Soooo, my inevitable "first baby of the year!" post is a bit ... Belated ... To say the least. There are a few reasons for this. One is less-than-pleasant, but it's the reality of farming: our first couple of cria this year didn't quite make it (one I believe was overcooked, another one under, both likely due to the extreme and horrible winter we had this year).
The other reason is, inevitably, that we have been freaking busy.
... But! ... We have had some cria. We are now up to four (all in the same paddock, for some odd reason). One is black and one is white and both are lovely, but not likely to make the 'blog, because, well -- if you're looking for alpaca at Howling Hill Farm, chances are, you're looking for some more unique colors than just black and white.
Luckily, we have those, too.
The first -- first healthy cria of the year, and first cria by his sire, our Harlequin boy Sparks Fly -- is an Appaloosa. So far, he's looking pretty darned good.
The second is ... Well, she's the one standing behind him in the picture. (They were born one day apart, and are pretty much inseparable.)
So ... She's stunning, right? ... But what exactly ... Is she?
Every time I pair up two alpacas, I have a very good, very specific idea of what I am breeding for. This includes not only the qualities I am looking for -- breed type, conformation, fleece -- but also coloring -- because we are a color program, in the end.
Generally, I'm happy if I get something fairly close to what I was breeding for.
Sometimes, I get EXACTLY that ... And then some.
Oh, wow, is this girl the "and then some."
I've always wanted a solid grey alpaca, since before I even got into alpacas in late 2013. I saw a picture of a male named Patagonia's Neruda, and I thought, "Okay, yes. I want THAT."
Nearly five years later, I still hadn't found THAT. Turns out THAT is pretty rare.
When this one was born, I realized: my "on a hunch" breeding decision paid off, and I had finally managed to MAKE "that." She also has the full leg coverage and bone substance that we are breeding for, THE BEST head I have produced yet, and what looks to be an absolutely phenomenal fleece so far. Added bonus: she is the first of her sire's offspring to have inherited his ice blue eyes. I have never seen eyes like that on any other solid grey, so I believe she may be the only one of her kind in the world.
This girl represents even more than a step forward in our breeding program, though; she is even more than the result of a breeding choice that paid off. I believe that she represents another key to a genetic puzzle that I've been -- so far only casually -- exploring for a few years now. A full 'blog post on this is coming soon (well .. Soon-ish), but suffice it to say, my so-far "experimental only" Roan Grey alpaca program may just be getting revisited soon.
So yes. 2018 does have some cria in it so far. The rock star gal is the only one who has a name as of yet: Howling Hill Dark and Stormy McDaniels. (Special thanks to Farmer Colleen for that one.)
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.
You bet we do!
It's snowing out YET AGAIN, so what better time to buy some beautiful, unique, 100% alpaca yarn and knit yourself a sweater? (Or some socks! Or a hat! Or a scarf! Or ...)
Check it out at our Etsy Store!
... Your regularly scheduled Cute Animal Pictures.
This is Diesel. Diesel is magnificent.
(More to come!)
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.
Like many (most) farmers, Farmer Kitt has an off-farm job. Farmer Kitt is lucky enough to have an off-farm job that allows for a lot of time on the farm, but, alas, it just can't quite be all the time.
Farmer Neal is a full-time farmer. This means that he gets to see way more Stupid Cute Farm Animal Stuff than Farmer Kitt does. Farmer Neal does not own a cell phone, so, unlike the majority of us in the "Millennial" generation, he does not have that instant camera in his butt-pocket to capture these events, so they are often relegated to the realm of lore. In this case, though, the Stupid Cute Farm Animal event was so Stupid Cute, and of a sufficient duration, that he was able to capture it using Farmer Kitt's Serious Digital Camera -- and now, Farmer Kitt is able to share it with you.
Behold! ... An alpaca cria who has climbed up onto a hay bale, and is now very confused. (These are the things that entertain Farmers like us. Who needs Netflix when you have cute fluffy farm animals?)
K writes this stuff, for some reason that has yet to become apparent.