Okay. So I've already expressed the fact that this 'blog gets used only sporadically, and for missives that are sort of random. I try to keep the writing here geared towards a more general audience -- the really industry-specific alpaca stuff tends to get shunted more towards my Facebook page, where alpaca folks have tended to congregate.
That leaves this 'blog open for things of a more general sort. I just got done cropping two sets of photographs, both of male animals that are new to the Farm; one is an alpaca, and one is a cat.
Wait. A cat?
... Yup. A cat. And not a barn cat like little old Ozwald, either. This boy is a very fancy cat ... A very fancy cat indeed.
Remember Yoda from like, two or three 'blog posts ago? ... Well, Yoda is an Exotic Shorthair, a breed that I've been fascinated with for years, but never quite managed to come into possession of -- until last year, when I found Yoda for sale up in Maine. On a whim, I decided to jump on him -- I already had a new kitten in the house, a British Shorthair named Logo, but I thought, what the heck? Logo could use a friend, right?
Well, yes. The two did indeed become very good friends (after an initial introductory period in which it was established that yes, Yoda exists, and no, Logo, he isn't going to put up with any s*** even though he is a tiny kitten -- Yoda is a very alpha cat). More than that, though, I fell absurdly in love with Yoda. He was the apotheosis of all kittens, to me: Adorable beyond words, soft, cuddly, and unbelievably affectionate, calm, and playful.
I realized that I needed more of him in my life. This was no minor creature. Yoda was incredible.
Thus, began my journey into the world of purebred cat breeding. It's been rocky ... Mainly because of the (human) personalities involved, and not so much the cats. Purebred cats are a hot commodity now, and sadly, where there's money, there's dishonesty. Frustrating, but true.
I've persevered, though, and my first litter of kittens entered the world two weeks ago today. They'll surely get their own 'blog post soon (probably on my cattery website that does not, technically, exist yet), but for now, I'm focused on my latest feline acquisition, and Next Big Thing: Meteor.
This is Meteor, and Meteor is Magnificent.
Meteor made a journey halfway across the world, all the way from Ukraine. He is a lilac (probably tabby) Exotic Shorthair, lilac being an incredibly rare color for cats, and especially for Exotic Shorthairs. There is only one other bloodline that I know of in the United States, and, in a stroke of absolutely unbelievable luck and coincidence (which I do not believe in), Yoda carries the lilac gene from that bloodline.
Meteor is more than just a rare color, however. He is possibly the most incredible cat I have ever seen or owned (I mean, they are all sort of the most incredible cat I have ever seen or owned, but ...). He is not just a big kitty, he is MASSIVE, weighing in at 15 lb at just under a year of age. He's a well-nourished kitty, but not obese; his bone structure is simply enormous, like nothing I have ever seen before on a domestic cat. Better than that, his coat is like nothing I've ever felt on a cat before. He is so plushy and soft, he feels like a Rex rabbit. Better than THAT, he is a giant loverbug. It took him a little bit of time to adapt after his long journey, but now that he's settled in the USA, he has made it his primary goal in life to get hugs and pets as much as possible -- EXACTLY the temperament I am breeding for.
So, I was cropping the pictures of Meteor, and then went on to Pinctus. Pinctus is not a cat. Pinctus is an alpaca. Pinctus is the Next Big Thing. I've been looking for the Next Big Thing for a couple of years now. By that I mean: A Harlequin Appaloosa alpaca that is uncompromisingly, unquestionably elite. Not just a Good one, a Great one.
Basically, I was looking for the BEST Harlequin Appaloosa in the USA. And I found him.
This is Pinctus, and he is incredible.
Pinctus has a fleece that redefines "elite," for me. He has a combination of fineness and density that is, I do believe, the most extraordinary I've ever felt before. He is possessed of my absolute favorite crimp style, which I've only seen on one other animal: Super super super super super tiny high-frequency crimp that belies that fineness and density of epic magnitude. One might associate it with Merino sheep, as a matter of fact, or possibly an organized Vicuna.
He's also got the bone substance. And the fiber coverage. And OMG look at that FACE. And ...
And he is a SWEETHEART. He runs up to greet me when he sees me, and eats grain from my hand.
