Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bushfire Planning

Even though I live in Australia. Even though these days I think of myself as an Australian who was born a long way from home rather than a Brit who has chosen to live here, I reserve the inalienable right of all of those who hail from the mother country to whinge about the weather.

44.6 it peaked at here at the farm today (the regional forecast was for a max of 42). My office here peaked at 49. Even the pool is nudging its way above 30. Tomorrow, the forecast is for 47 degrees, that's 117F in old money. The herd is beginning to suffer a bit, we have plenty of shade and plenty of water but you have to feel sorry for them, particularly the suris who are carrying fleece. Nobody around here can remember conditions like these.

That brings me to the subject of this entry. We can't ignore it - the bushfire risk this season is the highest it's been for a very long time.

It came close two years ago - the Mount Bold bushfire was not huge by Australian standards, but it burnt out over 2000 hectares and it was much too close for comfort and, as you can see, the fields were still green then - they're dried out and brown today
The 2007 Mt Bold fire from Prados Alpacas

Of course, the Prados herd was much smaller then - we just had our first two animals so it was easy to safely shed them in my workshop.

Chelsea and Caramello improving their woodwork skills.

We couldn't do that with the 40 animals we have today and the sheds in the paddocks are too exposed.

So it's time to revisit our fire planning.

First make sure that we're safe.
  • Clear dry vegetation and anything combustible around the house
  • Clear the roof and gutters of leaves and other debris
  • Make sure we have downpipe plugs available (to fill gutters with water - more homes are lost through embers getting into roof spaces than as a result of the fire front itself)
  • Test the backpack sprayer for spotfires
  • Finally - open the wallet - This year, it's time to invest in proper fire pump and hoses - can't rely on electricity supplies in a fire.

Next the animals.
The layout of the farm, the distance from wooded areas and the lack of fuel in the paddocks means that we are low risk for lasting fire. If we get one, it should flash through fairly quickly. This means that the main priority is to provide escape routes.

Looks like the best thing we can do is open all the gates and make sure there are at least two exit points from each paddock. We may get some unplanned matings, but that's a small price to pay.

It's going to be an interesting few months.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Unwanted showers!

Whenever you go to a show, whenever someone new to alpacas asks questions, you know that it's only a matter of time before the spit question comes up.

My answer is generally the same - one of the most appealing things about our animals is that they all have their own individual characters - a bit like people. Most are normal - they'll only react if provoked. Some live in world of zen tranquility (we have quite a few of those) and never spit. But, just occasionally, you get a street-fighter with a short fuse and a bad attitude.

Meet Kirri...

Kirri loading up for another shot..

We brought Kirri last year, a nice animal in her own right, pregnant to Jolimont Warrior. She duly gave us our last cria of 2008, 'Summer's Dream', on Christmas Eve.

"My mum's tougher than your mum!"

So today was the day to move mum and daughter out of the maternity paddock to rejoin the main herd. I suppose I asked for it - taking her baby and interrupting her breakfast - turn and fire! A facefull (and mouthfull) of half-digested hay had me spluttering, retching and racing for a tap. Two hours later, a couple of washes and a shower and I can still smell it on me.

But, got to show them who's boss. Success on second attempt (at least as far as I was concerned, this time it was Sarah who received the blessing).

Checking out the new arrival

She's happy as anything now - loves being centre of attention. I doubt that I'll ever get tired of watching the way that a new arrival is fussed over and thoroughly checked out when they join the herd.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Signature range

In Debbie's alpaca blog the other day, Debbie mentioned the advantage of being able to show a buyer of alpaca products the animal that the fleece came from.

I couldn't agree more, so I thought I'd share our approach:

We've found this to be a very popular idea with customers - they just love being able to associate the product with a specific alpaca.

On the naming of Alpacas

How do you choose the names for your alpacas?

Most of the breeders we know have different naming schemes - there are a couple who simply start each year with a new letter of the alphabet, another one used the first names of members of his extended family (which is why we go to shows with a broad ribbon winner called Colin...).

