Thursday, May 10, 2012

Taking a (Much Needed) Break from the Farm!!

By Karen Nicholson of Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas, Stowe, VT

Farming is 24 / 7 / 365 and often physically, emotionally and mentally demanding. Perhaps more than any profession, farmers need a break; a vacation away from the farm for two days, a month or even a year. The benefits of taking a vacation from such work are indisputable. A vacation is a must have, not a luxury. And there are countless creative ways to make it possible.

Indisputable Benefits of Taking a Vacation
  • Live Longer! Everyone needs to recharge their battery; thereby keeping stress levels lower and keeping you healthier physically and emotionally.
  • Improve your Mental Health and Creativity! Taking time to relax makes you less prone to experience burnout, making you more creative in your life and work.
  • Strengthen your Relationships! Uninterrupted time away with loved ones nourishes relationships. Stronger relationships provide the foundation for increased life enjoyment in the good times and provides the strength you need to get through the stressful hard times.
  • Find Creative Inspiration! Taking yourself out of your routine and surroundings spurs you to look at things and think in a different way, often resulting in great creative inspiration.
  • Become more Productive! The mental and physical benefits of vacationing lead to increased quality of life, and that can lead to increased quality of work on the job.

Creative Ways to Have the Farm Looked After
  • Employeesif you have employees, make it a part of their contract that “x” number of days/weeks per year you will be away and they will be expected to cover for you. Train them far in advance to do tasks that you normally do.
  • Hire a Professional Farm Sitter – there are professionals who advertise this service. They can either come by the farm a certain number of times a day or live in your farmhouse to watch over the farm. Prices vary greatly based on the scope of the work and the individual doing it. For the professional you might expect to pay from $36 per day for two farm visits to a smaller farm up to $100 for a larger farm. To find a farm sitter: ask another farm of a name, look in your local newspaper, put a wanted listing on the farm page of Craigslist or in Vermont’s Agriview.
  • Train a Competent Person to Be Your Farm Sitter - there are many trustworthy, competent people with no experience that can easily be trained. What you need is someone with a strong work ethic, a strong sense of responsibility, who is resourceful and motivated. Price could range from no charge (internship, barter) to $20 per day (neighbor teen) and up. Who could you train? A very enterprising, trustworthy high school student; a pre-vet student from a nearby college; a vet tech from a nearby small animal vet office; an employee of a friend or family member who is motivated and trustworthy; a person who grew up on a farm; a person who recently lost their job; a person who needs a temporary place to live; a young person who lives with parents and would welcome the get away; a retired farmer; a friend or relative; get creative – the list of potential people is endless.
  • Farm Sitter Exchange – these types of cooperative groups have been used forever and successful for many different situations: babysitting, dinner exchanges, house swaps, etc. You exchange no funds. When you use a farm sitter you get negative points in your account. You work off your negative points by sitting for someone else’s farm but not necessarily the people who cared for your farm. It is a ledger of points and you are free to use anyone in the network you trust. Where to find one? Join the established Northern Vermont Farm Sitter Network; start your own regional network or; create your own exchange with a few nearby farms.
  • Neighbor/Friend Barter – maybe there is something you can offer a trustworthy neighbor in exchange for farm sitting. If you sell goods you could provide them with goods (eggs, milk, fiber, etc) at no charge in exchange for a week’s worth of farm sitting.
  • Boarding – for a more long term vacation you may want to consider boarding your animals at a qualified farm. You could then rent your home to generate income.

How to Fund the Vacation
  • Savings – Regardless of income, everyone has the ability to forego something in their daily life in order to set aside a fraction of their income. It is a time-tested solution.
  • House Exchange – You can vacation all over the world doing a direct house exchange. You live in their house, drive their car and they yours. You hire a farm sitter to come by a few times a day to do chores and look after the animals. Google “house exchanges”.
  • Agri-tourism / Rent your Farmhouse - A farm vacation is New England is a sought after experience. With the rent you generate it can pay for your vacation plus a farm sitter. (Advertise on VRBO, Criagslist or through a local agency)
  • Inexpensive Vacation – the point is to get away. Go visit relatives, go camping, or go farm sit for someone else to get a new perspective.
  • Combine Ideas – use the farm sitter exchange and rent your house too for a no cost vacation.

Other Considerations
  • Peace of Mind - Essential to the success of your vacation is that you have peace of mind that your assets are secure and well cared for. For each individual farm this will mean finding the right person/people at a price (or barter situation). Know and articulate your expectations. Have a contract with the farm sitter to make things black and white.
  • Insurance – You may wish to consider insuring valuable animals to further protect your assets while away.
  • Provide Detailed Information – Always leave detailed instructions on how to care for the farm. Make sure vet and other contacts are easily accessible. For longer vacations you may even want to send a note to your vet(s) that you authorize vet care and specifics about the extent of care.

What Others Say About Getting Away

“Our family goes on a camping trip for 1 week every summer. Either our college age son, if he's home, or neighbors take care of our farm. We connected with them by being friendly neighbors. We did pay them a little but we help each other out a lot, so what we paid them would not be typical. We had written instructions, simplified our routine and also double-checked for safety issues. We also leave a list of people to contact for each potential type of problem and are available by cell phone. We value our annual vacation because of the uninterrupted time with the family and we come home with a renewed appreciation for our farm and animals.” • Nancy Kish of Agape Hill Farm

“The Northern Vermont Farm Sitter Network works very well in my area and has enabled the people involved to have a competent and experienced sitter take care of things while they're gone, without feeling like you have to pay someone or feel bad about convincing them to take care of an overwhelming about of animals. Most of my friends have a cat or a dog, not llamas, goats and chickens.” • Lee Findholt of Wicked Good Farm

Karen Nicholson, of Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas in Stowe, VT, has a herd of six alpacas, four French Alpine dairy goats, 6 Indian Runner ducks, several laying hens, two dogs and two cats. Over the years, her family has been able to get away for a few weekends and a week each year with farm care from professional farm sitters, farm sitters they have recruited and trained or relatives. They are now living away from their farm for six months while farm sitters live in their house rent free in exchange for caring for the farm. Any comments or questions can be directed to:

Our Amazing Camelid Creatures – Stories of Camelid Behaviors

By Karen Nicholson of Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas, Stowe, VT

Eric Hoffman, in his book, The Complete Alpaca Book, writes: “Understanding how alpacas communicate is both entertaining and an extremely valuable management tool. After 6000 years of domestication, alpaca behavior has been modified by human management and breeding, but communication among alpacas is still rooted in their ancestral past. A look at behavioral research gives us insight into the amazingly broad repertoire of communication alpacas have inherited.” (2nd edition, pg. 33)
Below are a few stories where llamas and alpacas exhibited interesting communication and behavior:

Beyond Survival Instinct

Brad Kessler in his book Goat Song tells an amazing survival story of a ram and his protector, a llama, living in the wilds of Vermont.
A neighboring farm had a dozen or so sheep and a guard llama. The owner’s interest in the animals was to trim their fields. For fencing they had a few strands of rusted barbed wire.
The llama did his job well until one summer a pack of coyotes began to take the sheep one by one. By September, all that was left was an ewe, a ram and the llama. The llama had a haggard look. The ram never left his side. The ewe was doomed with fear. Sure enough by frost, only the llama and ram were left. Then one day – gone.
Hunting season came and went, winter, and early spring passed. One day, late spring, the llama and ram were spotted nearby. The owners of the animals were contacted, the llama and ram caught and put tight in a barn. Somehow they still managed to escape twice until finally, the barn was so secure that they no longer could.

