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Reminiscence

I find that I miss blogging. Since I returned to a full time job off the ranch, in addition to my normal ranch and home chores, it has been difficult to spend the time putting down my thoughts. Often I will be out working with the alpacas and think, “this would be a great story”, but the words never make it to paper. As yet another year draws to a close; I thought I would post once more.

This year, as I began a new decade in my life, I find myself slowing down and lacking the energy and stamina I used to have. I still manage to get things done but I am looking forward to a little rest afterwards. It is time to think about (and work toward) downsizing. I love our alpaca herd but a few less of them would make the chores easier and would take a little less time.

When I look at the group I wonder which ones I would miss too much if they were no longer in the barn. I remember the ones who have already gone to new homes and I still miss most of them. Knowing where they are and that they are all loved and cared for makes it easier. Each alpaca has such a unique personality and each touches me differently. I find they seem to pick their new owners as much as the new owners pick them.

There are those I call my “special needs” alpacas. Jasper was a preemie and we worked so hard to help him gain weight and grow. He is 3 now and holds his own with the older boys. Gentry is nicknamed “Twitch” because his eyes and nose have twitched since he was born. It doesn’t bother him and he has no other issues. He fights his way into the feeding frenzy and will even start a fight with one of the older boys if he feels like pushing his limits. One of our ladies has a twisted foot; we think it was a shearing injury. One young girl was acting goofy jumping around and twisted a leg so, every now and then, you can see her favor it. Another always seems to get injured and we seem to be treating a poked eye or a wound of some sort. Why things always happen to him is a mystery. They would all need a special, caring heart, to make a home for them.

I guess the bottom line is I wish I could keep them all, but I know that is not practical. The oldest ones will age along with me and I am glad to have them live out their lives in my pastures. The others I will make available to others who want the wonderful experience of raising these great creatures. I have never regretted bringing them to our ranch and I know there are people who would make great alpaca shepherds.

So as I leave my barn for another day, I am thankful for all the joy, laughter, hugs and antics my alpacas have given me. Smiling, I head back to the house for a restful evening; looking forward to what tomorrow will bring.

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When I was a kid my grandfather would use this line to try and amuse us. It only worked once or twice but it stuck in my head. He had a resort in the Lake of the Ozark area of Missouri. Highway 5 ran past the property and it wasn’t unusual to see loads of hay go by in the summer while we were visiting. Not being a farm kid, it was always interesting but I never gave it much thought. That is until now.

Last week we cut hay. There is not a lot of planning to this event. I call the guy who is cutting and baling  to get on his list and then we wait. Where I end up on his list and the weather play a big part in when we get the hay cut. This year the weather has been very unusual. Everything from wildlife to crops are out of sync with the calendar. Hay season started 3 weeks earlier than it usually does. To make things even more interesting, the month of May was extremely dry.

Our tentative date to cut hay was the first part of June. We waited, praying for rain so the hay would not burn up in the pastures. Of course, all the places where the hay was cut and waiting to be baled they were praying for no rain. The “no rain” group was winning out; until the last week of the month. We received 2” of rain over several days that week. You could almost hear the grass sucking up the moisture. Just that small amount would help as we continued to wait our turn.

June 5 the tractors arrived and started to cut. We had 4 days of clear skies, sunshine, lower temperatures and 0% chance of rain. This was going to be a good week for haying. I called the hay crew and let them know we were baling on Thursday and they should plan on a long day. The crew arrived and consisted of 5 young guys from 13-21 years of age, and myself, a 120 pound, upper 50s, grey-haired shepherd. All the crew has to do is to keep up with me. Sound fair enough?

My weakness is having limited lifting strength over my shoulders; hence I became a stacker. The crew did keep up and we put away 1330 square bales in 12 hours. It was a long, hard day but no injuries or break downs. Lots of sore muscles but they will work out with more chores. The harvest was more than acceptable and we are set for another year of winter feed for the livestock.

