What has a long neck, no top teeth, eight toes, and is practically silent?
Alpacas, who are similar in appearance to camels, but much smaller, are native to Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Bred for their soft, fleecy coats, alpacas are not ridden or used as beasts of burden like their cousins, the llama. Alpacas have only been imported into the United States since the 1980s, but importation was stopped a few years ago.
Now all alpacas are bred from native packs and, at Shadow Pines Alpaca Farm in Exeter, there's plenty of alpaca breeding going on.
Bob Ball breeds and sells, and now has 31 alpacas – 17 girls [called hembra] and 14 boys [called macho]. He calls his farm “Quality Cria-tions,” and, according to Ball, he's got a few more “cria,” or baby alpacas, on the way.
But Ball didn't have that many when he started the farm in 2003. He originally had three animals, but he soon found his farm dominated by females. More females meant more pregnancies, which meant more alpacas.
Ball always wanted a farm and as he neared retirement, he invested in the farm he now calls home in 2003. He and his wife, Vivienne, knew they wanted animals, but weren't sure what.
“We didn't want beef cattle or horses, and then we met these [alpacas] at a fair and it intrigued us,” said Ball.
After doing research, Ball decided that alpacas were the way to go.
“They're very low maintenance, very eco-friendly; they eat the grass but don't pull up the roots,” he said. “They're neighbor-friendly, they don't smell and they don't make a lot of noise.”
He started with a small fenced-in area around a modest barn and let the animals roam. The property hadn't sustained animals for 14 years but Ball found it was perfect for the undemanding alpacas.
Ball opened the farm to the public and makes appearances at farmers markets and pumpkin picking events where he brings a few alpacas along and displays goods his wife spins out of the animals' fleece. [Alpaca fiber is similar to sheep’s wool but more like hair and glossier.]
“I like to show the whole process,” said Ball.
The farm is open on the first weekend of every month, but Ball said he gets visitors nearly every weekend, invited or not.
“We don't care, we like bragging about alpacas,” he said.
In the spring, the animals are sheered, and the fiber is harvested for products like blankets and sweaters. In the fall, the animals grow long their thick coats.
Native to the foothills of the Andes, the animals are accustomed to warm days and cold nights, so they don't mind the climate here in Rhode Island.
In the summer, Ball said, the alpacas enjoy the cool shade of their barn and its overhang, but in the winter, they're hardly ever inside.
“They enjoy the winter,” said Ball. “They'll stand in the field and let the snow build up on their backs and then shake it off like a dog.”
Ball worked at National Grid before retiring and starting the Alpaca farm. The only animals he'd ever raised were dogs, like his 15-year-old Yorkie, Colby, who keeps watch over the farm and greets visitors.
“It's easier than I thought,” said Ball. “I was worried I'd get bored, but I haven't yet. I really enjoy the time I spend with them. I had a stressful job, and I’d get home and go into the barn and all the stress would go away.”
Ball said alpacas have communal “piles” where they all go to defecate in the same spot. Once they’ve established a pile, every alpaca will go only there.
They usually eat grass and a cup of grain a day, and get as much hay as they want. As a special treat, Ball will often let his guests feed them carrots.
If they get upset with each other, they spit at each other.
“Sometimes you don't know why they're fighting,” said Ball, who said they're similar to humans in that regard.
If they get upset with a human, they'll spit up in the air in defiance, but Ball said he's never been hit.
Alpacas have two toes on each foot with nails that have to be trimmed occasionally. Their teeth need trimming, too, which Ball does about once a year. He only has to trim their front, bottom teeth. They don't have front teeth on the top of their mouths. Instead, they have a soft palette, which makes it look like they forgot to put their dentures in. They use their teeth and palette to rip up grass and throw it back to their molars for grinding. Like cows, alpacas are ruminants, and have multiple stomachs – three – so they chew their food and regurgitate it as cud.
They come in all different colors including brown, cream, beige, black and “rose,” which means the alpaca has a lavender hue to its coat.
Ball sells the alpacas are for breeding, for fiber or as pets.
The price of alpacas varies dramatically depending on their purpose. If they're being sold to breed, they can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Ball said he heard of an alpaca that went for three-quarters of a million dollars, and that was just for a half interest.
Alpacas as pets usually only fetch $400 to $500 these days, and are a bargain at that.
“It’s way too cheap,” said Ball. “They would have gotten a few thousand dollars a few years ago.”
Ball said he forms bonds with all of his animals, and so it’s difficult to see them go.
“My wife usually cries every time we drop one off with someone,” he said.
But most are for sale. All except “Chance.”
“He's not one of our best quality animals,” said Ball of Chance, a small, white male, but Ball has a special bond with the young macho. After the 11-and-a-half-month gestation period, Chance nearly died at birth.
“We tried really hard to keep him alive,” said Ball, with tears welling up in his eyes.
After struggling for nearly a day into the wee hours of the morning, Ball and his wife decided to call it quits. Then Chance showed signs of hope.
“He turned and picked up his head and looked at me,” said Ball, who knew then that Chance wasn't going to give up.
“The next day Chance was up and walking around,” said Ball.
Now he's a small but healthy male. Ball said he’s aptly named.
“He's always at my back, biting at my pants,” he laughed. “If someone asks, I'll say, ‘Yeah, he's $30,000.’”
Ball clearly loves his herd, and knows all 31 of them by name.
They range from 8 months to 10 years of age. Ball said they could live into their mid-20s.
Ball cautions people who are interested in having them as pets.
“It's a certain kind of person that's going to take an alpaca,” he said. “They're the easiest things in the world to take care of, and they're very friendly. But I'd recommend having an acre or more of land...and you could have three or four with the right zoning permits.”
Ball thinks that the newest “cria-tions” will arrive sometime in the fall or the winter.
“My grandkids will get to name them.”
Shadow Pines Alpaca Farm is located at 181 Purgatory Road in Exeter. For an appointment, or for more information, call Bob Ball at 295-7859.