Deryl Ring knows there is something wrong with his baby alpaca when it lies down on its side.
It is a telltale sign that the animal is constipated and in need of a dose of mineral oil at both ends.
After 20 years in the alpaca business he is well-versed in reading their body language and knowing what to do.
But that wasn’t always the case for the former city dweller. Deryl and his wife, Bernie, lived in Regina and Saskatoon before moving out to their farm just south of Saskatoon.
“Farm life was completely new to us,” he said.
So was raising farm animals.
“We didn’t have much experience with animals other than dogs and cats, so it was a learning curve. But they’re really easy animals to keep,” said Deryl.
They don’t eat much. They seldom get sick. And they cope pretty well with Saskatchewan winters until the weather gets really nasty and they refuse to go out or do much at all.
The business started as a hobby. Deryl and his daughter, Chrissy, had been researching alpacas at various shows.
The idea was the family might someday buy a few animals and move out to the farm they had bought just outside Saskatoon city limits.
That plan was accelerated in 1997 when Deryl lost his job. After spending 22 years in broadcasting at CTV he wanted to do something different.
So the couple purchased six animals from Canada’s original alpaca importer near High River, Alta.
Bernie, who was a stay-at-home mom to their two children who are now grown up and married, was easily convinced.
“I just fell in love with the animal itself. Not too big. Cute as can be,” she said.
“The most wonderful thing I love about alpacas is the fact that each and every one of them has their own personality, every single one. It’s like a classroom of kids. Every one is different.”
Take the spotted Glenda for instance. She is the friendliest alpaca in the pen, who usually lies down at Bernie’s feet. But when she is pregnant like she is now, Glenda suddenly becomes grumpy and aloof.
They now own 140 alpacas. Each one has a name and Bernie knows them all, although sometimes she needs a hint from her husband.
Selling animals for breeding is the core of their business but the fibre is the foundation of the industry and the reason alpaca farming hasn’t disappeared, gone the way of many other diversified livestock ventures.
“That’s what attracted us to them because there was an end product that was valuable, that was in demand and you didn’t have to slaughter the animal,” said Deryl.
The farm has produced dozens of championship animals and is still active in the show circuit.
Deryl learned the hard way that you can’t over-groom the babies before the shows, even though they are so full of dirt and gunk that the judges have a hard time separating the outer layer to get a look at the quality of the fleece underneath.
“They’re just like a magnet. They pick up everything. You can’t even try to get it clean because you start to destroy the character of their fleece,” he said.
In the early years he would spend hours trying to bat the debris out to the point where the fleece had no crimp left and just went limp.
A decent breeding animal sells for about $3,000 but there is a wide range. A breeding male recently sold at auction for $750,000.
A male can service up to 50 females in a season, which would produce offspring valued at about $150,000.
Deryl and Bernie are both 65 and have decided to slow down and not do as much breeding of their herd, focusing more on the fibre side of the business.
They sell all their fleece to a mill in Edmonton. The mill can even use the coarse fleece to make things like rugs and boot liners.
Bernie used to spend as much time with the animals as Deryl but these days he does most of the work by himself, with the assistance of some modern machinery.
“What we used to do by hand most of the time now we have equipment like the Bobcat,” he said.
Deryl said there are days he doesn’t know if he can do it anymore but there are other days when he finds working with the animals so calming and comforting that he can’t imagine life without them.
“We enjoy it so much. It’s a great lifestyle. I don’t think we could retire completely,” he said.
“We’re at the point where we just want to kind of enjoy them now.”