It is a great feeling to see the hay barn full and to smell fresh hay. The freshly cut pastures look green and perfect. It’s now time to sit back on the deck with that glass of wine that has been waiting for me. Life on the ranch is good!

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Follow Me

A couple of years ago I started to notice an unusual (to me) bird in our alpaca pastures. It made a lot of noise and did more running around on the ground then flying. I grabbed my Missouri bird book and discovered the Kill Deer. They have very distinct markings so they are easy to identify. I then discovered that they lay their eggs on the ground, usually amongst a small cluster of rocks. They don’t build a nest; just lay them in a hollowed section of the grouping. The eggs are almost the same color pattern as the rocks so you have to really look to find them.

The problem with laying eggs in the alpaca pastures is that the alpacas are continually moving around the pasture grazing. Usually the older alpacas will avoid the eggs but the crias (baby alpaca) haven’t figured that out yet. As the crias are exploring and romping around the pasture they sometimes get too close for momma bird’s comfort. When this happens a series of events and antics begin.

One of the birds, they usually guard the eggs as a pair; will start making a lot of noise to sound the alarm. She/he is probably screaming, “Get away from my nest!” Of course alpacas don’t speak Kill Deer so they haven’t a clue what is being said. The crias think the bird wants to play so they are more than willing to participate. The bird will try to draw the cria away by leaving the nest in hopes that she will follow. If that doesn’t work then the second diversion is started. The Kill Deer will spread out its wings and tail feathers, revealing a yellow coloring, meant to draw attention to itself. As the cria draws closer the Kill Deer will keep moving away from the eggs. The third diversion is known as the “broken wing” scenario. The Kill Deer will throw one wing out to the side and flap it as if it were broken; demonstrating that it is an easy prey. Again as the predator – cria – approaches it moves farther away.

I was taking a break from chores and noticed one of our new crias, Quibble, encountering one of these nests. Knowing what was to follow I watched the process with a grin on my face. After several minutes the cria finally lost interest and moved back to the herd. I am sure the Kill Deer was relieved and a little tired of the whole thing.

I’ll Play!

Nature has such a wonderful way of protecting itself. Sometimes it provides comic relief to the spectator as well.

I attended my first fiber show of the 2012 season. Before I started raising alpacas, I didn’t realize how much fiber is produced in the United States. Quite a bit of it comes from small farms. Attending the show were owners of sheep, goats, rabbits, llamas and alpacas. The sheep market alone has many varieties. Owners come to fairs all across the nation to display and sell their wool. It can be bought in raw form, (right from shearing) roving (carded and ready to spin) or yarn. It can be natural or dyed. There is no limit to the colors and choices.

In this environment you will discover crafts and arts, that some may think have passed away, but are very much alive. Spinners are in abundance; using both the drop spindle and the spinning wheel. Tatting, lace making, embroidery, weaving, knitting and crocheting are all still perpetuated by those who love the craft and love creating beautiful pieces of art from scratch. The crafters cover many generations with ages in the single digit to those in their nineties. There are no age, gender or color barriers with this group.

Alpaca fiber is called “the fiber of the gods”. It is told that the harvested alpaca fiber of the finest quality could only be worn by the Incan royalty. Alpaca is stronger than mohair, finer than cashmere, smoother than silk, softer than cotton. It has the ability to provide great warmth without the weight of wool. It has no lanolin which helps it to stay clean and provides and alternative for those who are allergic to wool. Over 22 natural colors are created by the alpacas, and because it is a natural fiber, it can also be dyed.

Natural Colors

I have the pleasure of raising a herd of alpacas, and each year we harvest this wonderful fiber. I send most of our fiber to a mini-mill in Kansas for processing. I like using the mill because I get my own fiber back. Part of our fiber is made into yarns and part into roving. I try to get an assortment of both for my customers and of course myself. Quality is always my priority. I want the person who uses my alpaca fiber to be pleased and return for more.

