When we made our first -- and so far only -- alpaca buy this past year we started with three, and that's still all we have right now. We don't have as much room as the folks we think of who are, well, "real" alpaca farmers. At most we could likely support up to five alpacas comfortably on our little pasture of about three-quarters of an acre; anything more than that and we're edging into possible dry-lot territory, something we're not interested in doing since we don't plan to be what we consider a "real" farm (i.e., one that breeds and sells them or at least has a number more substantial than three). From the start this was an enterprise we embarked on because it would give me a constant source of my own fiber to spin -- some of which is certainly selling (sometimes even just the unspun fiber, such as the couple of ounces of combed top from Silverton earlier this year) but none of which will ever likely fully pay for the boys' room and board, nevermind make us any actual money. And we also embarked on it for fun and for the experience of raising farm animals, both of which we've gotten back in spades.
Despite us feeling that we're not really an actual farm per se one of the questions that Jody posed to me when we bought our boys was what our farm name is so that she can make the appropriate transfer in the boys' registration documents. Wow, a farm name. A farm name? We have to actually come up with a farm name now! Of course we'd joked for a while about what our fantasy farm name would be, throwing around ideas, most of them silly and not something we'd really consider but a few of them worthwhile. We talked about it like people talk about the names they'll give their children years before they actually have any. Then suddenly that once-unattainable idea of owning real alpacas was suddenly not so unattainable and we actually went and bought some and now, whoa, we have to come up with a farm name! Quick!
Much to my dad's delight we had kicked around the idea of calling ourselves 12 Bar Ranch. Back when I lived in Wyoming I noticed that every ranch seemed to have some variation on a bar theme -- Vee Bar Ranch, Two Bars Ranch, you get the picture. Being that we love blues and it runs strong in the family we thought it would be cute and funny to name our ranch 12 Bar. You know, as in twelve bar blues? And of course we'd name all our alpacas after famous blues artists: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Winter...and the icing on the cake would have to be, of course, an alpaca born on our own farm who we'd name Rock n' Roll, and whose mother would naturally have been named Blues.
(That thing about talking about kids and plotting things out way early? Yeah, I wasn't kidding.)
Anyway, the idea is great. But I'm not sold on it. (Sorry, Dad. I know you're disappointed.) It's a stretch. But there is another idea that I'd been kicking around that I thought lent itself more to yarn labels, which honestly is really the main way I'd be using this farm name anyway. That idea was to steal from World War II-era squadron names and nose art.
Nearly every alpaca farm name I've come across has been the same: [Geographic Location] Alpacas. We didn't want to do that. With both of us having experience in advertizing, marketing, and graphic design we knew we could do better than that. I've always, always loved WWII-era nose art and the awesome legacy of squadron names. What could be more awesome than a logo patterned after some great nose art and a cool squadron name to go with it?
I sketched out a very rough version of a logo based on one of the best non-sexy-ladies nose art imagery I've come across (hey, I've got no problem with sexy-lady nose art, it's great; I just don't really think it applies to alpacas, you know?): Maloney's Pony. (My version is an alpaca chomping on a cigar, an alpaca that looks really to lead his boys into battle.)
Now to come up with a name.
I figured a good place to start was to look up a list of squad names. And wow, there's a lot more than I thought there was. Seems like every military group of units had a name for themselves. I gathered up the best of what I found, the ones that seemed like they might spark something interesting, and these are the ones -- real names -- that I saved:
The 12th Roughnecks
The 51st Roughnecks
The King's own
The Kaiser's Own
The Fighting 51st
The Glorious Glosters
The Dirty Dozen
The Dirty Half Hundred
The Iron Regiment
The Havercake Lads
The Lancashire Lads
The Ragged Brigade
The Holy Boys
The Ramnuggar Boys
The Saucy Seventh
The Crazy Eights
The Dirty Thirty
Broo's Crazy Devils
The Horny Lornies
Haha, the Horny Lornies.
Anyway, this list sparked a few ideas:
The Glorious Grazers
The Humming 51st
The Humming Dozen
The Dirty Herd
I'm pretty partial right now to The Glorious Grazers. Inglorious Grazers is great but it's probably stealing too much from the recent Tarantino movie.
I'm continuing to mull it over a bit before I decide on anything in case any further ideas pop out. You're welcome to contribute, with the caveat that I cannot promise you any shares of massive alpaca farm profits as there will not be any, so ideas should be contributed at your charity and peril.
The time to trim our alpacas' toenails has been creeping up on us so we decided today was a good day to finally tackle that job. We'd done some practice trimming at Jo's Fleece Fields so we'd been able to ease our minds a bit about the process, but we were still nervous because we're still learning exactly how to handle our alpacas. But toenail trimming time is a good time for us to get more practice haltering the boys, trimming their nails, and generally trying to get a hold of them when they don't want to be gotten a hold of.
We shamelessly lured them into the barn with their daily mineral treat. We've been insisting on feeding them their minerals in the barn each day for about a month now, and their hay is in the barn so they've already become accustomed to being in there (they were hesitant about it when they first got here). Matt hung out in the pasture while I banged the can to get them in there, and once I walked them to the back he shut the door. As soon as they heard that door begin to close their heads whipped around and started humming. I almost felt guilty for duping them like that. Silverton and Cinnamon immediately began searching out an escape route. Benz, on the other hand, was perfectly content to keep eating his minerals; he could not have cared less.
We decided to begin with him since we knew he'd be the easiest. Going into this, I assumed that all three of them would fight us at least a little bit, with Benz probably being the least difficult. I was wrong. Benz not only didn't even put up a fight, he practically put the halter on himself. Since Matt felt the most comfortable doing the actual trimming we agreed ahead of time that I would hold the boys and he would trim their nails, so I put the halter on Benz and got the fitting right, and then stood there with my arm around his neck, ready and waiting for the moment to come when I knew he'd buck and fight to get out of our grip. It never came. We didn't even have to chase him down to get the halter on him, he just stood there and let us wrap our arms around him. It took about one minute for Matt to trim up his toenails, and during the ordeal Silverton kept searching out an escape route that he was sure he'd missed while Cinnamon hummed up a storm so loud you'd have thought we were going to kill him. At one point Cinnamon came up to Benz and sniffed his nose and face as if to say, "don't worry, buddy, I'll get you out! I swear! We'll avenge this horror!" And Benz's response seemed to be, "whatever, dude, I'm getting a pedicure. Really, it's not that big a deal."
Benz was done and easy, so we thought Cinnamon was our next best bet. We sort of assumed Silverton, being the most shy, would be the most difficult, but again -- we were wrong. We got a hold of Cinnamon pretty easily and managed to get the halter on him fairly easily as well. Once we got it on, however, he really made it clear he wasn't happy. He bucked and fought against the halter, pulling this way and that, before we could even get near his feet. I checked to be sure the halter fit him okay and wasn't cutting anything off but it seemed to be all right. We tried to firmly hold him into a balanced standing position but every time Matt would get his foot he'd buck and fight so badly that he'd throw himself and me into the barn walls. So then we tried walking him around the inside of the barn with his halter on via the lead for a minute or two, hoping to get him feeling okay with it. He seemed fine but then when we went back to trimming he kicked and bucked and nearly knocked me down. And when he wasn't doing that he was cushing (going down onto the ground with his legs under him), which makes it impossible to trim his nails.
We went into this assuming that it wouldn't go smoothly the first time and agreed right off the bat that if we didn't get all the boys today, we'd be okay with that. What we didn't expect was that the boy we wouldn't get to would be Cinnamon. We took off his halter and let go of the idea that today he'd have his toenails trimmed. So we moved on to Silverton, who turned out to be fairly easy to hold on to and halter -- he really didn't resist us holding on to him, and he was perfectly fine with the halter, only humming a tiny bit as I fussed with his fitting. We had some minor struggles with him at first, but after maneuvering him into a space where he couldn't really buck around too much he pretty much stood still and let me hold on to him while Matt did his front legs.
It was here we noticed that Silverton's nails look a lot different than we'd been noticing. He's got a pretty big crack in one of them on his front foot, and we noticed that as he slammed his feet onto the concrete floor of the barn trying to keep us from trimming them a couple of his back nails split and broke along the sides. While I was too busy holding him to see, Matt said that his nails looked like they were in pretty bad shape. Fortunately their previous owners Don and Jo are always available with questions, so we'll be checking with him to see how normal this is. He's not limping and appears to have no problems at all with his feet so I can only assume that either this is simply how his nails are (how many of us humans have dry, splitty nails naturally? Raise your hands) or that for whatever reason they've split and cracked a little but they're not hurting him.
Matt moved on to his back legs and managed to get most of the nails trimmed on one of his back legs, but the other leg Silverton simply refused to let get trimmed. This one had a particularly splitty and cracked toenail so we're wondering if maybe there was some sensitivity there. We tried all kinds of tricks to get it trimmed but it just wasn't going to happen today, so we unhaltered him, opened the barn doors, and let the boys back out into the pasture.
All things considered it was successful, or at least we felt like it was. For our first time without any supervision or help from other alpaca owners we were able to get them each haltered and get most of the toenail trimming down. Since Cinnamon the Drama Queen was anxious even from the haltering stage my guess is that he's just not comfortable with us haltering him right now, so we're going to begin haltering him a little more regularly without any other things attached to it -- just halter him, walk him around a little bit, make him stand while we examine his feet, and then let him go. Since it's been three months that we've had them we can't let his nails go too far before getting trimmed, but we're going to try again next weekend and we figure we'll just keep trying regularly until he finally figures out that we're not trying to savagely murder him.
I've said before that animal behavior has always been fascinating to me, and I got an eyeful of some new behavior a few days ago when we saw our first full-fledged, knock-down, drag-out fight between the boys. No one was hurt and it appeared to simply be a display of posturing on a dramatic scale, fortunately, and it was actually quite fascinating to see. The question it raised for us, though, is this: how do you tell who "won", if there is such a thing?
We had a bunch of people over for Matt's birthday and his mom and my sister had just come out with me to give some feed to the boys. Cinnamon mows through his handfuls of feed so quickly that he spills more pellets than he actually eats, and every time now he's taken to cleaning up his mess for several minutes after we're done, hoovering up pellets from the barn floor or the pasture (wherever we've managed to feed them).
Silverton rarely helps out with this but today apparently he decided to chip in and began picking up pellets next to Cinnamon, who apparently saw this as encroaching on his rightful ownership to the dregs of feed. Then Cinnamon did something we haven't seen him actually do before: he made an attempt to mount Silverton.
Naturally you can bet that Silverton took a little bit of umbrage to this. So he turned around and, in a gesture that clearly said, "dude, I do not swing that way and I'd be happy if you kept your advances to yourself" began to growl and wrestle with him. This escalated into full-on up-on-hind-legs body slams against each other, neck wrapping, you name it, with corresponding sound effects the likes of which we'd not heard yet. All of us out there stopped and watched, not really sure how serious it was.
It went on for less than a minute but was definitely the most aggressive behavior I'd witnessed in the boys. I was mildly concerned but also knew that, from Don and Jody's past advice, boys will be boys and frequently they'll wrestle, posture, shove, and generally act like teenage boys with something to prove. And it usually ends pretty quickly -- the only times you have to worry are when you see torn or bleeding ears, in which case the fighting alpacas (now if that doesn't sound like a great name for a high school football team I don't know what does) need to be separated for some cooling off and their fighting teeth obviously need some checking.
Despite my mild concern one thing made me laugh, and that was Benz's reaction to this whole thing. He had absolutely nothing to do with the argument but he half-heartedly joined in with a couple of weak body slams, kind of moving in and out of the fight as if he didn't know whose side he should be on or if he should even be on a side at all, but somehow felt obligated to join in. Benz is clearly a lover, not a fighter.