Reproductive Instinct

One day I put one of our breeding male alpacas in the pasture with two females (with crias at their sides) that needed to be bred. This has and continues to be our preferred method of breeding. In that pasture there was also a maiden female gestating at 11 ½ months.
The sire went over, sniffed the manure pile to see who was receptive and then went to check the females against his findings at the pile. Then he began chasing one of the females. I left the pasture to go do other chores and would check back to see if any breeding was taking place.
Minutes later, my son came running to tell me that the sire was breeding the very pregnant female! My son explained that he saw this female approach the sire and cush. He then mounted her. Concerned for her well-being and the unborn cria’s, I ran to get a halter to get him off of her! I put him back in his pasture and then examined the pregnant female. She remained cushed, like a receptive female would. I inspected her vulva and observed her for a while. All signs were that she was fine – ears forward and an overall relaxed body posture.
I took the opportunity to do fence clipping so I could keep an eye on her. About an hour later I saw a pair of feet dangling out. She had an easy delivery, a vigorous cria and she passed a healthy placenta.
In hindsight I believe she cushed for him because she knew it would help to bring on labor. In humans and other species, intercourse is thought to help bring on labor. The sperm contains prostaglandin which can help soften the cervix.

Exceptional Guarding

We have a small herd of four females plus crias. In the warmer months they rotate on pasture with access to a 3-sided barn. There is no question that Opal is the herd guard and we hear her warning calls from time to time when an unknown dog walks by or wildlife lurks in the forest beyond their pasture. She’s discerning with her alarm and only alerts the herd when there is true danger.
One day, she was alarming. I went to investigate and for the first time ever she was facing the house, not the forest nor the logging road where neighbors walk their dogs. She went on and on and I could not figure out what she could be alarming about in the direction of the house. The rest of the herd had banded behind her staring intently in the same direction.
After about 10 minutes of this, suddenly there was a great cracking sound and half of an old maple tree came crashing across the driveway, exactly the direction she had been facing and alarming. After the tree was down, she discontinued her alarm and went back to grazing. Two weeks later she delivered a male cria. We named him “Timber”.

Mothering Instinct

Stardust is our ‘star’ when it comes to reproduction - exceptional crias and ability to nurture her young. In her 5 years of production, she has had 5 flawless births, all vigorous crias and they grow strong and healthy. This spring she surprised us with a cria one week before 11 months of gestation. Just after birth we usually stay back and give the cria the opportunity to walk and nurse independently and bond with its dam. This little one did not get up and did not sit prone position so we intervened. Upon investigation we found her temperature to be 4-6 degrees below normal.
After a couple hours we were able to get her temperature up and then hold her up to get her nursing. For the next 30 hours we had to check her temperature, hold her up under the dam to attempt to nurse, and syringe small amounts of goat collostrum into her mouth. At one point in the middle of the night she appeared dehydrated and assumed the death position so with no 24 hour vet available we injected IV fluids under her skin and tube fed her. All the while, Stardust allowed us to do all this to her cria. She stood perfectly still while we tried to get the cria nursing and hummed calmly to her baby.
Just about 30 hours after birth, the cria was finally able to get up and nurse on her own for the first time. I was relieved but not secure that she was going to be fine. I checked on her two hours later and to my great surprise this dam, who had just hours before let me do anything to her cria, screamed at me as I approached and covered me with spit from head to toe. Despite my efforts to get close to the cria, I could not. Finally, in complete frustration, I had to relent and trust that our star knew she could take it from there and that it was her time to bond with her cria. Of course, I checked on them a few times in the night, but from a distance. A week later Stardust resumed her old ways; she ceased screaming at me and let me near her cria as she has let me near her others.


We had a male alpaca that came to us difficult to handle and not very trusting of his human caretakers. After a few months of positive handling, he came to trust us and greet us when we entered the pasture.
 One day while cleaning up manure in the pasture, he walked right up to me, stared right into my face, hummed loudly, and then walked over to the pile and urinated. He repeated this two more times. It wasn’t until the second time he behaved this way that it occurred to me that he was trying to tell me something. On the third time I found what he wanted me to find, he was straining to urinate at the pile.
I called the vet and he indicated that it was most likely a UTI (urinary tract infection) and that I should treat it. He said it sounded like it was caught early since he had a fair stream of urine but with obvious straining. The vet said he should improve within 1-2 days. He was obviously feeling much better on day two when he stopped coming over, humming in my face and going to the pile. I later found the source of his UTI. My children had mistakenly given him a whole bale of alfalfa instead of hay when they were doing chores.

