It doesn’t matter what the crop is, harvest is one of the milestones of any farmer’s growing year.
Being an alpaca farmer, shearing is our harvest time, and fibre is our crop. I always find it kind of unusual that when traditional farmers are just starting their farming year, we are winding ours up.
Most people have seen videos of animals being sheared at sheep stations in the Australian Outback. Those professional shearers who travel stripping the fleece off of thousands of sheep per year, seemingly in the blink of an eye. They are amazing to watch as they shear a sheep in under 5 minutes. Poetry in motion.
Alpaca shearing is very different.
Most of the equipment is the same. Electric shears, multiple combs and cutters for the electric shears, hand shears, foot trimmers, dental equipment for trimming teeth (to ensure that the animals are able to eat properly), and a veterinary first aid kit in case of accidental cuts. There are some differences with the combs and cutters that we use due to the difference in the fleece and the animals. Sheep combs have shorter teeth that are spaced wider apart than the camelid or mohair combs. Alpacas have thinner skin than sheep so the combs have teeth that are closer together to ensure that the skin doesn’t get pulled up between the teeth and into the cutting blades. This would result in the animal being cut and that is not what any alpaca owner wants
The biggest difference between shearing alpacas and sheep is how they are restrained during the shearing process. Sheep are tipped up onto their rump and the shearer bends and moves them as needed to get all the fleece off. If you sit an alpaca like that it slumps like a big bean bag. This doesn’t make removing the fleece easy, or most importantly safe for the animal or the shearing crew. Alpacas can be restrained for shearing in a number of ways. Some people stretch them out on the ground and shear them there. Some owners stand their animals, though keeping the fleece clean doing this is a challenge. We use a table that was specifically built for alpaca shearing. After trying different methods, we quickly realized that the table was our preference, finding it easier on us and the animals. Our table tilts and has a squeeze that gently but securely hold the alpaca in place while we tilt the table flat and restrain their legs. Someone stays at their head through the entire time they are on the table to calm and control the animal through shearing, vaccinations, foot trimming and if necessary, tooth trimming. Many people see pictures of animals on the table and feel that it looks uncomfortable or cruel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Alpacas do not lay quietly if they are being harmed. Stretching the legs ensure that the skin is taut and that the animal does not move, risking injury to itself and the crew. Interested in seeing the table in action? Check out our Facebook page www.facebook.com/stonespindlefarm
Alpaca fleece is removed from the body in sections and bagged, weighed and recorded. The fleece is of different quality around the body with the “blanket” or “saddle” being the prime. From there it’s the butt, neck, bib/belly/legs. Sometimes you will hear this referred to as firsts, seconds, and thirds. The general method of sorting the fibre is the same, but each farm has their own variations.
After the haircut, manicure/pedicure, vaccinations, health check, and dentistry the table is tilted down again and the animal is released. They return to the herd where everyone is looking around at how different they all look and they are already starting to grow next year’s “crop”
Next up - Fibre Sorting or “Holy Moly! What are we going to do with all this!”