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January 1998 High Plains Rider Cover Story

 

Llamas - An Emerging Symbol of the New American West

by Dave Donley
Reprinted with permission.


Llamas - An Emerging Symbol of the New American West

It’s as if God had designed the perfect animal for the 90’s, what with parents
trying to hold down jobs and a busy household, kids involved with school and
after-school activities. With all that goes on in your life, why beat your
head against a wall raising animals for show, much less having them around all
year as pets? Who has the time and energy?


For the millennium, what people need is a low maintenance, low emission animal
complete with a low environmental impact report. Something smart, multi-
purpose, and just too darn cute and cuddly for the kind and gentle era. Well
God came through, by golly, and provided settlers of the High Plains, both old
and new, with what could best be described as the mini-van of barnyard animals
- the Llama.


Get Bruce Ellis of Franktown talking about his llamas, and there’s no
stopping. Ellis has pretty much converted his barn, built to store an antique
Power Wagon, and five or so acres off of Highway 86 into Lazy B Llamas, a
virtual Llama-Land housing eight female and five male llamas. Consider Bruce
one of a new breed in the llama world since he hasn’t yet reached his first
decade experiencing the llama adventure. “This allows you to be around
special animals. This gives you something to do as a family, a hobby, and a
business,” says Ellis describing the llama lifestyle.


Just into his fifth year, Ellis has already scored a crowning achievement,
winning a Grand Champion award in the recent Rocky Mountain Regional Show.
His Heavy Wool llama Gulliver’s Traveler’s recent tear through the show
circuit is a turn of events that has taken Ellis by surprise. For Ellis,
success in raising llamas seems assured, “It just depends on what you want to
do with them.”


Ellis blames his llama fever on his veterinarian, who he had called out to
deal with a bad case of porcupine quills his dogs had contracted. The vet,
noticing Bruce had an interest in backpacking and climbing 14ers, suggested he
purchase a llama as a pack animal. According to Ellis, “The vet told me,
instead of packing freeze-dried food and trail mix, how would I like to bring
steaks and a case of beer along?”


That got Ellis’ attention. What started as a packing companion quickly turned
into a passion. Now Ellis run a small breeding operation, designing
offspring for packing, show, wool production, and as pets. Ellis warns, “Once
you get one or two, it’s easy to go nuts.” Today, Ellis is President-Elect of
Rocky Mountain Llama Association and local llama guru. He’ll be taking a
trailer-load of llamas to this year’s National Western Stock Show, including
his star performer Gulliver’s Traveler.


So what is it exactly that attracted Ellis to llamas? What has kept him
going? After all, if he wasn’t happy with his new hobby, he could have given
it up years ago.


The downsized South American cousin of the camel, the llama’s physiology is
perfectly matched for the high and dry Colorado climate. A natural when it
comes to marching down a trail, the llama can be halter-trained and ready to
accept a pack within a few days. You want low maintenance? Each foot has
just two toes and a pad. Toenails require trimming, unless they pack or are
pastured to where they naturally wear down. Teeth? They only have one row -
the bottom - to worry about. Six sharp fighting teeth need to be cut flat
only on occasion.


Perhaps the most vulnerable part of the llama’s body are its legs. An
important part of llama training is having them “desensitized” - getting used
to people touching and handling their legs, picking up their feet, and
touching their head, starting when they are young.


Ellis recommends all males train to have something on their back, even if you
don’t intend to pack with them. “There’s nothing cooler to me than a llama
with a pack on its back.” Perhaps what impresses people most is the llama’s
gentle disposition and intelligence, an attitude one breeder says makes a
well-trained llama “bomb proof.”


OK, so now what? Sure they’re cute and cuddly, but you can’t ride the range or
punch doggies with them, so what good are they?


For Dave and Kristy Heide of Elbert County’s Outback Connection, there’s
plenty of enjoyment. Dave, like Bruce, uses llamas to pack. Kristy is
attracted to the quality of the wool. She claims the wool is as soft as
cashmere, and is lightweight owing to its hollow fiber. She sells llama wool
by word of mouth. In fact, requests for her llama fiber exceeds supply.


