There was a time we seriously considered a move to New Zealand and my real estate search there led me to a dream of owning an alpaca farm. When we moved on to southern Illinois instead, we just moved the dream with us. Alpacas were the first animals we began the process of buying when we realized a rural life was in our future. Because our interest in alpaca is chiefly for fiber, we chose Suri alpacas, who boast long, lustrous and tender fibers. A Huacaya alpaca may have given us more fiber but would have lacked the beautiful sheen. We started out with four alpacas and after a hard first year of learning, were left with three. The next year we were confident to purchase four more and now our total grew to seven. In 2017, we welcomed our first three crias born on the farm: Fancy Yancey, Rayito de Luz, and Angel White Lilac. The winter proved to be more difficult and we lost a baby and another momma. Currently, we have 8 alpacas.
It wasn’t long after we decided to bring alpaca to our new farm (that we technically didn’t even own yet) for a small fiber operation when we decided to also bring in quality wool. Thus, we were the proud owners of two merino ewe lambs shipped in from California before we had even closed on our new home. (It was one of those postponed close date nightmares.) While it was a little daring to bring home two large ewes without transport or a home for them, we love their gorgeous, soft and fine wool. After that hard first year, we only have one merino ewe now but she is a major producer of wool. We have since brought in two Cormo ewe lambs from a local farm this summer in hopes to boost wool production. Cormos were bred using Saxon Merino lines and boast the same buttery-fine wool density. They should be a good wool match and will hopefully also have more hardiness to the local environment.
While it was my dream to dabble in dairy, it was not a dream shared by all members of the family. So we compromised and bought the smallest animal that could produce a reasonable amount of dairy. Dwarf Nigerian Goats were introduced to this country as food for large zoo predators, but it did not take long for them to be realized as excellent dairy producers. They now are one of the nine breeds recognized by the American Dairy Goat Association. Admittedly, a larger, standard-size breed would produce more milk but Dwarf Nigerians produce a competitive amount for their compact size and weight. Unlike pygmy breeds, Dwarf Nigerian Goats also retain the graceful proportions of stature of a standard breed. They are also very fertile and breed easily every year, giving us anywhere from two to five goat kids in each gestation. Once we started milking, it didn’t take much more than a mouthful of the first goat chevre cheese to become a fan. Contrary to common misconception, fresh goat milk does not taste like the goat milk bought in stores. It tastes sweet, even more so than cow milk. The heat of the pasteurization process does release the capric acid which gives the “goat” flavor but a lower pasteurization temperature followed by very cold keeping temperatures keeps the flavor at bay and we have been able to replace all our milk with goat milk.
Our beloved Great Pyrenees entered our farm dream when we brought the alpacas. The alpaca breeder we purchased from stressed the need for a livestock guardian dog (LGD) to protect the alpacas from being chased or attacked by predators. Even a harmless chase from a neighbor’s dog could result in the panicked alpaca hurting itself. We later learned that such a chase could kill a goat because its mental state can dictate its health. We investigated using a donkey or a llama as a guard animal, but while they do behave territorially they do not instinctively protect other animals nor do they innately watch over through the night. Nighttime is when predators are largely on the prowl. We found a lovely local breeder who bred puppies from her own Great Pyrenees, each with an impressive pedigree of temperament and stature and proven success as a LGD. It was love at first sight when we brought our puppy home. Having owned two dogs and fostered another, we were familiar with various breeds but had never known the warm, dedicated, and focused temperament of the Great Pyrenees. Prized for their ability to think on their own in order to protect the herds and flocks, Great Pyrenees are notably stubborn but extremely responsible. Our four-month old puppy gave us a bark of alarm when our son stayed underneath the water of the pool for too long. We brought in a second female to complete the team and fell even more in love. Their amazing dispositions and intelligence compelled us to consider breeding them and soon we had a male puppy en route to our farm from Belgium. He boasts old, proud lines of Great Pyrenees blood from the region where they first gained their usefulness to the shepherds and farmers of the Pyrenees mountains. Our big boy, Pax, is impressively in-tune with the needs of his herd. After two litters, Pax did not quite produce the quality we were looking for. He still lives here, guarding and protecting, but a new little boy from Finland will hopefully be our sire for 2019 litters.
While we do occasionally use some modern hybrid breeds such as ISA Browns for eggs or Cornish Rock crosses for meat, we focus our efforts on bringing in and raising heritage breeds of varying egg sizes and colors. One of our most popular eggs is that of the French Black Copper Maran whose egg is dark, almost chocolate brown. It is rumored that Ian Fleming, the author of the “James Bond” series, preferred only the eggs of the FBCM. We are also focusing on flocks of Cream Legbar, Bielefelder, and American Bresse. Cream Legbar, a layer of beautiful blue eggs, and Bielefelder are especially interesting because they are autosexing. This is a trait that means you can tell which chicks are male or female straight out of the egg and is very useful for sustainability on a small farm. We raise our chickens on a complete free-range environment but still allow them free choice chicken feed. We have noticed that they prefer free-ranging on bugs and weeds. It is also important to us that they remain as close to their natural cycles as possible so we do not boost egg production with the introduction of lights during the winter. As much as possible, we let them hearken only to Mother Nature.
The turkeys from the store we are used to seeing on our table are mostly modern hybrids. The problem with these new birds arises from their oversized breast muscles; it hinders their ability to reproduce naturally. Obviously they are not practical for a farm interested in sustainability. Older breeds, referred to as heritage breeds, are more beautiful and also retain the ability to breed naturally. We experimented last year with two turkeys on our Thanksgiving table. One was a modern hybrid, a broad-breasted bronze turkey hen, and the other a heritage red bourbon tom turkey. What the heritage bird lacked in size, it compensated for in rich, complex and tangy flavor.
There are a few standard breeds of honeybees in the United States. The most commonly found are Italian and Russian or Carnolian. One breed, named Buckfast after the British monk who developed them, is known for its docility as well as productivity. We are attempting to keep hives of Buckfast on our farm but raising them in this area poses a challenge as their docility leaves them susceptible to the myriad of pests and intruders common to southern Illinois. We have had many failed attempts at introducing a second colony of Buckfast each spring and are still waiting for our first true honey harvest. In the meantime, plans are in place to sow fields of wildflowers around the bees in an effort to improve honey flavor. Knowing that over 20,000 bees are involved to produce just one jar of honey humbles us as we put our work into perspective. We try to honor their work ethic and remember their gift of not just honey but pollination and beeswax as well.