“Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.”
― Alfred A. Montapert
This latest interview tells the story of Richard Steffke, owner of Gibraltar Bay Alpacas.
Are you a Grosse Ile resident?
No, my wife, Gail, and I live in Gibraltar. However, I have been coming to Grosse Ile since I was a young child. Later in my life, I worked on the Island as a handy man.
How did you become associated with the business of running an alpaca farm on the Island?
An Island physician, Dr. Knapp, started the business, Knapp’s Island Alpacas, in 2000. I visited the farm two weeks after it opened its doors to inquire about doing some fence repairs. I met the alpacas for the first time and, with all due respect to my wife Gail, I fell in love with the animals. A short time later, my wife also got to meet the alpacas, had the same reaction as I did, and we were hopelessly hooked. Three months later we purchased our first alpaca, and by 2008 we owned 15 of the animals. When Dr. Knapp passed away in 2008, we decided to buy the farm, and we changed its name to “Gibraltar Bay Alpacas” because of our close proximity to the Bay.
How many alpacas do you have on the farm?
We currently have 57 alpacas on the farm with a 58th ready to come on the scene any minute now. We board most of these alpacas for 19 other families.
Owning an alpaca has some tax advantages because the alpaca fleece is a renewable resource. However, if you are owning an alpaca for the tax advantage you are doing it for the wrong reason. The 19 families who board their alpacas with me love their animals. They come out nearly every Saturday to take their alpacas out for a walk and check on their well-being.
What can you tell us about alpacas?
Alpacas belong to the camelids family which also includes camels, lamas, and vicunas. Alpacas originated from the mountains of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. The natives of these countries use the alpaca for its fleece and as food. In the United States, we use the alpaca strictly for its fleece. It is against the law to even use the hide of a deceased alpaca. Today, there are about 130,000 alpacas in the United States.
Alpacas can withstand cold temperatures down to 30 degrees below zero, and, since their fleece has no lanolin, they dry very quickly after getting wet. They are hypoallergenic and are able to lessen detection by predators because they give off little or no odor. They can run 40-50 miles per hour in short bursts, and with their horizontal pupils they can see 320 degrees without moving their heads. Alpacas also process their food consisting of hay, alfalfa, timothy, and vitamin enriched grain with internal enzymes, not acids like most other animals. After eating, they like to lay with their stomachs pointed in the direction of the sun, and the sun’s warmth helps speed up the digestive process. A 100-pound alpaca can eat about two pounds of food a day. Finally, alpacas need to be sheared once a year, usually in the spring. If they are not sheared, they would experience heat stress in the summer sun.
An alpaca can cost anywhere from about $500 to “the sky is the limit” — that is, well over $1 million. The cost of an alpaca depends on its lineage. The cost for boarding an alpaca is about $100 a month. By comparison, to board a horse is about $400-$700 per month.
The alpaca is a very mellow animal. In fact, alpacas have proven to be very therapeutic for children and adults with emotional issues. These individuals are able to make a very personal connection with the alpacas, and it has a very calming, reassuring effect on them.
Alpacas have very interesting social mores. Seven days after a male and female alpaca mate, the male will approach the female. If the female is pregnant, she will spit at the male. If she does not spit at the male that means she is not pregnant, and they will attempt to mate again. Alpacas also demonstrate their protectiveness of their babies and pregnant females in a very unique way. The entire herd will relieve themselves in the same spot. The herd will then walk through the deposits on their way to their grazing areas so that predators cannot single out the scent of the babies and the pregnant females.
You can tell when an alpaca herd is concerned about a predator. The alpaca who has spotted the predator sends out a call that sounds like a high-pitched whistle, and all of the members of the herd stare in the direction of the predator. That is usually enough to deter the predator because predators like coyotes want the element of surprise working in their favor.
Are you involved in any other activities on the farm?
About five years ago I became interested in raising bees for honey. I started with two hives, and now I am up to 13 hives. The bees in my hives are Italian bees and Carniolan bees. I prefer these bee types because they are more productive than the black Russian bee.
All beehives are in danger of dying off because of herbicides and mites. Genetically modified organisms such as specially developed corn plants have been bred to resist certain herbicides. These herbicides can then be used to kill weeds in the fields without harming the corn plants.
However, what is good for the corn plants is not good for the bees. Honey bees have hairs on their bodies that create an ionic charge. The ionic charge causes pollen to attach to their bodies. When bees land on the tassels of GMO corn plants they often carry herbicide laced pollen back to the hive. When the queen and the young bees eat this pollen, it poisons them and they die. Mites are parasites that have also had a detrimental effect on the health of honey bees. They suck the blood from both the adults and developing brood. This weakens and shortens the bees’ lives.
Because of the effects of both herbicides and mites, I need to replenish my bee hives each year. A standard package of bees that I purchase includes one queen and three pounds of worker bees.
Honey bees travel in a radius as far as 15 miles from the hive in search of nectar and pollen. The honey that results from their efforts is flavored by the plants/trees they visit, which includes clover, fruit trees, American lotus, and mint. Last year our honey had the distinct flavor of vanilla and peaches. This year the honey has an essence of mint. I have taken 6½ gallons of honey out of the first hive this year. To give you some idea of how much honey that is, 5 gallons of honey weighs about 65 pounds.
What do you do with all of that honey?
Most of my honey is available for purchase. However, I have also decided to try my hand at making mead for my personal consumption. Mead is made from water, yeast, and honey. It takes about 45 pounds of honey to make a 15-gallon batch of mead. I have named my mead “Neanderthal” because I am using a 50,000-year-old recipe that was scrawled on the wall of a cave.
Any final thoughts?
Only that I welcome the public to visit our farm to see and hug the alpacas and browse our shop that contains many products made from alpaca fleece and from our honey production. We are open from 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays.