Almost like expectant parents, the next couple of weeks are an exciting time of great anticipation for Ray and Brenda Danielson. They have four pregnant alpacas, due Oct. 1, or possibly as early as late September.
“I am now on baby watch and will be checking on those four girls every hour during the day, just to make sure that all is okay and no one is in labor,” she said. “When October first gets nearer, I will be checking the maternity barn on the hour, and everyone in my family knows that I don’t go anywhere until we have all babies on the ground.”
At their “Anvil Alpaca Farm” in rural Belleville, Kan., there are currently 24 of the wide-eyed, affectionate animals, which are cousins to camels and llamas.
The Danielsons plan the breeding, so that alpaca babies are born in spring or fall, when it’s not too hot, or too cold.
“Since we keep our herdsires separate from our females, we know their due dates and know it’ll take 11½ months to have a baby alpaca,” said Brenda, who devotes full-time attention and affection to each of the two dozen-plus alpacas.
Both Ray and Brenda handle each alpaca every day.
“We’ve had 32 babies born here, and I got to help with 23,” Brenda added, noting she enjoys being present for the birth. “We had one momma who, I actually think was kind of sneaky. We never got to see Maisy deliver her first two babies. I finally got to see the third one being born. These animals are really smart. I absolutely think that Maisy watched to be sure I was away. She’s a very strange alpaca, and when she’s pregnant, Ray and I both cannot walk up to her at the same time, because she’s a bundle of nerves. When she’s not pregnant, she’s under your arm like a big Irish Setter.”
Also abuzz with excitement at the Danielson farm is the unveiling of their newest building addition: The Anvil Alpaca Farm Store, a tiny, cozy wood building that the Danielsons purchased in Beatrice, Neb., and had shipped out to their Republic County farm.
After shoring up the foundation and amassing a rock and flower garden around its front steps, the quaint store opened Labor Day weekend, with many gift items made from alpaca fleece, such as winter scarves, hats, mittens, vests, rugs and even dolls, all made out of soft alpaca fleece.
Brenda’s sister, Sandra Bostwick, and Brenda’s friend, Cathy Chase, enjoy helping crochet and knit the scarves, hats and mittens. Brenda began wrapping lavender and cinnamon soaps in alpaca fleece, and calls the unique gift a soap-and-washcloth in one.
Brenda notes some of the more challenging, time-consuming products, such as the vests and dolls, are ordered from a company in Denver, Colo., but are knitted by women in Peru.
The Anvil Alpaca Farm Store in Republic County is open all hours, seven days a week.
“I don’t have any set hours, but if you’re going to come after midnight, you have to buy something if you’re going to wake us up,” Brenda giggled.
Alpacas are native to the Andes Mountains in the South American countries of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.
Brenda told The Fence Post that in prehistoric times, the alpacas actually started out in Kansas, and the surrounding areas.
The alpaca fleece is prized for its silky cashmere feel.
Alpaca is also warmer and softer than merino sheep wool.
Brenda notes that since the alpaca fiber does not contain lanolin like sheep’s wool, it has another added benefit; it’s considered hypo-allergenic.
“During the first year, we didn’t know what to do with all the fleece in the bags, but we knew we’d have to process it into yarn to make our money back,” Brenda said.
Ray and Brenda live on the farm that’s been in the family for three generations.
The alpacas, however, only joined the family in 2004.
Brenda explained the alpacas are not emus, and they don’t lay eggs and are not ostrich-like birds, noting she’s often asked to explain the differences.
Much to Brenda’s surprise, Ray was the one whose interest was piqued to acquire alpacas.
“Ray’s father had a few cows and pigs, and so Ray was used to feeding pigs. With pigs, you just throw the food out to them, and you’d better get out of the way or be trampled. But when he threw food out to the alpacas, they were bewildered and frightened when he moved so quickly,” Brenda smiled. “Ray was just not an animal person then, and I was surprised he even wanted them. He can engineer, design and build almost anything, but did not realize with animals, you must move slowly and quietly. He thought they’d be better than cows, and that we could use the fleece to make sweaters and he thought we’d be rolling in money. But no, we’re not. However, we both feel that caring for them is very rewarding and enjoyable. They are such intelligent animals.”
Brenda, who calls herself an “animal person,” first pondered buying llamas.
