Thursday, April 14, 2005

Shearing Day

Shearing day is on April 30th, and it will be quite a production, I think. We are sharing a shearer at another farm, which means that we will have to halter up all the elapses, load them into a trailer, and then take the to be shorn. Our adult females are all only marginal on halters, and I expect at least one of them to hate shearing with a loud passion.

This brings up the question of what alpaca ranches do with the pounds of fleece they are presented with each year. Our six animals ought to produce perhaps thirty pounds of fleece of widely varying quality and color. As much as I am enjoying spinning, I do not plan on processing all of this fleece by hand. In the next posting, I think I'll discuss the many ways to dealing with fleeces, but here I'm going to talk about show fleeces.

You might remember that El Barto didn't get a ribbon at the Heart of the Valley show last month. There are many possible reasons for this, but my personal favorite is that he was too young to do well in a confirmation show. So, I am going to enter his fleece only into a show or two and see how he does. Just for kicks, I think I'm going to enter the fleece of our new alpaca Antonio (Tony for short) as well. He's a pretty bay black, and Barto is white, so we'll have each end of the color spectrum covered. This first show is a sheep-oriented show where an alpaca fleece won grand champion last year. It's not really fair to compare sheep and alpaca, but I'm not going to worry about the ethics of it; they allow it, so they've considered the ramifications themselves. (right?)

This means that I will have to learn how to prepare a fleece for a show. My friend Polly McCrea of Fern Hill Ranch will help me because she's a veteran alpaca rancher and has show fleeces and animals. I'll let you all know what the process is once I learn it. I know it involves skirting, picking, and bagging, but I'm sure it is more complicated than just that.

We are also going to take fiber samples from many of our animals to see how they are doing micron-wise. In this process, the shearer takes a patch of fiber a couple inches square and the rancher sends it in to one of a few companies that measures how fine the fiber is, how uniform, etc. These statistics can be very useful if you are selling an animal because a small micron count and very uniform fleece are selling points.

Another thing that this test can tell you is if you are feeding your alpacas correctly. If they have too much protein in their diets, their fleece can become coarser. It will be interesting over the next couple of years to see how or if our alpacas fleeces are affected. Nearly all alpacas' fleeces become coarser as they age, but sometimes this process can be slowed by altering their diets. However, I don't recommend that newcomers (myself included) monkey with the nutrition of their alpacas just to strive for finer fleece. This involves giving the alpacas a poorer diet. Extreme cases could result in a lack of fiber quality and a starving animal. I'm not confident enough to play with those risks, and I don't think any newcomer should, either.

Anyway, I'm rambling a bit. Feed your animals to maintain a good body score and let the fleeces come naturally. Some of them will be show-quality.


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Pasture Management part 2

I want to apply the knowledge from the pasture management class to our little patch of mud.

First, we are going to spread urea (N) all over our pastures to help the grass grow through spring. We know this will work because the grass around old poop piles is growing furiously. Nitrogen (N) is safe for animals—sometimes it is even put into their food—so we can do this now without worrying about them.

We will kill the grasses that are growing wild, twice, to make sure that we have a blank slate to plant desirable grasses. We will do this sometime in the fall when the rains resume because we don’t have irrigation for the pastures yet. The grass will die back in July because Oregon, contrary to popular belief, has long, dry summers, and grass goes dormant in the heat.

Once we have that blank slate, we are going to drag the pastures with a hunk of log with large screws driven into it. This will help in loosening up the topsoil and make a place for the fertilizer and seed to go. Charles is looking forward to dragging a log chained to the back of his lawn tractor around the property. I’m taking pictures.

At some point before we fertilize, we are going to take soil samples for a soil test. We are deciding which zones to average together because each pasture has a steep slope and a flat area, too. We know that the slopes and flats will be different, so we are considering grouping the soil samples by geography instead of pasture boundary. This means that the pastures may be fertilized in two zones each, with a two types of fertilizer, one for the slope, one for the flat.

Once we have fertilized and seeded, we need to keep the animals off of the grass until it is firmly established. This means that our pastures 2 and 3 may not go into operation until March or February 2006.

Here’s our bit of advice for people looking to establish pastures…DO IT NOW. Begin as soon as you can because it takes a long time to even renovate a pasture. We are actually considering beginning phase 2 of our plans for our ranch by developing another three acres this summer that we aren't’t planning on putting into operation for at least two years. It really does take that long. If you want animals on your land at some point, please consider beginning preparations now. The worst that can happen is that you will have to mow some grass during the summer until you can get animals to munch it down for you.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Pasture Management

For those of you who haven’t been to our ranch, a little description is required. Since we bought the land as a patch of “woods” that had been selectively cut about thirty years ago, we don’t have what most people would call any “pastures” yet. We have some large tracts of open ground that have been scraped of topsoil and forest debris in which some patches of green stuff grow. As it is raining today, we have open patches of mud with little rivulets coursing through them. Alpacas do not care if it is raining until it begins to hail at which point they usually lie down. They do not care if they lie down in mud. This evening, the alpacas came into the barn a soggy mess of mud and sticks, not resembling the fluffy dry critters we let out of the barn this morning.

Something needs to be done.

Part of that something is to install actual pastures, meaning “parcels of ground in which grasses grow,” as opposed to “parcels of ground marked off by a fence.” We went to a pasture maintenance seminar this weekend at Legacy Alpaca ranch in Newberg, OR, to learn how to create and keep good pastures. We are big fans of Ag Ph.D., a television show out of South Dakota that explains farming basics, like what nutrients plants need and how to get them to the roots. We knew we were going to have to add something to our fields, but we didn’t know what.

The primary skill we learned in this workshop was how to take a soil sample, and how to read a soil test. Then, based on the information in the soil test, we learned what to add to different fields to make the pasture grow better.

To summarize: plants need nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), and sulfur (S) to grow correctly. In our area, we need levels of P = 15-20 and K = 175-200, plus a pH of about 5.9. All of these things can be measured on a soil test. You adjust your fertilizing by the data on the soil test.

Or else you just spread alpaca poo all over your fields. That seems to work just as well. J

Also, it’s going to take at least a year before we will have nice pastures. We have to rake, drag, plant, and fertilize the land, and then let it grow unmolested by animals until it is established. That’s going to take a while.

Along those lines, I planted a bunch of Douglas Fir seedling on our property to pretty up the place. The trees came from our friends Rob and Camilla who were married recently and gave the trees out as party favors. Since we were some of the last to leave, we asked if we could take a bunch of leftover trees. Now we have the “Rob and Camilla Memorial Groves” on our ranch. After I dug a hole for the seeding, I plopped a little scoop of alpaca poo into the bottom, just to give the little trees a head start. I’ll bet the trees will grow like its going out of style this summer!

Have a nice day.


Friday, April 08, 2005


I am in the process of updating I am learning Dreamweaver so that I can make the site look snazzy, and so it is really easy to use. As it is, I am still a little ashamed to send prospective alpaca owners there, but I am striving to make it better.

Perhaps I'll post more today on our new aquisition, Anotnio (a.k.a. "Fat Tony"), a bay-black "replacement" for the little cria which died.