As I was cropping his fleece pictures (this fleece style is hard to photograph):
... It occurred to me that Pinctus is kinda the same color as Meteor: Lilac, or Lavender.
I've sorta been on a Lilac/Lavender kick recently. I don't know what it means. But the other day I realized that not only is my Exotic Shorthair cat program going to focus, largely, on Lilac coloring, but my super-top-secret Silly Bunny Project (Teddywidders! In the USA! Yes!) has produced my favorite USA Teddywidder so far -- and he is a Lavender color as well. Then, I picked up a breeding group of Lavender Orpington chicks, because, why the heck not?
So, these two boys are both Lavender (Lilac). Also, it occurred to me that, while here I've been thinking of Pinctus as the Next Big Thing ('cos he is), Meteor is a Next Big Thing as well. So, they've got that in common, too.
So I decided, rather than making Pinctus's big public announcement debut thingy on Facebook today, to write this 'blog post instead. It's sort of stream-of-consciousness, but hey! There you have it.
The Next Big Thing. Apparently, it's Lavender. (Or Lilac. I'm not positive which.)
A HUGE thanks to Lesia Motsna at Venetian Mask Cattery and Mark and Sharon Milligen at Red Granite Ranch for entrusting me with these awesome boys.
Not sad about this.
This boy was expected, yet a little unexpected. His dam was actually "due" -- based on a 340 day gestation length -- RIGHT on 4/7/19, which is today.
The alpaca gestation length is so variable, however, that females almost never give birth right on their "due date," and spring cria typically aren't born until day 355 or even 360+ of gestation. Hence, though I knew that his mama Honey Bun *could* be due any day, I wasn't really *expecting* it, and thus, I wasn't keeping as close an eye out as I do for dams that I think are really close. I would check her in the morning, which is when my dams typically go, and then kinda leave her be.
I wouldn't even have found him except that I happened to be outside in the evening, wondering exactly what I was doing outside, except that the sunset was too nice to ignore. Then, I saw this guy.
... Then I ran back to the house yelling happy exclamations to get my camera phone. Brought them inside for the night, just to make sure he was warm and nursing. He was, and is (nursing), like a champ.
... Thank goodness for that sunset.
Our final cria of the year landed last week, wrapping up one of our most mixed cria crops yet. ... By "mixed," I don't so much mean color-wise -- it is that, of course, but they usually are that. I mean "mixed" as in "mixed blessing."
First, the negative: Due to a combination of factors that I won't go into here, we wound up with fewer cria on the ground this year than in 2016 or 2017. We also had the WORST luck this year with our Harlequin Appaloosa program, producing one, and only one, live Appaloosa cria, who is a cutie, but who may not make the grade for breeder. Since we're pretty well known for Harlequin Appaloosas over here, and can't quite manage to make enough to satisfy demand -- that really kind of stinks.
But, now for the positive: We also have a robust Tuxedo Grey breeding program at Howling Hill Farm, and this was a record year for that. We had eight Tuxedo cria born this year, more than in any year prior. Incredibly, every single one of those cria has a different sire. There are a couple of pet boys in that bunch, but there are some seriously good ones, too, such as this gal, a silver Tuxedo out of one of my best producers, Glacier Rock's Allison, and our .38 Special son, Harmony:
... Plus Starr's incredible girl from the last 'blog post, plus another Tux boy, the last of the season, who is going to get his own 'blog post once he decides to pose nicely enough for a 'blog-worthy photograph.
Then, too, we can't forget about this gal, as well as her 1/2 sister, a similarly blue-eyed beauty who is, I believe, going to be a darker version of this (she is currently masquerading as a black, but I think I know better). I honestly can't really pick whether I'm more in love with Dark and Stormy Daniels, or Starr's girl. Luckily, I get to keep them both. (Don't worry; I'll be releasing some of these genetics sooner or later ... I just need a solid foundation of THIS first!)
So, all in all, despite adversity, it wasn't a bad year. It didn't have that many spots in it, but that's totally fine with me -- grey is what I'm really after, and this, undoubtedly, was our Grey Year.
She might be. She just might be.
It's going to be hard to beat Dark and Stormy Daniels. That cria will be at the top of my list for a long, LONG time.