Missouri Alpaca Herd

At the fiber fair I bring in my selections to compliment all the other fiber being shown and sold. I usually take my spinning wheel or crochet to work with while I am there. I love, not only meeting other fiber artists, but learning new things from them. What a wealth of knowledge is out there. I get to talk with so many interesting people. I am pleasantly surprised when I find someone who spins or knits, though they don’t look the part. I met a man knitting socks once. I shouldn’t pre-judge but I just didn’t expect it.

So, the next time you wrap up in your favorite shawl or scarf, put on that special hat, or pull out your afghan or lap throw, consider the hands that may create it. Nestled away in your city, town and neighborhood are extraordinary people, living a simpler life in an over technological world. I am so thankful for them and their skills and to be a part of this community. May they continue to pass on their art and our heritage.

Criation

I was listening to my local public radio station this morning. We have a special feature called “The Backyard Birder”. He gives insight into what is happening with the birds in our area; migration, nesting, hatching, feed and feeders, etc. This morning he mentioned that everything, concerning the birds, is about 3 weeks ahead of schedule. The bird migration and their nesting have all been affected by the crazy Spring weather we have been experiencing. I am sure the fruit crop and berries will be affected as well.

The odd thing is my alpacas may be affected too, but in the opposite direction. I have 3 pregnant females, all due in the Spring. Normally the gestation period for an alpaca is 344 days.

Still Pregnant

That alone is a long time to be pregnant. Two of our ladies were due to deliver in April. April came and went and they were still pregnant. That actually became our response after checking on them; “still pregnant”.

A couple of summers past we had very high temperatures. Everyone was miserable, especially the pregnant alpacas. The gestation time started to increase. We thought it was a result of the heat and we did our best to keep the moms as cool as possible. Our barn record that year was 376 days!

Our first mom, Okura, passed her due date and we headed to shearing. Being 10 days past due we still had to shear her and it didn’t seem to matter a bit. Temperatures were unseasonably warm and we were even wearing shorts. We then had a reprieve and the temperature dropped back to more normal levels. Now she will deliver, we thought. Another week passed and still no delivery. Now the second mom was due. We were approaching the end of April with no crias on the ground yet. Our April crias were now becoming our May crias.

As I counted up the days, we were approaching our barn record. Flying by the 376 mark I was starting to get a little anxious. Visitors were scheduled for the weekend. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could see a newborn? Not much I could do but wait and pray for a healthy, live cria.

Friday was day 380! We officially would have a new ranch record. As I finished my breakfast I noticed Okura was more uncomfortable than usual. I decided to check her again in about an hour. Going to the barn I found her lying on her side, and in labor. Delivery was beginning and it went like a text-book example.

Okura & Quibble

After some serious pushing, Okura delivered a beautiful female weighing 15 pounds (an average birth weight for an alpaca). It was standing and nursing within 90 minutes. I was relieved and excited. It was a champagne day on the ranch. The visitors were thrilled to see the new arrival.

Our second mom hit day 365 today. This is an experienced mom and she has never had this long of a gestation. She still is giving no signs of being ready to deliver. Our third mom is due in 8 days. So here I am, still counting the days and waiting.

Now I don’t know if this is weather related, but it sure seems like a wild coincidence. What I do know is waiting is not an easy task. The shepherd is growing greyer with each passing day.

I haven’t posted lately because we have been busy with one of the main events at our ranch, shearing. It all begins in January when we contact our shearer, Eddie, to get on his schedule. Eddie is from Australia but now lives in Oregon. He is a professional shearer of sheep, alpaca and llama. To qualify his status, I will let you know that he can shear an alpaca, on average, in 5 minutes. No joking! It takes a well-organized crew to keep up with him.

To put together that crew we rely on volunteers. I believe we have the best group of volunteers in the whole USA. I may be prejudice but I don’t think so. These people are amazing. I do all the prep work in advance. When they show up I assign them a task and they spend their time focused and efficient. Some have been coming for a few years and some are brand new to the process, but they all do a spectacular job. We could not manage without them.