We thought we were being so clever... We went for characters from Shakespeare's plays. 2007 was The Tempest (mistake number 1 - it's my favourite play and we only had one cria on the farm in our first year - Prospero), 2008 was Midsummer night's dream - Cobweb, Titania, Puck, Mustardseed, Lysander and on Christmas Eve - 'Summer's Dream'.

So, with 10 due this year and the first one on the ground it's time to choose the the play for 2009. At the moment it looks like Much ado about nothing - yesterday's fluffy little thing definitely looks like a Friar Francis (Frankie to his friends).

Which brings me to mistake number 2 - there are over 2000 names in Shakespeare, more than enough for us. Trouble is that most of them are male...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

First of 2009

Well, I posted over a week ago now that we were expecting our first baby of the year any moment. It turned out that it was just one of those alpaca false alarms. We expect them, but still they catch us out. Some girls just seem to like to have a rehearsal 10 days or so before the event.

So, born at about 10:30 this morning at a chunky 8.3 kilos is the result of our little breeding experiment.

If you read the earlier blog entry you'll remember that Juno, the mum, is a pet rather than part of our breeding program. On the one hand, she's cute and affectionate, on the other, while she's classified as black under our regulations because her saddle is solid black, she has a white face and socks, odd patches of brown and even a small circle of slate-grey on her neck. The only way to get any crimp in her fleece would be to plug her into the mains. I half expected any offspring to have a hump...


Some time ago we did some work for a South Australian suri breeder. Payment was a mating to one of their animals. Mundawora Zarion is a stunning alpaca. he's won a huge number of broad ribbons and the trophy cabinet is overflowing.

In for a penny, in for a pound as they say...

What we have today is positive proof that, when it comes to matings - you get what you pay for. Here we have probably one of the poorest quality females in the country, yet, to an outstanding sire, she's produced what is really a quite good, dark fawn F1 suri.

He's a great colour and is beginning to pencil nicely. Unfortunately of course, as an F1 male, he's destined to be a pet for some lucky owner, but at the moment we're more than happy with the result.
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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

LaViande and the question of meat...

Controversial subject warning...

I wrote this last week but have been in two minds about whether or not to post it because, if there is one subject that is guaranteed to polarise alpaca farmers, it's the subject of selling our animals for slaughter.

Personally, it's not something that I can see us ever doing here at Prados.

Of course, they've been eating alpaca in South America for thousands of years but here in Australia, the sums involved are only just starting to make sense.

Females are definitely off the menu for the foreseeable future, their value alive far exceeds what they could reach for food. It's the males that are the issue. Trouble is that there is only a finite market for pets and guardians and, as the Australian herd grows into a viable industry, it's a question we have to face - only a tiny number of males produced will go on to be certified for stud work but there aren't enough yet to have a commercially viable fleece-only industry. In a commercial breeding program, what happens to the rest?

The people at LaViande are quite sure of what the answer is - commercial fleece, meat and hide as a combined industry. WARNING - Many small breeders I know find some of the images on their website, particularly those in the brochure showing cuts of meat to be uncomfortable viewing - you have been warned!

I have tried it, Steve from LaViande came to our last regional AGM and provided steaks and sausages.

Now, I'm an unapologetic carnivore and I can understand the commercial imperative that is leading our industry down this path but, I have to say, apart from the queasiness about the idea of eating animals that we are still small enough to know by name and character, I have to say that I was unimpressed - the simple fact is that, on the plate, it's quite bland. The bottom line is that there is much tastier meat available which is much cheaper to produce - currently I remain unconvinced.

My own opinion is that it will happen, it will become part of the industry. Here in Adelaide alpaca is already served at the Hilton and I know of one butcher in the hills that stocks it from time to time. But I think that there will be, at least for the foreseeable future, a split in the industry based on size of breeder. Pets and guardians sell at a higher market price per head than as food but they carry a much higher overhead to the breeder in terms of sales and after-sales support for the new owner. I think the meat industry will appeal far more to the biggest breeders who can produce larger numbers of stock animals and don't necessarily want to take the late night phone calls because little Susie's pet alpaca is off its feed. Smaller breeders who are more suited to the personal touch should then be better positioned to satisfy the needs of the lower volume market.