The whole thing was over in less than a minute. Silverton and Cinnamon stood side by side with their mouths open (after fighting alpacas mouths will frequently be slightly open and sometimes they'll appear to be frothing a bit), with Silverton ahead of Cinnamon. After a few seconds all three boys began walking to the corner of the pasture by the road with Silverton in the lead and Cinnamon and Benz so close behind him and to his side that I wondered if they were kind of pushing him into the corner, which is where he eventually went, or if they were just following his lead really closely for some reason. And then, as if it never happened, they all cushed in their favorite spots under the tree next to each other, and that was that.
When you own dogs and cats it's usually pretty easy to tell who "wins" a domination fight. With cats it's the one who flips the other one, WWE-style, on its back and pins it down. (When Pico was just a small kitten and Sam was a fully-grown adult, Sam thoroughly enjoyed luring Pico in for what seemed like an easy fight, taunting him by exposing her stomach, only to grab him, flip him, and pin him down. Unfortunately for her he seems to love this game...except that now he has five pounds on her, is taller and stronger, and still thinks he's a kitten and that it's his turn to flip Sam over and show her whose boss.)
But Matt and I don't know all the ins and outs of alpaca behavior yet and wondered who won this fight, if there really is such a thing. The dynamics of the boys' relationship didn't change: Silverton and Cinnamon seem to vie for leadership a little bit but they rarely fight at all, and Silverton seems like the "real" herd leader most of the time. Did Siverton successfully tell Cinnamon that he's still the boss? Did Cinnamon actually knock Silverton down a little in the pecking order? How many matches are there in the regular season? Is there a playoff? And more importantly, who has a licensing deal with the sportswear companies? The answers to these questions are pretty crucial as we're hoping we can enter the winning alpaca into Brock Lesnar's division, because that jerk needs a real takedown. Seriously.
So there's your question, alpaca owner-readers. What exactly happened? Was it just a whole lotta posturing amounting to nothing?
In non-fighting events the boys continue to provide hilarious, cute, and sweet moments. Silverton seems to really be warming up to us, especially me (since I'm the one who's home right now and tend to go out and do the pasturely duties). While doing fly trap maintenance the other day he cushed just a few feet from me, something he's never done before. Up to this point he's usually pretty watchful of me, being sure to stay several arm's lengths away from me. On Sunday I cleaned the pasture and with the sun shining the boys all fell over into Dead Alpaca Pose (lying in the sun on their side, looking for all the world like they'd fallen over dead of a heart attack...except for the flicking ears above the grass). I had to maneuver around them with the wheelbarrow and Silverton barely blinked at me even though I could practically have stepped on him. While all the boys are equally cute and sweet, there's something that's especially nice about watching Silverton -- with his one blind eye, who's always the one being a gentleman off to the side, politely waiting his turn, being a little shy -- start to warm up more.
Even Cinnamon with his willful nature can be sweet and cute. Today I dumped out their water and as soon as I turned on the hose to refill it Cinnamon and Benz were practically on top of me, obviously wanting a belly bath. I turned on the hose for them and they were so close to me that I actually got a bit of a belly bath as well. Cinnamon suddenly cushed right there on the spot, so close to me that he was literally nearly on my feet. It was such a shock to see him do this that I almost thought for a moment that he was sick or something was wrong with him. But then, as if realizing that he's not supposed to be that comfortable with me, he suddenly got up and moved a couple of feet back.
Benz and Cinnamon now tag-team me when bringing out their hay. They know now that it comes from the room in the back of the barn, and when they see me go in they crowd the door so that when I come out I have no choice but to let them pull hay out of my hands as I'm carrying it to their feeders.
Over the past few days I've spent some time out at the table working on fiber preparation, and each time the boys migrate up to the fence nearby, cush, and just seem to enjoy hanging out a few feet away from me, sometimes sunning themselves, sometimes just watching me work while they chew their cud. It's pretty sweet.
