Couple finds their llamas a labor of love
Nancy and Leroy Johnson could be raising goats. That's what they intended, but in the last three years they've accumulated 10 ½ llamas and not one goat.
"We have to do it for love," said Leroy of their growing llama herd. "It's not for making money."
Part of the thrill is personified in Dom, the Johnson's youngest llama, whose full name means "Sunday surprise" and who was born delightfully at dawn on Easter.
As Leroy tells it, their pregnant female was 358 days into her gestation period. Since llamas carry their young 345 to 365 days, Mira was more than due to deliver.
Easter morning, as he checked on the animals, Leroy gently urged the pregnant female.
"I said, 'Mira, let's have that baby today,'" he recalls. Then he heard a squeak and looked down to see the newborn.
They've been told, said Nancy, that llamas can "hold" their babies, waiting a bit to deliver after bad weather leaves. Also, she said, llamas don't give birth at night, but rather, as Mira did, wait for daylight.
The Johnsons delayed their Easter dinner a day as news of the newborn spread and 75 people visited the farm that Sunday. Since then over 300 people have stopped to see Dom, said the Johnsons.
Ten llamas now live on the Johnson farm on County Road M west of River Falls: Dom, Mira, Pebe, Cara Mia, Teta, Reya, Kusko, Silhouette, Noche and J' adore. The couple also own half interest in True Grit, a full-bred Argentine stud.
The Johnsons will be among 45 vendors and exhibitors who will offer their products or exhibit their animals at the annual "Llama Magic" Mother's Day weekend, May 11-12, at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Lake Elmo, Minn.
The weekend includes a full schedule of displays, contests, classes and a llama run. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The River Falls couple won't take their animals but will be selling llama fiber, honey, syrup and goat-milk soap.
And that brings us back to the goats.
The Johnsons live on Nancy's 80-acre family farm. Fifteen years ago they planted 70,000 evergreens and over the years have added chickens, wine and table grapes, apple trees, asparagus, raspberries and bee hives.
Nancy, who has taught kindergarten in Spring Valley for 18 years, also began making goat-milk soap and now markets 23 types.
When Leroy, who worked as sales manager for a construction company, lost his job a few years ago, the couple was looking for another source of income. They planned to buy goats and produce milk rather than buying it.
As they made plans, they knew they'd need some way to protect the goats from predators in the area. Nancy, too, had seen llamas at a farm-product show.
"I came home and told you they were cute, and we should have one," she reminded her husband. The couple consulted with other farmers and learned llamas make good guard animals.
"We talked to quite a few people," said Leroy. "That's what they had them for."
Nancy added, "They will kill a coyote. They will stomp it to death."
So about three years ago the Johnsons bought llamas. But then Leroy got a job as a nursing assistant at River Falls Area Hospital, and the couple realized that with two demanding off-farm jobs, they'd have difficulty milking goats twice a day.
They put aside, temporarily they say, the plan to raise goats and instead raise llamas, shear them and sell the fiber.
"They kind of pay for themselves," said Nancy.
"It's kind of a break-even," said Leroy. Each year their animals produce about 15 pounds of fiber, which sells for $4.50 an ounce.
While the llama yarn brings a good price, producing it is not cheap. Leroy figures that with feed, veterinarian expenses and the cost of processing the fiber, the income just covers expenses.
They're working toward full-bred Argentines, and the Johnson's llamas are registered with the International Llama Registry. There are only 300 full-bred Argentines in the United States.
"The Argentine is phenomenal fleece," said Nancy. She said the fiber is a warm as sheep wool but has no lanolin and is hypoallergenic.
The Johnsons sell their farm products at about dozen craft fairs and shows each year, but most is sold right at their farm. Nancy's King Bee Apiary soap is sold at five shops throughout the area.
"If everything works out as planned, we should have four to six new babies next year," said Leroy.
As for the goats, the Johnsons haven't given up on that.
"We're still thinking that, getting pretty serious," said Leroy.
For more information about the Llama Magic weekend in Lake Elmo, visit www.llamamagic.com.