My prep work consists of preparing shearing bags for each alpaca, making sure all the supplies are on hand (brooms, paper towels, spit socks, sanitizer, floor mats, knee pads), and prepare the food to feed everyone when we are done shearing. I find it is important to feed the help so they feel appreciated and want to come back again. My goal is to make this a pleasant experience for everyone involved. We do tend to have a good time, with lots of joking and laughter during the work.

Shearing is work. If you are out of shape you will definitely know it by the end of the day. It doesn’t take long for those muscles to tighten up and start to ache. We always have pain relievers on hand for those who may be feeling the pain before we finish. I do try and match assigned tasks to those with limitations. Our youngest volunteer was around 13 and our oldest at 77. If someone wants to help, I can find them a job to do. I remind everyone that a good week of yard work before shearing will help to get those muscles ready. I take my own advice and make sure I get some weeding and pruning done in March. Even so, I have my own share of aches and can sympathize with the group. Age does creep up on you when you aren’t looking.

Most important we watch for the safety of the alpacas. Our shearer takes great care in his work and very seldom do we have a nick or cut. Shearing is necessary for the comfort and health of the alpacas. They are wearing a huge coat of wool and need it removed before the warm weather begins. You can feel that warmth in their fiber as it is shorn off. On a warm day after shearing you can see their smiles as they lay out in the pasture. Even though they may not like the immediate process, they find it all worthwhile afterwards.

Now that the shearing is finished I can slip into a slower pace and enjoy the fruit of the harvest. Each fleece will get handled by me to prepare it for the mill. I love sinking my hands into this luscious fiber and examining the results of our breeding program. Each bag is my personal visit with that alpaca. Memories of their pranks, their particular personality, the joy of seeing them with their first cria (baby), or patiently waiting for them to come of age so we can see their offspring, all work their way through my mind. It reminds me of why I am raising these special animals. If you look for me, check the fiber room first.

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Surreal

I live in a beautiful place; 80 acres of rolling pastures surrounded

A Beautiful View

by Mark Twain National Forest. Occasionally you will hear road noise, especially when the weather is nice and the motor cyclists are out cruising, but mostly it is the sounds of nature filling the air. Birds of all species, coyotes, tree frogs and bull frogs and a full assortment of singing insects serenade us. The trees are mostly oak but hickory, redbud, walnut, cedars and native pines are mixed among them. The sky is expansive and usually a gorgeous blue or filled with white clouds.

When we get visitors at the ranch, the first thing we hear is “what a great view you have”. They just stand and look over the place and remark

“how peaceful” it is. Normally this is how our ranch is; until an A10 jet screams by overhead. Then we hear, “what was that?!”.

A10 Warthog


Our ranch sits only 3 miles, as the crow flies, to an Air Force practice range. It is not uncommon for A10 Warthog jets, C130 Hercules cargo planes, military Apache helicopters or even the Stealth bomber to fly over our ranch. (Sure hope this isn’t a Homeland Security Secret) This has been going on since we have lived here and we hardly notice them. It is just part of our environment and we have learned to tune the noise out. The livestock and pets don’t even flinch when they buzz by, except when they fly really low.

For most people this is a surreal experience; a peaceful setting in the National Forest with jets, gun fire and bombs exploding in the distance. Last week we had 10 – yes, I said 10 – C130s flying in a random formation over the ranch for about an hour. Now that was a new experience for us and we enjoyed watching them. Not sure what it was all about but loved the show. One couple was thrilled to see the jets zoom by. They had wanted to get to the Air Force range for some time and never made it. Here, when visiting, they were able to see them for several passes.

A10 Warthog

C130 Hercules

Apache Helicopter

Stealth Bomber

The aircrafts don’t fly every day, so if you come for a visit we cannot guarantee an air show. We can guarantee a beautiful view and a visit to our alpaca herd, where you can relax to their humming. So why not take a road trip and leave your worries behind.

Alpaca Herd

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