Cumberland Valley School District has taken a different approach to eco-friendly lawn maintenance.
Six male alpacas have a new home in the fenced-in area around the newly installed solar panels at the Cumberland Valley Educational Park in Silver Spring Township.
Now the district can rely on natural grazers to control the weeds and grass on the hillside instead of paying grounds keepers thousands of dollars to mow and trim around the panels.
“We thought why not do something unique,” said Michael Woods, agriculture education teacher at the high school and faculty advisor to the Cumberland Valley chapter of Future Farmers of America.
“We went with alpacas... just to be different from Carlisle,” Woods added. He was referring to the use of sheep by the Carlisle Area School District to control grass and weeds around its solar array at Wilson Middle School.
Have you herd?
The animals were donated to Cumberland Valley by Darwin and Doris Kell, owners of the Bent Pine Alpaca Farm in Monroe Township, Woods said. He explained how local chapter members will be responsible for taking care of the alpaca.
In donating the animals, the Kells transferred ownership over to Woods and the FFA chapter. Each alpaca is registered and can be easily traced using an embedded microchip that has detailed information on the animal’s bloodline, Darwin Kell said.
Five of the six animals are rare suri alpacas which have a very fine, silky and lustrous coat that forms long and pencil-like dreadlocks. Kell named the five after Pennsylvania counties -- Tioga, Forest, Crawford, Chester and Wayne.
The sixth alpaca, Lightning Jack, is one of the more common species called huacaya, which have a short, dense and crimpy fleece which give them a woolly appearance. All six animals were born in Pennsylvania.
Several FFA members volunteer at the alpaca farm and suggested using the animals when they heard that the school district was looking for a safer way to trim the grass on the hillside around the solar panels, Darwin Kell said.
Nature’s rotary mower
It seemed a natural fit. Since alpacas are from the Andes Mountains of South America, they are adapted for grazing on a slope. Kell added alpacas are among the most environmentally friendly species of animals on the planet.
While other grazing animals pull out plants by the roots, alpaca eat by trimming down grass and weeds like a rotary mower, Kell said. This is because they only have teeth on the bottom part of their jaw and a hard gum line on the upper part of their jaw.
While other animals can tear apart a wet grassland by walking over it, alpaca can move over terrain without leaving a trace or any sign of damage.
“They have toe nails, not hooves, and the bottom of their feet are soft and padded almost like a bedroom slipper,” Kell explained. He added the grounds keeping work is only the first step in what he hopes will be a continuing education program using the alpaca to teach students the importance of learning about agriculture.
“Most children born today have no idea of what real farm life is like,” Kell said. “I’m very concerned we are losing focus on an important part of education.”
Alpaca are sheared once per year for their high quality fur which is used to make clothing.