I've always enjoyed being a student of animal behavior. To me, having two cats in the house is more than having a couple of companions who like to shed and get underfoot, it's also having a mini animal behavioral lab right there to study every day. I'm fascinated with Cesar Milan's books and his astute observations of the canine condition. So in addition to the main reasons, having alpacas is yet another way to study the myriad ways that animals behave with both us and with one another.
Now that our boys have been here at their new home for just under a month we've had a chance to really observe them and see how they're getting used to the new digs, and also how their relationships with both us and each other are playing out. That's been really fun and there have been some interesting developments compared to our expectations of how they'd behave.
At their previous home, Cinnamon and Benz were quite used to each other having grown up together and having spent a lot of time in the pasture together. Silverton, on the other hand, had been relegated to the goat pasture -- despite having been gelded, he still wanted to bed all the ladies and fight all the boys, so he simply couldn't get along with anyone (well, I'm sure he thought he was getting along with the ladies, but it sounded like they were getting just a little tired of his constant advances).
When we decided which alpacas we were most interested in, we knew that Cinnamon and Benz would be the easy choice: as 4-H animals they were highly socialized with people as well as with each other. But we were also interested in Silverton -- his fleece was just lovely and he was so unique-looking to me. But we worried about whether or not he'd be able to get along with the other two boys given his bad boy reputation. So we asked Don and Jody about it and they decided to put the three boys with each other to see how they'd do. And it turned out they did just fine. Apparently Silverton's time with the goats had curbed his bad boy ways and he was learning to get along with his fellow alpacas.
Being that he's the oldest and had the reputation of being the pushiest, we assumed on bringing them home that Silverton was the natural herd leader. And mostly that has been the case: where he goes, the other boys follow. Silverton was also the first to do his alarm call when he saw something suspicious, and Don had told us that that's the herd leader's job.
To our amusement, however, Cinnamon has shown a tendency to be the bossier one and appears to be sharing herd leader duties with -- or stealing them from -- Silverton. We've noticed that about fifty percent of the time Cinnamon will decide to head off to a different part of the pasture and the other boys will follow. Benz appears to always be the swing vote, however. He's the most docile of the boys but appears to be the one who picks who to follow first. If Silverton walks off and Benz follows, the Cinnamon goes. If Cinnamon walks off and Benz follows, Silverton will follow. If Benz chooses to stay with the other one in either case, the first alpaca doesn't seem to go very far. Occasionally it will be Cinnamon who does the alarm call if there's something to be concerned about (like the housecat that they're absolutely sure is going to eat them, although they haven't been alarm-calling in several days for that).
At first Silverton was clearly the loner of the group, probably because he'd been so used to being with the goats before. Cinnamon and Benz frequently spent their time close to each other while Silverton was content to be several feet away. Initially at feeding time Cinnamon and Benz crowded each other while Silverton kept his distance, having to be enticed to come any closer for food. Whenever people came into the pasture Cinnamon and Benz naturally walked up but Silverton would stay away, his head up with extra alertness.
But since they've been here the dynamic has gradually changed in interesting ways. With only three of them I'm guessing that the small herd size has forced them to become closer socially. Benz and Silverton appear to be better buddies now: during their belly baths the other day the two of them stood side by side for a moment and then looked each other and then, to my surprise, touched noses in what seemed like a sweet gesture of social bonding. Being that I know very little about alpaca social dynamics I honestly don't know if that was the case -- it could very well have been a toe-to-toe stand off for all I know or it could have meant absolutely nothing, but it really didn't seem like that, especially since only a week or so before Silverton seemed genuinely concerned at Benz's well-being after Benz laid down in the sun and gently poked his nose into the side of Benz's face while humming. (Benz, however, was quite annoyed at Silverton for disrupting his nap.) Benz also seems to spend equal time sitting with both Silverton and Cinnamon now.
