Two Keller alpaca farms opened their pastures and barns to visitors Saturday and Sunday as part of National Alpaca Farm Days.
Families could pet the fluffy, soft creatures, learn about their care, watch the processing of the fleece and purchase alpaca-related products from gloves and placemats to teddy bears and manure.
Ray and Laurie McDonald keep about 25 alpacas on seven acres in Keller they call McPaca Ranch. The couple are among a growing number of farmers nationwide who consider the velvet-soft, sweet-tempered animals the perfect livestock.
"What I like most about them is they're so simple and sweet and friendly, " Laurie says.
Among the alpacas' many merits: They don't require a lot of acreage nor demand a high level of hands-on care. The animals - native to the South American Andes Mountains, where they're bred specifically for their fine fleece - produce an in-demand fiber that's hypoallergenic. They're also friendly to the environment - their droppings are considered among the best fertilizer around.
And, well, they're just so gosh-darn cute.
The McDonalds used to raise cattle along this property on Clay Hibbins Road and on acreage they rented from adjacent owners. But when their neighbors began selling to housing developers, the couple realized they needed a new venture. Alpacas fit the bill nicely, because while cattle require multiple acres per animal for adequate grazing, seven alpacas can thrive on one acre of grass.
McPaca Ranch was started about three years ago, and is now one of three small, family alpaca farms to crop up in the Keller area in the past six years.
Just a few blocks away, Jim and Debbie Conkle were Keller's first alpaca farmers and have a slightly larger herd - 32 animals - residing at DJ's Classic Alpacas. Jim says the couple wanted to operate a small farm, and the alpaca choice was an intentional one.
"Comparing emus and ostriches to alpacas, we realized you don't have to hurt alpacas to get the product, " he says.
That product is fleece. Alpacas are sheared once every spring, with adult animals yielding five to 10 pounds of fleece. While many people are allergic to the lanolin found in sheep fibers, alpacas provide an allergen-free alternative.
"They're the softest fiber there is, " Laurie McDonald says, "softer than cashmere, and hypoallergenic."
For the two couples, alpaca farming is a part-time occupation. Ray McDonald, who retired recently from full-time work but still does medical sales consulting on the side, says alpaca farms must be larger than those in the Keller area to provide sufficient income. The business works great as a supplement to a regular job or to retirement.
Ray says he enjoys working with the animals, improving the breed and interacting with other alpaca farmers at shows and events. On a recent vacation to Michigan, he and Laurie had a chance encounter with another couple with an alpaca farm and visited their operation.
"The people involved in the industry are very friendly and eager to help each other out, " he says.
Both farms sell alpaca products on their websites. The Conkles and McDonalds both sell fleeces and a few items - placemats, scarves and nesting balls they have made from their own animals - and they import from South America items such as alpaca socks, fingerless gloves, scarves, hats and teddy bears.
Alpaca fiber is more expensive than wool because it is rarer and in great demand for its softness and hypoallergenic qualities, Ray says.
"Alpaca fleece products are really catching on, " Jim says. "There are a lot of natural colors: white, fawn, beiges and browns, rose gray and silver gray and black."
The farms also sell alpaca manure, called "beans, " for use in area gardens. The manure does not have a strong smell and is high in nitrogen but won't burn plants.
"You can take it right from the animal and put it on a plant, " Ray says.
McPaca Ranch sells large bags of alpaca beans for $12 each. At DJ's Classic Alpacas, customers can scoop their own with double-lined bags, rakes and shovels provided. The cost is $10 per bag. The farms can arrange for purchase and pick up by phone or email.
Alpacas have only been in the United States in significant numbers as livestock since 1984; before that, only a handful were found in zoos and exotic farms. In the early years, the animals were imported from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Australia and New Zealand.
To encourage the growth of the indigenous herds and to keep diseases out, alpacas have not been imported to the United States since 1999. The key factors were the closure of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "high-quarantine" facility in Key West, Fla., and the practice of the Alpaca Registry (adopted in 1998) to register only animals that are the offspring of two registered parents.
Although their meat can be eaten, Ray says there is no market for it here. The size of the U.S. herd is still fairly small, with about 250,000 registered animals in the country - although that number represents tremendous growth from a count of just 80,000 in 2005, according to www.alpacaregistry.com, the website for the Alpaca Registry from the Alpaca Owners Association.
The average size for an adult animal is 150 pounds and, with their calm nature, they can even be transported in a minivan. Because they are herd animals, they should not be kept by themselves.
The McDonalds have sold several alpacas for families to keep as pets, but Keller zoning considers them agricultural animals and requires owners to have a lot zoned "single family-low density," meaning a lot greater than 36,000 square feet, or almost an acre.
One thing alpacas are not is aggressive. The McDonalds keep a pair of llamas with their alpacas to serve as guard animals, because llamas are larger and more vocal when it comes to sounding the alarm if coyotes or large dogs show up. Other alpaca farmers keep guard dogs to protect their herds.
Although none of the farmers report getting rich from their herds, they say the satisfaction of raising the animals goes far beyond what money can buy. Laurie McDonald says alpacas have distinct personalities. While they are all known for their gentle behavior, some become farm favorites by seeking out cuddles and kisses.
Jim Conkle says he looks forward to taking care of his herd after a hectic commute from a day job in Irving. Just being around the gentle, affectionate alpacas helps him relax.
"After I spend 15 minutes with them, the whole world melts away, " he says. "They just suck the stress right out of you. The therapy value is quite an added bonus."