But ... This girl is pretty amazing, too, for more reasons than one.
First things first: Just look at her. I mean ... Look at her!
This girl has it ALL: the conformation, coverage, gorgeous head, huge substance of bone, and, oh yeah, superlative fleece already -- in the most perfect solid slate gray coloring. She also has the cutest darned ears.
The next thing that makes her exciting is that she is a granddaughter of the great Sparky, our farm ambassador and Harlequin Appaloosa poster child. As a reminder, she looks like this:
As Starr is Sparky's only daughter thus far, and this baby is Starr's first viable cria thus far, this makes this baby only the second female descendent of Sparky. So that, too, makes her pretty freaking special.
That isn't all, though. Starr, the baby's mama, is this girl here.
I had previously written about Starr way back in this 'blog post, in which I stated that I believe Starr to be a solid silver Harlequin.
I'd previously observed that this solid silver coloring very often appears to be associated with a Tuxedo Grey parent. However, I don't believe I ever quite went so far as to hypothesize, publicly, that it could be the result of a combination of the two genotypes. I had supposed that it was just another cool manifestation of the extremely variable Harlequin Appaloosa gene. Starr's sire is a Tuxedo Grey, but, because her dam is the Classic Harlequin Sparky, and she started life light fawn, I had no reason to believe that Tuxedo had anything to do with her coloration.
Last year, Starr gave birth to a male. He startled me, because he was clearly a TUXEDO Rose Grey -- and according to my records, she had only ever been bred to Riddler, our solid fawn blue-eyed rock star, who clearly is not a Tuxedo. However, I had a vague recollection of breeding her to Vivanno, who IS a Tuxedo Rose Grey, and loves to make Tuxedo Rose Grey, and, frankly, last year's cria REALLY didn't look like a Riddler baby. It looked just like a Vivanno. Riddler stamps a very specific headstyle, and that cria just didn't have it. I try to keep good records, but one never does know -- and we never would know, because the cria did not make it past a few days of age (I believe it was a very difficult birth). I filed the information in the back of my mind, and, in 2017, I kept much better records.
I also only bred Starr to one male, and that is this guy. This guy is also NOT a Tuxedo.
That boy is ASPN Royal Cobalt, a Pinto male (and also, apparently, a rock star producer -- he's going to be meeting a few more ladies in the future, thanks to this gal). No Tuxedo. Soooo ...
The third reason this cria is such a big deal is that she gives me information. I am now pretty darned sure that Starr carries, and expresses, both the Tuxedo Grey and Harlequin Appaloosa genes. This is a huge deal, because most alpacas that carry both genes only express the Tuxedo. I also hypothesize that it is the interplay of these genes that gives Starr her solid Platinum coloring. I think it possible that this baby might -- emphasis on might -- also carry both, and that this is why she is so uniform in color.
What do we do with this information? ... Not sure yet ... But I have some ideas. Regardless, it's exciting to have. Knowledge is always a big deal.
It's true! It's totally true! He's actually the densest dark alpaca that has been biopsied by Ian Watt (that's a pretty big deal), and the 4th-densest, period ...
... But he also finds himself in some extremely silly pictures.
So, I've been kind of remiss on updating this 'blog lately. Three shearing days, plus a fiber festival (NH Sheep and Wool), plus a whole bunch of other things have been keeping us right busy, and there's only so much social media that I can keep up with -- most of my posts lately have been on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/HowlingHillFarm) as well as my shiny new(ish) Instagram account (@Kittathowlinghill), which I've become instantly fairly addicted to.
Plus, the real meat of the blog -- cute baby animals -- have yet to arrive. As a matter of fact, this may be the latest start to Baby Season so far.
Regardless, that's no excuse for a total lack of posts -- we do still have cute alpacas, after all. And now, they're naked! So, without further ado, here are a bunch of shearing pictures, for your viewing pleasure.
And, one more classic Harlequin Appaloosa transformation ...
... He looks a little shy now that he's naked, but don't worry -- that confidence will grow back. (Not the fawn coloring, though -- he's going to get greyer and greyer ..!)
Um, so, we're shearing on Saturday.
I kind of can't believe it. Yes, it is WAY early to shear in NH, but we have a pretty big herd to get through (this is Shearing 1 of 3, and that's ONLY alpacas -- sheep will get their own day this year). They might be a little chilly, but heat stress is actually more dangerous to them than cold, and besides -- we don't control the weather, and no matter what happens, you're bound to either shear too early and have a cold day or two or too late and have a hot day or two. Just the luck of the draw.
So, here are some "before" pictures of some of our fluffiest puffiest dudes. (Seriously -- these guys are packing on a TON of fleece this year.) The contrast should be pretty funny ... "After" pics to follow, once they have been transformed into denuded aliens.
Time for the first post of 2018! (Whew!) Since it's the first, might as well make it a doozy, right?
I appear to be a big fan of controversy when it comes to alpacas. I guess it's because I care so much about them. This post generated an awful lot of controversy, as did this one.
This one is bound to stir up even more.
It started out as a reply to a Facebook post, and then got WAY too freaking long.
The original post (which I can't seem to figure out how to link to) was in response to some comments that were, in turn, in response to an article (confused yet?) which discusses the state of the Australian alpaca industry and how it is maturing. The article also mentions the meat aspect of the industry. As usual, a few voices had to come out in opposition to using alpacas as meat.
On particularly vocal opponent is Starr Cash. Starr certainly has done more than most to promote alpaca as a genuine livestock animal in terms of her extensive work promoting and organizing the fiber side of the industry. For this, I have a great amount of respect for her – alpacas are a fiber animal, first and foremost, and Starr was one of the first in the industry to recognize and vocalize the need to promote and focus on this fact. However, she and I have never quite seen eye-to-eye as far as the trajectory of the industry is concerned. In a nutshell, Starr is one of those breeders who is vehemently opposed to any promotion of the meat side of the species by the industry as a whole.
One point that Starr made is one that I found particularly interesting. She wrote:
“Lastly, we accidentally positioned Alpaca as a "huggable investment". I know, I hear you ALL groaning and gagging out there. But, it is my opinion that this could be looked at as a gift instead of a curse. We already have this established market base - an audience - who thinks we LOVE our alpacas like pets or children. They are vegans with trust funds and millenials with jobs that I never heard of but that they make 6 figures working at. The ones with the disposable income who can indulge their "green" cred with sustainable fashion statements."
I wanted to address this particular point, because I actually can appreciate that argument ... However, as someone who happens to be pretty in touch with the hipster millennial side of things (1985 model, here) … I also think that I am perhaps uniquely qualified to refute it.
Sooo, here's my newbie arrogant millennial perspective.
I bred chinchillas for 10 years. I loved my herd and I was very proud of it. I never did begrudge those who raised them for the original purpose for which they were imported into this country -- that is, fur -- but I could never bring myself to do it, and it never made economic sense to me, and it was just something that I never chose to pursue. What I did pride myself on was raising chinchillas that held up to my own personal standard: pretty to look at, in my eyes (mine may well have been show-quality, based on what I know of the standard, but I never put any before a judge); super healthy and robust; and, above all, calm and friendly. At the end of the day, my primary client base was the pet owner. I was raising them for the pet industry, which is very often demonized by the show people and the fur industry alike, but you know what? ...
I believed in them. I believed in them as pets. Unlike so many small mammals which are really best suited to serious hobbyists, chinchillas make AWESOME pets for a lot of people. They are quiet, and produce very little odor and mess; they will often bond with their humans, and a pair of chinchillas is just endlessly entertaining to watch. I've owned just about every small mammal pet under the sun, and that was the one I chose to raise, because I believed in them.
... Funny enough, it was another South American species that I settled on for my livestock animal of choice: the alpaca. I wouldn't raise alpacas if I didn't believe in them.
It was socks that first sold me. I think that socks have probably sold a lot of people. I mean, seriously. Alpaca socks kick ass. They are extremely warm, durable, and very, very comfortable. I don't think I've met anyone who has tried on alpacas socks and not been totally wowed.
... Then, once I got alpacas (a goal that I never thought I'd achieve, given their prices when I was in school) and I realized how neat they are, how unique and entertaining, and also how easy to care for, and hardy, and easy on the land -- I was sold.
