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                     Life is better in a herd.

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Welcome to the Magic Willows Farm Blog!

Our goal with this blog is to offer you a slice of the alpaca lifestyle in online form. It is written by Tom, Becky, and Karly about what's going on at Magic Willows Alpacas.


Road Trip!


       By Karly McMillan

     If you have been keeping an eye on our Facebook page, you may have seen the photos from C&M Acres Fiber Mill in Maxwell, Iowa. Becky and I made the trip with our yarn expert Becky Dorn and the Fiber Frauen business manager Jan Clingman.


     We met Christian and Michelle (C&M) at the Illinois Alpaca Show in Grayslake, Ill. We were in the market for a new mini mill after Darcy of Heavenly Fibers closed her doors. Darcy did wonderful work, and as a suri owner, she knew how to make the most of our chosen breed. Unfortunately, her job back on the east coast meant she couldn’t be as involved in the mill as she would have liked. 


     C&M are fairly new to milling, but they really know their stuff. They own a large herd of suris and huacayas and know what is best for each fiber. They don’t limit themselves to alpaca, though. They work with everything: sheep, rabbit, cat, dog, yak—everything but human hair (yes, they have been asked to spin human hair).


     We toured the mill and talked for quite a while about what we wanted done. We had brought down over 200 pounds of graded alpaca fleece. Our farm pooled our fleece with fleeces from two other small suri farms: Suri Park and Pac-A Praise Ranch.


     In the end, all of that fleece will become high quality yarn, roving, felt and cotton-cored rug yarn. Because we pooled our fiber, we should have enough product to sell to yarn stores.


     We had this silly idea that we could visit some yarn shops on our trip, but Becky told Christian and Michelle we would be there around one o’clock. We left Lodi, Wis. at 7:30 that morning, and were still just barely going to make it. We had to skip the two shops in Dubuque (which was not on our route home), but we held out hope for The Sheep’s Stockings in Marhsalltown, this nice little city where our hotel was located.


     Like I said, we talked with Christian and Michelle for quite a while. When we left, we punched Marshalltown into the GPS and thought there was no way we would get there in time. But as we drove, the ETA kept getting closer and closer to 5 p.m. At 4:55 we could see the town (it is Iowa after all), so Jan gave them a call. The owner said she’d be happy to let us look around. Besides, she had to do inventory.


     It is a beautiful little shop. Very spacious. Little risk of sensory overload. We got to talking and found out she has only been open for less than a year. She asked what brought us to Iowa, and we got talking alpacas (funny how that happens). Turns out she’s in the market for local(ish) alpaca yarn and has been getting all kinds of requests for roving. Serendipity, right?


     The last stop on our roadtrip was Prairie du Chien, where we were meeting with the owner of River View Alpacas in LaCresent, Minn. The girls met her at the Illinois Alpaca Show, too. We met at a quilt store to hand off another carload of alpaca fleece, which she would like sorted by the Certified Sorted method. More exciting, though, is she owns some animals from the same farm our first four girls came from! So Becky will get to sort Bonnie, Essie, Julie and Nina’s old friends and family.


     It was quite a whirlwind adventure and, as always, a hoot and a half. Though we agreed that the next trip—to pick up our finished products—should be a little longer than one weekend.




       By Karly McMillan

     What do you consider to be the first day of winter? Is it the day the snow sticks to the ground? Is it the day after Thanksgiving? The Winter Solstice? The day you put your motorcycle in the garage until next spring?

     Here at Magic Willows, the first day of winter is the day we admit it is time to wind up the hoses, plug in the heated buckets, and park the water wagons in the pole barn.

     In other words, winter means a little more work when it comes to daily chores. We have to haul a lot of water, sometimes bringing hot water up from the basement with some piping hot beet pulp to keep everyone warm, hydrated, and happy. When it snows, we have to clear the driveway and make paths for the poultry so they can range.

     I think some people shy away from the country life because the chores seem overwhelming, especially when piled on top of a career. But there is something you don't realize until you get out here: Chores are relaxing. Tom and Becky may go out in the morning frustrated with work, with paperwork, or with their schedules, but it is impossible not to smile during chores. Whether it's Bunelope just about leaping out of her hutch for some dried pineapple or baby Lily walking up to every white butt until she finds her mom (or Niña), the animals defrost even the iciest moods, making all the heavy lifting, frozen fingers, and spit worthwhile.

Thank You!


      By Karly McMillan

      We would like to thank everyone who made our National Alpaca Farm Days a success this year.


     Thanks to all of our visitors. Your interest in the animals and their fiber in addition to support for a local business keeps us going.