Cooperation with Other Species

On our farm we have: 2 alpacas, 10 sheep, 2 goat does, 3 Lowline Cattle (bull calf, cow, steer), 3 Red Wattle Pigs (sow, boar, meat), 1 Maremmma LGD and 25 Guinea Fowl. Everyone eats together without any problem. Everyone sleeps in the same general area unless there is weather and they all have their distinct shelter areas that they go to. The sheep all stick together, the pigs and dog all stick together, and the cattle and the alpacas stick together. The goats float between the three groups.
One of the alpacas, a bred female, spends most all of her day with the cattle grazing or sunning. One interesting thing I have come to notice is that General (our LGD) is on duty at night and sleeps most of the day. Our pregnant female, Beana seems to take over the day shift. She is on high alert and whenever she hears something suspicious, she will take off running toward it. Her alarm alerts General (LGD) and he wakes up and takes over while she herds everyone together. It is very neat to watch.
We used to have three LGD's and each had a job. General was the baby of the group and was the herder. Now that it is just him, he seems to work in cooperation with Beana, the alpaca, and has given the herding role to her. They seem to work very well together. I'm not sure how often the perceived threat is an actual one, but there have been instances of coyotes in the area. We kind of have a three-pronged security system as the guineas or Beana, the alpaca, seem to sound their alarm first, and General (LGD) takes over the investigation while Beana herds the animals together. It is fun to watch and perhaps as a result we are a predator-free farm for the most part!

Our camelids have an amazing array of interesting behaviors to observe:  body postures such as the alert stance, submission, the standoff, or relaxed position; ear, tail and head signals; vocalizations such as humming, the alarm, orgling; scent such as flehmen when the male alpaca sniffs a dung pile to decode the scent and reproductive status of his females;  locomotion displays such as pronking or fighting; herd response such as banding or offensive aggressive herd response. Every camelid farmer should take time out in the day to observe their herd, perhaps even keep a diary of interesting behaviors observed and, for sure, - share your stories!

Karen Nicholson, of Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas in Stowe, VT, has a herd of nine alpacas bred and managed for valued traits including: fiber excellence, conformation, reproductive vigor, hardiness and temperament. Also on the farm are:  two French Alpine dairy goats, Indian Runner ducks, broiler chickens and several laying hens all integrated into their farm management program. Karen writes for three farming journals and keeps a blog: Any comments, questions or stories can be directed to:


Composting Your Camelid Manure 101

By Karen Nicholson of Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas

Human society and its agriculture depend on the health of the soil and water. Your alpaca manure can either be an asset to your farm or a contaminant to the environment. By employing simple on-farm composting techniques you can easily turn your manure into a marketable product or integrate it back into your farm in as little as 120-360 days.

