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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Felting Alpaca

Felting with Alpaca

Felting is one of the many way ways to utilize alpaca fiber.  Felting alpaca can create a dense, fabric like material that can be shrunk into its preferred shape or, like our felted alpaca winter hats and helmet liners, be cut and created into the items you want with exact custom sizing.

Our Felted Alpaca Hat is so warm, we grade it down to -30F

In its purist form, felt is comprised of two layers of raw alpaca fiber laid on top of each other.  The fiber is then stabbed / poked / jabbed with a barbed needle to push the top layer into the lower one to interlock the fibers, essentially tying knots in the fleece. 

However, when we felt the alpaca fiber, we use a washing machine to do the work, being able to adjust the heat, timing and agitation to our own preference.  The yarn is first loosely knit significantly larger than the ultimate end size (sometimes more than 2-3 times the end result size). The shrinking is performed in the washing machine, where the warm water opens up the scales on the fiber and the friction helps them interlock and create a fabric like material.  This same process can also be done in the sink, but it takes a significant amount of time and labor, not to mention continuous hot water on your hands.

The gauge and type of yarn you use will vary your product, as well color we have found. Our natural black tends to shrink up more than any other color, where as our grays tend to shrink the least.

Felted Alpaca Creates A Dense Fabric Fabric

Color and dyeing significantly impact the end result of your felted item. White, natural, or brightly colored yarns may go through a bleaching process where some of the scales that are important to the felting process are chemically burned off. This may render the yarn unable to felt or cause it to felt very strangely. Always test felt a swatch when using multiple colors, even within the same line of yarn. Different shades felt at different rates, as do different brands of yarns. We have also found that marl yarn (different colors plied together) have a terrific result, especially if they really contrast one another.

How to felt
The actual felting process takes practice and work, and a lot of testing.  In over eight years of making our alpaca felt for our alpaca hats, there are a few points that should be shared to increase the chances of your success.

1. Start with a tablespoon of soap [any laundry soap works equally well], your lowest water setting [smallest load], the roughest agitation ["soiled" as opposed to "regular" or "delicate"], and a hot wash cycle. The hot water out of your tank is typically hot enough.

2.  We place our yarn in a mesh lingerie bag, but a pillowcase or keeping it loose may work just as well for you.

3. About five minutes after agitation begins, check the status of your items. They will actually have gotten larger, as they will have relaxed in the heat of the water. This is normal.  Check again every 5-10 minutes. You can take out of the washer if you need to see how it is going and then put it back and continue on.  If its twisted or needs reshaping, do it at along these intervals.  There will likely be fleece and color shedding – which again is normal.

4. Keep checking at 5-10 minute intervals until you have reached where you want to be, which may take multiple wash cycles [do not run the entire machine cycle, but just rerun the wash portion]. Again, color can play a role of how many times you need to run it through the cycle, so each felting process may vary.

Felted Alpaca Purse

5.  If you used a pillowcase, there will be lumps fiber in the bag.  Try to minimize any sloughed felt going down your drain.   If some does manage to slip through the system, it may well pass into the pipes and be gone. If not, you'll end up with a mass stuck in the water pump that requires removing the back panel to your washing machine, removing the exit hose [and fighting the water that spews out], and extricating the wad stuck inside.

6. If you notice, during the felting process, that a certain area isn't felting quite as fast as the rest of the surfaces, you can spot-felt by hand by rubbing and abusing that specific area. If your item is resisting felting or stops shrinking before you'd like it to, remove it from the washer, wring it out, and a quick plunge into an ice water bath and back into the tub will work wonders.

7.  Once your wash tub clean, spin out the water without your item inside.  Place your wet item aside in a bucket.  Fill the wash basin with COLD water.  Place your item(s) in the clean, cold water and dunk a few times to get rid of any residual soap.  DO NOT AGITATE.  Then you're ready for a final spin. Some folks don't recommend letting your felt go through a spin cycle, as it may leave a permanent crease in your garment. I have never had this happen, and I spin every item to remove as much moisture as possible. If you don't care to risk it, roll your felt up in a large bath towel and squeeze it to remove the water. Then it's on to blocking.