     An event like ours would not be possible without our volunteers. Thanks to Dave Ehley of Pac-a Praise Ranch for lending his additional alpaca expertise, Becky Dorn for sharing her honey and knowledge about alpaca fiber, Susan Forbes for her fabulous spinning and dyeing demos, Angie Garriety for help with the box packing for  Operation Christmas Child, Chris Stinemates and Emily Clevenstine for their work at the kids table, Tabitha Sanders,  McKenna and Ben Garriety for their skills in teaching fiber arts, Ellie Kalina for lending us her alpaca model, and everyone who came to help Laurie Malchow  and her family with OCC. Thanks to Ruthann Cutting for her help coordinating volunteers and manning the Farm Store, and Jake Clevenstine and Ruth Roebke  for their help and support. We’d also like to thank Barb Parsons and Animal Acres for loaning us their beautiful llama.


     If you would like to help us out next year, please send us an email!


     To everyone who packed a box for Operation Christmas Child: Great work! We were able to give them 100 boxes to send to children around the world.  You also generously donated $289.50 which will go towards shipping these boxes to these children. If you had enjoyed the box packing, join us after the Hartford Christmas Parade at Hartford’s Jack Russell Library for more fun.


     We also raised $90 for the Washington County Humane Society through the sale of our baked items and beverages.


     If you weren’t able to make it to farm days, we are happy to do informal, private farm tours. Just give us a call.



      By Karly McMillan

     Buying livestock is a big decision; one that no one should take lightly. Some people spend years researching the best breeds, the best feed, and the best housing for their animals before they even think about bringing one home.

     Those of you who read Tom's earlier ode to compost have probably figured out that the man loves his research. This his always been true, but he really got to shine when we started thinking about getting alpacas.While Becky and I were dreaming of beautiful homemade yarns, Tom was scouring the internet, learning what kind of hay to look for, which feed was the best, and what kind of fence to put up. The answer he found most often was "the expensive one."

     It seemed the entire alpaca world was in agreement: only six foot high, no-climb fence would do for alpacas (if you don't believe me, Google "six foot no climb fence." The first page is an Alpaca Nation post titled, "Best Fence?"). That fence, which costs $229.99 for 100 feet at our local Tractor Supply, was said to be the only thing you could use, because crias get their poor little heads stuck in regular field fence and die. That was another recurring theme: if you don't buy the most expensive whatever, your animals will drop like flies.

Then we went out and visited a real farm. LondonDairy Alpacas, one of the biggest alpaca farms in the state, uses plain old field fence. They even use stock panels for gates! Wood fence posts are only for holding up heavy, frequently used tube gates, not every four feet around the perimeter of the pasture.

So now, if you come to Magic Willows Alpacas, you will see four-foot tall field fence, with metal T-posts, and stock panels in areas we only need to get through once a month or less. You may even see Krissy sticking her now-adult head through the fence to eat the greener grass and pull her head back out without difficulty.

We will spend more money on hay and minerals to ensure the animals are getting the very best, even in a drought, but when you're farming--even alpaca farming--you have to know what is "good enough." The best way to do that is to visit farms and see what works.

Playing Dead


       By Karly McMillan

     When our first three alpacas arrived on our three-acre subdivision lot four years ago, we were warned that if we ever saw an alpaca laying on its side, that meant it was in extreme distress and needed medical attention right away. Needless to say, we paniced a lot that first week when we would look outside and see all three girls sprawled out on their sides, eyes closed, not moving. We went running out, yelling their names until they popped up and sulked off into the shade. We were left scratching our heads. Weren't they dying a minute ago?

     Now, four years and 30 more alpacas later, we know that alpacas just enjoy sunning their bellies, which need airing out every once in a while. While we still check on those who are playing dead a little too convincingly (and we are still greeted with a glare and some sulking), we know that as long as an ear twitches every once in a while, the animals are doing fine. Thankfully, our herd has learned to wave an ear or swish a tail when they hear, "Hey, look alive out there!"



        By Karly McMillan

      Thanks to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater's Travel study program (and some financial help from EdVest), I was lucky enough to spend the last two weeks in Peru with 13 fellow students and two professors. We learned a lot about native and colonial culture, art, and architecture on tours through Lima, Cusco, Raqchi, the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu.

     I was happy to offer up my services when it came to identifying camelids. In Cusco, across from Coricancha, there was a walled in court yard with a glass door.

     "Look at the llama!" someone said.

     "Wait," said Ashley, my roomate on the trip, "Karly, is that a llama or an alpaca?"

     "Actually," I said excitedly, silently cursing my camera's dead batteries, "It's a vicuna! You can tell by the short hair everywhere but its chest."

     And on our way back from Raqchi:

     "Are those llamas or alpacas?"

     "Those three are llamas, those three are alpacas, and that one is an alpaca with menigeal worm."

     My favorite part of the trip, aside from spending my 21st birthday on Machu Picchu, was the afternoon we spent at the Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco. There, world renowned weaver Nilda Callañaupa, helps teach the younger generation of Peruvian women the old styles of spinning, dying, and weaving. These women then sell their work through the Center to bring additional income to their families.