Hope I haven't put anyone off with this post. I know this an issue that is only really relevant in Australia at the moment as we pass the million animal count, but it will inevitably follow in other countries as well as the various national herd sizes increase.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mad dogs and ex-pat Englishmen...

Running a small farm means that you never have nothing to do. There is never a time when there aren't several jobs that need to be attended to. Many of these are essential maintenance or are related to the care of the animals but then, in a class of its own, comes fencing...

I can't remember a time when there wasn't fencing that needed to done, nor can I imagine a time in the future when there won't be still more that needs to be done. Maybe it's one of the basic physical laws of the universe, probably something to do with quantum - most things are these days.

Anyway, this weekend saw the start of another fencing project as the advancing army of Alpacadom annexes another part of the garden. It's a sensible idea - we're going to make a small area next to the house into a hospital and show paddock. Somewhere to keep clear of debris, clover and other nasties where we can put animals that need a close eye kept on them and where we can put the show team for a week prior to a show to try to minimise the rubbish in their fleeces.

So, Saturday morning comes along and the post hole borer won't start (let this be a lesson for me about buying cheap kit from EBay - it may be a third of the price, but it's a third of the price because it's a quarter of the quality of a decent make). After an hour of mixed and creative tinkering and swearing, the inevitable defeat is conceded and it's off to the hire shop where we were introduced to the Stihl BT360 two-man earth-auger. What a monster! It takes two people to lift it, let alone use it.

Then it's time to discover another failure in planning - there's a good reason why people round here don't do much heavy work on the land during summer - we're on clay - you know what happens to clay when it gets baked...

So, after two days of (very) hard labour, we have the posts in, but no gates or fencing yet and everything aches, creaks or is sunburned. It's almost good to get back to the day job.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Weather... Again.

It's probably bad blogging form to talk about the same subject in two consecutive posts.

It's been considerably cooler today having just crept above 30 degrees - hardly news at all here, but it's still a bit on the warm side for the animals and it gives me an excuse (as if I needed one) to nip out with the camera and post some pictures...

Arequipa Colin (I will get around to doing a post about his name) making the most of the irrigation

Prados Lysander trying to ruin his fleece before show season starts

You'd think that we put the irrigation system in for their benefit! It never ceases to amaze me how much animals, whose natural home is in the high country of South America, where water is not in really that much in abundance, love the stuff.

But for some, it's all too much like hard work and the only thing to do in the heat is flop down and catch some rays...

Ambersun Iquique working on his tan

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January 13th and we’re hitting 40 degrees already! I know most of the people reading this are in the UK or in the north east of the USA so would probably welcome a couple of hot days – but, believe me, I’d give a lot for a week of rain...

Looks like we’ll be supplementary feeding before long, luckily we were able to cut a lot of hay back in the spring.

Choco, one of our boys cooling down in an irrigation spray

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Quality Time

Quality time with the animals is something that is getting more and more difficult to achieve these days. With a fulltime job and a growing herd there’s always something that needs to be done. But it was a lovely afternoon today, it’s a great time of year here, it’s warm, but not yet the blistering heat of February, so, in-between jobs and for the first time in weeks, I found an hour to just sit with some of the girls.

Last week, I went out on a boat to go swimming with some of our local dolphins. I mention this because it occurred to me afterwards that the approach that is taken these days with wild dolphins is exactly the same as the way that I like to relax with the alpacas. The boat approaches a pod without intruding, swimmers get into the water and from that point it’s up to the dolphins. If they want to go off and feed or do their own thing then that’s their choice, but they’re curious creatures and more often than not they will come over to check us out and sometimes will stay to play.

