Llamas to debut at fairs across state this summer

HARDWICK -- What's six feet tall, brown and white, can jump through hoops, spits when annoyed and will take southwest Minnesota county fairs by storm this summer?...

HARDWICK -- What's six feet tall, brown and white, can jump through hoops, spits when annoyed and will take southwest Minnesota county fairs by storm this summer?

Llama projects are the newest Minnesota 4-H trend, and at least two people have already signed up to show the friendly, furry beasts at the Rock County Fair.

"You just have to get used to them. They're really nice, or mine are, anyway, and they're friendly," said ninth-grader Nicole Schelhaas, who will exhibit her llama, Max, at the fair in the summer.

Max, 3, and two other llamas live at Nicole's grandparents' farm, and although they do spit at each other when they're angry, they don't spit at Nicole.

"He's really friendly," Nicole said of Max. "I'll go in the pen and he'll run right up to me and start giving me kisses."


The family's first llama was a trade for a pair of turkeys, and came from a farm where the llama was used to protect sheep and goats from coyotes and other predators.

If the llamas aren't used as protection from predators, they're usually pets, said Nicole's mother, Hope Schelhaas.

Llamas can also be found in hospitals and nursing homes, where they are brought in as therapy animals, just like dogs.

Llamas are intelligent, friendly and sociable, making them ideal candidates for the job of cheering people up. They are easy to haltertrain and have a social herd structure like horses do, Hope said, complete with a pecking order.

Max is even more used to humans than most llamas, as his mother was injured while giving birth and he received plenty of attention to make up for her absence early on. Max has also been to the fair twice already, though this will be his first chance to compete -- he is a veteran of the petting zoo.

The llama competition will resemble dog or horse judging more than cattle or sheep contests.

"When you show them, it's kind of like a dog agility challenge. They have to go through obstacles and over steps and over a bridge and through water," Hope explained. "They even have a hula hoop -- you bring it up around yourself, you use one hand over the llama and one hand on the hula hoop, and the llama will step through."

The challenge isn't about how the llama looks or about learning its structure, it's about getting the llama trained and used to humans -- specifically, strangers and people with unfamiliar clothing or gear.


Just like a cat can be trained to use a litter box, by bringing a small amount of Max's dung to the fair, the Schelhaas family will be able to train him to leave his waste at a specific place at the fair -- helping keep his own stall clean and tidy.

Like the livestock more common to southwest Minnesota, llamas eat corn and hay. When they're born, the long-legged llamas weigh about 20 pounds and are "just fluff," Nicole said.

Adult llamas are usually between 5 and a half and six feet tall, and need to be shorn about once a year. The proper shearing tools are rare enough that Hope has had trouble finding someone to shear the family's llamas -- leaving them unusually furry.

Not all counties will have llama competitions, because the project will be too new to have enough people competing in each county for a contest. Instead, 4-H will likely offer a regional llama contest. The Schelhaas family will show Max at the Rock County Fair either way, Hope said.

"Some counties already have a llama project," wrote the 4-H State Fair Llama Show Committee in its 2008 Llama Information Sheet. "Most do not. Regardless, we fully expect interest in the project to grow."

Nancy Sandager, the 4-H program coordinator for Rock County, isn't quite sure yet where the two llamas will be housed when the fair starts, but she's sure there will be room for them somewhere.

The llama craze in Rock County so far consists of only two animals, and the program is new enough even at the state level that the rules are just beginning to be written. Prospective llama judges will need basic training and will not need "extensive llama knowledge" prior to the training sessions.

"I'm definitely not an expert. We're learning along with everyone else," Sandager said.


4-H Minnesota hopes the first year of the llama project will provide counties with a glimpse into "the wonderful world of llamas."

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