Head Form to Block Hat

Wet alpaca is easy to stretch and adjust into the size you want.  We make up 2 lb batts of our fleece, so we hand stretch and pull the fabric into the size and thickness we want.  If you have created a hat, we have a head that we stretch our hats over to create the correct sizes.

shape it exactly as you want:
  • Block hats over head-sized bowls or other items that will form them as you would like.
  • Shape your bags with boxes for sharp corners or shove them full of plastic grocery bags to achieve the perfect style.
  • Stuff your slippers or clogs with plastic cups for a round, attractive opening. And let them dry completely [as much as two days, depending on the weather] before removing the blocking forms.

Finish with a light brushing or a trim with scissors or a beard trimmer [to remove excess hairiness] and you've finished your own amazing creation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Anatolians at the Animal Shelter

We had the opportunity to go to our animal shelter (Heart of the Valley) this past week to talk about guard dogs to a summer camp group.  While the Anatolians usual make a good impact with people, I wasn't sure how they wanted us to keep twenty 6 to 12 year olds entertained for an hour.

We arrived and there was a large "ooh!" that whispered throughout the room.  We let Cookie and Griz off of their leashes and they happily snuggled into the kids laps, laying on the floor mats with them as we began the history of the breed, why we have these dogs and what makes them different from other canines.
The kids rubbed and scratched the dogs as they asked many thoughtful, well thought out questions.  They were interested in something they had not seen before (Well, many had met Grizzly at various events we went to around town).  Perhaps because they were from Montana and used to more of farm-ranch setting, but they were very intuned to when Cookie got up and needed some space or Griz made his way to greet every kid and adult in the room.

Yes, they are guard dogs and we have purposely not overly socialized them with other dogs.  No other animals were in the room or in sight at our location.  When one would walk by, both would perk up but just watch through the glass windows. Anatolians are smart enough to know when to turn it on or off.  I trust this breed as much as I could trust any dog.  And I am very glad they are part of our alpaca family.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Night Out...and Yet Still With The Alpacas...

A friend decided to initiate her new wood stove pizza oven last night, and I was asked to join them.  With a dozen people invited, we all stowed away in the shaded alcove, protected from the blazing 96 F heat on a June Montana evening.  Initially I did not know anyone at the party, introducing myself with a repeated smile and handshake.  And yet, with 12 other people at the party, every one of them knew me as “the alpaca lady” and / or Grizzly’s (our Anatolians’) mom. 

Even when you are away from the alpacas, they are still with you.

Sometimes, working 24-7 with my husband at home with my alpacas, I just want to get away, sip my margarita and enjoy the sunset over the Bridger Mountains.  But the rest of the group wanted to talk about alpacas, so I did.  Many of them asked the same questions I had heard hundreds of times before “how long do they live”…”how about the babies”…”what do you do with the fleece”.  True, every once in a while I get tired of it.  And yet, how many people are really enthused about your job – including yourself? 

I am passionate about the alpacas.  It shows in my farm visits, in my care for the cria and, hopefully, in my writing.  I do love talking about them and people who have alpacas love talking about alpacas.  I would imagine it is much the same as parents talking about their kids cute little antics. “And then, one day, they did the funniest thing…”  But, the questions keep coming, a curious expression on their faces and I give them tidbits of my day and how I unloaded 7 tons of hay today as part of my afternoon chores.

And once again I am humbled and reminded of my great alpaca lifestyle.  It is far from perfect, easy or non-messy for that matter, but enjoyable none the less.  Its fun to have others see a glimpse into the alpaca world, even if we are both miles away from the fields.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Feeding Cria


Cria have no antibodies when born, and are unable to fight infection and disease. Cria obtain antibodies from their mother’s milk. The first milk is creamy sticky milk, called colostrum, with high levels of antibodies in it. A cria’s bowel can only absorb these antibodies in the first 12 to 24 hours of life.  If a cria misses out on colostrums, it will be prone to infection.