I like to work the same way with the alpacas, going to the paddock and just sitting down close to a group of animals and letting them decide whether or not to visit. Usually they do, after a few minutes, the first ones saunter casually over to see if I’ve got any lucerne or grapes. They’re soon joined by more and we go through the ritual of ‘alpaca kisses’ the gentle nuzzling and sniffing that is such an important part of alpaca socialisation. After a while most will wander off, but not too far, while others settle down in the grass nearby.

And then there’s Madison...

Maddy isn’t like any other alpaca I’ve seen. I always go to great lengths to tell new owners who want pets that alpacas are wonderful but they’re not pets in the same way as cats or dogs are – they know their regular humans, but they’re not going to climb up onto your lap for a fuss. But, then there’s Madison – the exception that proves the rule I suppose. 10 minutes after sitting down she’s there, sitting next to you with her head in your lap or on your shoulder demanding a neck rub. Soft as anything, but good therapy all-round.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mustardseed's story

Mustardseed was born in May 2008, a little later in the year than we like as winter is beginning to show its face and we like to have the youngsters well and truly established before the bad stuff starts in July.

From day one it was clear that she was a bit special, medium fawn with one of those shiny, almost ‘glow in the dark’ fleeces that promise so much on a cria (even if they don’t always deliver).

She did well through to the beginning of August when we had some bad weather (yes, it does happen in Australia!). Alpacas are hardy critters, but a combination of cold, rain and wind can really challenge them when they’re young.

In the second week of August she was clearly having a bad time of it; we coated her, gave her some b1, and had to bring her indoors a couple of times to warm her up.

Finally, on the 14th I found her in the maternity paddock where we were keeping her (lots of shelter and close to the house) on her side with her neck thrown back in obvious distress. We warmed her up again but she was clearly in trouble and couldn’t put any weight on one of her back legs – time to call the vet.

The vet couldn’t see anything wrong but agreed that there was a problem somewhere. He gave her a painkiller (Flunixil), antibiotic (Rilexine) and more b complex to try to cover the all bases with the instruction to keep her warm and bring her back the next day if there was no improvement.

We took her back and after a series of x-rays they found that she’d broken her hip. This is one of the things that new breeders have to come terms with – Alpacas are tough. Generally, that’s a good thing, but it means that often they only have two states, healthy and near-death and the transition can be very abrupt.

Luckily, our vet is a camelid specialist, rather than difficult surgery or putting her down as some would have done, he recommended that we do absolutely nothing... That we put her and her mum somewhere warm and comfortable, with minimum opportunity for movement and see what happens. So, for the next couple of months we had two alpacas living in a tent on the lawn outside the house.

I’m delighted to say it worked. Recovery was slow but steady. We even managed to shear her in October, although we did bring in a professional rather than doing her ourselves to minimise stress. She’s now back in the herd and has done so well that she will be in our show team for the first show of the year in March.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The joy (or otherwise) of spinning.

Alpaca is fantastic fibre for spinning; it lacks the natural oils of sheep’s wool, so some say that it’s more difficult to learn on, but once you have the knack it’s far nicer to work with. I like to spin straight from raw fleece, no washing or carding, just pull it apart a bit, shake out the worst of the dirt and vegetable matter and start work – I wash the yarn once it’s made up into skeins. I have tried having some fleeces professionally prepared into rovings and true, they are easier to work with (and a lot cleaner) but the cost far exceeds the benefits.

But I do have one big problem – the one of ‘image’. You see, it's not normally something that you associate with a 110 kilo, ex-rugby player… People come around to visit, they see the spinning wheel and automatically assume that it's my wife's. When she tells them that I'm the spinner, well, you can see the confusion on their faces - men just don't do that!

But they just don't understand. After all, in the evening, I'm not really just sitting on my fat backside, watching TV and drinking beer - I'm working!

