What Have You Done For Me Lately?

“How do you do it?”

Oak Hills Alpacas is only 4 years old and we get asked this question all the time. There is really only one answer. We’ve had a lot of help.

Newcomers or tire kickers arrive at our farm gate all the time wondering how to get from where they are now (ground zero) to where we are just this short time later, with a small herd and an established farm. I have found myself time and again telling the story of the support and friendship that surrounds you in alpaca farming.

Do autumn cria need a warm coat on cold days? Friends provide the answers

Do autumn cria need a warm coat on cold days? Friends provide the answers

If you are thinking about alpaca farming and wonder where the information will come from, how you will learn about health care, how you will determine what to feed, or what you need to do on that first shearing day … all the answers, and even manpower, will come from other alpaca farmers. You will be amazed at how much support exists within this community.

So what can you expect? What can you ask? What are folks really willing to do? I’ll tell you the story of our first four years, and you will be amazed at how the generosity, friendship and advice of others have played a role in our success.

Melody of Twolooms Alpacas offers sage advice to Mike his first time shearing

Melody of Twolooms Alpacas offers sage advice to Mike his first time shearing

As a curious young family with some land and interest in using it productively, we began peering into pastures as we traveled around and spotted these oddly beautiful animals. We googled and read, but quickly realized we needed to visit some farms and really experience alpacas to know if this was for us.

In the year before we began Oak Hills Alpacas we visited about a dozen farms. So to begin, you can expect to be welcomed at most farms you contact. Some are ready for a drop-by at any time, but most appreciate a call first to know you`re coming and be ready for your visit. Farms are a busy place, and farmers like to set aside time to really welcome their guests, provide a tour and answer questions. For our family, these farm visits culminated in a vacation later called “The Great Alpaca Tour”. You can read more about that tour and what we learned in the March 2010 issue of Camelid Quarterly.

These farm visits built for us an incredible network of contacts and mentors that we continue to rely on to this day, and will for years to come.

When you are starting out, experienced alpaca farmers are there to help.

When you are starting out, experienced alpaca farmers are there to help.

So you’ve decided alpacas are for you, and you want to begin, but is your property even right for alpacas? Do you have the facilities and equipment needed to raise these animals? What else do you need before you begin? Alpaca breeders are eager to see you succeed and the animals thrive in their new home, so if you live within a reasonable distance, you can expect them to be willing to visit your farm and give you some feedback on your property, pastures, fencing, and shelter.

Who will help you to select the right animals for your herd? You need experience. Again, expect to find help. Establish your budget. Determine if you will want to breed or maintain a static herd, and then you can expect the experienced alpaca breeders you deal with to help you evaluate the animals available in an honest manner. You can even expect them to visit your farm and help you to evaluate the right herd size for your property.

Timing is everything. It might be quite possible that you find the perfect animals before you have your farm ready, or in some cases before you even find the right farm! You wouldn’t be the first to find yourself in exactly this situation. Most farms have the ability to board or “agist” your animals until you are ready to bring them home. This often comes down to negotiated terms, but you can expect farms to offer free agistment for a number of months – often up to 6 months – until you and your farm are ready. Agistment provides a great opportunity for you to visit your animals and learn from the breeder as you help out with chores and the basic health care needs of your new herd.

Now it's our turn to share knowledge with newcomers.

Now it’s our turn to share knowledge with newcomers.

Transportation of your new herd to home represents an expense. If you do not have your own trailer to move the herd to home, you can expect to pay a fee for such a service and your breeder will likely offer this service or connect you with someone who can.

Once the herd is settled home, you will have a new question every day. We were amazed at how supportive each farm we had visited was willing to be when these questions came up – rather we purchased our alpacas from them or not. Farming reinforces the notion that life is about the long term. As the seasons roll into years, you realize that the fruits of your labour are realized over the long term too. The investment you make in helping others is paid back over and over again as you learn to lean on one another.

My sister, a bookkeeper, lends a hand on shearing day as our trusted record keeper.

My sister, a bookkeeper, lends a hand on shearing day as our trusted record keeper.

No day makes this more evident than shearing day. When your first shearing day is staring you down, even from weeks away, it can be overwhelming. Where to begin, what to expect, what do I need, who will do it, how many helpers, what supplies … the questions are endless. And reading the answers in a book is not nearly comforting enough to give a new alpaca farmer the kind of confidence needed to pull it off. Again, find the right mentor and you will be fine.

Breeders expect to support their new clients in their first year by either connecting you with an experienced shearer, being on hand to help you with your shearing day, or inviting you to join them on their shearing day to see how it’s done. Expect them to walk you through all of the health care needs of your animals that day, from demonstrating teeth trimming and toe trimming, to worming and vaccinating your animals, to properly weighing and body scoring your herd. Shearing itself is an art left to the experienced for both the benefit of your animals, and to maximize your harvest of fleece. I recall gathering together at the end of our first shearing day, looking around at the collection of friends and family who gathered to make it all happen and feeling truly blessed to have their help.

Neighbours, a father and son duo, are there to lend a hand on shearing day.

Neighbours, a father and son duo, are there to lend a hand on shearing day.

After that fleece has come off, and you have bags of it lining your garage or barn, you will be asking yourself, what now? There are breeders who are passionate about fibre and have a wealth of knowledge to share about skirting, sorting, grading and selling fibre. Some farms offer free seminars on these subjects. Or find yourself a mentor who can give you some tips. There’s always someone willing to help.

Routine health care is conducted each year on shearing day, but what about the questions and emergencies that arise throughout the year, unexpectedly? We have made those calls throughout our network of alpaca friends to those we felt best suited to answer a particular question and have always found them willing to help you find the answer you need. When a nursing female developed an abscessed tooth, we reached out to a number of friends to find out what antibiotic could be used in a nursing female. The network spread the word rapidly and before we knew it we had a response back from Dr. Norm Evans himself, by email, providing a recommendation and reassurance. Our young daughter, who aspires one day to be a vet, could not have been happier to have received an email from Justin Bieber himself!

And when we have had trouble locating just the right medical product, a simple phone call often results in a response like, “just drop over and pick up ours. Replace it when you can.” Problem solved.

Sundance PortraitAs your farm develops, and you begin your breeding program, the long 345 day wait for that first cria to arrive is something worth waiting for. And for the most part, everything you read is true. Day time births are the norm. Uneventful, unassisted births are the norm. Healthy, independent crias are the norm. But… We did experience a normal cria birth followed several hours later by cria distress that lasted for 48 hours. The outcome was positive, but our state of mind might not have been so sound without the lifeline of advice received during the ordeal from other breeders. You can read the details of our ordeal and the wonderful outcome in the December 2011 issue of Camelid Quarterly, entitled “Lessons from Rehab”.

And when your new herd arrives home, or your new cria hit the ground, you will have volumes of questions about how to process their registrations, complete DNA testing, and if you plan to show them, how to complete BVD testing. Again, the advice is there waiting from other breeders who have it down to a science.

By now I may have painted a picture of an industry that is strongly supportive and perhaps non-competitive. There will be exceptions to every rule and you will experience varying degrees of support of course. Alpaca farming is not without its competitive side. A series of shows across the province, country and even North America provide breeders with the opportunity to showcase their best stock and court clients. But even in the show ring we have experienced words of encouragement and cheers from the stands as friends watch our daughter show and give her their support.

Once you have established a network of mentors and friends you will find yourself working together in a number of ways. We have purchased our feed through a collective of farms, saving shipping costs and allowing us to feed a higher quality feed at a better price. We have been invited to join other farms by pooling our resources and showcasing our fibre products collectively at craft shows and special events, benefiting all who participate. And our farm has benefited from the volunteer efforts of other breeders we have not even met who have promoted the breed through Alpaca Ontario at shows, fairs, etc. See the December 2012 issue of Camelid Quarterly, “A Royal Experience”.

And sometimes nothing is more valued than a little good advice. For this you can even look beyond the alpaca community to the broader farming community. During this past summer’s drought, hay supplies, particularly the much-sought-after second cut hay that alpacas love, was hard to find. By tapping into our network we were able to secure a good supply at reasonable costs when small-square bales were soaring to $8/bale in our area. And when we have had questions about pasture management, how to seed, what to seed and when, advice was no farther away than the seed mill and the old boys hanging out there drinking coffee. They know the seed, the weather, the soils, and just what mother nature will do with it all. Buy them a coffee and sit back and listen!

Neighbour low rsYou may ask yourself, if I start farming, will I ever get a break? How do I take a holiday and ensure the animals are cared for? Alpacas are easy care. We have been able to rely on the young teens across the road from our farm, and the children of the Amish family next door to care for our herd during short and extended vacations. We can be confident in their care, even in the event of an emergency, by leaving the names of a few other breeders who can address tough questions or circumstances in our absence, but gratefully this has never been necessary.

Time is valuable, and experienced advice is priceless, so though most alpaca breeders will willingly give their time and advice in the ways we have described, a thank you is always appreciated and payment is never turned down. That said, we have been paid for our services in free-range chickens, honey, wine, maple syrup, lunches, dinners, tea & cake and the always appreciated cash. And one beautiful summer evening, after touching up a shearing job on an alpaca, we were treated to a song sung in Hungarian by the grand niece and nephew of the couple we were helping out, just before the young pair rushed off to bed in their pajamas. What could be better!

After years of alpaca farming, you may forget the early years are filled with firsts. Those firsts are vivid memories for us at Oak Hills Alpacas. And this article is a thank you to all of you who have helped us navigate our first four years so successfully and happily. We plan to pay it forward.

Christmas Day low resOriginally published in the March 2013 issue of Camelid Quarterly.  A special thanks to the editors for their permission to reprint.