After a cria is born, we watch to make sure the mother is able to nurse the cria. We look for signs that they are receiving the milk and subsequent colostrum – sucking noises, tail in the air, a milk mustache.  If they are running around and playing, they are receiving enough milk.  Make sure that the cria is feeding in the crucial first 24 hours.

Observe the feeding behavior – how often, and if satisfactory. If a cria is seeking milk, it will find it if it is there.

If your cria is not feeding, assist it.

Alpaca Milk Moustache

Ensure the dam's teats are clear of wax, and milk is flowing. The milk will flow better once the placenta is passed.
You may need to hold the cria under the dam, making sure it gets to the right place. If so, position yourself at the dam's rear legs, so when the dam turns around to check what is going on, it is her cria she sees and sniffs.   
Milk from its own mother is ideal. You can milk an alpaca.  But if milk is not available, the best alpaca supplementary feed is raw goat milk.  Cow milk – whole and unpasteurized is second best. 
You can use colostrum from, in order of priority, another alpaca or llama, an artificial substitute, or a cow, goat or sheep. It must receive colostrum before receiving milk. 
Keep all equipment sterile. 

Continue to monitor feeding. Indicators of poor feeding are frequent attempts to suckle (more than once an hour), weakness and lethargy, sitting a lot, poor weight gain or weight loss, and no milk moustache after feeding.
Monitor the progress of the cria. 

Weigh regularly – daily initially. Plot a chart of weights of all your cria, to notice any different growth patterns. Weigh them weekly until over 30 lbs.
The weight of the cria may drop by 10% in the first couple of days, but once the milk supply is fully in, cria weight gain should be 1/3 to ½ lb per day.

Cria are active, and move and play a lot. Day one they stay close to mom, day two they run away about 10 yards, and by day three they will explore 30-40 meters from mom.
A sluggish cria, resting more, and drinking less, not gaining weight, is of concern. Take its temperature if you have any concerns about its health. Cria should be between 100 F and 102 F for the first 2 weeks. Outside this range, take action – put on a coat, increase feeding and/ or call the vet. 

Aim to feed the cria 10% of its body weight daily. Crias are snackers, needing frequent small feeds.  Feed at 4 hourly intervals, with 6 feeds a day, from daybreak to late evening. You do not need to feed in the early hours of the morning, as alpacas sleep then. 
As an example, a 15 lb cria gets a minimum of 600 mls a day, in 6 feeds of 100 ml.
A plastic bottle with a Pritchard Nipple, is suitable for cria feeding. Keep all cria feeding equipment sterile, as you would for a human baby, using boiling water and a disinfectant.

An exception to this feeding regime is very small frail cria. They may need feeding every 1.5 to 2 hours, around the clock, for the first three days. Get specialist advice and assistance.
Cria head for dark areas to nurse, like shed corners. Put a light on in a shed, so the darkest spot is under mother, as it would be in the paddock.
To feed the cria, warm about a cup of milk in a saucepan.  NEVER microwave the milk.  The temperature should be luke warm, just like a human baby.  Pour a couple drops on your wrist and if you cannot feel it, the milk is ready.  Make the cria stand to feed, and stretch its neck up to simulate the natural feeding position. This aids the milk to go in the correct stomach.  

I find it easiest to achieve this posture by straddling the cria, restraining it with my knees, and having one hand to guide its head back towards me and one hand to hold the bottle.   

Make sure the cria sucks, so the milk goes down the throat, not squirted into its airways. Keep the air hole in the base of the teat on the upper side for air to go in and help the milk to go out.
Poor suckers can be assisted to drink. Pop your finger in its mouth, and then slide the teat in. Hold its mouth closed and slowly stroke its throat to encourage it to swallow. This may take three hands initially (a second person to do the throat stroking), but it is possible with two hands. 
Cria that will not suck can be stomach tube – often a job for your vet.

