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Hair raising experience
Shearing day preps alpacas for summer
new vlc alpaca 3
Shearer Mike Banks, New Zealand, and headman Allen, Wales, work quickly to free an alpaca from a heavy winter coat. - photo by COURTESY PHOTO

Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter owns alpacas, and participated in shearing day, both as an owner and as a volunteer.     

Alpaca keepers hitched livestock trailers and transported herds of the fluffy animals to Heartland Farm in rural Pawnee Rock for what has become an annual shearing day, Wednesday, April 29.  The Dominican Sisters of Peace arranged for a New Zealand-based shearer, Mike Banks, and his “headmen” to spend the morning gently harvesting the blankets, neck and leg fiber, and freeing the animals from their winter coats before the mercury begins to rise. Alpacas, native to the Andes, struggle with heat.
“We’ve used other shearers in the past, but we keep asking Mike back because he is highly skilled,” Sister Jane said. This is important, because shearing must be done quickly to lessen the stress on the animals, and the longer the fibers are kept, the more marketable they are.   
Two different types of alpacas were seen that morning. Most common are Huacaya, with fluffy hair. Suris, by contrast, have long locks of shiny hair that almost resemble dreadlocks. Both are used to create luxurious yarns that are lightweight, itch-free and very warm. The yarn and felt created with the fibers are sought after for needle arts, weaving and felting.   

World market
Banks travels the Midwest for six weeks with his headmen, Allen and Joshua, college students from Wales. Allen works on a farm and studies agriculture, and Joshua is a zoology student. Soon, they will wrap up their shearing appointments in the states, and Mike will travel to England where he will continue his circuit before heading back to New Zealand. Allen and Joshua look forward to renting a car and traveling to the West Coast for vacation before heading for home.  
The Dominican Sisters of Peace manage a herd of 18 of their own, all of which were ready for shearing. The previous month, they trimmed the toes and teeth themselves, which made the process go a little quicker on shearing day. Still, several volunteers were needed to secure the alpacas and calm them during the shearing, gather the fiber, and clean up between animals.  

Making a break
Some alpacas go more willingly than others. Some spit, others kick or make wailing sounds, but all calm down once they are secured and soothing words from one of the handlers along with gentle neck massaging ensues.
The animals can be elusive when they are free, as one suri maiden proved when it escaped from its trailer during the transferring process.  Volunteers followed as it quickly made its way along the driveway, but as the group moved in, it turned tail and began loping into a nearby field. Luckily for the volunteers, including this reporter, the field was adjacent to where Heartland Farm keeps its own herd. With some careful work, the volunteers were able to guide the escapee over to the fence where it sought the company of the males on the other side. Sister Jane Belanger slowly approached and wrapped her arms around the suri’s neck. Once captured, the alpaca became docile, and once haltered, was led back to her trailer.

From rock star to crew cut
The process goes rather quickly. First, an alpaca’s front and back legs are secured with ropes, and the headman holds its head and neck.  Once the animal is quiet, the shearing starts with the blanket first, then the neck and legs and belly. The first cut is the longest, and is spun into yarn; the seconds are used for felting and rug making, and the final smallest cuts are often sent to be composted. In all, it takes only a few minutes from start to finish.   
Babies have very soft hair, but because it is twisted at the ends from birth, mills refuse it for processing; so often the first year’s growth is simply discarded to the compost pile. Some owners, however, will have the baby sheared at a young age so the first year’s growth can be processed. Either way, owners can gauge the quality of fleece the animal produces.
Once the shearing is complete, and the animal is helped back to its feet, it is time to rejoin the others in its herd.  
This is when the animals become reacquainted with one another. Like young men at basic who have just received crew cuts, they hardly recognize one another. Some are eager to visit the feeding station, and others are ready to lay down and nap after all the excitement of the morning.  
After the last alpaca was sheared, Banks began sharpening his shearing blades. Each blade is used for about five minutes, depending on how much dust the animal is carrying on its fibers, he said. One after another, he ran the blades along his portable grinder, and then tossed them onto a sheet of black velvet. Meanwhile his men rested, lunched with the sisters, and prepared for the afternoon. Soon, the driveway would fill with trailers carrying the alpaca’s bigger cousins – llamas. At the end of the day, the crew would pack up and hit the road, working their way back to Denver, and for Allen and Josh, some much longed-for down time.