Oh, and the wheel? It's my second one, an Ashford with some extra attachments that was an exchange for a trailer-load of alpaca dung - there's gold in them poo piles!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Webcam upgrade

Near the top of the to-do list is major revamp of the farm website. It’s looking a bit tired and it’s a pain to maintain. It’s the old 80-20 rule - 80% of the work on the new site is complete, but the last 20% is taking 80% of the time.

One of the time-consuming jobs has been to improve the webcam. It’s been 'sort of' running on the old site for months (, but it’s been less than reliable. A couple of weeks ago I finally got around to ripping out all the old Windows based camera software and putting in something a bit more flexible and reliable. For anyone with a techie interest it’s now running on an old desktop pc that was being thrown out at work using Zoneminder under Ubuntu Linux and a cheap Chinese capture card. Bottom line is that so far, so good. It’s been rock-solid and the quality is quite acceptable. Most importantly I have a live camera feed into the maternity paddock that I can view on my mobile phone – I love it when technology just works.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Waiting waiting waiting...

The first cria of the New Year should arrive any time now. It shouldn’t really be for another two weeks, but she looks ready to pop. I suppose that’s one of the things that make the difference between a small breeder and a large one – for the smaller breeder, each birth is eagerly anticipated and fretted over, you make sure someone can check on the animal every few hours and when it happens it’s a significant event.

And this is going to be an interesting one. Juno is a strange beast – more a pet than part of our breeding program. We picked her up from a farm where she had been purchased as sheep guard/pet but hadn’t really worked out for them. She’d not been mistreated at all, but she wasn’t in great condition either. Our intention was really just to give her a caring home and use her as a companion for any animals that had to be separated from the main herd. From a breeding point of view I couldn’t even begin to list the things that are wrong with her but, female alpacas really don’t like not being pregnant or having a youngster to fuss over so last year we tried an experiment. Although her lineage is solidly huacaya, she does have some suri characteristics and her fleece is, while far from being show quality, a real pleasure to work with. So, we mated her with a really good champion suri and are eagerly awaiting the outcome – it won’t be a show animal, but it should make someone a wonderful pet.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Looking back

It’s been an interesting second year in the alpaca world for us. Starting with a ‘hobby mob’ of nine animals at the end of 2007, we’ve more than quadrupled the herd – 38 alpacas, four of them certified males, with more on the way in 2009!

The biggest event was being joined by our son, James, who has also been bitten by the bug and is building up his own ‘Kobler Alpacas’ herd on our farm while he finds a place of his own.

We’ve had a good year at the shows, with a respectable haul of ribbons from our first Royal Adelaide. The highpoint though came from an unexpected place – we did our first interstate show this year, taking three of the boys down to the Ballarat Sheep and Wool show in Victoria where Colin (more about that name in later post…) our suri stud male, came away with a reserve champion ribbon and medal. It took weeks to wipe the grins off our faces!

There have been some tough times as well. The year started with a very difficult birth, we thought for a while that we were going to have our first fatality – possibly a double one as both mother and cria had a hard time of it. But thanks to some help from other breeders who had seen similar problems before, both made it through and made full recoveries. In October we purchased a female alpaca at auction, although we (and other breeders) inspected her and found nothing wrong at the time, we found shortly after that the poor girl had mange and a fungal skin infection – four weeks of isolation, daily treatment, a huge vet bill and lots of TLC though and she’s back with the herd as right as rain. Finally, the odd weather we had over the last couple of months has resulted in our first case of staggers, again treated and full recovery but still a worry at the time.

Here we go again....

So ends 2008 and a new year begins...

I've tried this blogging lark before but, despite the best intentions I always find myself running out of enthusiasm after something like the third or fourth post, there always seems to be something so more interesting or important to do. After all, why sit at a keyboard typing when there's a paddock full of alpacas outside who would much rather I sat with them (as long a I bring a bunch of grapes and a beer with me to share).

So, here goes. We'll see if I have the patience to keep things going a bit longer this time.

The idea is to share some of the highs and lows (very few lows so far) of running a small alpaca farm in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia with anyone who is interested.

Let's see how it goes...