Keep the cria with its mother
, and encourage it to feed from her – most prefer mom, and may even run to have a snack from their mother after the less palatable human-provided milk. Cria will eventually reject the bottle if mom is feeding them enough.

Bottle fed cria should be kept with the herd, to minimize them imprinting on the human feeder. It is tempting to pat and cuddle them, but this can cause problems later as they come into adolescence and adulthood, when they show no respect for the human that helped them survive.


Plastic bottle – small soft drink 500ml size with screw thread

Pritchard Nipple

Pritchard Nipple with a flutter valve - the air hole with ball bearing in it
Raw goat milk - best substitute milk
Plastic Bottle - Soda bottle, Propel Water Bottle
Glucose - for extra energy and sugar
Measuring jars to shake and make up milk
Funnel and strainer (ensure no lumps)
Bottle brush, bowl, and disinfectant solution
Colostrum substitute in fridge OR
Colostrum frozen in freezer in small quantities like ice cube tray
Sandwich bag to milk the dam
Electrolyte solutions - for hydration

Thermometer – take temperature at almost every feeding

We are an alpaca farm with 150 quirky alpacas, 10 enthusiastic employees and thousands of amazing alpaca products. After 15 years of experience, we offer hand crafted alpaca products from local knitters, crocheters and weavers - including hats, scarves, blankets as well as high-tech alpaca socks and fabrics. We also sell composted alpaca manure as a rich fertilizer. Alpacas of Montana is a fully vertically integrated alpaca farm and we love designing high quality alpaca products.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Agisting Alpacas - Alpaca Owners without the Land

Agisting Alpacas - Alpaca Owners without the Land

There are many ways to own alpacas, and one of them is owning them without the land.  We have a dozen or so agisted - or boarded - alpacas on our farm.  Their owners are either in the transition of creating their own farms or do not have the appeal as I do to work with alpacas around the clock, on their camelid schedule.

As with all livestock, and pets for that matter, you cannot just lock them up on any given day you want to go to the beach, graduation or vacation and have them wait until you get back to care about them.  It takes preparation, especially when you have other owner's animals on your farm.

We have been extremely lucky with our agisters.  All are respectful of our space, give notice when coming out and allow us make decisions if something crucial is happening.  Caring for someone else's animals is not something to go into lightly. You are taking on more lives to be responsible for, as well as more people to call you with 30 minutes notice that they have family in town and want to stop by.  Before you agist, consider a few givens when getting into this aspect of the business:

More Alpacas Means More Care:
Alpacas themselves are overall very healthy, hardy animals.  However, the more you have the more likely you are to increase your time needed - be it walking through the herd checking on everyone, bottle feeding, vet checks, etc.  We have 120 alpacas of our own, so 48 extra feet to trim, top knots to cut and teeth to maintain is more hours spent in the barn. We treat all of the alpacas as they are our own and all are equally cared for.  Even if its not yours, you may end up sleeping in the barn with a sick cria while the owner is in her / his own bed.
Add on some Insurance:
Bringing more people onto the farm means a higher innate risk of an accident.  Be clear and thorough about your property receiving commercial, Ag insurance.  Also, all agisted alpacas are required to have insurance.

You are now the Expert:
James and I pride ourselves on our years of knowledge and alpaca keeping.  But if something goes wrong, you must have in place that you have authority to act on what you think is right, as well as the confidence and concern to do so.   You are taking on a large responsibility - financially and for another's health.  Agistee owners must respect what you suggest is right for the alpaca, even if it costs more.

Be Clear and Consistent:
All of our boarders receive a bill and an update regarding their alpacas quarterly.  Their fees cover all minor items - hay, deworming, trimming.  Outlying expenses - shearing and vet costs - are additonal charges.  Keep your records up to date and be able to retrieve their information quickly, lest it look like you have no clue who their alpaca is. 

Keep the house clean:
Just today, we had someone knock our door for a farm visit.  I had just emptied the refrigerator's contents onto the counter to clean it, 67 felted hats were drying on the floor and laundry was piled on the couch.  Get ready, because you can have company at any time.

Keep agisters involved:
Some agisters just want a check when an alpaca is sold.  Others visit every few weeks to check on their herd.  I always encourage agisters to be as involved as they want to be - invite them to help out with shearing, farm days, having babies (their own or yours) getting hay, raking manure.  Just because they do not have land doesn't mean they do not want to be a part of the farm life on occasion.

Of course, being an agistor is not always a bowl of cherries.  Or perhaps it is, but before enjoying it with abandon, one must consider the pits. Agistment, like alpaca ownership (for us) is a business.  However, it is a business that goes on all day, all night, all weekend, and even if there is a family emergency.  Many of us relish a business that could be pursued from home, but don't often consider all of the ramifications of conducting such a business. 

We have learned a few lessons along the way.  We try to work from a position of mutual trust and reinforce that with a written contract.  Above all, I treat our agisted alpacas as we do our own.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Alpaca Ulcers

Alpaca Ulcers

Over the past several months, we have watched one of our girls - Gemini- rapidly decrease in weight.  Her body score is now a 1.  With once an enthusiastic appetite for pellets, she now cautiously takes a pellet in her mouth, chews it slightly and spits it out.  She has been throughly checked and treated for worms.  She more than usual has the foam around her mouth, a byproduct of sugars being digested.  This isn't uncommon, but she can be seen like this at least every three days. Because of the onset of rich grass and decrease in hay within her diet this past Spring turned Summer, we feel she has ulcers.  She is unable to eat because it literally burns her stomach.  She will eat hay, but doesn't want to be be without the herd, so she sits in the pasture grass, not eating.  So, we have started a new program that will hopefully turn around her malnutritioned state.

This is some of the only research we have found regarding this issue:

Efficacy and Pharmacokinetics of Pantoprazole in Alpacas

Geof Smith, DVM, PhD, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine
In this study, 6 adult male alpacas were anesthetized and fitted with a third compartment cannula for measuring gastric pH.  Following recovery, alpacas received 1 mg/kg pantoprazole intravenous every 24 hrs for 3 days or 2 mg/kg subcutaneously every 24 hrs for 3 days.  All alpacas received both IV and SQ pantoprazole, with a minimum of 3 weeks between treatments.  Third compartment pH was recorded at regular intervals and plasma samples were taken for pharmacokinetic analysis.  Pantoprazole induced a slow but sustained increase in third compartment pH when given by both the IV and SQ routes.  Baseline third compartment pH (1.81 + 0.7) increased to 2.47 + 0.8,  3.53 + 1 and 4.03 + 1.3 at 24, 48 and 72 hrs following IV administration.  Third compartment pH increased from 1.73 + 0.6, at baseline to 3.05 + 1.1, 4.01 + 1.4 and 3.61 + 1.6 at 24, 48 and 72 hrs following SQ administration.  This study showed that pantoprazole represents a safe and effective drug for increasing third compartment pH in alpacas.  It is likely an effective treatment for third compartment ulcers and might be useful for prophylactic administration in stressed camelids at high risk for developing ulcers.

* As an update to this story:  After 2 months, the female we gave 2 regimens of the Pantoprazole to went from 107 lbs and a body score of 1 (skeletal) to gaining 23 lbs in one month and gaining.  She still has a ways to go, but is making amazing progress.  She was so sick, she still may not come out of it fully, but I do feel this medicine was worth it for us to try on her and it seemed to work.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How Many Alpacas Per Acre?

How Many Alpacas Per Acre?

