SASKAPACA Farm, Alpaca Ranching Expanded
by Polly Schindel
Back in the mid-nineties, “diversification” was the buzz word for farmers. We were a mixed grain and cattle farm on our third-generation family farm, but the mix was becoming less profitable and we began looking for something that would add value to our operation. While others were opting for elk or bison, we wanted something that wouldn’t require a lot of handling equipment and the associated dangers. While alpacas hadn’t been on my radar, my husband noticed an ad in Auto Trader for this beautiful new-to-North America creature. Our research lead us to the purchase of two male and three bred female Chilean Alpacas that were in quarantine in Australia at the time. By the time they arrived on our farm to minus 30 Celsius temperatures, we had six with a seventh due any time. You can imagine the excitement, as our three young daughters anticipated the arrival of our first “cria.” The due date came, but no baby. We had learned that alpacas are induced ovulators and they also seemed to have an ability to delay labour at will (usually in response to poor weather), but the usual 11-1/2 months gestation was stretching to 13! Whether the cold weather was such a shock to mom, or the breeding records were in error, the cria was finally born in late December 1996, to the delight of all. We quickly adjusted our birthing schedule to mid-summer and have since had the joy of many “criations” on our farm.
I would have to say that many of the attractions of owning alpacas have proven true over the years. They require very little infrastructure—a three-sided shelter from the wind, small hay paddocks—and are easy keepers. We shear them once a year, trim their toenails and teeth, when necessary we provide them with a mineral sea salt and pasture and hay and let them be alpacas.
Birthing is a breeze compared to cattle—no more checking two and three times a night. Alpacas typically give birth between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. The odd time, there might be a cria show up early morning, but if a mom is still in labour late afternoon, it is time to get suspicious that she might need help. It seems the more “hands off” we are, the easier it is for everyone. Alpacas are relatively small (only 100–175 lbs) and very much a herd animal, so they are easy to handle if you respect that. They are inquisitive, easy to train (if you make time), and are not only beautiful but also therapeutic to watch—and the fibre! Well, I’ll get to that in a bit. Even small children are safe around them.
We decided to get out of cattle altogether and moved to organic grain and alpaca fibre production. We joined the Saskatchewan Alpaca Breeders Network (SABN) and the Canadian Llama and Alpaca Association (CLAA) and began our journey of new friends and new skills. We never had the gumption for travelling to the alpaca shows and competing as registered breeders, but rather we envisioned an eventual “commercial” fibre alpaca industry, so we concentrated on increasing our numbers and the quality of our fibre.
With the help of the SABN and CLAA and the events they sponsored, I became more and more educated on alpaca fibre and have completely fallen in love with its beauty, its feel, its practicality, and diverse value. From our small beginnings of a few animals and shearing them ourselves, we have evolved into hiring a capable shearer; sorting the fibre according to length, colour, and quality (each intended for a different end product); tumbling it to pre-clean it; sending the fibre to a mill for washing, carding, spinning, and dyeing; and hiring capable knitters, crocheters, weavers, hookers, felters, artists, and furriers to create a diverse array of products. Then, bringing it to the marketplace through two local stores, craft shows in four provinces, and the internet via our own website (saskapaca.com), Facebook, The Farmers’ Table, and OnlyLocalFood.com.
We have only recently entered the livestock meat market. First, through the pet food industry, using our cull animals, to now, the grass-fed specialty meat for people. This last decision was at the persistent urging of my shearer who assured me alpacas ARE livestock and I needed to move some of my increasing male population of alpacas for meat. I guess, if there hadn’t been such a success in the pet food area, I perhaps would not have succumbed to the pressure. However, we learned that pet owners loved the effect that alpaca was having on the health of their pets—fussy and allergic pets were happy and healthy and the older feeble pets were becoming livelier. In fact, it was such a success, that alpaca culls were not keeping up to the demand and the pet food company had to stop production. We now offer ground meat, steaks, and roasts as well as garlic, pepperoni, and breakfast sausage, and some pet food. Customers can alternatively order whole or half alpaca, which is really not much of an investment since a carcass only amounts to a maximum of 100 lbs on the rail. Although we no longer grain farm, which means we have not been certified organic for some time, we continue to follow the principles and values of sustainable farming in our alpaca operation.
Saskapaca farm is located south of Lintlaw, Saskatchewan, and is the home of Bob and Polly Schindel and over 100 alpacas. Bob works off the farm in the construction industry, when he is not hunting. Polly, ex-part-time teacher, is owner/coach of Ideal Protein Weight Loss Clinics in Kelvington and Wadena, where she also has a showroom of all the handmade alpaca fibre products, as well as a good supply of yarns, rovings, and batting. They have frozen “La Viande,” as alpaca meat is called. Although you can order from the websites, it is always good to call ahead to confirm the availability. (306) 327-8270, www.saskapaca.com, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.