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Prairie camels

Agriculture.com Staff 10/13/2008 @ 9:30am

I had to do a double take the first time I saw the camels.

The second glance confirmed the first. There stood a couple of camels in a pasture about a mile east of Sinai! My first thought was, "Whoa! Are those really camels?"

Indeed they were. The dun-colored hump-backed herbivores looked out of place as they serenely chewed their cuds amidst the emerald green of the prairie pasture. Paint everything a dull brown and park a pyramid and some sand dunes behind them and you would swear you were looking at a pack of cigarettes.

It wasn't long before I became acclimated to the idea of camels residing in the neighborhood. Their numbers seemed to gradually increase, but who's keeping track? Besides, camels have lived here before. About 11,000 years ago, their very distant ancestors may have grazed that very same patch of prairie.

Being possessed of a curious nature, I recently decided to drop in at the Post farm and see what the story was behind their bizarre choice of livestock.

I chatted with Kerry Post who, with her husband, Denny, owns almost a dozen dromedaries. The Posts also have three children, aged five to 10.

I asked Kerry what prompted them to purchase such unattractive ungulates.

"Denny bought them to be sort of a hobby. We just think that camels are nifty and unusual."

Are they hard to keep?

"Not at all. They do just fine on pasture and will even go after the thistles and sand burrs. They are excellent browsers; you can put them in the shelter belt and they will clean out all the underbrush."

What do they eat in the wintertime?

"Whatever we feed our cattle. Camels think corn silage is candy!"

How do they take our frigid Dakota winters?

"The cold doesn't bother them one bit. They grow a thick, shaggy coat that gives them excellent protection from the elements. If you shove your hand into their winter coats, it will probably go well past your wrist!"

They sure have funny-looking feet.

"Their feet are actually quite soft. Even though a camel can weigh 1,500 pounds, it doesn't hurt all that much if they step on your toe. Not nearly as much as a cow or a horse, anyway."

Are camels good mothers?

"They certainly are. Their gestation is a full year, after which they give birth to a gangly, knobby-kneed calf that will weigh about 300 pounds. If a cow doesn't want you messing with her calf, she might try to push you down and smush you beneath the tough pad they have at their sternum."

I take it that they have a strong herd instinct.

"Absolutely. If one gets out, it never goes very far and will invariably wander back to where the other camels are. They are fearless in the face of predators. We've had zero problems with coyotes since we've had the camels."

What else are they good for? Like, do you ride them?

"Yes, there are a couple that we can ride. But mostly they are used for Nativity scenes around Christmastime. We also take them to small town celebrations to be part of a petting zoo."

What's it like to ride a camel?

"It gets a bit bumpy when they hit a gallop. Camels run goofy. Unlike horses, who synchronize their front and back legs, camels swing both legs on each side in unison. They also stretch out their neck and their head bobs up and down like crazy. It's sort of a comical sight!"

They must go through a lot of fodder in a year. How can you justify the expense?

"Well, let's put it this way: a bull camel calf is worth $1,500 when it's born. A heifer will bring $5,000."

Whoa! That sort of money can buy a lot of hay. By the way, they sure have weird lips. Their upper lips are both hairy and a hare lip.

"That split upper lip an adaptation to help them browse those tough desert plants. One of our cows came from a circus and I guess some of the circus guys taught her how to hold a pop can with her lips and drink from it."

Ha! I'd pay money to see that!

"Yeah, well. We don't want to give our kids any ideas."

I left the Post farm with a new-found respect for the camel, an animal that has been oft derided as "a horse designed by a committee."

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a camel is put together exactly right -- that is, from a camel owner's point of view.

I had to do a double take the first time I saw the camels.

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