    Those two weeks were an incredible experience!


Happiness is a Steaming Compost Pile


        By Tom McMillan

      During our recent cold snap, it was great to see steam wafting up from the snow covered manure pile.  My compost thermometer (doesn't everyone have a compost thermometer?) tells me the current pile is cooking along at 140 degrees while the air temp is in the single digits. Why do I get so excited about a hot manure pile?  The temperature tells me that aerobic decomposition is taking place.  The bacteria are doing their job breaking down manure for the nitrogen and the bedding for the carbon.  The side effect of this heat is that it will kill off any parasites, weed seeds, and germs that might have been in the manure.

      I've been reading a lot of composting articles recently.  (Is there such thing as a farm geek?)  Most assume that composting stops in winter.  I've been trying a few tricks to keep things going.  First, the pile has to be big enough.  I built a ramp and platform so I can pile it higher.  Karly calls this the infrastructure for my compost empire.  It starts to cook when it gets over 3 feet deep.  Aerobic decomposition is more effective—and less smelly—than anaerobic decomposition, so I bury perforated PVC pipe in the pile or use a fence post to punch air holes. When I start a new pile, I cap off the old pile with waste hay.  This helps keep the heat in so decomposition can continue through all of the yucky stuff.

      When we got into the alpaca business, we were told that alpaca farms often sold the 'paca manure, as it makes excellent garden compost.  I've decided we can't afford to sell it.  We feed hay and a rather expensive mineral mix to the herd. By composting the manure and bedding, we feed the pastures, which, in turn, feeds the herd again. 

      All just a part of raising healthy, happy alpacas.


Fowl News


        By Karly McMillan

    While most of us are happy about the snow we got yesterday, six of the Magic Willows residents were not.

    The ducks are, as Tom likes to say, the hardest working animals on the farm. Usually, they are standing at their pen's door before dawn like sprinters in their blocks, ready to dash off to...whatever it is they do with such dedication.

     This morning though, the ducks lined up at the threshold of their pen, looked out over the snowy landscape, and stood there frozen. They exchanged glances and quacks as if saying, "You go first." "No, you go first."

     Finally, after a few deep ducky breaths, "CHARGE! AAAH--OOF!"

     They sunk and lay there defeated.

     So we shoveled a path from their pen to the pole barn, where they are keeping as busy as they can. They nose through the old hay and the dirt floor looking for treats the 'pacas overlooked, stopping ocassionally to stare wistfully out the doors and quack to each other about how maybe it is not as bad out there as they thought.


     Ok, maybe it is.

     Our other fowl friends, the chickens, are also a little snow bound, though they don't seem to mind the day off. Yesterday, before the whole flock gathered to watch Chuck play fetch in the front yard (yes, Chuck is still with us. And yes, we're keeping him), one of the hens left us a rather large gift.

     Eggs come in all sizes here. The egg on the right is about the size you would see in a carton from the grocery store. The egg on the left, is 2-3/4 inches long, and 6 inches around. We're still trying to figure out who is leaving us these giant eggs. We assume she'll be limping.

     Whenever we tell mothers who visit our farm that alpaca gestation is 11 months, they all have, more or less, the same reaction: they hold their stomachs and say, "oof!"

     I think this egg would elicit a similar reaction.



       By Karly McMillan

     If you have visited our farm this week, you probably know we have been dog-sitting Chuck, my cousin's almost-three-year-old chocolate lab. My cousin has been hoping to find a new home for Chuckles, because her household is about to contain not only Chuck, his "brother" Beamer, and their 19-month-old human "sister" Scarlet, but also a new baby boy due in March, and Chuck isn't one to share attention. He's a sweet, but very excitable boy, so to wear him out this week, we've been playing fetch a couple of times a day out in Pasture 5 (which is currently empty of chickens, alpacas, and ducks). All week the 'pacas have been watching Chuck play fetch like they were watching a tennis match. They stare with looks of befuddlement, keeping their eyes on Chuck as he chases the ball and brings it back again and again and again. Chuck completely ignores them.

     Well, today Estrella, one of our original three alpacas and queen of the herd, decided that Chuck, clearly a predator, needed to be confronted. So she wove her way into Pasture 4 (which shares a fence with Pasture 5) and stood at the fence with her attitude cranked up to 11.

     Chuck kept playing fetch.

     Indignant, Essie began following Chuck as he chased the ball and brought it back. Soon Essie was running up and down the fence line as if screaming, "Would you stop it! Pay attention to me, moron!"

    Oddly enough, a black, long-necked animal three times his size chasing him didn't faze the boy genius. Contrary to all of the alpacas nervous chirping and Essie's assumptions about this slinking, dark-furred dog, Chuck is not a predator--unless you are a fuzzy, green ball.




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