“We thought about buying llamas, but they average 350 pounds. Cows weigh so much and are so strong. But alpacas only weigh between 100 and 200 pounds, and they let me hold them. They’re people-friendly, but they’re smart enough to know not to come up to people at first, until someone’s been there for awhile,” she said.
The couple enjoys working with the alpacas, as a team.
“During the first three years, we had less than a dozen alpacas, but as the size of the herd increased, we couldn’t haul them all to get them sheared, so I decided that I would shear,” Ray said.
Brenda was quick to comment.
“I just tell him — well, you haven’t cut off an ear yet,” she interjected.
The Danielsons shear the alpacas fleece between April 15 and May 15.
“We do that mostly for their comfort, because by May, it’s getting kind of warm,” Brenda said. “We have sheared April 1, but by the next weekend — the snow was blowing sideways. One alpaca can provide five to 10 pounds of fleece, and the length of the fleece averages about four inches.
The nearest alpaca farm to the Danielson’s is an hour drive to Connie and Ralph Mueller’s in Linn, Kan.
“Connie weaves at home. She makes my woven rugs for me. I get the fleece ready to go, and my sister helps, too,” she said.
As Brenda prepares the fleece to take to the mill, part of her business plan is about being organized.
“Once the alpacas are sheared, I have three bags. One bag is the best of the alpaca fleece that comes from their back and their torso, and that goes to yarn once I get it cleaned and it’s processed at the mill. Regarding the second bag of fleece, I have to make a decision; Is it crimpy enough to go with the yarn? Or does it go in the third bag to be made into rugs?” explained Brenda, adding that the rug fleece comes from alpacas’ tails and below their knees.
Then, Brenda takes the fleece to The Shepherd’s Mill in Phillipsburg, Kan., which is the nearest mill.
“That mill is the only one between the Mississippi River and the Colorado Rockies that processes any kind of fiber. Sally Brandon has done sheep’s wool, buffalo, Angora rabbit, and spins all sorts of fleeces and makes them into yarn,” Brenda said.
Brenda also sends fleece to the tiny town of Paint Rock, Texas, which has a mill that makes rug yarn.
“Everybody sends their fleece there to make rug yarn. They spin the alpaca around a jute rope in the center, and you could walk on that kind of rug and it will stay together,” she assured.
In addition to Brenda’s passion for the alpacas, Ray has also become fond of them.
They’re all registered with The Alpaca Registry in the U.S.
“Oh I come up early and walk around the farm, and end up over here, so I feed the boys (the male alpacas,) and just make sure nobody looks sick,” Ray said.
Then, he heads to his full-time job as a weldor, in the nearby town of Republic, where he’s worked for 38 years.
“Look at all the stuff I get to build here; the fences and gates,” he gestured to the farm buildings.
He also built their shearing table.
Ray also has also amassed a unique collection of 77 blacksmith anvils of various kinds and sizes used to shape steel after it’s heated.
Anvils are used to make horseshoes and straighten items that have bent.
His affection for the anvil propelled the Danielsons to name their farm “Anvil Alpacas.”
The Danielsons raise their own hay for the alpacas to eat, to supplement pasture feeding.
Often the next question Brenda hears, is whether alpacas spit.
“They don’t usually spit at humans, but they’ll spit at other alpacas, usually in an argument over feed or hay. Alpaca mothers don’t discipline their own cria (baby) so the “aunties” in the pen most certainly will intervene. Also, pregnant females spit at a male to let him know his advances aren’t welcome. But, if you happen to get in the way of any of these messages, you may get spit on, but that is your own fault,” Brenda said with a good-natured chuckle.
Ray and Brenda consider each alpaca a member of the family, and they’ve given several crias formal titles, since one of their herdsires was previously given the name Lord Montgomery.
The rest of the names emerged from there, such as Lady Jeanetta James and Princess Mara Graycin.
“All of them will be little lords and ladies and princesses,” smiled Brenda. “We try to choose names that reflect on the baby’s ancestry, and refer back to a parent or grandparent on the baby’s registration certificate.”
Alpacas have a life span of 15 to 25 years.
“I wish we would’ve gotten them 10 years earlier,” Brenda said. “But we didn’t even know what they were then.”
“Now is a good time to buy alpacas because their price is down, and we actually have a few for sale,” she added. “Buying their food, and keeping one is about the cost of keeping a Great Dane. The alpacas are charming and captivating. I simply cannot imagine our lives without these wonderful, endearing animals.” ❖