Christiansburg family develops alpaca herd
Just a few miles from Christiansburg’s main square, a family is developing a herd of alpacas and learning how to use their wool in crafts and clothing.
Gwen Harris is chief caretaker of the herd of seven alpacas at the farm owned by her grandparents, Lucy and Joe Draper. The farm is located on Lucky Lane off Christiansburg Pike.
Albert and Los Vegas are the herd’s adult males. There are four females: Celia, Oh My Gosh, Izzy and Izzy’s daughter Camelita.
Camelita is mother of the youngest member of the herd, Aladdin, a white appaloosa. Yes, alpacas can haved those white and brown spots like appaloosa horses.
“We just started,” said Harris. “We’re building the herd to 20. We think that will be manageable.”
Harris and her grandparents began realizing their alpaca farm dream in November when they bought the first members of their herd.
On a trip to Enchanted Hill Farm, the Drapers and Harris fell in love with the alpacas they saw at Ed Kinser’s farm on Bent Mountain.
Alpacas have huge, endearing eyes that peer out from under shocks of bushy hair. They are larger than goats, but they are not aggressive. Their hair provides fine wool. In the past, alpaca wool had to be imported from South America, since alpacas are indigenous to the Andes Mountains.
And they hum. They spend the day emitting soft, pleasant humming sounds that seem designed to soothe both the herd and any humans that happen to be in earshot.
Big, beautiful eyes
Lucy Draper was captivated by alpacas and their big shiny eyes when she and her husband visited Chili and saw a herd living on a 70-acre ranch.
“I was fascinated watching them,” she recalled. “There was one that looked just like Albert.”
Once the family started buying animals, there were fences to replace and barns to be built.
Was that a big investment?
“Believe me,” said Lucy Draper. But in the next moment she was cooing at the alpacas in the barn.
At Lucky Ridge Farm in Christiansburg, alpacas require a cooling fan and daily dousing with water hoses in the hottest part of a summer day. Harris trims their toes (two per soft-padded hoof), vaccinates them and supplements their pasture grazing with hay and fresh water.
“They really know how to munch out,” said Lucy Draper.
Like sheep, Alpacas need to be sheered in the spring. The wool Harris sheered last spring is being processed at a fiber mill in Tennessee. Harris and her grandmother are planning to purchase looms so they can create hats, scarfs and shawls. Harris said she will try selling their wares, including yarn, at craft fairs. She has already started making felted handbags from her herd’s wool.
In some cultures alpacas are raised for both their wool and their meat, but not at Lucky Ridge Farm.
“We enjoy working with animals that are not going to wind up on anybody’s dinner table,” Harris said.
Harris spent a great deal of time on her grandparents’ farm while she was growing up in Christiansburg. Sometimes she rode a horse or pony there, as her children can do these days.
Her interest in large animal care made Harris a good candidate for Virginia Tech’s two-year Agriculture Technology course.
“It teaches you the business side of farming,” she said, “how to run a farm.” A teacher at New River Community College urged Harris to apply for the Tech course. “I am so glad I filled out that application,” she said.
As Harris prepared for a future in farming, the alpacas that fascinated her grandmother became a mutual interest.
“I wanted an animal I could raise on a small farm of about 10 acres,” Harris said, an animal she could “handle pretty much on my own.” (Husband Justin Harris helps move hay.)
“Alpacas won’t challenge a fence,” Gwen Harris said. Recently when she needed to move her herd from the barn to a pasture across the farm’s driveway, she tied a single rope from the barn post to the field fence and her alpacas followed flawlessly.
“Alpacas are safe,” she added. Their defense is a breathy spit-like warning aimed toward an intruder. (Of course, males can get aggressive by biting each other if they are competing for dominance.)
Harris can bring her children, ages 2, 5, and 8, along with her to the farm, and daughter Harmony can even help with some of the chores. “Of course I monitor them with all animals,” she said.
“That’s another great thing about being all family,” she added, explaining that her children have more time with their grandparents because of their frequent visits to the farm.
Since they’ve begun building their herd, Harris has noticed that her grandparents are enjoying being outside on their deck watching the Alpacas. In the barn, folding chairs are on hand in case the Drapers want to leisurely watch the Alpacas up close. The couple has time to enjoy their animals because each of them is retired. Joe Draper was a founder of Draper Aden, an engineering firm, and Lucy Draper was a real estate broker at Long & Foster.
Harris pointed out another advantage of alpacas. They do not drop their manure wherever they graze. They pick a certain spot, which Harris called a dung field. She cleans it up every day and recycles the dung as fertilizer. Since the alpacas don’t roll in their own manure or urine, their fibers stay clean.
Harris hopes to build the herd through breeding while increasing the fiber business. She said alpacas are good breeders. “Ninety-five percent of the time there are no complications” during births, she explained.
“We want to build a business, but we want it to be a pleasure, also,” Harris said. “It’s a family thing, and we’re working well together.”