I spent five days learning the basic ropes of a “day in the life as a ranch hand” at an alpaca farm. Susan and Glenn Kacsh, owners of Pleasant Journey Alpacas in Hesperus, Colorado, allowed me the opportunity. What an experience. I followed Sue around, fed grain and hay, watered, and attempted to touch the 80+ alpacas on their ranch. Alpacas are gentle creatures. The most spitting and fighting happens between males as the testosterone revs up or just when one alpaca feels their space is being invaded. They communicate with body language and a humming I equate to a barbershop quartet warming up! Though they seem to be a large animal, I was surprised to find out that a nicely built male was only 190 pounds. Fleece is not a heavy weighted coat.
First things first, Jane and the two guard dogs Charlotte and Alex were fed. Once we opened the barn door, about thirty or so alpacas were at the gate to their pens, waiting for us. The first thing they get is a scoopful of grain formulated for alpacas. The maternity pen is full of crias, moms, and moms to be, and their grain had some added supplements. You would think they hadn’t been munching on hay the whole time we drank our coffee. They love their grain pellets as much as a dog or cat loves its treat. I had to hold the scoop above their heads to keep their noses out of it, and that meant above my head as well!
All the pens get their share of pellets and then it was on to see who needed their hay replenished. Of the nine pens, usually two or three needed fresh hay. A full bale of hay will go in a mesh-like feedbag that slows the intake of feed keeping weights at optimum levels and reduces the mess left to blow away in the gusty winds. The alpacas have no problem picking the hay from them.
After this comes the chore of raking the poo piles for easy pickup. Alpacas use one spot to take care of their business. Generally speaking, the more alpacas in a pen, the more spots they use. A pen of twenty females had about six or seven areas to rake up and remove. Alpaca “beans” have a great resale value for use as manure in gardens and are easy to use. Just spread them around! They do call it “Alpaca Gold.”
These chores were the daily, no matter what, jobs that we did. Also, there were females that needed pregnancy, or spit tests. A female thought to be pregnant is separated from everyone in a pen and a male brought to her. The chase would begin, and if she spits, kicks and raises a real big fuss, it was likely she was pregnant. The dejected male was led away only to return seven days later to test all over again. This test happens every seven days for twenty-one days. More than likely, three positive spit tests mean she is due…340 days later!
I visited this ranch during an unseasonably warm week, so we did not do some things that the weather was just too hot for, like halter-train or clip toenails (a three-hour job per pen!) Glenn built a new retail shop for Susan to sell her alpaca fleece based products. She and I took some time one afternoon and evening to get her items in place and have the room ready for customers the next day.
I met some other people involved in the industry during my stay. I enjoyed seeing the love for the alpacas and the different ways to work with their fibers. One nine-year-old girl was finger crocheting and learned on the spot how to crochet with needles. Some of the things the women were making were socks, sweaters, blankets, and scarves. Sue stocks these items as well as horse saddle blankets, bird nesting materials, rugs, and wonderful fiber to create your projects. The fiber is warmer and softer than cashmere, and much more sustainable due to overharvesting of the cashmere from its source, the Kashmir goat.
If you have any desire to tour the ranch, Susan offers free ranch tours with a phone call appointment. You can learn background information on the history of alpacas in the United States and get to meet the stars of their breeding program. The alpacas are curious animals, yet a little timid. It took a bit for them to trust me enough to touch them. Trying to get a cria to slow down long enough for a selfie is great fun too.
If you are in the Durango, Colorado area, give Susan a call for a ranch tour of Pleasant Journey Alpacas. 970-259-3384