Ken Lemke will occasionally gaze out from his house into the backyard and see a big mass of fluffy white alpacas.

Or is it dogs?

"Sometimes I can't tell the difference between a dog and an alpaca," he said with a laugh.

All but one of Lemke's alpacas at Big Dog Alpacas are off-white, and all five of his Great Pyrenees dogs are the same color.

Lemke, a U.S. Air Force veteran who manages the radio licensing and land mobile radio systems at Offutt Air Force Base, is a self-proclaimed "old farm boy." He hadn't lived on a farm, however, since he left his family's farm near Wisner about 40 years ago.

"They just made me appreciate the outside and the animals," he said.

After visiting an open house at Alpacas of the Heartland in Fort Calhoun, Lemke was "hooked," he said. He grew up raising cattle, hogs and chickens, but alpacas were a whole new animal.

"You don't have to be that smart to raise them," he said. "Alpacas are very robust animals."

Lemke spent two years educating himself about alpacas. His girlfriend, Janis Opperman, volunteered to help him. Lemke moved from Bellevue to his farm off of County Road P35, Blair, in 2011, and received his first pair of male alpacas from Alpacas of the Heartland a year later. He then obtained two pregnant females, also from Heartland.

The following year, Lemke was treated to a "surprise" cria — a baby alpaca. His herd grew to 10 animals within the next year. He currently has three females being bred.

Lemke was inspired by The Beatles when naming some of his alpacas; Sgt. Pepper, Sun King and Penny Lane roam his pastures.

Koukur — a made-up name — is "a big shot" who occupies his own fenced-in area because of his aggressiveness toward other males," Lemke said.

Sir Chocolate is a pure brown alpaca of Heartland stock.

Although new to raising alpacas, Lemke's animals won ribbons at alpaca shows in Kansas City and Grand Island this year. He plans to take several year's worth of fleece to a mill in Iowa to turn into yarn and rugs. After paying for labor, there is not much profit, if any, he said.

"They will never win first or second place," Lemke said. "It's just (about) meeting other people."

Lemke said his alpacas don't need vaccinations and rarely require medical care. Their nails are trimmed twice a year and their fiber is shorn in April. They graze in his pastures and are only fed one supplement.

Alpacas are 150 to 175 pounds when fully grown, and have a life expectancy of about 15 years. Lemke said that 11.5 pounds of fiber can be shorn off of a large alpaca.

Alpacas are cold-weather animals, but can still sustain the hot Nebraska summers.

"If there's a lot of snow on the ground, they'll go out and play in it," Lemke said.

While alpacas are low-maintenance livestock, the abundance of coyotes in the area prompted Lemke to consider getting dogs. He chose Great Pyrenees, "the dog of choice" for alpaca owners, he said.

Big Dog Alpacas had as many as 20 Great Pyrenees recently: one litter of nine was born in December 2014 and a second litter of 12 puppies was born in February 2015.

The dogs actually grow nearly as large in weight as the alpacas. Males are about 150 pounds and females are 125 to 130 pounds.

Although they eat enormous amounts of food as puppies, the adult dogs "don't eat much more than a cocker spaniel," Lemke said.

He didn't have to train his Great Pyrenees to work with the alpacas because they are "strictly instinctive."

"They will bond really quickly with them," Lemke said.

The alpacas live in harmony with the dogs as well; in fact, they both love sliced carrots.

"I never saw a time when they stepped on a puppy," Lemke said.

Lemke has sold his Great Pyrenees to buyers as far as the Sandhills and north-central Iowa, but he said he isn't overly concerned about breeding them.

"I would rather have a dog with a good personality," he said. "I don't really care what they look like."

Big Dog Alpacas is home to more than just alpacas and dogs. Lemke has acquired free-range hens, some of which he obtained from the Nebraska Humane Society. He also has several barn cats.

"Basically, it's whoever wants breakfast gets to eat," he said.

Words of alpaca wisdom from Ken Lemke

"If you over-socialize an alpaca, they start to think of you in terms of being an alpaca."

Alpacas are very docile, but express annoyance by occasionally spitting on each other.

"Llamas are jerks."

Alpacas are often confused with llamas, their larger pack-animal cousin; both are domesticated South American camelids. Llamas and alpacas will both usually only spit on humans if they have been socialized with them.

"If you give them really high-quality stuff, they'll get fat."

Lemke only feeds his alpacas a supplement. The rest of their diet consists of grass and the occasional leaves they snatch from trees by standing on their back legs like a giraffe.

"They'll just play in the mist for a half-hour and then go roll around in the dirt."

Alpacas are built for cold weather, but can still reside in warm climates. Their fiber is shorn in April.

"They hum when they're relaxed, and sometimes when they're stressed. The males screech like a loose fan belt. They will fight and neck wrestle."

Alpacas are mostly silent animals, but Lemke will hear the mothers hum around their crias. The males will sometimes screech when they are fighting.

(1) comment

peaveydude

I'd like to clarify a couple statements! Actually, it's the higher quality alpaca fiber which is in GREAT demand. My animals don't produce the super fine fleece that commands high prices, and basically, mine is not in what you may call "demand". It's sellable, but people aren't beating down my doors for it! There was another statement about appearance of my Great Pyrenees. The whole conversation was about breeding animals to conform to what some may consider artificial breed standards of appearance, body style, etc. My comments related to preferring to breed for a dog that is able to perform its guardian duties over and above a dog that's simply "pretty". But...I still stand by my statement that llamas are jerks! Great article, Katie, but I'm wondering why the girlfriend has TWO photos on line and I only have ONE? :)

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