The instant you come up to Linda and Chris Johnson’s alpacas, you can see why people love them. With their long necks and camel-like appearance, the animals gaze at you in return with wide, curious eyes. With a graceful stride, the animals hum softly as they approach, allowing you to pet them.
“That is as loud as they get,” Chris Johnson said as he petted the coat of Rosie, a 3-month-old member of his 25-alpaca herd. “They’re community. They’re calm.”
It is easy to understand why alpaca farmers refer to raising the animals as a lifestyle. This weekend, area residents get a chance to see and feel for themselves.
The Johnsons are opening their six-acre alpaca farm in southern Bartholomew County to the public as part of National Alpaca Farm Days, presented by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. The event, which began in 2007, occurs the final weekend of each September.
If you are unfamiliar with alpacas, they resemble a llama. Although both animals are part of the camelid family, they are different species.
An average alpaca is much smaller than a llama. An alpaca matures to 100 to 150 pounds, whereas an adult llama weighs between 300 and 450 pounds.
And though both species are raised for their fiber, or fur, the density of an alpaca’s soft fiber is much lighter than that of a llama. The challenge of alpaca farming is trying to improve the texture of the fiber through lifestyle and breeding, Linda Johnson said.
Measured in microns, an alpaca’s fiber is hollow and thin, which makes it a great insulator. Shearing takes place during the spring, with harvested fiber used to make clothing. The water-resistant quality of the fiber makes it perfect for socks and boot insoles. The fiber also can be felted and used as filler for anything that needs insulation, such as quilts and coats.
The younger ones don’t yet understand and may fight the shearing process, but Chris Johnson said the older animals are anxious to donate.
“They’ll wait in line because they know how much cooler they’ll be,” he said. “You’re taking off a good four inches of fiber in 75- to 80-degree weather.”
The most difficult thing about being around them, according to Linda Johnson, is not falling in love with the animals. That’s because it then becomes difficult to let them go when they’re sold.
The couple’s farming venture started four years ago when Linda Johnson saw a televised ad about National Alpaca Days and wanted to learn more.
They visited a local farmer looking to sell his herd and, after a few meetings, the Johnsons brought home five alpacas. Chris Johnson, a plant supervisor at MacTac, and Linda Johnson, an accountant for LHP Software, are not farmers by trade and quickly discovered they were a bit unprepared.
“We got the animals before we got the barn. From the day we took delivery of the animals, we’ve been behind,” said Chris Johnson, who is still building fencing to accommodate the expanding herd.
The couple have found alpacas to be gentle, friendly animals that don’t get into a rush about anything, unless food is involved. Each has a distinct personality and thrives in the company of other alpacas.
The latest addition to the Johnsons’ herd is a male named Leo, born Sept. 14. Not even a month old, he already weighs just over 17 pounds. Visitors to the farm may get to see Leo sporting a jacket if they stop by in the morning. Although fashionable, the jacket has a practical use, to help Leo regulate his body temperature, Chris Johnson explained.
Visitors may also want to know that alpacas, like llamas, will spit.
“If there’s three or four spitting at one another to get to the food and you get in the way, you’re collateral damage,” he said from experience.
Alpacas are easy on the land. Confessing to his aversion for mowing grass, Chris Johnson said he would much rather invest money in the animals than spend it on gas for his lawnmower.
The herd of five has grown fivefold and may get bigger yet. Breeding the animals for their best qualities, Chris Johnson said all the alpacas on their farm are for sale. However, if you’re considering starting an alpaca farm you need a minimum of two animals, Linda Johnson cautioned.
“They are a herd animal,” Linda Johnson said. “They can’t handle being by themselves. It stresses them.”
Prior to investing in the animals, Linda Johnson recommends you do some research. She said it is important to have the land and buildings before purchasing the animals because it will save time and money. On average, the Indiana Alpaca Association recommends owners designate a single acre for every four to five alpacas in their herd.
If you are purchasing animals strictly for breeding, Linda Johnson said the animals alone can start around $3,000. Other things to consider is the equipment necessary to raise the animals, including halters, buckets for feeding and watering, and fencing.
According to the National Alpaca web site, an initial, overall alpaca investment can run as high as $68,000, which includes the animals, supplies and insurance for one year. Before making the leap, Chris Johnson recommends that potential buyers visit several alpaca farms to get a feel for the lifestyle.
Alpaca Farm Days
Where: LinChris Alpaca Farm, 1671 E. County Road 550S, south of Columbus just off State Road 11 and Jonesville Road.
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
Information: 342-1741, 371-2153
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