Wool quality can also be bred for. A typical llama has two types of fiber in
its wool, the silky hair coveted by spinners, and what’s called guard hair, a
courser fiber that repels dirt and water, keeping a llama clean in its natural
environment. Wool producers breed for the silky hair while packers breed for
an abundance of the courser guard hair.


Dave and Kristy combine their hobbies in the show ring. Dave raised and rode
cutting horses, and at first scoffed at Kristy’s interest in llamas. The
traditional rancher, Dave referred to them as “mutant sheep.” Now, says
Kristy, he loves them as much as she does, and both will be showing at this
year’s Stock Show.


Sure, their ranching friends still question their sanity, asking “What do you
do with them?” Kristy’s reply, “What can’t you do with them?” Coming from a
tradition of horses, Kristy says there’s no comparison. “The amount you feed
a horse compared to a llama is ten-to-one. That’s always been impressive as
far as buying hay.”


Sounding a familiar ring among llama owners, Kristy admits, “They are
addictive. If you get two, you’ll want more.” The Heides now have 20-30 at
any one time. In fact, it was the Heides who set up the Kaufmann family of
Castle Rock with their first llama.


Dave Kaufmann had always talked about getting one once they moved to their
country home on a few acres west of town. Not willing to wait any longer,
wife Willow surprised him with two pregnant females on his 40th birthday.
Like the Ellis’, they now own 13 llamas, five females and eight males.


Dave was sold on llamas soon after seeing them displayed at the National
Western Stock Show one year. It was love at first sight. Said Dave, “There
was a certain peace about them. They had a very intelligent look on their
face.” Taking the family on a one-day pack trip with llamas through Rocky
Mountain National Park convinced the rest of the family.


Willow did have a horse for a short time. “Like most girls, I had wanted a
horse all my life. I finally got one, and the honeymoon ended after about a
week. With the llamas, the honeymoon hasn’t ended.”


For children Heidi, Gretchen and Levi, raising llamas is a family affair.
Levi won Grand Champion in the Youth Performance class at the Rocky Mountain
Regional Championship in November with “Bespeckled.” A perennial entrant with
sheep at the county fair, Levi says llamas are easier to care for and handle,
hands down. Look for llamas from the Kaufmann’s Dusty Britches Ranch at the
Stock Show, as well.


You may have noticed that while everyone starts out with one or two llamas,
they quickly develop into a herd. Blame that on their ease of breeding. Put
two llamas together, and it’s virtually a no-brainer. Llama are called
induced ovulatory, that is, they are ready to roll - always in heat. Compared
to horses, there is no teasing and waiting for the perfect time to breed.
Females mate in the “kush,” or sitting position. Once bred, initial signs of
pregnancy are determined through “field testing,” where the male is
reintroduced to the female seven days later. If she’s pregnant, she’ll “spit
him off.” Hey, it’s a 90’s thing.


After a 346 day gestation period, a llama will produce one “cria.” The only
downside to induced ovulation is it rules out artificial insemination.


Another important 90’s thing is cleaning up. The less waste, the better in
our health conscience society, and you can’t get much easier than a llama.
Llama manure has both the look and hard, dry consistency of deer scat. It’s
so convenient to clean up, llama owners talk in glowing terms of one day
owning a “Dungmaster,” the ultimate in llama waste control. Two portable
Dungmaster models are on the market consisting of large horsepower vacuum
pumps attached to a wand that magically collect up to 17 cubic feet of llama
manure. Try that with a horse. Here’s a couple Dungmaster testimonials from
local llama owners. “We covet the Dungmaster.” And, “I’d like one. I just
like the name.”


Bob Riley, current president of the Rocky Mountain Llama Association,
estimates the growth in llamas, and their smaller cousins, Alpacas, at about
25-30% a year. A local llama newsletter shows fourteen llama/alpaca ranches
in the High Plains area, alone. Plans are being made to conduct the first
national show competition in 1998. Riley attributes their popularity to their
size, which is just right for small property owners, their ease of care, and
their gentle intelligence. Llamas are gaining more acceptance as a pack
animal as more land managers understand the llama’s utility and benign effect
on trails. A wool cooperative is being established to sell and promote
collected llama and alpaca wool.


It’s a fair bet that llamas won’t be replacing the horse on the cover of the
Parker phone book any time soon. But Riley agrees with one thing - llamas can
already be considered an emerging symbol of the New West.

 

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