Oh, also ... The person I got my first two pets from also gave us some ground alpaca meat (after first determining, carefully, after numerous conversations, that we weren't the sort of people who would scream and slap her in the face). I'm a picky eater, to put it mildly, so the fact that I liked it (and don't like goat, or mutton, or lamb, or really even beef all that much) – well, THAT was the other thing that sold me.
... Because I came from the "Pet Industry." I'd seen what happens to the Unwanted [fill-in-the-blank animal], and it often isn't pretty. I also had come from a brief stint in the performance horse industry that REALLY drilled that home.
I can kinda maybe sorta see the “huggable luxury,” argument, I think. Maybe. The industry COULD consist of a handful -- a few thousand, maybe -- head of ULTRA high end, beloved animals, all belonging to very small farms, that produce super valued, luxury fiber that would be worth a boatload due to its rarity. The end consumer knows that the animals are loved and pampered, and that enhances their products' value. They'd be the Kobe beef of fiber.
I could see the appeal of that angle, and maybe that was the goal of the industry leaders back in the late '90's and early 2000's … But that wasn't what happened. Instead, the animals got Tulip Bulbed. (Speculative market, and all that.) When a commodity – including a living commodity – fetches a particularly high value, well, it's just plain human nature to want to produce lots of that commodity and cash in on the craze, regardless of the repercussions for a future market. Not every investor did this, of course, but enough did so as to seriously affect the market – and the public's perception of the species – for a long while.
Now, the industry is digging out of that. I've seen some pretty cool articles recently touting the virtues of alpaca fiber that suggest that we're digging out rather nicely. Not only are consumers starting to realize that the fiber itself is pretty great, but all of those benefits that have enhanced alpacas' value as a livestock commodity – easy on the land, high feed efficiency, etc., etc.. – make the fiber an especially appealing option to many consumers, because it is very sustainable.
Yes. Yes, there's that buzzword that so many millennials – and so many others – are so very on about. Sustainable.
The only way that the alpaca industry will be truly sustainable is if it embraces the terminal market option. Period. The end.
An industry in which the livestock animal must be fed, sheltered, and cared for long after its useful productive life has ended – and in which those individuals whose production qualities are not adequate to begin with must, likewise, be fed and accommodated – is not sustainable. Farms will very quickly run out of capacity to house and care for these non-productive animals. Such a model makes a great hobby, sure, but in a practical sense, it is not sustainable. In a practical sense, it could be viewed as downright wasteful.
Now, please don't misunderstand me. I am not for a moment claiming that an individual farm who chooses to house and care for their B-grades and retirees is doing anything wrong. That is each individual farm's choice. That farm may choose to view their alpacas as pets, and that's perfectly acceptable – I love pets. Pets are great!
As an industry, though … As a commercial industry that wishes to present itself as the ecologically-friendly, sustainable alternative to fine wool and cashmere, well – I think that the industry, as a whole, needs to have a better option for what to do with those nonproductive animals that's a bit more sustainable and ecologically friendly than keeping them around and using valuable resources to keep them alive just because we feel bad for them.
That doesn't mean that we have to be brutal about culling. It doesn't mean that we have to put nonproductive alpacas onto barren feedlots. Quite the contrary; the terminal market represents another opportunity to present alpaca as an ecologically friendly, sustainable resource, this one of humanely raised, sustainable meat. In addition, due to the meat's high protein content, excellent flavor, and, yes, its great rarity (nobody in the alpaca industry is suggesting that we focus on making the alpaca a primary meat animal, and least nobody that I'm aware of; that idea is, indeed, kinda silly) – it should, with the proper marketing, be a very high-end by-product indeed.
… Because in my experience, hipster millennials are, on the whole, pretty okay with the idea that livestock animals die to make food for humans. We just aren't a fan of intensive (“factory”) farming, of extreme breeding practices that harm animal welfare, of farming practices that are unsustainable. And the “huggable investment” idea is, well … Kinda unsustainable.
… And vegans? Vegans won't wear alpaca regardless of how it is harvested. Vegans won't use any animal products at all. Period. No need to worry about their opinion because no matter what any livestock farmer does, a vegan will still believe that it is wrong, because vegans believe that using animals to produce anything is wrong.
So, in summary: Yes, I do believe that the alpaca industry can, and should, promote and capitalize on the “green,” sustainable, small agriculture angle. I think that developing and promoting the meat side of things as a healthy, humanely-raised, sustainable by-product is one of the ways we can do it.
The 'blog has been pretty pathetically quiet of late, but this time, it's not my fault! ... The site was having issues, and, after spending several hours crafting a post only to have it erased multiple times ... I got frustrated and stepped away for awhile.
Let's hope the issues are resolved, because I'd like to share with you this story:
This is Why We Do This.
On a day like today, when it's 10 degrees out with substantial wind chill, you can sometimes start to question the "why" of this whole farming operation ... So the timing of this photo was completely perfect.
I received this yesterday from a client, and it absolutely made my entire day. This is Paige Smith, a young lady with a heart condition, posing with her buddy Thunder and wearing a sweater that was knit (by Melissa Olsen) entirely from the yarn made from his wool.
Thunder was the first grey cria born on our farm. He had a very hard birth in the middle of a rainstorm, and it took him several hours and a LOT of help from me (and his alpaca mom) to get him up and nursing. At first, he seemed to have it all: Beautiful type, structure, sweet temperament, and a stunning fleece. All of that meant that I was extremely attached to him, and hoped to keep him forever, but as he grew, he went down at the pasterns and therefore was excluded from our herdsire row. That was a little heartbreaking, so I was thrilled when Paige and her family volunteered to give him and a couple of his buddies a wonderful pet home.
Thrilled enough that he had a great home ... But to see that his beautiful fleece is being used to its full potential (WAY better than I could ever do) -- that's just totally amazing, to me.
And that's why we do this.
HUGE thanks to Paige's mom Renee for sending this photo.
Stay warm, everybody.
Yes, Virginia, Riddler makes tuxedo grey. Oh my goodness, does he ever.
Um, yeah. She's a girl, too. Her name was going to be "Shiner" (see closeup face photo), but I've since decided that Ka-Boomie is a better one. She is a Ka-Boomie. A big one.
With alpacas, I have come to realize that the ability to produce a given color is a pretty big deal. This took me a long time to wrap my brain around, because I'm used to other species, where color genetics kind of, sort of, ya know, make sense. (To me, anyway.) In most other species whose color genetics I am familiar with (horses, cattle, rabbits, chinchillas, rats, hamsters, dogs, cats, most species of snake ... I'm sure I'm forgetting some), one can generally look at an animal's color, look at its parents' colors, think about the way those color genes are supposed to behave, and arrive at what will generally be a fairly accurate prediction as to probable color outcomes (setting aside the proclivities and generally unpredictable nature of genetics in general, which will always act as permanent wild-cards). Alpacas, unfortunately, seem to be the exception to this rule. Alpaca color genetics appears to be unlike that of most any other species we are familiar with. They seem to want to adhere to the color-production equivalent of a drunk guy throwing darts backward, over his shoulder, hoping that he hits the dartboard and not the skee-ball table next to it.
This isn't to say that alpaca color genetics will be forever shrouded in mystery, mind you. It won't be. Genetics is genetics, a science like any other. It's just to say that we really don't have a good handle on it yet.
Thus, we return to the (rather irritating) fact that it can be very difficult to predict whether a particular individual will produce a particular color, even when, by rights, it ought to be damned obvious. In the case of fawn alpacas, I have come to learn that it is almost never obvious. Some fawns will make Tuxedo Grey every time they are bred to it. Others, not so much.
I had a good feeling that our boy Riddler would be one of those lucky ones, but really, it was just a feeling. Nothing about him really suggests that he "should" make Tuxedo Grey. In general, the fawns that tend to make Tuxedo Grey are those that have the Vicuna pattern (darker topline with a white belly). The solid fawns seem, from what I've observed, to be more likely to produce more fawn, or brown, but not so much grey.
Riddler is a riddle, though, like so much to do with alpacas. He's a solid fawn with blue eyes, and he's a pretty freaking awesome animal, and oh yeah, today, while I was at work, this little gal was born. Her name is Ka-Boomie.
K writes this stuff, for some reason that has yet to become apparent.