Llamas and dairy cows are equally at home at Brigitte and Mark DeMaster’s farm in rural Cedar Grove.
While it might be unusual to see Holsteins sharing a farm with these tall, regal creatures, the llamas are comfortable here. They spend much of their day outside, and like the cows they are an integral part of the family’s farm operation.
But while the llamas started out being a business investment, they turned out to be so much more, Brigitte said. They’re companions and family pets.
“They make a better pet than a dog sometimes,” she said. “They’re quiet and clean. They’re so much fun, and they’re relaxing. They take as much work as you want.”
When they first got llamas, DeMaster said, she would spend at least eight hours a day with the animals after her kids went to school.
“We’d just hang out,” she said. “I used to just sit outside with a book and they would come over and keep me company.”
At one time, the DeMasters had more than 40 llamas at Bahr Creek Llamas and Fiber Studio. Today they’re semi-retired and have 17 of the animals as well as one alpaca.
Earlier this year, they also sold 110 of their 130 milking cows.
“We’re not retiring, just slowing down,” DeMaster said. “It’s a good lifestyle.”
The llamas, she said, changed her life. They went from farm animals to pets and, in the process, provided her with an occupation and hobbies.
After all, llamas provide fleece and she needed to do something with all that fiber, so she started spinning. DeMaster started weaving to put the yarn to good use. A friend suggested she teach others to weave and spin, so she did. Eventually, DeMaster needed yarn for the students, so she opened her shop in 2000. Then knitters started to visit the shop.
“Since I had needles and yarn, I had to be the expert knitter,” DeMaster said, so she learned to knit. And now she’s also expanded into felting, using the llama fiber as roving.
Llamas, exotic animals native to the Andes, aren’t exactly a typical farm animal today. They certainly weren’t the norm when the DeMasters first began looking at ways to expand their farm in the mid-1990s.
DeMaster said her husband was the fifth generation to operate the family farm, and they wanted to do something different.
“I felt like I wanted to raise something. I wasn’t a knitter. I wasn’t a weaver. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the yarns.”
The couple decided to breed llamas, selling their babies — or cria — as well as their fiber after talking to another farmer who raised both llamas and cows at a Holstein convention, DeMaster said.
“He said they were clean, they were quiet, they were very smart, and they were easy to raise,” she said.
In 1995, the couple bought their first llamas.
They and their children — Daniel, Kari, Jonathan and Nicholas — fell in love with the animals, DeMaster said, and both Daniel and Kari showed them for 4-H projects.
“As a dairy farmer, you don’t have vacations. We used llama shows as vacation,” DeMaster said.
They often transported the animals in the back of their minivan, DeMaster said.
She recalled one time when they were taking a mother and baby llama home from Columbus and got stopped by a police officer because one of their headlights was out.
“He saw the baby and mother in the back, shook his head and said, ‘They aren’t going to believe this,’” DeMaster said. “We got a warning.”
The family bought llamas from throughout the country, including Utah, Montana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but their plan to sell the babies didn’t work out too well, DeMaster said, because the family fell in love with the animals.
“We have a hard time parting with them,” she said. “We enjoy the babies. They became pets.”
Training llamas is relatively easy, DeMaster said.
“If you gently lead them, they will follow you because they trust you,” she said. “If you show them something three times, they’ve got it. Whether they want to do it when you want them to is another question.
“Their personality is more like a cat than a dog — they’ll either grace you with their presence or they’ll ignore you.”
Llamas have a reputation for spitting, but DeMaster said they don’t spit as much as people think. In her 29 years raising llamas, she said, she’s only been spit at about 10 times.
“They don’t like to spit,” she said. “It tastes bad to them.
“They spit at each other as a ‘you’re in my space’ kind of thing.”
And often when they spit at people it’s because they’re being teased, she said.
DeMaster took the llamas to schools and nursing homes, where they would visit the residents — a job for which the animals proved to be ideal.
“They were so gentle,” she said, recalling one time when an Alzheimer’s patient — “this little grandma,” DeMaster said — walked up behind the llama and began to stroke its tail, removing hay from it. The animal patiently waited, then laid down for the woman.
“It was so sweet,” DeMaster said.
She would train the llamas for their visits by walking them through the family’s house, teaching them to navigate tight spaces, handle steps and walk on tiles.
Today, she said, the family seldom takes the llamas off the farm. The animals are older, and they no longer have a way to transport them.
Of course, like any animal, llamas have their moments. The females tend to be “a little naughtier” than the males, DeMaster said.
She recalled one spring day when she was home alone and about 25 of the females got out of their pen.
“I knew I’d never get them one by one,” DeMaster said. “I went and grabbed a bucket of grain and ran after them. I yelled, ‘Llama, llama, llama’ and they turned. I ran to the gate and they followed me.
“It was amazing.”
The animals usually get out in spring, she said, “when the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence.”
The llamas get sheared in spring or early summer, depending on how shaggy they are. Some only get a haircut every other year, DeMaster noted.
Each llama yields a couple pounds of fiber.
DeMaster removes the guard hair from the fleece, then sends it away for cleaning and processing.
She then spins the fiber into yarn or uses it as roving for felting.
“I sell as much as I can spin,” she said. “At one time, I could sell all my fiber and spin it in a year. Now, I can’t keep up with the spinning.”
While they’re not looking to expand their family of llamas, they continue to look at other animals that would call the farm home.
“We’re thinking about getting some sheep,” DeMaster said.
Image information: The affection between Brigitte DeMaster and Custer, a 13-year-old male llama, is readily apparent.