Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel
By: Brian E. Clark
Photo: Courtesy of Alpaca Culture
Don Payne grew up on a Wisconsin dairy. He left the family farm at age 23, but he never lost his fondness for animals. So when he got the opportunity to raise livestock again nearly a dozen years ago, he jumped at the chance.
Only this time he went a bit on the exotic side, choosing to breed and rear Huacaya alpacas. These animals, native to South America, are related to but smaller than their cousins, llamas. Both animals originated in the altiplano of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, thriving at elevations up to more than 13,000 feet.
Payne, 62, will show several of his animals at the Wisconsin Alpaca and Fiber Fest, which will be held April 29-30 at the Washington County Fairgrounds in West Bend. Launched 14 years ago in Madison, the show moved to West Bend in 2014. It will attract more than 300 alpacas — both Huacayas and the less common Suris — competing for awards in a variety of classes. There will also be seminars on alpaca husbandry and fiber arts covering knitting, weaving, dying and other subjects.
Payne, who is president of a Watertown foundry when he’s not working with alpacas, said these somewhat unusual Andean animals produce a luxurious fleece that the Incas called the “fiber of the gods.”
“We got into it because we had the land and because I didn’t want anything big like beef cattle or dairy cows,” he said. “We wanted something easier to handle, so they’ve been a good fit for us. They may not be be as big as cattle, but you still have to get up every morning to feed them.”
Alpacas are generally docile, have pleasant personalities, cute faces, weigh up to 150 pounds and grow to about three feet at the shoulders. By contrast, llamas — which were developed as pack animals — can weigh up to 400 pounds and grow to 46 inches at the shoulders.
“Alpacas have a calm nature,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about an alpaca going out and busting a fence down like a beef cow.”
He and his spouse now have a herd of 30 animals that they raise primarily for their fiber. Their farm, Oak Lawn Alpacas, is in Iron Ridge, about 15 miles northwest of Hartford. He said some other alpaca farms in Wisconsin have as many as 100 animals, though 25 to 30 is closer to the average.
Payne said he and his wife chose the Huacaya breed for the quality of their fiber and their look, which he describe as “puffier.” The coats of the Suri alpaca is sometimes described as being akin to dreadlocks.
Though Payne said he likes alpacas’ usually mellow temperament, he said they can spit when they get mad or if they are trying to defend themselves or their offspring.
“But they won’t just walk up to you and spit unless you provoke them,” he said. “More often, they will spit at each other when we are feeding them grain and we get hit in the crossfire. Or if you try to take a baby from a mother. It all really depends on their personalities. They are like people that way. I have seen them kick at each other, too, but that is very rare.
“The best thing about owning alpacas for us is we working with the animals,” he said. “We love the breeding process and seeing the results of our decisions and the improvements. The fiber quality since we started 11 years ago has gotten a lot better. It’s nice to have people rave about our yarns because of the softness and other characteristics.”
He said alpaca fleece is also gaining fans because it is naturally hypoallergenic. That makes it preferable for some to sheep’s wool, which has lanolin, an oil that can cause symptoms such as a skin rash, runny nose and breathing difficulties.
Erin Egan, who has raised alpacas, said the judging part of the fest is fun for her and even novice viewers. That’s because it’s something like the popular Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City’s Madison Square Garden that draws huge television crowds. Like the dogs, alpacas are judged by color, formation, coats and overall appearance.
Egan, who has owned both alpacas and llamas, described her llama as “happy go-lucky, sort of goofy and the kind of animal that really likes to interact with us.”
By contrast, she said, her alpacas are like cats, "definitely more aloof. It truly is a personality thing. Some have been very friendly, while others don’t want anything to do with you.”
But she said both breeds, which are related to camels, get a bad rap for spitting.
“They won’t spit at you unless you are doing something to them,” she said. “The only time I’ve had it happen is when we were giving them shots. Then they are being defensive and telling you to back off. So you don’t have to worry about getting spit on if you’re walking by a stall at the show.”
More information: The fest runs 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. April 29 and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 30. There are fees for the classes. See wisconsinalpacafiberfest.com or call (608) 698-1204.
For other things to see and do in Washington County, see visitwashingtoncounty.com.
Getting there: The Washington County Fair Park is at 3000 Pleasant Valley Road, West Bend, about 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee via I-94, Highway 45 and Pleasant Valley Road.
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Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel