by Leigh Mills
My husband and I have lived in the San Luis Valley for 13 years; in that time we’ve seen some unusual things. When I heard of the new camel dairy in Moffat, I thought “Camel dairy here? That’s pretty strange . . . how perfect!” As someone who’s practiced a little animal husbandry, I was curious about how Matt and Meghan Stalzer of the Mudita (Sanskrit for “Our happiness comes from your happiness”) Camel Dairy raise camels in our area.
Camel homesteads and dairies in the US are fairly new compared to the Bedouins and other nomads of the Middle and Far East deserts who have been successfully using camels (and goats) as work and food animals for thousands of years. “Using camels as a homestead animal is a recipe for success,” Matt remarked “they are a no-waste animal—the king of conservation.” Camels in Colorado do seem a little strange, but after hanging out with Matt, Meghan, Big Mama, and Dora, I’ve learned that the San Luis Valley is actually a very good place to raise camels. Camels are desert animals and the SLV is a high desert. When I asked if they were concerned about the poor soil and inedible vegetation, Matt quipped “we want the nasty soil nobody wants.” What is considered wasteland in our county is prime camel range since they can eat and digest chico!
If you want to homestead with camels, it would be advisable to study up. While they are similar to other domesticated farm animals in care and feeding, there are some practical considerations. One is the initial cost. US camel prices vary from $10,000 for a mature, trained gelding and can exceed $17,000 for a healthy pregnant female. Once you get your camel, you might have it until the camel . . . or you . . . dies, since camels can live from 35-50 years, “A fact I would like to test!” proclaimed Matt.
Another consideration is training. A camel, or camel owner, can be dangerous without proper training. Matt and Meghan did extensive research on camels, attended several workshops, and interned at a camel dairy in Michigan for a year before acquiring Big Mama. They understand how important a good, trained camel, (and camel owner), is to homestead happiness. “Through proper training and lots of love and care, you get camels like Big Mama and Dora who love affection.” Matt explains. Big Mama and Dora arrived very well trained, but Niam, Big Mama’s young bull, is being trained at home. Meghan works a lot with Niam and says “When he was a little guy, he was easy to work with, but now that he’s starting to mature, he’s a bit more difficult . . . like a teenager always testing boundaries.” Matt added that you can hook an untrained camel to a trained one, and the former will learn from the latter, so Big Mama and Dora also help train Niam.
Once acquired, caring for camels seems easy. They need to stay dry, so a big barn with lots of clean straw is best for our cold winter seasons. During the day, the camels require lots of exercise; so they wander around the Mudita’s 35 fenced-in acres; sometimes walking up to 10 miles a day in the summer. Being nomadic animals, they need plenty of space to move around and don’t do well penned up. Camel maintenance consists of brushing their hair once a year during the spring and trimming toenails if necessary. Vet bills can be avoided by providing adequate nutrients to supplement their feed, especially selenium and calcium. Additionally, Matt and Meghan give their camels loose salt minerals and add probiotics to their water.
A multi-use animal is valued on the homestead. Camels make good work animals and can carry hundreds of pounds on their backs. Matt’s original dream was to have a camel trekking business. He says camels would be great pack animals and do very well in our mountain settings since they can handle rocky terrains, and are surefooted, except on slick, muddy or wet surfaces. Camels can be ridden, too. Matt and Meghan have a camel saddle and know how to ride. When I asked about public camel rides, they said that having a camel ride business would be full time and they are focused on their dairy operations.
Similar to other dairy animals, camels are milked twice a day, each day. But unlike goats or cows, camel mamas need their babies nearby so their milk will flow. The Mudita Dairy has a special, two-sided stall which separates the baby, yet keeps it close to the mama during milking. Dairy camels can produce 2-3 gallons at their peak, (compared to a family cow: 6-8 gallons, or goat: up to 1+ gallons a day) and will give milk for about a year before drying off. Matt says if they were just homesteading for themselves, the milking would take about 10 minutes or so. But since they are operating a raw milk dairy, it takes up to 2 hours at a time to milk, clean, prep, sterilize, and bottle. The demand for camel’s milk makes it all worthwhile, though.
Meghan and Matt were inspired to homestead and run a dairy operation with camels after reading an article in Grit magazine. Many people are starting to drink camels’ milk, which helps them heal from various physical illnesses. “Camel milk is easy to digest, is nourishing, and has been shown to help and rehabilitate immune systems.” According to the Mudita brochure, it is reported to help with diabetes, autism, multiple sclerosis, and milk and food allergies. Since the dairy’s milk is raw, its sale is restricted. Matt and Meghan studied the pros and cons of herd shares and decided to organize as a Private Member Association (PMA) instead. Life-time membership fees are nominal and members can purchase raw camel’s milk, Kefir, or Meghan’s homemade chocolate fudge when available. Demand is high and production low right now, but that will be changing soon when Dora gives birth.
Homestead animals are expected to be well-rounded in their gifts and talents. Camels are similar to ruminants, so their poop can be used in the garden without having to cure (I enjoyed having rabbits and goats on our homestead for this purpose). Meghan hand-felts camel fiber into hats, booties, and wine koosies, and Meghan’s mom likes making soap from the milk. The camels themselves can become a return on the initial investment, too, since a well-trained gelding can fetch up to $10,000. I asked Matt about eating camel meat and he shook his head and said “While some cultures eat camels, they aren’t traditionally eaten in the US because they are so unique”.
Matt and Meghan are dedicated to their camel homesteading vision (“There’s no turning back!”) and have plans to expand the herd to accommodate the rising demand for camels’ milk and other camel products. Check out their Indiegogo campaign, too: http://igg.me/at/Mudita-Camels, where you can support the dairy and receive your choice of perks in return. “Big Mama’s” camel milk soap is available in local stores and the dairy welcomes visitors (by appointment). On Saturdays, you can find Matt and/or Meghan at the Elephant Cloud market in Crestone where they network with community members about the health benefits of camels’ milk and sign up new members. The dairy has a facebook page: MuditaCamels and their website is www.MuditaCamels.com.
I learned a lot visiting with Matt and Meghan and deeply appreciated them sharing their time, space, and camels with me. Thank you!
Here are some of the people and resources that helped Matt and Meghan achieve their success so far, and maybe they can help you achieve yours:
Marlin Troyer: Camel Milk Association – www.camelmilkassociation.org
Gil and Nancy Riegler: Oasis Camel Dairy – www.cameldairy.com/home.html.
Doug Baum: Texas Camel Corps – http://texascamelcorps.com
Kyle Hendrix – Camelot Camel Dairy – www.camelotcameldairy.com
Joseph and Nicole Henderson: Colorado Camel Milk – www.coloradocamelmilk.com
Health benefits of camel milk: www.nrtoday.com/news/12332626-113/milk-camel-dairy-com
Camel Milk Magic: www.camelmilkmagic.com
Camel Milk for Health – www.facebook.com/pages/Camel-Milk-for-Health/130614673682246
Grit magazine: www.grit.com/departments/camel-milk-dairy.aspx#axzz3PeSOmGZX