All the animals and the farmers now seem to be settling in to their various roles. The llamas know their routine and the sheep theirs. At first we had to plan how we were going to trick the llamas into going to the barn when we wanted. Now we can get them to go to the catch in the barn without uttering a word. For good or for bad the sheep are quite easily attracted to us as well. They are all motivated by food—and specifically the knowledge that we bring it to them—but we don’t care if it gets them to do what we want. This is especially good for us now that the weather has started to get colder.
For the most part caring for the animals takes between ten and forty-five minutes a day of either of our time. In the morning after the dogs are fed, one of us walks down to the cabin and gets grain to give to the llamas. As soon as the animals see us enter the Magic Food CabinTM they gather as near as they can. When we eventually come out they walk the fence line to meet the food bringer at the gate. I usually put the metal coffee can full of grain under my sweatshirt or jacket to buy myself a few seconds and to help keep prying noses and mouths from getting a sneak taste.
The sheep are pushier even though they don’t get a daily ration like the llamas—who are still growing boys…err…geldings. I have to bop the sheep lightly on their foreheads with my fist to deter them, and they still persist. Once I manage to get into the paddock, I take a direct route to the gate that closes the catch. The llamas, knowing the procedure, make their way into the catch and leave it to me to attempt to keep the sheep at bay.
Once the llamas are isolated from the sheep, I give them each their allotment of grain in their individual feeding buckets, which we’ve mounted on separate walls of the barn. If the llamas weren’t isolated the sheep would stand on their hind legs and attempt to get to the grain with their noses or by knocking the feeder off the wall. This is exactly what they do when the llamas are done with their breakfast, and I have re-opened the gate to the catch. They push through the opening before the llamas can get out and while I am still opening the gate.
Lately, I have adjusted the process by throwing a bale of hay over the fence before I enter the paddock with the grain. The more aggressive sheep—Zinnia, Manta and Aretha—will still try to crash the llama’s breakfast, but it is still easier than when the six of them work together.
Once everyone is occupied with their breakfasts, I check on their water supply. Until recently we used a hose and a Coleman cooler for their water, but we knew this method wouldn’t work for the winter. A few weeks ago, on the advice of the president of the Hooved Animal Sanctuary in Chelsea, Vermont, we ordered a heated bucket that also has a thermostat. Now the water will not freeze, and the bucket will only turn on when the temperature falls below 35°F (1.7°C). The cord is tucked under the bucket and I was able to feed it under the barn to plug it in to an electrical outlet. The cord also has a spiral of wire around it to deter the animals from chewing on it. I made some small modifications to the barn so that the cord will not be an enticement for the curious crew.
After the water, I do a quick sweeping of the barn’s floor. On the advice of Marian White, we decided to use stall mats instead of straw bedding. Straw bedding makes for dirtier fleeces, and more work when it comes time to cleaning the fiber before it is processed. Some people simply throw more and more straw on the barn floor and then wait until mud season to muck all of the manure and straw in one back-breaking chore. Since we are shooting for clean fleeces that we don’t have to clean as much once it has been shorn, we prefer to sweep the barn every few days and take the manure to a pile just outside the paddock. The pile will make excellent compost for our gardens and pastures. Luckily, llamas prefer to do their business outside of the barn in a community pile. Every few days or so the piles can be removed with a shovel and wheelbarrow. One of the great things about llama manure is that it can be applied directly to a garden even during the growing season as it will not burn like other high-nitrogen manures. We figure if we don’t sell enough fiber we can go into the llama poo business.
At this point, during the warmer months, I normally open the gate to the upper pastures and allow the animals to graze; however, with our nascent pasture already a bit weak, we gave it the winter off starting in late September. In the spring we will begin to use the temporary fencing to allocate strips of grazing areas, and the animals’ manure will help enrich the soil and build a better pasture over time. Each week we move the fencing around to give the animals a fresh area to nosh. In the fall we would normally apply some outside source of manure (cow’s) to fertilize the soil, but we did that this past summer before the livestock arrived, so we’ll do that again next autumn.
As I make my way out of the paddock, I tick off the various completed chores in my head, and check that the electric fence is on—and strong—while I lock the paddock gate behind me. If the voltage has dropped for some reason, I check the fence to see if a plant is leaning against it, or if some other animal has broken a wire.
In the evenings, one of us goes down to the barn and checks on the animals again before leaving them for the night. If we hadn’t cleaned the barn in the morning, we do it at this time. Overall, the chores are rather invigorating, and I personally find that I can work through the things I have on my mind while doing them, making the time pass quickly.
This past weekend, we administered the deworming shots to the llamas by ourselves, which was interesting. We have had some experience giving shots to our dog Mickey, but it isn’t nearly the same. Llamas are pure muscle, and finding a fold of skin loose enough to administer the shot subcutaneously was difficult. Ultimately, I ended up pulling at the animals’ fiber to give me enough room to insert the needle, while Sarah calmed each animal and attempted to keep them still.
I think we are doing okay, so far. Now, if we can all survive the winter. Wish us luck.