Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Alpacas in Bethlehem

Gryffin and Lincoln visited Bethlehem's manger in a local stable last week, participating in a living Nativity scene presented by the youth group of Grace Lutheran Church. The Christmas story of Jesus' birth was staged in the church parking lot in a 3-sided 'stable' with sturdy fence, good lighting and sound system. At first the yearling boys were overwhelmed by traffic noise, lights, and people, but then they settled down and nibbled the at the straw bales. Sheep and donkeys were unable to come this year, so alpacas represented the animal kingdom at the humble birth.

Early in December, Eugene experienced a week of below-freezing temperatures. The great challenge was to make sure water buckets remained liquid, so we invested in some floating warmers. Another technique is to mount a light just above a large bucket so that the air flow continues to move due to the heat of the bulb. But that method did not work well in 7° weather! Pipes to the barn and in the studio froze, but nothing burst. (View to the barn through the frosted sliding door.)

Freezing temps made cleaning up simpler since the 'beans' remained solid. And I listened to several audio books to distract me while raking the barn pens each day, all bundled up in hat, gloves and thermal boots. All 13 cria snuggled up next to their mamas and did well, even though a couple of them are only a few months old. I jacketed two of the older dams whose fleece is shorter than the younger ones. I am not sure they appreciated it, but it made me feel better!

There was no precipitation during this frigid weather, and I am healthy, so the cold did not bother me. In fact, it was preferable to working out in the 105° weather of August!

The pacas have a natural rhythm to their day -- the girls and cria all return from grazing in the big field about the same time every afternoon. Yesterday a movement caught my eye, and I glanced out the window to see the young ones running in circles and racing back to the pasture up again. Such delightful dancing, even the teenage girls joined in, and a couple of the moms, too. Maybe they were celebrating solstice and the return to lengthening daylight hours!

I wasn't able to capture that cavorting on film, but here are a few of the cria playing in the leaves.

Monday, November 16, 2009


For so many things on our farm, I am thankful...
That all 13 of our crias this year were born healthy, and that they continue to grow and flourish. Seven boys and six girls:
  • Trinity, Valrhona, and Roark (girl/girl/boy, aka, the Triple Fudge Brownies)
  • Cadence, a maroon and white female (gig 'em, Aggies!), from Autumn Sun
  • Toledo, fawn boy with a black nose, born to our spunky old dam, Blackberry
  • Celeste, our only Galileo daughter, out of our first alpaca, Flora
  • Ramiro, a red-brown boy from Sonnet ~ named for a king of Aragon
  • Latakia, a brown boy (pictured) from Murphy Brown and Galileo ~ name of a spicy tobacco
  • Juliaca, a light fawn girl from Nutmeg ~ a city in Peru
  • Rigel, brightest star in constellation Orion, his sire, and mom Solstice Summer
  • Sarek, from Sheba and Galileo; named for Mr Spock's Vulcan father
  • Tecumseh, meaning 'shooting star' because he has one on his forehead; from Amazing Grace and Orion
  • Mariquita, 'ladybug' is a red-brown girl with white face, from Black Lace and Orion.
I am thankful for clients who entrusted the care of their alpacas to us, adding new dimensions to our herd. Some have now gone to live at their newly prepared farm in Texas. And 4 of our boys are delighting a young family near the coast with their charm and antics.

I am thankful for the bounty of our land:
  • tons of hay our field produced
  • 68 volunteer pumpkins in the plot we are readying for the garden
  • the first pear from our little tree
  • gallons of plums we harvested for cooking and eating and wine
  • blueberries ~more than last year, not enough for a pie yet
  • wild blackberries offering juicy treats and possibilities
  • honey from Jason's hives, and the tasty mead we brewed
I am thankful for friends and neighbors...
  • with their unique sets of ideas and enthusiasm, challenges, frustrations and laughter
  • sharing their friends, expanding our circles of connection
  • celebrating birthdays and holidays, achievements and surprises
  • visiting us on their travels, bringing news and reminders of other days
  • helping when extra hands are needed.
I am thankful for our families...
  • grandchildren that delight in visiting
  • a house for nesting Jennifer and family
  • extraordinary experiences and connections for Paul at Ephemerisle, and for Erica rebuilding homes in New Orleans with her Americorps team
  • cousins who stay in touch across the miles and years.
I am grateful to our country's service men and women who give so much more than has ever been asked of me.

I am thankful for the grandeur and bounty of this place on earth and for the privilege of caring for it. I am ever-grateful to my dearest Mike who has consciously postponed his dream for a time to support mine. I am thankful for our continued health and well-being and mindful creativity, the very spark of life.

For all of these things and more, I offer humble thanks.

Roark ~ Valrhona ~ Cadence

Mariquita & Tecumseh ~ Juliaca ~ Sarek

Celeste ~ Toledo ~ turkey basket of yarn

Monday, June 22, 2009

Triple Fudge Brownies

Cria #3 (of the June set) arrived last Thursday morning, another flawless birth in the field by Windancer on day 354 of gestation (first photo at 5 minutes old). And another dark brown cria with black points, this time a male.

Galileo is the sire, and this was obviously a great pairing!

Windancer was very patient as the other dams and yearling girls in the pasture came over to greet her baby.

This boy's fleece is curlier than I've ever seen on a newborn, even though Mike claims "you always say that!" We are still contemplating his name: Galileo's _________. Perhaps something astronomical and suitable to the human namesake. Herdsire Galileo already has sons named Aries, Cassini, and Callisto (moon of Jupiter that the astronomer discovered). Since we have other Galileo cria due in the fall, perhaps a theme of names from Star Trek...

Galileo's son with Aunt Summer and cousin Gitana.

Now there is a trio of dark chocolate brown babies dashing through the fields, and usually I can only tell which one is which by the mom it's next to. Perhaps I could get colorful ribbons to pair the sets: green, yellow, and purple. ~ Just kidding, I would never put a nametag on such young, adventuresome animals...

Rockford half-sisters and their moms

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dependable Moms

Killdeer, the Sequel
As predicted, the killdeer parents took turn sitting on their eggs and protecting the nest. Whenever I ventured through the gate to check on any progress, the resident one would go to another area, feigning lameness to draw me away. I'd quickly snap a photo and exit.

On Day 24, I noticed both adult birds present in the dirt. Thinking this signaled hatching, I checked the next day and was completely surprised to find no evidence of birds at all -- no discarded shells or feathers or poop or any other traces of their almost month-long habitation of the dip in the dirt that had been their home.

The dams were quite happy to have that pasture again, only now the grass was so tall that Mike had to mow it. Pacas are particular and will not graze tall grasses, preferring shorter, more tender (sweeter!) shoots.

Cria Watch
After waiting almost a year, due dates for three of our dams were this week: two due June 9th, and one on June 11th. They are all experienced moms, and as the days drew nearer, I kept the herd close to the house so I could observe through the windows. Cria are generally born between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so they will be up and running away from predators by evening.

There are definite physiological signs to watch for, such as a softening and stretching of the tendons beneath the tail, frequent visitations to the poop pile in response to the internal pressures, and perhaps laying on one side or the other, to get comfortable as the cria repositions itself.

Once I saw Disa head back up towards the barn, where her daughter was born last year -- sometimes they return to the same place for birthing. But no, she was simply grazing along the driveway. She moved to different areas frequently throughout the morning, and was humming a lot. The next time I glanced out the window, I noticed another dam peering intently towards a tree. There in its shade was Disa, and a baby on the ground. None of the other alpacas had noticed yet, so it had just happened.

I grabbed a notepad and my iPhone, and ran to the barn for my 'cria kit' and towels. The cria was already sitting sternal (upright), and Disa had delivered the placenta. Flawless alpaca births are essentially bloodless. The baby was wet and easily chilled on the overcast day, and laying in the dirt, so I scooped it up with a towel and carried it to a flatter area in the grass. A girl! Very dark brown, graduating to black on feet, ears and nose.

Once I was sure that mom and baby were safe, I dialed Mike to let him know, sent him a photo to show around the office. And called neighbor Elissa to come see.

There is a post-birth checklist to step through, so the notetaking began: time of birth, first standing, first nursing, dip the umbilical cord, etc. All of this while sitting on your hands as much as possible and observing from a distance, to allow bonding. Disa did good: got pregnant on the first breeding, and her delivery was "textbook" quick and clean.

This was Disa's third pregnancy and third daughter, all by the same gray champion herdsire, Aussie Rockford. Hence, we're considering the name "Trinity." She is of solid coloring, whereas her two older sisters are light/medium rose gray, with unique markings. [photo: Ladyhawke greets her little sister.]

Night temperatures are in the low 50s, and since crias do not regulate their body temp well the first week, I put a jacket on our new little girl. It's a toddler-size flannel one that I got at a thrift store and cut off the sleeves, buttoning along her back. She only needed it for the first couple of nights.

One Down, Two to Go
Windancer is a small-framed dam and it looks like she swallowed a watermelon. However, it was Fabia that birthed next, in 15 minutes from start to finish. Like Disa, she's a push-button dam: one breeding, quick delivery, and she knows what to do. This time Fabia was in the field (with Disa, her baby, and Windancer) -- they are so much happier there than being confined, stressed and nervous, in a pen away from their herd. I was watching through binoculars as she paused in her grazing and began pushing. Fabia lay down a couple of times, readjusting.

By the time I got out there with cria kit, towels, etc, the baby was on the ground, cushed (sitting upright). Only when she rolled to her side to stretch did I discover that we had another girl (!), and almost the identical color of Disa's cria. Again, the papa is Rockford, and Fabia is also gray, but their daughter (the 5th pairing of these two) is dark brown with black points. Wow, half-sisters and so very similar!

I took a lawn chair, clipboard with checklist, a knitting project and audio book out to the edge of the field to observe. This little girl is strong, too.

Thankfully we've had overcast days, so the sun has not been too hot for these dark little ones. I try to shoo them into the shade so they don't overheat, but the moms often have different ideas. Here, gray Fabia is checking on her daughter, with Disa (sitting) and her cria in the background; Windancer looks on just behind Fabia's head.

Name choices will be announced as soon as Windancer's cria births. She doesn't appear to be in any rush!

The photo of the "sun goddesses" was snapped the previous week. Pacas love to soak up rays, belly-side to sun. They can lay very still for many minutes, even the blackest alpaca on the hottest day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Killdeer was here...*

They are still here, in fact.
*Poetic license taken for the grammatical lapse.

In the pasture behind the house, I noticed a few of the alpacas peering at something in the former burn pile. I got the binoculars and saw it was a bird flapping on the ground. Quickly, I moved the dams into the adjacent pasture and closed the gate, then went over to investigate. I found a ring of rocks with an egg in it. After about 15 minutes, the bird returned.

Before letting the girls into that pasture the next day, I checked again, and there were 2 eggs. Guess they hadn't scared the bird off after all. A couple of days later, there were 4 eggs. I placed a rusted coil nearby so I could sight it more easily from the porch.

By the brown and white striped markings, I identified the birds as Killdeer and researched them online. But I could not find any information on how long they incubate the eggs before hatching. So I emailed the president of a local birding group (an ornithology instructor at the University of Oregon) with my main question: How much time am I investing in keeping my herd out of this sizable pasture?

His response was quite informative:
Killdeer almost invariably lay 4 eggs and usually 1 egg per day. Two-day laying intervals are very rare, as are 5 eggs, so you can safely assume that the complete clutch was laid over a four-day period. Once the final egg is laid, the adults will begin incubating so that the eggs will all develop at the same rate and hatch on the same day, frequently in the same hour.

The incubation period is somewhat variable and is affected by the outside temperatures. Right now we are not having any extreme weather so I would expect a normal incubation period of 22-28 days. Longer incubation periods have been reported but are rare.

If you saw one egg 2 weeks ago (14 days?), then the birds have likely been incubating for ~10 days which means that they have another 10-18 days before hatching. Both parents will share incubation duties and assist the young after they have hatched.
So this Friday (May 22) will mark 22 days of incubation, and hopefully hatching. I am not clear how long they will be nestlings, but since they are "precocial" they will be able to see and walk immediately. There's even a YouTube video of a similar nest.

The alpacas look across the fence at the parent birds, no doubt wondering why they are kept out of the pasture with all of the tasty grass. I put our herdsire Galileo in there for the day a few times and he grazes without bothering the nest. The girls would be rolling in the adjacent dirt, but he doesn't do that.

At our neighbor's pond on the other side of the fence, there are 2 sets of Canada geese goslings. One group of 7 evidently hatched in our pasture (I never found the nest) and, with their parents, spent their first day marching up and down the fenceline, looking for a way to get to the water. Even though the adults could easily fly to it, they remained grounded with their fuzzy offspring.

We opened the gate to the hayfield for them, and they toddled over to a gap in the fence and made their way to the pond. Both parents care for the young until they can fly.

All of these feathered babies are a prelude to 3 cria due in early June. Windancer, Disa and Fabia look especially large after shearing. I feed them rice bran pellets (for calories) along with their regular daily mineral pellets, so they will not be too drained of resources this last month, and to give them a good start towards lactation.

Our stately gray Fabia is 15 years old, and this will be her 10th cria (her first for us). She is strong and healthy, and births easily. This photo was taken a few days before shearing.

The 3 most pregnant dams were 6 wks away from delivery, and I chose to shear them. It's is a judgment call whether the stress of shearing might cause premature delivery, or the stress of over-heating if they are not shorn and the weather turns hot. I gave these three dams Rescue Remedy to calm them, and they were sheared first and quickly. They exhibited no problems; I was glad I made that choice.

A final sign of spring is that the bee hives have arrived. They are placed at the far end of the hayfield, across a seasonal stream. What a surprise to see the patchwork of colors this year! The beekeeper tells me that bees forage for nectar up to 3 miles, so they enjoy the fruit trees, willows and garden plants in this rural area. And we have a gallon of honey from last year's harvest, and a recipe for mead!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Arts & Crafts

Combing the arts of design, supplies acquisition, construction and painting, we have completed our sign! Along the bottom we will hang notices like Open Farm Today 10-4, Yarn & Roving, etc. -- as soon as I make them. When granddaughters are here next week, we will plant a flowerbed beneath it.

People enjoy this road as a lovely "back-door" drive into Eugene, and the sign will capture the curiosity of passers-by for Open Ranch Days. We love visitors!

Very Local Painters
As Mike and I unloaded the van recently, we noticed a car driving slowly past, and a few minutes later, it returned up the hill. The car stopped across the end of the driveway and the passenger jumped out, rushing to introduce herself as a neighbor from a nearby street. She and her friend were in search of a place to set up their easels and paint boxes, to watercolor landscapes before daylight eluded them. We made our introductions and invited them to look around for a vista that would work.

Cathy and Victoria are members of Plein Air Painters of Eugene, and they go out each week, rain or shine, to paint outdoor scenes. Enjoying their enthusiasm and expertise, I invited them to come again, and they connected me with their fearless leader, Brooks. Now Aragon Alpacas is on the painters' April calendar, and we look forward to hosting the group, rain or shine.

Spinners' Camp
Mike gifted me with my first trip away from the farm since the alpacas began to arrive last March by taking over my chores while I attended a 4-day spinners' retreat at the Silver Falls Conference Center. The EWES (Eugene Wednesday Evening Spinners) get away for a long weekend every spring and fall. This time, 16 clever, bright, creative, energetic women shared their expertise and joy as we spun, knitted, crocheted, and laughed our way through the days, pausing only to eat and sleep.

Besides me, the EWES welcomed two other newcomers to the retreat, one a knitter, the other a crocheter. We stayed in threesome cabins, and geek-knitter Andrea bunked with Elissa and me.

No longer can I shyly claim to be a beginning spinner, although as with everything else, there is always more to learn. I came home with a greater appreciation for fiber arts and a heightened self-confidence in my spinning abilities.

I learned to ply my early spinning attempts into chunky yarn. With practice, and from watching others, I can spin more delicately. Now to complete some other projects on the needles so I can knit something from my beginner yarn. Much like the first pot that comes out of the kiln in pottery, this first yarn attempt will be memorable for its own lessons and reasons.

I have signed up for the 'wheel mechanics' class at Black Sheep to learn which knob to turn when, and how to alter the functions of my double-drive Ashford Traveller wheel. Hopefully the four births due mid-June will be accommodating so I can attend this session!

The Art of Weaning
While dancing with the rain these spring days, I am weaning cria: day weaning for a week, and then 24/7. Troubadour and Jedlicka are looking especially damp, although beneath all of that alpaca fleece is a very dry animal.

Mike is drafting plans for another shelter, to increase the use of our pens. Then we can house the kindergarten class of weanling boys in the male area.

Oh, and we've purchased four hop rhizomes as starter vines. In home-brewing, hops are one of the most expensive ingredients. By growing our own, we'll not only have enough for the recipes, but also for making into fragrant wreaths and arrangements.

Our beekeeper brought by a bucket of honey and recipes for mead, so that's on our agenda, too!

(our little cabin in the woods at Silver Falls' Retreat)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Crazy Feet!

For an hour or so each afternoon, I have been letting the dams and crias (25 total) out into the hayfield. As soon as they see me heading toward the gate, they run ahead in anticipation. That's Sable, practically attached to my shoulder.

The young alpacas especially love to romp on the 10 acres, and sometimes the dams join in the pronking (boing... boing... boing, as if they're spring-loaded). Then they break into a full-out run, and sometimes do a side-kick that Mike fondly calls "crazy feet."

The hay field remains a perplexity to us. If we plant orchard grass (alpaca's hay of choice), at the most nutritious time in its growth cycle for mowing, the weather is too wet to cut it. And if we leave it to grow until the weather is dry enough, the plants flower and go to seed, draining the leaves of nutrition. So last year we planted horse blend (timothy, rye, orchard grass and one other), and it was indeed harvested when most of the grass and seed heads were dry.

Most of the 420 bales we sold -- folks just came and loaded up their trucks right in the field. We used some of them as a boundary for our garden, and I have built up layers of compost within it over the fall and winter months. (We can even hollow out places to plant trailing vegetables atop the bales.) And some bales we stacked in the barn as wind-breaks in stalls, and to be used as bedding on the concrete floor. A few of the alpacas choose to munch on it for diversion, but it offers very little food value for them. Granola, I call it, because it is just a crunchy snack.

Weights and Measures
I started the year by getting a weight on each alpaca. Most do not mind being haltered and led to the scale, and some stand there more calmly than others. A few need patient coaxing, and two refused to budge, so I had to enlist help from a friend. Fabia is the most reluctant to be 'processed' for anything she considers unnecessary. But she also loves her carrots, so she was easily lead, unhaltered, to the scale and stood quite happily while munching on the dish of sliced carrots I held in front of her. I woulnd't mind if they all did it that way!

I do not spit-test the girls in winter months, because I would not breed them if they became open. We will test them again at end of March, hoping all pregnancies have held. The first four births are due in mid- to late June. Most of the other dams are due in Sept and October.

Since the winter sun is at such a low angle, we give Vitamin D paste to the crias bi-weekly. At end of day, while the adults are enjoying their pellets, the crias come into the creep feeder to eat unchallenged, so it is simple and safe to catch them there and give them a dose of 'orange sauce.'

Even though there are not as many chores to do for herd maintenance during the winter, the season brings on many more farm tasks. Mostly due to the weather and the latitude. In mid-December, I began afternoon regathering from the day pastures and feeding at 3;30 in order to be done by dark.

Once we passed Winter Solstice, the days began noticeably lengthening. Reading the Farmer's Almanac, I discovered that as days lengthen again, daylight extends about four times faster at the end of the day than at the beginning -- a fact of Nature I never realized when holding an office job!

Frost is Our Friend
The frost is often quite beautiful, caught cobweb-like in fuzzy ears or outlining leaves and grass blades. Mud and ice offer their own challenges. When the ground is so wet, the riding mower with trailer is unusable for poop scooping so we reverted to pushing wheelbarrow. A 4-wheel drive 'gator would be handy, but we haven't made that investment yet. And so far, we do not feel the need to get a tractor.

We put straw down on the pathways so they are less slippery. I did land on my tush one time and had to carefully sit sideways for a few weeks until the tail bone bruise healed. But we also discovered that frost is our friend. After driving a load of wood down to the workshop, the van kept spinning on the way back up the driveway. Early the next morning, the ground had frozen and Mike was able to drive it up just fine. I used the same technique to move the mower with trailer around for the next few mornings, and once again could take the load down to fertilize the hayfield.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Winter sets in

Strange winter happening outside. It hit pretty hard in December, was quite the adventure driving to work on ice - spent a couple hours on a blocked freeway one morning when I was supposed to get to work early to install some new software. After a week or two of this stuff, it warmed up (to freezing) and it's held there at night ever since. Days are a balmy 40-45, though. Crisp but not really cold.

Had a good Christmas on the farm, fairly quiet but we're not really removed from family here, just at the other end of the wireless.

The WinterBrau - a nice quiet reflective Organic Brown Ale - I made in November (dubbed it Amber Waves because we bottled it on Veteran's Day) sat in our Alpaca Store, where the heaters have been off all winter. As a result, it must've thought it was a Lager and never quite carbonated in the bottle. But it isn't bad, and I discovered that bringing it in the house for a week or two before opening one helps.

How to boil the wort in a deep-fat turkey fryer.

Then my lady surprised me by smuggling my daughter into the state for a visit. It was a Great Christmas present. We went up to Oakridge where I was born and played in the remaining snow one day. My family will recognize this picture as the selfsame spot we all learned to swim as kids, and yes, you're right - that water never does warm up. But it is beautiful up there.

Meanwhile, the alpacas don't seem to notice that it's cold out. They do prefer their water LIQUID though, so Ann's been hauling buckets of boiled water all over the farm to melt the ice in their waterbuckets. We should have some better solution ironed out by next winter...