While Silverton has become sort of the hidden sweetheart of the group, Cinnamon has become bossier at feeding time. We've been feeding the three of them by hand so they can get used to us (rather than out of troughs in the barn) and Cinnamon is usually so busy lifting his head and making his pre-spit bossy face, moving back and forth between Silverton and Benz in an attempt to keep them both from eating what he clearly considers to be his food, that he forgets to eat himself. It's clearly all talk and no walk, however, as most days Benz and Silverton simply ignore him and keep eating. Some days Cinnamon gets a little spitty here (not the green cud spit that means he means business in keeping you away, but the puff-of-air spit that comes first as a warning) but we're told some alpacas are simply bossy. It's not genuine aggression -- that would mean biting and attempts at jumping on us, and these boys clearly aren't going to be doing any of that. Cinnamon strikes us more as the playground bully trying to steal your lunch out of your hand. Unsuccessfully, really. He only really shows this bossiness at feeding time and it's always directed at the other two boys, never at us. Occasionally I see him lifting his head and making his bossy face at the boys in the pasture when they're eating closely together or when they're standing close together during belly bath time, but it always looks pretty half-hearted. They don't even wrestle each other, really.
We do find we need to gently push back on Cinnamon occasionally during feeding time. Sometimes I feed them by myself and sometimes I wait until Matt gets home, and if I'm by myself it can be hard to feed three alpacas with only two hands. I usually grab a scoopful of food and get two handfuls first for Benz and Cinnamon since every time they eat those two act as if they'll never see the feed again. Cinnamon does his bossy face, occasionally spitting air, and then finally figures out that Benz is still eating and so, hey, he'd better eat, too. He's willful enough that he tends to crowd me if I feed them by myself -- the other day I found myself backed up against the barn wall with Cinnamon showing no signs of backing up. So I've started to take a firm but gentle hand with him at feeding time: I take my arm and slowly push back against his neck, forcing him to back up, when he crowds me a little too much. It seems to work for at least a few seconds, then he's back again, making his bossy face. It's pretty funny.
Silverton, showing his emerging sweetheart side, is frequently content to wait his turn. Up until recently I usually had to reach past the other boys to try and get him to eat out of my hand, at which point he'd very cautiously crane his neck, grab some food, and then scuttle back again. If I had to push Cinnamon out of the way Silverton used to get a little spooked and jump back. Lately, though, this no longer fazes him and he uses it as a chance to get closer so he can actually eat. And the other day he even took a bolder step: I crooked the scoop in my right armpit and fed Benz and Cinnamon out of my hands, and then turned to look and saw Silverton with his face buried in the scoop right in my armpit. The little bugger. It's been really fun seeing Silverton get more comfortable with us as he's been the most skittish. He's certainly not going to be letting us manhandle him easily any time soon, but it's been rewarding seeing him -- and really all three boys -- get more used to us being near them and touching them.
Benz is the biggest softie of the group. He's clearly the sweetest and most social, always coming up when new people show up. He frequently lets me walk up to him and stretch my hand out to scratch his chin, mainly because he's hoping there's food in my hand so he'll only let me do that for as long as he needs to determine that there is, in fact, no food in my hand and I have cruelly duped him. (Then he looks at me with those big, black-rimmed cow eyes as if to say, "why must you tease?") But at feeding time he'll usually stick around for a minute or two after the food's gone -- surely hoping for more -- and will tolerate a quick rub of his neck, always looking at us with those huge brown eyes as if to say, "you...wouldn't have any more food hidden in your pockets, would you?"
Because we don't have as much direct reason to physically handle our alpacas -- haltering them and leading them -- as larger operations would, we figure we should take time to do it occasionally for the sake of doing it for a couple of reasons: first, so that we ourselves get more comfortable haltering them for them times we do need it, like vet visits, toenail trimming time, etc., and secondly so that they get more comfortable with us handling them. So later today (when Matt's home to help me) I plan to start with Cinnamon and get him in the barn so I can halter him, check his toenails (they won't need trimming yet but I want to look), and walk him for a little bit on the lead around the pasture. Maybe that will help curb some of his bossy ways. Let's hope I don't get spit on.