Hasselbrings find peaceful lifestyle with unusual animal
Britt and Patty Hasselbring check the "girls' barn" behind their home, north of Concordia, for the progress of an expectant female alpaca. With more than 120 Suri alpacas in their care, they know she's not having complications, even though she's more than four weeks overdue.
Unlike other livestock, alpacas don't have a specific breeding season. With a gestation period of approximately 11 months, their births are planned in the spring and fall to avoid extreme weather.
On Wednesday, July 24, the expectant mother chews a piece of hay, perks her ears and follows other mothers outdoors.
"They're a herd animal," Britt says. "When one goes, they all go."
Outside, three dogs roam about to ensure the alpacas' safety. Yearlings jump off a mound of dirt and roll in the grass, playing and learning the habits of their mothers.
This is life on Hasselbring's Harmony Ranch.
"They're very curious, very intelligent, very docile," Patty says. "The animals are so calm. You can go hang out in the pasture with them like this."
It's apparent the alpacas are handled often by their ease around the ranchers. Some are so relaxed they lay sunbathing as Britt steps around them.
Patty calls one of the Suris over by name. Hopa, less than one year old, allows Patty to pet her neck. Her fleece is beginning to lock into dreads that, when fully grown, could touch the ground. The breed is different from the more common Huacaya (pronounced "wuh-kai-ya"), whose fleece grows perpendicular to its skin, giving the animal a fluffy appearance. Suris grow tight locks with a high luster and finer feel.
The ranch's focus is on breeding and supporting new alpaca farms that are beginning to emerge. But the fleece is shorn and used so it doesn't go to waste.
"They have a different fiber that is silky. It's artistic," Patty says. "When you see one of the Suris walk in full fleece, it's like a work of art. That fleece sways back and forth."
Approximately 15 people helped shear the alpacas this year. They shear the fiber, clean it of debris and separate it by color. It's also wrapped and labeled by animal's name before samples are sent to a lab for a microbe count. Breeders have a goal of producing the finest fiber possible. For a Suri like Hopa, each lock can have 10 to 20 pieces of fiber.
With no baby -- also called cria -- in sight, the couple ventures to another pasture where other herds are rotated. The girls form a group and approach them with curiosity. Just a few feet away, boys over two years old stretch their necks over the fence and call the girls to return.
It's an amusing scene, and one that makes the Hasselbrings laugh when they walk down a path worn by animals and truck tires.
"They're flirting," Britt says. "That's why there's a big pile up" of boys in the corner of the fence.
The couple bought its first alpacas in 2009, and Hasselbring's Harmony Ranch is one of the few medium-sized operations in the state. Alpacas are a relatively new livestock to the United States. They estimate the animal arrived 25-30 years ago, with numbers now reaching approximately 260,000. Suris account for roughly 2 percent of the world's alpaca population.
"We liked everything we read about them," Patty explained. "We liked the lifestyle; we liked living in the country."
Several of their Suris have done well in national competitions. One of the more recent won Reserve Champion of the Year for a medium-sized farm at the 2013 Futurity competition, and another was named Reserve Color Champion two years in a row. A stud, currently in Oregon for breeding, won the color championship in white -- the dominant and most common color -- even though he was shorn at the time.
As much as the Hasselbrings appreciate competition, they seem to have more enjoyment in being in the field and in sharing their animals on a daily basis.
"Starting a herd depends on what your goals are," Patty says, noting some are looking for a small herd for pets while others hope to grow their farm for the use of the animals' fleece.
Regardless of the goals, the lifestyle of owning and caring for alpacas is one the Hasselbrings feel is rewarding. They require little feed and little cleanup, and provide a slower pace of life than society typically demands. The ranch's mission is to breed the highest-quality Suri alpacas with each new generation. As they look back to the girls' barn anticipating the birth of the herd's newest member, the Hasselbrings know the cria will be a continuation of the tradition they've begun.