Alpaca lovers and people curious about alpacas had a treat at Moonlight Rose Alpacas Farm the last week of August. They got to see a brown two-day-old female alpaca baby, or cria, named Sweet Caroline and a one-month-old rose gray cria, Fitzgerald, both bred at the farm in time for David Rose’s Alpaca 101, a seminar devoted to all aspects of raising alpacas. Topics included raising alpacas, their lifespan, care, feeding, birthing, breeding, showing and using their fiber for clothing. The seminar was coordinated by SEMAP, Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership for which Kendra Murray is the program coordinator.
One of the more unique aspects of alpacas is that they bear their young only in the daytime. This protects the mothers from bearing their young at night when they are at most risk of predators. Rose said, “They always have them in the daytime, an instinct born into them. They say they can stop labor if a storm’s coming.”
These two theories have proved true for Rose, who is retired from a career at the USDA. “I’ve never had one born in rain, any kind of rain, or storm, it’s always sunny weather. Out of 55 to 60, you’d think there’d be one born in the rain.” He credits it as another survival instinct inherent in the alpacas.
He further helps the alpacas by breeding them to bear their young only when it’s warm, from July through August, rather than in February. He remains surprised that none of the alpacas have ever been born in the rain, or thunderstorms in the variable heat of August at his three-and-a-half-acre farm in Swansea, MA.
Alpacas were introduced into the United States in 1986, according to Rose. “In general, alpacas from Peru are known for their whites, Bolivia and Chile for their browns and blacks, same for Argentina.”
He’s trying to breed his alpacas to produce a gray colored coat. “The brown one I knew was going to be brown. The other baby alpaca was rose gray.”
The most popular color is fawn, a lighter color than an actual deer fawn shade. He doesn’t dye the fiber himself. It is dyed when he turns his fiber into the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool, a Fall River based mill. He talks to them about colors, and they dye the fiber in big lots. At the mill it is graded, packaged into bales, and sent out to different mills that make anything from blankets to mittens.
They make his fiber into yarn, hats, mittens, gloves and socks that he sells at farmers markets in Plymouth Plantation in Plymouth MA, Pawtucket Winter Market, Quidneck Island in Middletown, RI and Mount Hope Farmers Market in Bristol RI, as Rhode Island is only 10 minutes away.
Dave became interested in alpacas while considering what to do when he retired from the USDA. “I saw an ad in a magazine at the time. I went and visited a few farms,” and the rest is history. The farm’s name, Moonlight Rose Alpacas refers to his alpaca venture as moonlighting.
That was 15 years ago. He started with seven alpacas and has had as many as 75. Currently, he has 62.
He covered the alpaca’s lifespan with the group of 30 that attended the seminar, some from as a far away as Boston. “They live, in theory, 20 to 25 years. I’ve had one make it to 23, and I have a bunch in their late teens.”
He raises the alpacas for their fiber. They are fed second cutting hay in addition to grain. “You can’t give them a lot of grain, and can’t give them much protein, it’ll thicken up their fiber. As they get older, it happens naturally. The whole thing is [about producing] fine fiber, it’s softer. People don’t want scratchy wool, they want fine, soft alpaca,” said Rose.
To achieve this, each alpaca receives one four-ounce serving of grain daily during what becomes a free-for-all in their pens. “It’s in a plastic feed bowl, they dance around, spit at each other; it’s not an exact science.”
The alpacas are housed in a 68 by 24-foot barn, divided up into five pens, females in the first two, and males in the last three.
He shears only once a year, generally in the last weekend of April, to keep his herd as cool as possible in the summer. The fiber must be at least three inches long for processing. “The colder the weather, the faster the fiber grows. Last winter was somewhat milder so there was less fiber,” said Rose.
The white fiber grows faster than the black fiber, as the white reflects the light, making the alpacas cooler. Just like wearing a black shirt in summer, black fiber retains the heat, and therefore, the black fiber grows slower. “It was very evident last year. White fiber was three and a quarter to four inches long, black just barely made the three inches,” said Rose.
Rose has been showing animals since 2004. He attends the North American Alpaca Show and the Big E at the end of September with his animals. He sends two ounces of their fiber to spin-offs, where it is spun into yarn and judged, all around the country, most recently as far away as Texas and California. “It’s easier than loading up the animals, that’s too cost prohibitive.”
Meanwhile, he’s having a lot of fun.