Identifying a Composting Site on Your Farm
The quality of your composting site will have a significant impact on the ease of pile management and the quality of the compost produced. Considerations in choosing your site:
  • What will you be composting (manure, hay, other?) and where on the farm will that material be coming from? Obviously, the shortest distance to travel with the materials is desired. If you are composting materials other than the waste from your farm it may require a permit.
  • Will you compost throughout the winter or have an active summer pile and a winter stock pile?
  • You will need enough space to begin a pile that is mountainous in shape with a convex top, 3-8 feet high and 6-15 feet in width at the base. The pile will be turned over the course of several weeks so that the entire pile has been turned over itself and is now in a new location.
  • Will you turn your pile by shovel or bucket loader? If bucket loader, then you will need space to move about with the equipment.
  • A sunny location speeds up the process. 
Follow the minimum recommendations for environmental protection.
  • Min. distance to bedrock: 3-6 feet
  • Min to ground water: 1-1/2-3 feet
  • Distance to property boundary or public roads: 100 feet unless permission is obtained.
  • Distance to wells, springs, surface waters or wetlands: 25-100 feet upslope and 300 feet downslope of the pile. (A site should not be located in an area with potential for flooding.)
  • Site slope: 2-3% grade is ideal, 1.5-6% tolerable
The Recipe
You are striving for approximately 60% moisture content and a ratio of 25-30 parts carbon per 1 part nitrogen (C:N - 25-30:1). This will create the habitat and diet for your decomposer populations (earthworms, microorganisms, etc). While it is important to understand how the recipe is arrived at, I don’t recommend going through a six-page worksheet of calculations to create compost on your farm. Below is a simplified version of how the recipe is arrived at followed by a very simplified estimate of what you want your hay/bedding to manure ratio to be.
  1. Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio  - Bedding to Manure Ratio
    • Manure – what is the carbon/nitrogen makeup of your manure? You can have it tested or you can approximate C:N – 16:1.
    • Bedding – this is usually a carbon component (paper, hay, straw, cardboard). Again, you can have it tested or estimate it to be C:N – 45:1.
    • Ratio of bedding to manure – From the above you can see that your manure already has a high level of carbon as does the bedding. Now you just need to get the right mixture. After factoring in moisture content to the above two figures the calculations would bring you to a ratio of about .32 pounds of bedding to 1 pound of manure (or Bedding:Manure – 32:100) Simplified even further this comes out to be roughly 1 part bedding to just over 3 parts manure. In the summer months this means you will need to add (1 part) bedding to (3 parts) manure if scooped directly from pasture piles. Although it would seem that your winter pile would have too much bedding and not enough manure, remember that you are adding moisture/urine. The winter mix will likely be correct but after monitoring it can be amended.
  2. Moisture Content - this is critical to the pile health and a good method of determining if you are getting your C:N ratio correct. To monitor, dig 12” deep into the pile and grab a handful of material and squeeze. If it is:
    • Dripping = too moist (about 65%+ moisture content, want 60%)
    • Damp and glistening  = Ideal 60%
    • Crumbling = too dry (below 60%)
    • Sniff – if it has a gassy smell it is too moist or too much Nitrogen (manure)
Turning– you should plan on turning the pile about once a week. Turn pile ¼ at a time by taking material from the side and dumping it on top. Your pile should, again, be a mountainous shape with a convex top after you have turned it. Continue turning ¼ at a time until the pile resembles loose crumbly dark soil. It should take about 3 months in the spring/summer months. An alternative to turning it yourself would be to pasture pigs with your pile. They’ll be in hog heaven and you will too as they do the turning for you!

Pile Monitoring – Ideally you would do this every time you walk by the pile; at a minimum once a week.

  1. Temperature – you want it to reach 130 degrees w/in a few days to a week. It will need to stay at this temp. for several days to kill pathogens and seeds. You can monitor with a 3’ probe thermometer or dig in and if too hot to touch you’re over 120 degrees. If it is excessively hot you are killing your decomposers.
  2. Moisture – Look at the pile and reach in and take a handful and squeeze. Is it dripping, glistening, crumbly? Add more bedding if too wet or manure if too dry. Open top to allow rain in if too dry.
  3. Odor – smell the pile as you work it and inspect for moisture. It should smell earthy. If it doesn’t it means it is either too low in carbon (bedding) or low in oxygen (too moist or too dense).
  4. Visual Inspection – Dry? Damp? Crusting on the surface (reduces available air in pile)?

The Finished Product
Curing – After composting is finished, allow your pile to cure for 1-3 months. Make sure it is covered.
Testing – you can test your finished product so that you know how you did or what you are spreading on your pastures or to aid in commanding an excellent price for it.

Ideas for Selling  - Bag it in used feed bags and sell to local gardeners or place an ad on Craig’s List for someone to buy and take away the whole pile. Top dress your pastures in the fall and you will have lush pastures in the spring. Just price a bag of “Moo Doo” (composted cow manure) and you’ll know how valuable your composted manure is!

Simplified into 5 Easy Steps
  1. Recipe - Pile your manure and bedding in a mountainous heap with a convex top in a ratio of 1 part bedding to a little more than 3 parts manure.
  2. Turn – Turn your pile over itself ¼ at a time once a week for 3+ months til done.
  3. Monitor your pile – feel, look, smell to see if you have the right mix.
  4. Harvest – Use or sell this valuable resource generated by your farm’s waste! And feel good that you “Did the Rot Thing” for the environment by composting!
  5. Cure – after you have made “dirt”, cover it and let it cure for 1-3 months depending on the time of year.

Karen Nicholson has a herd of ten alpacas at Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas in Stowe, Vermont. Any comments or questions can be directed to: