Shearing, by Joy Whitehead, April 2013
Most alpacas in the UK are sheared during May and June. Long before shearing day arrives you need to book your shearer. At Bozedown we shear about 80-100 alpacas per day; shearing dates are published on our website, and we encourage other owners to come and experience a day of shearing, sorting and grading with us. Alpaca shearers are happy to shear much smaller numbers than this on individual farms, but set-up costs may be high in these cases, making the overall cost of shearing per fleece quite high; so a good idea is to team up with one or more other alpaca farms in your area to save on these individual set-up costs. If one of your group has a suitable barn that would be an advantage in case of bad weather.
Don’t waste your alpaca fibre! To make sure it’s all usable clean your paddocks, and your alpacas will stay clean. Then their fleeces will be in optimum condition ready for shearing day. Clean fleeces are much easier to sell. Dirty fleeces are often not worth processing. Fine fleeces will pick up every piece of debris in the field – look around your herd – the finest fleece will be the one with the most debris clinging to it! Even dense fleeces, if they are very fine, will pick up debris. So it’s worth doing all you can to minimise the amount of debris in the field and shelter areas. It’s a nightmare trying to pick out wire, holly leaves, brambles, conkers, sticky buds, sweet chestnuts and beech mast, straw and grass seeds after shearing – much better to make sure they don’t get there in the first place. Inspect your paddock thoroughly, and remove any old wire and any other rubbish that may be lying around. Inspect the paddock margins. Remove protruding brambles, thistles, cleavers, and any other weeds which produce burrs, or look as if they might stick to or get embedded in alpaca fleece. Check and clear again as the season advances, as weeds can grow very fast! Try and avoid having your alpacas in the same field as Horse Chestnut when the leaves are opening – they will collect all the resulting sticky buds in their coats! Clear all the Beech mast, Conkers and Sweet Chestnut cases each autumn as they appear, along with any hedge clippings (hawthorn and blackthorn especially).
In shelters or barns, wood shavings should be avoided. Rubber matting is excellent. Old carpets work well, and alpacas will quite happily learn to sit on these, and do their toilet on a straw pile; yes, it works – I’ve seen it! If using straw bedding, try and source long stemmed barley straw, as this does not seem to penetrate into the fleece. Bedding should be dry – ammonia in the urine can ruin the fleece if the alpaca has to sit on wet bedding. Deep litter works well; the daily removal of most of the faeces, and addition of fresh straw keeps the top of the bed dry and clean.
About 1-3 weeks before shearing, even if you normally house your alpacas overnight on straw, keep them outside at this time. Also, make sure the alpacas are on clean pasture, and most of the dirt and debris will drop out before shearing time. Do not top their pasture prior to shearing. The toppings will find their way into the fleece!
Prepare your shearing area – ideally a concrete area which can be pressure sprayed to clean it. Alpacas are ‘stretched out’ using soft ropes attached from the front and rear legs to attachment points, and gently lowered to clean rubber cattle mats on the ground. This means they cannot move while they are being sheared, which is much safer for them. It’s also very quick – normally only about 4 minutes per alpaca. We take the opportunity to trim toenails and do any necessary vaccinations at the same time. The legs and belly are sheared first, then the neck, then the highest quality ‘blanket’ area. The tail is trimmed to allow some coverage to remain over the bare perineal area to prevent sunburn. The various qualities are separately weighed and recorded. The shearing mat is swept between each shearing, and we shear by colour, starting each day with the white alpacas, to avoid colour contamination in our precious fleece.
Skirting and grading each fleece takes place immediately. We learn a lot about our alpacas from their fleeces on the sorting table, making notes as we go along; this is a great help to us when we make our mating decisions. We publish our shearing dates on our web site, and other owners are welcome to come along and help, and see how we manage to shear up to 100 alpacas in one day, how we weigh and record all the grades of fleece, and learn how we skirt and grade, and finally bag the fleeces.
Fleeces must be completely dry before bagging to avoid them rotting in the bags. We use clear polythene sacks, with each sack clearly labelled (marker pen) with the colour and grade (micron). If using old paper feed sacks make sure they are clean and empty of feed, and turn inside out. All clean fleece that comes off alpacas is usable for producing end product.
With proper management you should never need to groom your alpacas, especially prior to shearing or showing. The structure of their fleeces can take weeks to return to normal after grooming. If dry alpacas are brought into a barn the day before shearing they will need to have fans on them all night; otherwise they will almost certainly absorb moisture overnight and can actually end up too wet to shear! We watch the weather forecast carefully as, even if showers are forecast overnight, but there’s a bit of a breeze as well, the alpacas will be dryer by morning than if we had brought them inside.
Last year we started shearing just as the drought ended and the rain began, and so we abandoned our first day of shearing completely. Alpaca fleece can absorb huge amounts of moisture, which makes them almost impossible to shear. But then it’s also almost impossible to dry. We try and make sure that our alpacas are at least almost dry when we start to shear. Our farm is alongside the Thames, and so there is almost always moisture in the fleeces from the dew in the morning. However, we have found that suri fleeces are dryer in the morning than huacaya fleeces, and so we normally start with suris. Any fleeces that are still damp are laid out on clean tarpaulins surrounded by electric fans, and turned as necessary. We usually manage to get most of the damp fleeces dry during the day. Any still not ready for bagging will be left out with fans on them overnight, then bagged the following day.