Friday, January 23, 2009

Someone new...

It's been an exciting week here as we are "breaking in" our new farm manager, Jenny. We were sad to see Jamie leave after 3 years, but it was an amiable mutual parting and things have fallen in to place for all of us. Jenny's equine background and education as well as enthusiasm and fitness (she's an event rider and marathon runner) will serve her well as she learns about alpacas and the ins and outs of maintaining a busy farm operation.

I'm also enjoying Jenny's sense of humor, especially as we were both sliding around in the mud this morning while catching the weanlings for worming!

Reading Dr. Evan's Field Manual cover-to-cover and asking tons of questions, Jenny is currently a sponge and I appreciate her eagerness to learn. She's already giving shots and meds and we are finishing up herd health. She's worked cheerfully through some of the coldest weather we've seen around here in years with nary a complaint!

Welcome, Jenny!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

RIP, Sweet Belle

Silver Belle captured our hearts as much as we tried to stay a little distant, and I am feeling pretty broken-hearted right about now as she died this afternoon. For whatever reason, something was just not right from the start and we tried everything to give her a chance.... round-the-clock bottle feeding to rule out infection, bloodwork, and lastly a plasma transfusion. This is the last picture I took of the sweet thing, at the vet's yesterday.

Although her IGG had been good (we tubed her with her mom's colostrum the first day), she could never get the hang of nursing. We even had our suspicions that possibly her neck was injured somehow as she always seemed to find it awkward to put her nose up. Despite round-the-clock bottle feeding, Belle wasn't growing. I told Paul last night that the transfusion was either going to pep her up considerably or she would take a big downturn today, which is what resulted. In the end, she died quickly.

I hesitated to write about this on the blog, but this is in fact a reality of raising any kind of animals. The loss is sentimental and emotional, but also represents a loss of time and money. Farming is not for the weak!

I chose to do something which I did once years before, and is extremely difficult.... I skinned the hide. Belle had an absolutely exceptional fleece, and I am going to have it tanned. It will honor her in some way, either through becoming a piece of art or for being used for education.

This is not a common occurence, we almost never lose a cria! But, death is a part of life and life will go on... it always does on a farm and spring is just around the corner (well, maybe around a few corners). I hope that my sharing the bad with the good will help someone else in some way.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Alpacas going Beserk! (Aberrant Male Syndrome)

Alpacas are normally quite safe for even young children to handle!

Alpacas and llamas can develop an issue that was previously called Beserk Male Syndrome (no, we're not talking about men going through mid-life crises or anything), but is now more commonly referred to as Aberrant Male Syndrome. This is basically a problem that is caused/made by inappropriate human interaction during a sensitive time in a cria's development.

It seems that crias that are overhandled (especially in conjunction with bottle-feeding) have their "brain wiring" mixed up. They may appear to be extremely friendly toward people, running up to you, nibbling at clothes, sniffing your shoes, getting into your space. Although it might seem cute in a small cria, these should be red flags of a potential problem, as this is not normal behavior and if not nipped in the bud early on, there can be irreversible dangers. The alpaca may appear more confident than most, which seems appealing, but watch out when "puberty hits!"

Alpacas and llamas, especially males, have a herd pecking order and can be territorial. To establish this hierarchy at maturity, they may chest-butt, mount each other, bite at ears, spit upon, or even tackle each other. This is normal and even healthy behavior that rarely results in injury. Males that have their identity confused by inappropriate bottle-feeding or handling can act in the same ways... toward people. Females with the same issues may also bump, jump on, or otherwise be very pushy or spitty. It is almost as if they aren't sure if they are human or you are alpaca... they are confused and if these behaviors are not discouraged at a very young age, the problem cannot be resolved later on, even by the best of camelid specialists/trainers. Sadly, many owners have had to make the difficult decision to put these animals down rather than put their children or themselves at risk. We actually heard of a man in Ohio who was bitten by a male llama with ABS (Aberrant Male Syndrome), and the bite hit an artery in his arm which could have been fatal! Biting is definitely NOT a normal behavior that alpacas or llamas engage in toward people!

Why is it that nearly every farm visitor we've ever had has recounted a story of being spit upon by a llama at a petting zoo? They tell me their sad story, and when I ask if it was at a petting zoo, they all ask how did I know that? It's simple.... petting zoos like to have friendly animals and bottle feeding produces that. It's not such a big deal with many species, but for alpacas and llamas it definitely is! Tragically, many of those petting zoo animals are sold when mature to unsuspecting newbies that are thrilled with such a friendly new pet... until they are knocked to the ground when they have their back turned, or their new pet starts spitting on them all of the time! Not every petting zoo llama or alpaca has been bottle-fed, but lots of hand-feeding can encourage some of the same behaviors.

So..... we have a bottle cria right now (though she is starting to nurse on her mom a bit more!) How can we prevent these issues from occurring? When we feed Belle we make every effort to do the following:

1. Refrain from talking to her. We routinely talk to many of our animals which is completely fine, but not a bottle cria.

2. Handle only when absolutely necessary.

3. Encourage as much interaction as possible with the herd, never separate her from her mother.

4. Don't make direct eye contact.

5. If one acts too friendly (ie. nibbling on clothes), give them a swift and matter-of-fact knee in the chest while saying NO and immediately leave the area.

Over the years, we have seen just a few crias develop over-friendly tendencies even though they weren't bottle-fed or overhandled- they just seemed to be wired this way. We handled these boys as little as possible and put them with slightly older ones at a younger age then usual to sort of help them be put in their place (not so that they would be injured, just so they wouldn't grow overly-confident).

For further reading about this topic, here are some excellent articles:
(by John Mallon)
(by Cathy Spaulding)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Belle update

Well, above is what we'd like to be seeing more of....But this is what is happening much more often.... bummer. We may have our first full-time bottle cria ever. Over our 14 years, we've had to intervene with perhaps 1 cria per year to make sure they get their initial milk and work through some early problems with the dam. We once had a cria orphaned at nearly 3 months, but he really fought the bottle at that point and found another dam who would allow him to nurse to supplement the food he was already eating on his own. We've had perhaps 3-4 premature crias (out of nearly 400 born here) that needed early assistance because they were weak, and we have had one dam with an udder problem whose crias need extra care.

For whatever reason, Belle just doesn't seem to want to latch on well to her mom. We've done bloodwork, exams, milked out the dam regularly, everything but they just can't seem to get hooked up.... yet (I haven't lost all hope).

Crias are tougher to get to take a bottle than lambs or calves, they just want to resist it even if they're hungry and they drink pretty slowly. To maintain their body weight they need at least 10% of their total weight in milk and to gain they need 15% or more... which equates to about 28-30 ounces for Belle, at an average of 5 ounces per feeding (IF she takes it), which is 5-7 feedings per day. For the first week, we did round-the-clock feedings but now we don't feed during sleeping hours, so it's a lot to get in all of those bottles.

We use regular Vit. D milk at our vet's recommendation, and sometimes add a tad of cream and plain yogurt for the probiotics.

Next I'll talk about how NOT to create a monster from a bottle-fed cria! What, that cute little sweet friendly thing a monster? They can become pretty crazy if not handled correctly. Fortunately, Belle is a fantastic female cria so I know that it'll all be worth it in the long run!