. Whenever I register a new baby, I have to declare who the parents are, then send in a blood sample from the baby. They’ll test the sample to determine whether the genetics support my claim. If the DNA testing doesn’t support that the father is who I say it is, they’ll deny a pedigree to the baby until we identify the correct father.”
The study of alpaca genetics would be an interesting one, I think. Little Albert, the newborn, has a reddish coat. Yet his mother, Athena, is mostly gray, and his father, Hercules, has a pure, black coat.
Knight Takes Charge
“Nobody will get to these boys while Knight’s alive,” Schueller tells us, as we enter the large pasture where the males are grazing. These male alpacas are big enough that they could likely defend themselves, but Knight still takes his job seriously.
We’re standing now inside the pasture, and the boys all amble up to us, obviously wondering what’s going on. Knight comes closest, checking us out first and sniffing at our heads.
“Give him a kiss on the nose,” Schueller says.
So I lean forward and nuzzle Knight’s nose. He nuzzles back, gently. His fur is soft, and he is very gentle. Joe, too, gets a buss from the big guy. He seems so sweet.
Moments later, Knight whips his long neck backward and spits at the young alpacas. I have no idea what they’ve done to deserve such treatment, but Knight is clearly keeping them in line.
“There are two kinds of spits,” according to Schueller. “The first kind is a warning, but the second one says, ‘I’m serious,’ and it smells like death.” This was a “serious” spit. We decide we’re lucky that Knight is now keeping his distance.
Knight isn’t finished disciplining the youngsters. He turns around, rears up on his hind legs, and lunges forward, chest-bumping Silver Bullet — or maybe it’s Apollo, an unrelated alpaca who could be his identical twin. They boys rapidly move backward, but as soon as Knight turns around, they move forward again, curious and persistent as adolescent humans.
“They Depend on Me”
Schueller shows us a shelter where the boys huddle in the wintertime, if the weather gets too cold. “They’re really fine in winter, as long as they’re out of the wind. They have more trouble in summer with the heat,” he says.
And so, Schueller and Rieniets shear their herd in late May. Shearing provides one of three sources of income (the other two are stud fees and animal sales) for the farmstead. They leave the lower legs and heads unshorn to provide protection from pests and, in the case of the legs, from predators who might attack. Of course, that’s assuming they could ever get past Knight or Jerome.
“Bad things can and do happen,” Schueller says. “We have to keep all of the grass mowed to protect against deer slugs, which live in tall grass. They carry the meninga worm, which can kill alpacas.”
Alpacas also are highly susceptible to mineral imbalance, so Schueller and Rieniets purchase specially formulated feed for the alpacas and their llama guardians. In the summer, the animals graze in the pastures, “which have been organic since I moved here,” Schueller says. In winter, they eat hay and feed. At all times, they have free access to diatomaceous earth.
Asked if it’s hard on him when one of the animals gets ill or dies, he says, with obvious concern, “I love the rural lifestyle, but I don’t have that farm mentality [where the death of livestock is accepted as part of doing business]. I feel for all of them. The alpacas don’t snuggle, but they depend on me.”
On the way back to warm up in Schueller’s house, we stop to meet Jerome, the would-be protector of the female alpacas. He’s inquisitive, but unlike Knight, keeps his distance from us.
Walking by a layer of pellets, Joe asks Schueller if these are the llama’s. Our host stops to pick some up. “This is the coolest fertilizer,” he says. “Just put it in the hole when you plant stuff, and it’s like ‘Jack-in-the-beanstalk’ poop.”
“I thought of calling it ‘Llama Beans’ and selling it,” Schueller says, with a laugh. Not a bad marketing idea, we think.
Fleece for Sale
Back in the farmhouse, Schueller shows us the tubs of fleece from this year’s shearing. Though some of the fleece is raw, straight from the alpacas, he has cleaned some of it, using a small, hand-operated carding machine. He also has “buns” of fleece ready to be spun into yarn. And all of it is for sale.
“Alpaca fleece is lighter in weight than sheep’s wool,” he says, handing us each a bun to feel. The fleece is soft and delicate, and though I react to sheep’s wool by itching, when I place the fleece next to my neck, I feel only softness.
“Although many people are allergic to sheep’s wool, that isn’t generally a problem with alpaca fleece,” Schueller says. “And it’s four or five times warmer, too.”
One alternative for selling alpaca and llama fleece would be to send it to a company that would card, spin, and turn it into mittens for Schueller to sell. “But I prefer to keep it a local business, as much as I can,” he says.
Schueller’s and Rieniets’ Andaluz Alpaca brand of carded fleece sells for $3 per ounce, with a choice of silver gray, black, or brown. The carded fleece is wrapped into buns, which are unwrapped and stretched out for spinning.
(Note: As a special incentive for Blue Planet Green Living readers, Schueller is offering carded fleece at $2 per 2-ounce bun, a savings of $1 each. Raw fleece is also available for sale. Contact Chris Schueller or Karey Rieniets at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mention “BPGL” when ordering before May of 2010. This offer is good while the 2009 supply lasts.)
Learning as We Go
Raising alpacas is a “learn-as-you-go” experience, Schueller tells us. For much of their initial training, Schueller and Rieniets relied on Alpacanation.com, which provides a forum where alpaca growers share their knowledge and experiences.
“Initially, we took every word as gold and followed everyone’s advice to the letter. But now, we don’t sweat the small stuff,” Schueller says.
Each alpaca can cost thousands of dollars, with the selling price dependent partly on whether the animals participate in alpaca shows. But showing is an activity the owners of Andaluz Alpacas have not chosen to participate in, as both have other full-time jobs.
“Raising alpacas could easily be a full-time job in itself,” Schueller admits.
So why do they do it?
“Alpacas are easy to keep. They don’t mess with the fences. They’re delightful to watch. And each one has a different personality. In fact, the younger boys can be just obnoxious.” He laughs.
“The initial investment is great, but the benefits are even greater. They are the most rewarding animals to raise,” Schueller says, smiling broadly, “and they’re absolutely hilarious.”
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