Living with alpacas

The animals stand in a nearly perfect line, close together, their long necks stiffened, and their eyes fixated. A visitor has entered their pasture, and they have no defense mechanisms other than to herd together or run.

These curious, fluffy animals are alpacas, and more than 50 of them comfortably live in the pines of Tabernacle at Jersey Breeders alpaca farm.

“I retired from my business in 2004. Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest, I wanted to do something in the farming industry,” in his retirement, said owner Jerry Braatz. “It started out as a hobby and it turned into a business.”

Eight years later, Braatz, with his wife Lynne and other helpers such as marketing manager and health adviser Chris Gray, operate the breeding farm.

“We sell and we have new babies being born,” Braatz said, which causes the number of alpacas on the farm to frequently fluctuate.

On Saturday, April 14, the farm hosted a Spring Alpaca Toolbox day for individuals interested in entering the alpaca business.

The full day included information about the infrastructure of the industry, basic tips for potential owners and a barn tour.

According to the farm’s website, “This winter has been so nice and it is almost over. Now is the time to get involved with alpacas. The alpaca business has seen nice growth this past year. We have survived, and are thriving in this economy.”

Braatz said raising alpacas could be beneficial if a person or family is looking for a change.

“A lot of people are looking for a lifestyle change. They’re tired of the corporate run,” he said. “Being low maintenance, as a senior, I can still handle them if I have to. There are people who want them just for pets. Just because they like the ambience.”

Alpacas, he said, are generally quiet animals. Sometimes, they’ll yip if they feel threatened, but mostly they are tranquil.

Some people, he said, want to own alpacas as a secondary income.

Others want them to be helpful companions for their children.

The kids are able to learn responsibility in caring for alpacas, he said.

“They’re pretty easy-maintenance animals,” he said. “Unlike a cow. Unlike a horse, because a horse consumes a lot of food. Day to day maintenance is pretty easy.”

Alpacas are inquisitive animals, he said. However, if a person encroaches their territory, they pull back.

“Once you catch them, they don’t mind the interaction,” he said. “They’re all tame. They’re very cordial. They love to have their necks stroked.”

An alpaca life

Alpacas are originally from the Andes Mountains of South America, Braatz said. They were brought to the United States about 20 years ago.

The life expectancy of an alpaca in America is not yet known, he said, as research has not focused on the animals since their numbers in the country are still so small. He would estimate an alpaca could live for about 15 years.

“When they get old, they die,” he said. “I choose to let them live their lives out as opposed to euthanize them.”

The birthing process is quite unique, he explained.

A typical alpaca pregnancy lasts for 341 days, or 11 and a half months.

At the farm, Braatz breeds for birthing in April through May, and September and October to avoid delivering a cria (alpaca youngster) in the frigid cold of January or the burning heat of July.

“We thought maybe we’d have a baby for these people coming to our seminar,” he said.

After the mating process, he checks the female every 60 days to make sure she has retained the pregnancy. Once she reaches four months, he will be certain she is pregnant.

Typically, alpacas only have one cria at a time.

“They can have two, but it’s very rare,” he said. “Generally speaking, if there’s two babies, they self abort about seven or eight months into the pregnancy. I would guess that the womb is just not big enough to carry two babies.”

Unlike human babies, crias are walking within an hour after entering the world, he said.

“The record is 11 minutes.”

“They have to get on their feet to be tall enough to get into the utter” to reach the colostrum or “mother’s milk,” he said. “The first 24 hours are critical.”

He called the process of watching a birth “beautiful.”

The babies tend to be between 13 and 16 pounds at birth, he said.

According to Gray, “Two feet come out with the nose. The head comes out facing down to clear out the airway.

“Every birth is different,” she said.

The farm has a collection of videos on its Facebook page, including the birth of an alpaca named Lancaster.

“Everything about this birth is perfect,” she said.

After he is born in the video, he is blown dry.

Alpaca mothers simply drop a placenta, and they are done with the birth.

“They aren’t dirty birthers,” she said.

There are 22 recognized colors of alpacas, Braatz said.

The six major colors are black, brown, beige, white, fawn and grey.

Once fully grown, one acre can handle between seven to 10 alpacas, he said.

They eat orchard grass mixed hay along with a grain supplement, that to them, he said, is “like sugar on cereal.”

“The average adult is probably about 140 lbs on this farm,” he said.

Within the pastures, the alpacas are generally clean.

Their poop does not smell, he said. They tend to relieve themselves in the same spots throughout the pasture, although the boys are better at that then the girls, he laughed.

The alpaca manure is cleaned once a day, and the alpacas are sheared once a year.

This year, they are to be sheared Tuesday, April 24.

“That’s my harvest day. We sell the fleece,” he said. “That’s part of our business process.”

With heavy fiber coats, the alpacas welcome the shearing.

“I do it in April because it gets warm,” he said. “This is just like you and I wearing a winter coat 24 hours a day.”

Alpaca fleece

“Once people buy alpaca socks, they never go back,” said Gray.

There are six grades of alpaca fiber uses.

“Every grade has a different purpose,” she said.

Grade one is ultra fine and can be used for baby items, and grade six is robust and can be used for rugs and garden compost. In between, alpaca fiber serves many purposes, from sweaters to gloves to hats to duvets.

The fiber feels like cashmere, said Braatz.

To process the fiber after shearing day, the farm will first vacuum the fleece to remove dirt.

Hair is taken out of the fiber.

They will then send it to a mill, Gray said.

The fleece can be sold raw, for roving, or yarn.

Gray hand-dyes the white fiber.

At farmers markets, the Jersey Breeders do well, she said.

As one of the only active alpaca breeding farms in New Jersey, Braatz wants to make sure he is giving all of the facts to the attendees of his seminar and other visitors to his farm.

“I don’t want to sell to someone unless they know exactly what they’re getting up against,” he said. “If you wanted to become a breeder, then your best buy is to buy a pregnant female” to immediately double your herd.

“They’re very stoic, very hearty animals,” he said.

More Information

Jersey Breeders Alpaca Farm

364 Tuckerton Road, Tabernacle

Email Chris Gray at chrisgray5530@gmail.com or call (315) 573-3773

Contact Jerry Braatz at JerseyAlpacas@aol.com

Website: www.jerseybreeders.com

Facebook page: www.facebook.com/JerseyAlpacaBreeders

Learn more about owning and breeding alpacas online through the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association at www.alpacainfo.com. A farm locator is also available on the website.

The New Jersey Alpaca Community website provides a wealth of local information at www.njacalpacas.org.

View a gallery photographed by the Tabernacle Sun.