Alpacas are alluring
The animals with the long, slender necks, huge brown eyes and fuzzy topknots between their ears are alpacas, and they represent an entirely new kind of ranching in the valley.
Alpacas are a branch of the camel family, and are related to – and sometimes mistaken for – llamas. Domesticated herd animals, the alpacas have a somewhat pet-like quality with a calm, curious, yet aloof demeanor that endears them to their owners. The critters have a degree of intelligence that leads some alpaca fans to swear the animals have a sense of humor.
As a cash crop, alpacas are valued for their luxurious fleece. Lighter and less prickly than wool and incredibly soft, alpaca fiber is used for lightweight garments and blankets with a high insulation value. Alpaca fleece is synonymous with “luxury” among the retailers and customers who use the products.
Sleepy Hollow Alpacas is a family business, owned and operated by husband and wife Mike and Trynis Bradley, and Trynis’ sister, Tawlys Tonso. The two women are the granddaughters of the late J. Homer Jackson, and the 90-acre parcel that now comprises Sleepy Hollow was once a part of the Jackson Ranch.
Several years ago, while seeking agricultural uses for their property, family members initially researched options such as raising ostriches or emus. They settled on the alpaca ranching venture after noting that the animals have bridged the gap from being simply exotic animals to being productive animals.
“We’re not raising the animals just for a hobby,” says Mike Bradley, adding the family is not yet making a living in the alpaca business.
Trynis Bradley says it has been a learning experience. Still, Sleepy Hollow Alpaca has proof of some early success in the form of a fistful of ribbons earned at alpaca competitions for quality fleece, as well as for showing the alpacas.
Alpacas, native to the Andean highlands of South America, are relatively new to the United States. Their first major importation into the United States started in 1894. Prior to that time, the only alpacas in North America were a few animals found in zoos and private collections.
Experts now estimate there are now about 20,000 alpacas in the United States. Jane Levene, an alpaca rancher based in Jefferson County, estimates there are about 150 alpaca farms in Colorado these days.
The Bradleys and Tonso started their alpaca operation with a small herd of three animals.
“Alpacas have a strong herd identity. You don’t get just one. Their happiness and safety lies in numbers,” said Levene.
Alpaca females typically have one off-spring annually. The Bradleys have been carefully building their herd for the past three years, and now have nine animals, including one new female baby born this past week.
Compared to other herd animals, alpacas are somewhat delicate in size, weighing from 10 to 17 pounds at birth and weighing somewhere between 100 190 pounds as adults. They’re too small to use as pack animals. A typical life span for alpacas is 15 to 20 years.
Alpacas are ruminants – muti-stomached animals who thrive on hay and other forage. The Bradleys also supplement the animals’ diets with specially formulated pellet-type food.
The Bradleys place llamas in with their alpaca herd, to essentially act as guards for the smaller animals. The lamas chase out small predators. Larger predators, such as mountain lion, bear, coyotes and bobcats are a concern, however.
Alpacas communicate by making a soft humming noise and with body language. Their alarm call is what Mike describes as an “orgly” sound. A noise monitor connecting the corral with the nearby house alerts humans when danger is near.
“When you hear an alarm call sound over that monitor in the middle of the night, it is worthwhile to come out and take a look,” says Mike Bradley.
Easily visible from Brush Creek Road, the animals have proven to be literal traffic stoppers.
“There’s not a weekend that goes by where we don’t get a visit from a curious passers-by,” says Trynnis Bradley.
Levene, who has a herd of 45 animals after six years in the alpaca business, said people are curious about the animals, who have the appearance of a critter constructed from bits and pieces of other animals.
“It’s the closest we will come to a real Dr. Doolittle experience,” says Levene.
Certainly, the personality of the animals, with their big, watchful eyes and curious nature, is another trait that attracts humans. Levene likes to describe alpacas as having the intelligence of a dog and the personality of a cat. Actual contact is a form of dominance to alpacas, and they shy away from an outstretched hand.
Their curiosity is obvious. Photographer Melinda Kruse, who snapped the photos for this story, found herself surrounded by the curious animals, who even stretched out their noses to touch her camera.
“It’s like raising a herd of puppies,” says Levene. “They’re the ideal children. They stay where you put them, don’t try to get through fences. The worst thing they do is occasionally knock over a bucket of water.”
While always on the alert, the animals tend to be calm and somewhat predictable.
Still, the animals do have a defense mechanism common to the camel family: spitting.
“Everything you’ve heard about them spitting is all true. We’ve found the use of an old sock over an alpaca’s muzzle is a beautiful thing,” says Mike Bradley.
Typically, the alpacas are sheared in the spring, in order to give them time to grow a thick fleece for winter. The newly-shorn alpacas, with their leftover topknots of fleece, have an almost comic book character appearance. Fleece colors range from white to brown to red, with some beautiful rose-gray shades in between.
The fleece is graded according to weight quality, and cleanliness, the fleece trimmed from one animal and can be worth anywhere from $150-$400. Levene is generous in praising the high comfort factor of alpaca fiber, which, unlike sheep’s wool, has no lanolin, is low in dander, and is hyper-allergenic.
“Alpaca is a good alternative for people who can’t stand the itchiness of wool,” said Trynis Bradley.
Once the alpacas have been sheared, the Bradleys skirt the fiber, picking out guard hairs and vegetable matter, and then deliver the fleece to a mill in Wellington for processing. They’re also doing a bit of fiber business of their own, as do most people who get into the alpaca-raising business.
Trynis Bradley says she has learned to spin the fiber into yarn, and both Bradleys and Tonso say they have experimented with making the fiber into weavings and a felt-like fabric that is used for slippers, bags and other goods.
Alpacas are easily trainable as show animals. They’re cooperative in loading into vehicles and are quick to accept a halter. They’ll also obey some simple commands, such as “kush,” or “sit down.”
“Alpacas are moving into mainstream industry. There is a strong demand for the fiber, and they are easy to raise,” says Mike Bradley.
Levene has some other thoughts on why more and more people are finding the alpaca business alluring.
“It’s similar to raising unicorns,” she says. “These are the most gentle, wonderful, and unique animals that I have ever come across.”
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.