Updated: September 24, 2013 at 8:31 am
Saturday and Sunday are National Alpaca Farm Days, designed to shine a spotlight on the unusual animals and the farms that raise them.
For Sam O'Neill and his wife, Janet Teel, the owners of the O'Neill Brothers Alpaca Ranch in Falcon, every day is Alpaca Appreciation Day.
The two raise and sell alpacas and have more than two dozen on their property; they also have a small store next to their barn where they sell hats, socks, mittens and other products made from alpaca fiber, along with the raw fleece. They're among dozens of alpaca breeders in the Pikes Peak region.
O'Neill knew nothing about alpacas, though, a decade ago when he got a call from his oldest brother, who had a farm in Michigan.
"He says, 'I've got the perfect thing, alpacas.' I said, 'What is an alpaca?' He said, 'They'll be coming down your driveway in about two weeks.' "
It took longer than two weeks, but O'Neill, his brother and another brother with a farm in Nebraska partnered to form O'Neill Brothers Alpaca Ranch, with all three owning alpacas. When the brothers moved on to other pursuits a few years later, O'Neill and Teel took over the business. It remains a sideline for them; O'Neill is a plumber who has worked at Colorado College for decades, while Teel works in accounting for a medical supply company.
"After a hectic day at work, you can come home and they're standing waiting for you at the fence line," Teel says of the alpacas. "They just emanate serenity."
While the alpacas have individual personalities, "they're all very timid," O'Neill says. Their only natural defense against predators is to flee.
"They don't make a lot of noise," Teel says. "On occasion, you'll hear a humming sound out of them."
They stayed mum during my visit to the ranch on a recent Saturday morning. Grazing in a herd, their long, slender necks reaching to the ground, they're reminiscent of a flock of chickens pecking at the ground. An alpaca's face seems locked into a small smile; the fur sprouting atop their heads looks like a messy case of bed head.
You can make pets out of alpacas, O'Neill says, but they're typically regarded as livestock. That's the case on the ranch, but that doesn't mean the couple doesn't get attached to the animals.
For example, there was the first alpaca born on the ranch, born premature and delivered in the breech position.
"I thought for sure he was dead," O'Neill recalls. The baby, only 9 pounds, couldn't stand, "but we nursed him back to life." They took him to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where the animal underwent a blood transfusion.
"The vets said you should call him Rocky, because he's a fighter," O'Neill said. "Sure enough, we did call him Rocky. He was very special."
Alpacas are closely related to llamas, though smaller; both are members of the camelid, or camel, family. Native to South America, alpacas were introduced to the United States in 1984. Colorado is one of the top states as far as number of alpaca farms; the O'Neill Brothers Alpaca Ranch is a member of the Southeastern Colorado Alpaca Breeders, which includes about 30 farms.
There are two types of alpacas: Suri, with a long fiber that forms silky locks, and the Huacaya, with a shorter, dense, crimpy fleece. O'Neill and Teel raise Huacayas.
The ranch is a member of the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America; O'Neill and Teel send fiber to the co-op, which provides products made from the fleece. The alpacas are sheared once a year, in the springtime.
Alpacas require relatively little care, Teel said. They're ruminants - meaning they chew a cud like a cow - and have a very efficient digestive system, costing about as much to feed a month as a dog. Since they don't eat much, they don't leave much behind, either, and typically establish a community dung pile.
The animals are known to spit - "perhaps the least endearing feature of alpacas," a handout from the ranch notes. They rarely spit at people, though; it's generally used to establish a pecking order with other alpacas.
They're herd animals, so if you want one, plan on getting at least two.
The biggest challenge in raising alpacas, O'Neill said, is the cost in trying to develop "the best product you can."
"We can breed with some top quality males, but their breeding fees are $10,000 or better. It gets expensive. ... We've done the best we can. We're pretty proud of what we have."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes three horses, two goats, two dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife.