Saturday, September 7, 2013

Annual Harvest Day

2013 Annual Harvest Day

It is hard to believe that I have not written in nearly four months! This summer has absolutely flown by, as I was privileged to serve as Herdsperson in Training on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Having such a large gap in the middle of my internship feels a little strange, but the experience was fantastic.


At the farm in Wisconsin, not only did we milk around 400 head of Holstein cattle, but we also raised all calves as replacement heifers and market steers. My primary role on the farm was to oversee herd health and reproduction.


During my time at the dairy farm I was able to practice and hone the hands-on stockmanship and animal husbandry skills that I acquired in the past, and that I have regretfully been unable to utilize at Unity College as the livestock aspect of my major is still in its infancy. I feel that these skills will make me a greater asset to Northern Solstice, and it was also a personally rewarding learning experience that will benefit my future career.

Prior to leaving for Wisconsin, I was able to participate in the Annual Harvest Day at Northern Solstice. This is otherwise known as Shearing Day. The volunteers gathered at 7:30 A.M. for a lovely breakfast followed by a brief meeting where roles were discussed and assigned. Two work stations were set up in the barn, one at either end, to allow for the most time efficient use of the shearer. Skirting of the fiber would take place in the garage, however I was not involved with that process.

One important thing to note about farms is that there is no such thing as an unimportant job. Even the smallest task is important for the success of the larger operation. At first glance, my role appeared to be one of these small tasks, but it kept me busy the entire day. My group was tasked with sweeping the work areas between animals, which is a job that requires extreme attention to detail. To make our job easier, the alpacas were sheared in order of lightest to darkest, however it was still very important to ensure that no scraps from one animal mixed with the fiber of the next animal.

Pictured above is the beautiful Salsa, demonstrating how the rope system works. The front and hind legs are shackled, similar to hobbles for horses or cattle. The hind ropes are stationary and the front ropes are connected to a pulley. One person takes the rope connected to the front legs and runs away from the pulley, causing the rope to shorten and the alpaca to slide to the ground. It is a surprisingly gentle and quick process.

 Shearing typically occurs once a year and is important for many reasons. First, this is the "crop" that the alpaca farmer produces and is usually their main source of income from their alpacas. Second, the fleece is extremely hot, so if they are not shorn the alpacas will be at serious risk for overheating in the summer. The quality of fiber is dependent on many factors including genetics, health, diet, gender, age, stage in production (i.e. pregnant, lactating), etc. A typical alpaca produces 5 to 10 pounds of usable fiber each shearing. Fiber is separated ("sorted") into three categories, called "grades" : primary, secondary, and thirds. The primary fiber comes from the blanket area, which you can see in the picture of Archimedes below.

After the fiber is removed from the animal, it will be skirted. Skirting is the process of removing undesirable fiber to improve overall quality, as well as debris which could damage processing equipment. Skirting is a true art which I have not yet attained, although I hope to learn in the future. If needed, the alpacas will also have their incisors filed at this time. Below you can see Denali's malocclusion compared to Archimedes' correct bite.

I enjoyed Shearing Day very much. The job of shearing interested me a great deal because I have a lot of experience and skill using the clippers, so I feel that with training I could easily learn this skill in order to shear my own alpacas. Additionally, it was great to see the culmination of a years' work, as it gives a better understanding of WHY we do certain things in order to get a superior end product.

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