As April flows into May, we are still in that period of weather transition.
You know the window I'm talking about where it's cold in the morning, warm during the day, and cold again at night.
It's also the time of year on our farm that we're waiting for the grass in the pasture to grow tall enough so the alpacas can be released from their winter pen for grazing.
We can feel the anticipation building as the field slowly turns from brown to a lush shade of green. The alpacas wait at the fence... Is it ready yet? How about now? or Now? Can we go? Now? Now?
We did actually let the alpacas out early for a day last weekend -- shhh! Don't tell anyone.
We cycle our alpacas in and out of the pasture twice a year. They have free reign to graze from mid-late May through October before we close the pasture for rest and recovery until spring returns.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Spring and summer are ahead to be fully enjoyed before we start thinking of fall arrangements again.
Shearing Day is Coming!
June 6 is just a few weeks away and the alpacas will be so happy to be free of their winter coats.
People marvel over how skinny the alpacas look after shearing. It still surprises us every year! As the alpacas' fiber grows slowly throughout the year, it maintains the contours of their bodies and makes us think their skin is just below the surface when it's actually 2-4" deeper.
We have a couple of volunteers joining us on shearing day to help with fiber collection; they are interested in learning more about alpaca farming and are super-excited about participating in this annual event.
I'll give them an overview of what their jobs will be, the purpose of their work, and assist them with collecting fiber from the first alpaca being shorn. Thereafter, they should be able to operate on their own with minimal assistance from me.
Sorting alpaca fiber
Alpaca fiber is sorted into three categories: Prime (also known as 'blanket' or 'firsts'), Seconds and Thirds ( we combine seconds and thirds into one collection).
Prime- this is the area of the nicest and softest fiber that alpacas grow that is used for yarn and apparel.
Seconds & Thirds - these fibers are more coarse to the touch than Prime depending on where on the body they came from, and are used for rug yarn, roving for felting, dryer balls, and bird nest fluff.
Fiber from the neck and head areas are still quite soft, but fiber from the legs will be shorter and feel coarser.
Once all the fiber is collected, bagged, and tagged (by alpaca name and type), it will be set aside until I am ready to begin skirting (cleaning) in preparation for the fiber to go to the fiber mill where it is processed into yarn and roving.
Speaking of yarn and roving, I sent a large order of black and brown alpaca fiber that I bought last summer to the fiber mill for processing and it should be arriving soon as yarn and roving - yay!
When the shipment arrives, you can have "first dibs" on yarn and dryer balls, if you're interested.
We've been waiting a long time for Baxter to arrive, and it's still a little surreal that he is here! He is the very first cria (baby alpaca) to be born on our farm.
We know you enjoy watching his activities and antics as much as we do! He is so much fun to have around and he can't wait to have a friend close to his age to play with (he can't seem to get his aunties to race around the paddock with him.
He'll have a new playmate soon since we are expecting our second cria in early June with Amity. Being the 1st cria for us, the night of Baxter's arrival was both exciting and nerve-wracking, yet it turned out to be a textbook perfect birth. Based on that experience, it gives us a baseline for when our next cria arrives. Our hope is that Amity's cria delivers as easily as Summer's did.
Alpacas generally don't have birthing issues, but that doesn't mean things cannot go wrong. The birth itself could be difficult, the cria could be breech, etc., but the key is to prepare for anything and hope you need as little intervention as possible. Here are some of the things we have ready and waiting:
There are also certain actions that need to happen within the first 24 hours for cria to start off life successfully:
One of the most challenging things to do when all you want is to pick up that cute new baby alpaca, is to be as hands-off as possible. This way, mother and baby bond with each other instead of you. You may have to step in briefly since alpacas don't lick their cria once they're born. I found it necessary to dry Baxter off and keep him warm with a hairdryer since he was born on a chilly April day.
Amity is due in a little over a month with our next cria, so the temperature should be less of an issue. We are ready and looking forward to his/her arrival. Baxter will not have long to wait for his playmate to arrive.
Subject: Alpaca Show (and Tell)
What is an alpaca show? In the simplest terms, it’s similar to a dog show where an alpaca’s features and characteristics are evaluated by a certified judge and ranked against their peers in the same class.
I went to the North American Alpaca Show (NAAS) & Northeast Alpaca Show (NEAS) in Springfield, MA to learn about the show’s process so without the added pressure of competing. One alpaca owner I spoke with said attending just to learn was a smart approach rather than “baptism by fire” in the show ring.
You do not have to be an alpaca owner or competitor to attend an alpaca show. You can attend as a spectator or contact the organizer and volunteer to help (they LOVE volunteers) or contact a farm and ask if they would like assistance at the event (as I did). I met a woman at the event, Julia, who wants to own alpacas one day and learns all she can while volunteering at the show. One year she spent time in the ring accompanying the judge and captured all the notes given by the judge - talk about an inside track!
The show consists of a half-day for arrival/check-in, followed by one or two days of competition (depending on the number of entrants).
Registration and check-in are relatively low-key. Trucks and trailers arrive throughout the afternoon. Health papers are submitted, microchips are scanned, and then the alpacas are led to their assigned pens and settle in with fresh hay and water while fans hum to keep them comfortable. Owners connect with long-time colleagues, make new connections, and admire (and size up) each other’s herds. This is a very friendly community that enjoys talking and sharing information about their animals and operations.
The next morning the organizers host an exhibitor meeting outlining the day's events and schedule, introduced the judges, and encouraged everyone to be supportive of their fellow competitors - if someone looks like they're struggling, step up and offer to help.
The rest of the day is spent with judges occupying their own show rings for NAAS and NEAS who conduct halter shows. These judges examine all the animals in each color and class (juvenile, yearling, two-year olds, etc.,) and look for particular conformity in the alpaca’s body (legs, gait, head, etc.) and uniformity, density, fineness, in their fleece by examining three areas (middle of the back, above the shoulder, and the flank). Based on what they see amongst the entrants, the judges will consider the qualities of the entrants and determine the rankings of the animals before them and award ribbons accordingly (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) -- but it doesn't end there. When all the color class competitions (white, brown, darks, and grays) are completed, all the first and second place winners of each class category by color are invited back to the ring for championship judging against their peers. As above, each is examined for its appearance and fleece qualities and two winners are chosen: Champion (1st place) and Reserve (2nd place). Of all the entrants who have competed, these two have risen to the top as having the best qualities of all the entrants in their color class.
But wait, there's more! After all the competitions in the various color classes are completed, all the Champions in all the color classes return to the ring to be judged and select a "Judges Choice" (comparable to best in show).
I learned the above not only by attending but also by being invited to be a "handler" for an alpaca who was there to compete (his name is Archer). Archer is a member of Alpacas of New Hampshire at Sleeping Monk Farm, and his owner asked me if I would like to bring Archer into the show ring. After viewing a few of the judging events, I felt that, yes, I could do that with Archer. My responsibilities were not complicated, but first, I needed to get along with Archer. If he didn't like me, then why would he want to spend 15-20 minutes with me in the show ring? I went to his pen and introduced myself to him as I clipped the lead to his halter. I spoke with him as we walked across the arena and let him know what we were going to do; after all, it was his first time in the show ring too. All we needed to do was walk across the show ring when instructed, stand where we were told to stand, and stand still while Archer's fleece is being examined. Overall, it's simple enough, unless you have an alpaca who isn't willing to do any of that. Archer was agreeable to walking with me and standing with me throughout the judging process. Archer was so agreeable that he was comfortable with standing right next to me while my arm was around his shoulders like you would with a best friend. In the moment, I felt like he was my best friend. He did wiggle a few times while the judges parted his coat to take a close examination, and also while they briefly grabbed his testicles (I don't blame him one bit for that!). After the judges completed their initial evaluation of Archer and the other competitors, the judge asked us handlers to have our alpacas stand in profile and then face forward so they could be visually evaluated for their overall body conformation. After more consideration, the judge might reexamine an alpaca's coat and then make notes on a scorecard. He would then ask each competitor to step forward in order of our award ranking (1st, 2nd, 3rd place, etc.) and hand out award ribbons congratulating each handler/alpaca for their placement. The judge would then take a moment and summarize to the competitors and audience the reasons behind his decision starting with first place and why that particular alpaca's qualities qualified for their award and reviewed each subsequent alpaca accordingly. Archer and I competed in two halter competitions and placed second and third respectively. For our first time in the ring, I was pleased with our results and so was Archer's owner.
And if that isn't enough to keep you busy, while the above is going on, there is a "walking fleece" show happening in a third ring. Each alpaca can compete in its color class for fleece assessment only. Unlike the halter now, the judging is purely based on fleece qualities and scored accordingly. These qualities are given scores on a scorecard and -- you guessed it -- the best score wins. Archer and I entered that competition, and he took fifth place in his class.
Overall, it was a great experience and a lot of fun. I met a lot of nice people who were kind and generous with their time and information about their farms. I'm glad I went without the anxiety of needing to compete with my own alpacas. It broke the ice for me, and now I feel more comfortable knowing what's expected at these events so that I can bring members of my own herd to enter the show ring.
Here is a short video of my experience: