NEW HAVEN, W.Va. — For the 30 alpacas that make up the Blue Chip Stock Alpaca farm, it was more than “just a little off the top” when the shearers came calling recently.
The farm is located on Union Campground Road near New Haven, W.Va., and is owned by Brian and Diane Riffle. The annual event is more than a day of shearing though. It is a homecoming for old friends, a learning experience for outsiders, and the start of new projects for the Riffles.
For the past eight years, Kyle O’Rourke of Tuckaway Alpaca Shearing in Madison, Ga. has traveled to the Riffle farm to shear the animals. But unlike a normal business transaction, O’Rourke’s arrival is more like the homecoming of a beloved relative. In fact, if the timing is right, O’Rourke has been known to stay overnight with the family instead of getting a motel room.
It wasn’t long after his arrival, however, before the work begins. On hand are not only the Riffles and O’Rourke, but also O’Rourke’s helper, Adam Strain of California, Diane’s daughter Tatum Roush and grandson Cole Day, and volunteers Abby Kincaid and Jeremy Fiske.
After the equipment is set up, the shearing begins. The alpacas are brought in and straps are carefully attached to all four legs. Forcing the animal down onto a padded mat, Fiske runs with the end of the ropes to tighten them so the animal cannot move. This will be his job for the duration of the morning, as each person on hand is given an assignment.
Next, O’Rourke and Strain begin the actual shearing process. The first cutting is the best fiber, according to Diane. Taken from shoulder to hips, this is the prime, longer fiber that is used for blankets and sweaters. It is Roush’s and Kincaid’s job to gather this first cutting into brown paper wrapping laid next to the alpaca, to be sent to the fiber processing co-op.
The “seconds” are the alpaca’s shorter hair, which is sheared from the neck and thigh. This fiber is used more for gloves and hats. Finally, the “thirds,” taken from the legs, are put into trash bags to be used for dog beds, dryer balls, and rugs. Nothing is wasted.
While Brian Riffle and Day keep the alpacas moving from the field into the shearing area, Diane works on getting medical injections ready. Since the animals are already down, a wormer shot is given, as well as a vaccine that prevents tetanus and other maladies. The shearers also trim the alpacas’ toenails and grind their teeth if they have grown too long.
O’Rourke said this is his 11th year of shearing not only alpacas, but also llamas and sheep. His travels take him anywhere east of the Mississippi for the three-month shearing season, which runs from mid-March to mid-June. In fact, his Toyota truck now boasts an incredible 576,000 miles.
When he isn’t shearing, O’Rourke is in the construction trade. He does mostly specialty construction, and is presently restoring an 1868 Craftsman-style home in Madison.
Diane, who knows each of her alpacas by name, said she and Brian first became interested in alpacas in the fall of 2001 after seeing them at the Lucasville Trade Days. They began researching the animals, and by Memorial Day 2002, the Riffles had imported two alpacas from Peru.
When the couple bought their alpacas, the animals were not as plentiful in America as they are now. She said at that time, the animals were being sold for an average of $20,000 per head. Now, depending on their DNA and other variations, the average alpaca is sold at auction for around $5,000.
White alpacas are the “cream of the crop” when it comes to their fiber, according to Diane, because it can be dyed any color. The white fiber is also softer and more preferred by the textile industry, while the darker hair is coarser. That is also why the animals are sheared lightest to darkest as to not contaminate the color. The shearing area is cleared after each animal, and the fiber is clearly marked with the animals’ names.
Shearing day is popular for guests, the most recent one being visited by a family who homeschools their children, some soon-to-be buyers, and others. Kirk and Cindy Chevalier of Chester, Ohio, are purchasing three of the Riffle’s alpacas. The animals will already have been bred, so the Chevaliers will hopefully double the size of their herd after the 11 ½ month gestation period.
There are two different breed types of alpacas – the huacaya and the suri. The huacaya fleece has a fluffier, “Teddy bear” appearance that is good for making bigger blankets, Diane said. The suri fiber clings to itself and hangs in ringlets. Although harder to hand-spin, the suri produces a better fiber with lots of luster. The Riffles own both breeds.
Even though the alpaca fiber goes anywhere from $1 to $2 per ounce, Diane said she does not sell any. She alternates sending the fiber to the co-op to produce finished products or the yarn mill in Ohio. Her finished products of hats, gloves, blankets, socks, and more are sold personally on the Blue Chip Stock Alpacas and Alpaca Treasures Facebook page, and at local bazaars. Items can be found commercially at Hidden Creek Mercantile in Hurricane, W.Va., and this fall will be available at Snowshoe Resort.
Diane is passionate about her alpacas and the ethical treatment of the animals in general. She regularly posts educational information about alpacas on the Facebook page.
She said alpacas are herd animals and are meant to be with other animals of their own kind. A single alpaca, while very gentle in nature, does not do well on its own.
Alpacas are considered to be one of the most environmentally friendly of all agricultural grazing animals, she said. They are gentle grazers, cutting the grass as opposed to pulling it up by the roots.
Because alpaca fiber is lighter and warmer than wool, it takes fewer strands to insulate and is softer than most sheep wool. Alpaca fiber has very little lanolin compared to sheep wool. This means although alpaca fiber needs to go through a fiber-scouring phase, chemicals are fewer and less harsh than that of the multi-step detergent wash needed for sheep wool.
Alpacas consume much lower amounts of both water and forage than other livestock, Diane added, and their three-stomach digestive system metabolizes most of what they eat. Their pellet-like droppings are pH-balanced and are an excellent natural, slow-release, low odor fertilizer. The droppings can also be used as biofuel.
Before heading to the Charleston area for their next shearing location, O’Rourke and Strain joined the others around the porch over lunch, sharing stories. Talk of next year’s shearing is already in the works.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Diane said. “They are so kind to the animals though, and they really make it fun.”
Mindy Kearns is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.