One of the more popular questions I am asked is, "How many can you put per acre?" and I predictably answer, "That depends."  It depends on your climate, your weather, if you can water / irrigate, if you deworm every 30 days because of a parasite potential in more humid climate.  My answers are different from everyone else.  For us, we can put about 5-7 per acre...but we rent out a neighbors 15 acres to make sure our fields are not overgrazed with 120+/- alpacas.

We have about 20 acres at this time which is sub-irrigated (high water table).  We rotate our herds among the 6 pastures, letting one rest for a least a week when it begins to be eaten down.

Over the years, we have had one acre pastures with a stocking density ranging from 5 to 20 alpacas per acre and from 6 to 18 llamas per acre.  At a stocking density greater than 10 alpacas or llamas per acre, we start to see "social starvation" - getting thin despite adequate nutrition and 24 hour access to food free of choice.  Either the animal is not willing to "fight for it" and/ or the continuous stress of so many animals in one pen seems to be the cause of this weight reduction. 

Plus, with a concentration of alpacas is also a concentration of manure and always being near the poo pile, this close proximity increases the chances of them picking up a bug or worm of some sort, further decreasing health conditions.

We have found that dung piles (when rare or no cleaning is done) accumulate until there are 2 to 3 primary piles and 6 to 8 secondary piles.  These end up covering 25-35% of the acre thus reducing the available grazing space and availability of grass to grow.

I recommend body scoring at least every 1 to 2 months if the animals remain in this environment for an extended period of time.  If this herd is getting diverse (i.e. 1/3 are a 2 or less, 1/3 are a 3 and 1/3 are a 4 or 5) then something needs to be addresses - more feed bunks, spacing, housing. 

Barn and shelters are a bit different story. 

Contact us for further discussions on how many alpacas per acre is ideal for you.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Barn Size Needed for Alpacas

Barn Size Needed for Alpacas

Each of our herds (ladies, guys, weanlings, sick, new herd...) each have their own pasture and shelter.  For years, we had to make due with 12' x 24' lean-tos.  The key for this type of building is to have at least 2 doors on two different walls.  Some alpacas will stay out in a blizzard while others run to the barn with a single drop of rain.  The doors allow you to shut out the wind / snow / rain without shutting your herd in or out.  Alpacas are a bit claustrophobic and if they feel they will be shut in if they go inside, they may not go in.

We have found that 1 or 2 animals may use a 12' x 16' (192 sq. ft) three sided open face shelter with a 12 ft. roof to "loaf" in. In inclement weather, 12 to 16 alpacas will crowd in and 8 to 10 llamas.  Given a choice, they will not crowd in more than one animal per 3' x 6' (18 sq. ft.) space.  They crowd in the temperature is less than 20 F and windy, especially if the sun is not out to warm them. When sunny, many will remain outside as much as possible.

They will not use these sheds at a greater density than 1 animal per 6' x 8' space even in inclement weather when temps are above 90 F.  A low roof does not allow effective cooling and ventilation.

Also, we have found that alpacas and llamas will preferentially stay within a three sided open faced barn that is 30' x 60' with a 20' roof rather than stay outdoors.  Even on sunny days, where temps are above 30 F, they stay in the barn only coming out intermittently.  They will easily stay in the barn during hot weather.

Perhaps this is an effect of 'individual space infringement'.

When they stay in the large barn, they stay anywhere from 2 to 10 feet away from each other.  They tend to use 1/2 of the barn (the perimeter) for eating and sleeping and the central area for manure.

Thus, I think hat social stress is based on the ceiling height and the depth of barn as much as anything.  I would prefer a long, deep barn with a high ceiling.

That said, if you are planning on building your own barn, lay out your plans and then increase the size by 25%.  You always need more space - for a sick animals, storage, shearing, machinery.  The time to get a bigger building is before you build it.  But, sometimes the budget just doesn't allow for it and you need to work on growing your outbuildings in the future.