Longhorns Looking For Land For New Ffa Llama Program

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They're not your average longhorns, but a group of Payson High School students in the animal science portion of teacher Wendell Stevens' agriculture program who have adopted two llamas they hope to house on campus.

Donated by local Llama rancher Richard Falkenberg, whose spread is in Mesa del Caballo, the llamas will give the students the chance to work with animals and polish their persuasion and presentation skills.

That's because they have to sell the benefits of keeping the animals on campus to a succession of school district administrators and officials.

First they will plead their case to PHS Principal Phil Gille. If successful, they will make their pitch to PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels. And should they clear that hurdle, it's on to the board of education.

If they are turned away, Falkenberg will keep the llamas in Mesa del and the students will still be able to work with them out there.

"It's a win-win situation," Stevens said. "The kids not only get to learn about llamas, but they are also learning presentation skills."

But mostly, Stevens is happy that his animal science students have some real animals to work with.

"Animal science is about 60 percent of the program, and yet these kids don't get a great deal of hands-on exposure to animals," he said.

Part of the reason is that Payson is not the tiny ranching community it once was.

"Payson has changed," he said. "Animals are just not as accessible as they used to be."

Despite the fact that llamas, which hail from Bolivia, Chile and Peru, are not exactly part of our cowboy heritage, they were, at one time, plentiful in the United States. "They were native to North America until they were driven south by glaciers," Falkenberg said.

And, Stevens pointed out, there are some similarities between llamas and cows. "They are both ruminant animals; they have multiple stomachs," he said.

Another advantage, Stevens said, is that llamas don't require a great deal of upkeep. That's one reason Falkenberg approached him with the offer in the first place.

"A llama only costs about 50 cents a day to keep," he said. "Hopefully by learning what to do with their fiber, they will be a break-even proposition."

Llamas have hair rather than wool, and it is usually sheared in the middle where it is finest, a style known as a barrel cut. Because the hair is very light, a single llama only yields about a pound, but it is highly valued because of its softness.

Stevens also noted that llamas are gaining a measure of popularity throughout the U.S., including the Rim country.

In the past 25 years, their numbers have increased from 5,000 to 125,000 in this country.

"A lot of local 4H-ers have llamas," he said, "especially in Pine where Myndi Brogdon, who also owns llamas, works with the kids."

Llamas are shown in competitions as much as more common animals are. Falkenberg, who has shown his llamas all over the country, intends to work with the students to show them how to do it.

He especially hopes the PHS students will be able to show their animals in a big llama show in Flagstaff next September.

But mostly, he said, the llamas will teach students what any animal teaches them responsibility.

"Providing for an animal's needs is what animal science is all about," Stevens said.

The whole project got started when Falkenberg went to Stevens early in the school year with his idea. An ex-cattle rancher himself, Falkenberg took up llama ranching as a hobby after he retired in the '80s.

He and his late wife, Lorraine, read some articles about llamas and found they were much easier to raise than horses. He bought his first three llamas in Omaha, Neb., the llama capital of the U.S., when they were on their way home from a convention in Kansas City.

Falkenberg's wife had been a teacher, and when she was still alive, she would take the llamas to schools, libraries and nursing homes. They are especially kind and gentle animals, Falkenberg said, and they are very good with handicapped children.

The students have picked out a spot on the southeast corner of the PHS campus where they want to house the llamas.

"It's fenced in. It has trees. It's perfect," Falkenberg said.

Part of preparing their presentation is doing the homework and legwork necessary to make sure they can answer any questions they might be asked about the project. To accomplish this, responsibilities are being divided up among the students.

One group, for example, is checking the proposed site to make sure there are no poisonous weeds. Another group is developing plans for the shelter the animals will need.

The students also are soliciting donations and holding fund-raisers so they will have some seed money. And they are accepting donations of materials, including lumber for the shelter.

As part of their marketing campaign, the students plan to be on hand with their llamas this weekend at Sawmill Theatres when the Disney animated film, "The Emperor's New Groove," opens. You can see them from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Stevens said his students will probably start making their presentations in January.

Llamas have a number of advantages, Falkenberg said, not the least of which is they don't smell.

"They don't have any sweat glands, and they're potty trained from the day they're born to go in one spot," he said.

Other advantages, as he recently pointed out to a group of PHS students, include the fact that they can't bite because they only have lower teeth. They also don't kick or spook.

"And they don't make loud noises," Falkenberg said. "They sort of hum to each other," he said.

Stevens said his students' greatest concern is that they might get spit on.

"Llamas generally only spit when they're establishing their pecking order," Falkenberg said. "(But) that's not to say you won't get hit if you happen to be standing between two of them."

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