The Alpaca Advantage
High quality alpacas are a fundamental part of any breeding programme. Here’s some great advice on how to buy fabulous foundation animals.
By Adrian Stewart
Currently I would estimate there are about 130,000 alpacas in the USA, by comparison there are around 200,000 llamas. We know this because the majority of alpacas are registered with the Alpaca Registry more of which later. The alpacas are spread over about 5,000 alpaca farms and ranches in every state. The very biggest alpaca farms have as many as 2,000 alpacas, while the majority of farms have less than 20 animals.
Why has the alpaca market been so stable?
There are two main reasons;
Firstly, alpacas only started to be exported from South America in the mid 80’s and the US alpaca registry is now closed to further imports. Therefore, the only supply of registered alpacas is from the registered domestic alpaca herd.
Secondly, alpacas reproduce at a leisurely pace. A female will breed for the first time at the age of about 18 months, is pregnant for about 11 ½ months and with a few rare exceptions only ever has one baby or cria as they are called in the industry. She will have a breeding life of 10 to 12 years.
These two factors combined with an increasing demand for quality animals from farms both in the US, Canada and overseas has helped maintain values overall.
Like any other livestock business at this stage of development, the alpaca industry is concentrating on the production of quality breeding stock where superior animals sell for premium prices.
The price of a female alpaca will range from $12,000 to $25,000. Females with unique attributes will sell for even greater amounts particularly at auction. Proven high quality males, (often called herd sires) will sell for $25,000 to $100,000 with exceptional males going for greater amounts, again the highest prices are achieved at auctions. At the other end of the spectrum, healthy males that have been castrated will sell for as little as a few hundred dollars depending on their fleece quality and age.
Whats the end game of breeding quality alpacas?
Breeding stock is like the small acorn from which the mighty oak will grow. The mighty oak in this case is the market for alpaca fibre. Alpacas are shorn once each year and each animal produces anywhere from 3lbs to 10lbs of raw fleece. Unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fibre contains no lanolin and after being cleaned, yields a high proportion of usable fibre. Alpaca fibre is stronger and more resilient than the finest sheep’s wool, weight for weight it is also warmer than sheep’s wool. Most importantly, it is prized for its unique soft and silky texture. In many ways, it is comparable to cashmere but significantly easier to produce.
If I tell you Australia is home to over 120 million sheep you can see that there is still a long way to go in developing the US alpaca herd before there is anywhere near enough fibre to satisfy demand from the mass markets. Meanwhile alpaca fibre is very popular with both fibre artists and consumers which means there are a number of ways to make money out of your alpaca fleeces. Alpacas come in at least 20 colors and over 85 shades from white through fawn, brown, gray and black. White and the lighter colors can all be readily dyed. In the US there are a number of small or medium sized fibre processing mills often called mini-mills that can turn your raw fleece into a knitting yarn. Using a mini mill means that you can actually get back the fibre you sent in once it has been processed into yarn. This allows you to sell finished goods on your alpaca farm where you can actually point to your alpaca called Betsy and say this sweater is made from the fleece off Betsy. Many people will pay a premium for that traceability.
In addition there is the Alpaca Fibre Cooperative of North America. The cooperative was established in the mid 90’s and is owned by its members. The goal of the coop is to take fibre produced by its members, process that fibre into finished goods, which it then sells. The profits will then be divided among the membership. Members can also purchase yarn or finished goods direct from the coop at wholesale prices either for their own use or to sell.
How do I get started?
The most enjoyable way to learn about alpacas is to visit a handful of alpaca farms, we always learn more when we are having fun so this is also an effective way to learn.
Some of the larger farms run courses or seminars on raising alpacas and these usually last a couple of days and include some hands on time with the alpacas. These are generally well structured and the material is delivered by farmers who have been in the business many years. Its also a chance to meet some people just like you who are new to alpacas and want to learn more.
However all alpaca farms will be happy to show you around and talk alpacas. Its important to visit at least two or three smaller farms to see the contrast with the larger farms. Just call ahead first to arrange a convenient time. Running a farm with a staff of thirty is very different to getting up at 6am to poop scoop before going off to work.
What to ask on a farm visit?
This is your opportunity to ask as many questions as you can possibly think of about alpaca farming no matter how dumb you might think they sound. Sometimes you may be surprised at the answer and realise your question was not so dumb after all. You should allow about two hours for a farm visit this will give you time to look at facilities such as the barn and paddocks. Then plenty of time to get hands on with the alpacas and end by handling raw fleece and finished alpaca products. On subsequent farm visits, you may want to help with some of the alpaca husbandry tasks. This can be anything from leading an alpaca with a head collar to cutting toe nails and giving injections. Occasionally these subsequent visits will last all day and will include conversations about alpaca shows and alpaca marketing. Sometimes the alpaca veterinarian is present and you can observe other more involved tasks such as doing ultrasound exams of pregnant females. Nobody ever asks to come help pick up the poop and you aren’t going to either are you?
What to look for in an alpaca?
The alpaca industry is still in its early beginnings and the idea of what constitutes a perfect alpaca is the source of much debate. Therefore, the ideal criterion will vary somewhat from farm to farm. The important thing is that each breeder must have a clear idea of what his or her ideal alpaca looks like.
Having made the decision to become involved with the business of breeding alpacas do some homework, seek advice and guidance from established alpaca farmers and you will find the selection of those first few animals much easier than it first appeared. The chances are that you will have no previous livestock experience so its no exaggeration to say that you really want the farm that supplies your foundation animals to be more of a business partner than a simple supplier. In other words their success is linked to your success.
The evaluation of any alpaca can be viewed in five phases. Use this section together with your other research and farm visits to create a picture in your minds eye of your ideal alpaca, against which you can evaluate each alpaca you come across. Any deviation from your ideal reduces the value of that alpaca to you and your breeding programme.
Conformation and physical well-being of the animal.
Initial evaluation begins with observation. Alpacas are naturally graceful animals and you will be able to tell much about its conformation from watching an alpaca move. When you visit an alpaca show you will see the alpacas are all walked past the judge before any hands on evaluation begins. The effortless motion with which they move is aptly described as a fluid gait.
The alpacas body can be roughly divided into thirds, with the head and neck making one third, the body making one third and the legs one third. The neck should join the back at about a 45 degree angle and the back should be straight, dropping off slightly at the tail. The rump should be broad, as narrow hindquarters in any breeding female can mean birthing problems. The hind and forelegs should be close to straight and robust giving the animal an almost square appearance. When the alpaca isn’t distracted, the neck and back will form almost a right angle with each other. Now focus on the fibre of the alpaca, does it enjoy good fleece coverage down the legs, is there a dense top knot with two spear shaped ears. All these are desirable traits.
Hands on. Starting with the head, the eyes should be brown and the ears in proportion to the head, which should be smaller than a llamas head. The jaw is a fundamental part of the alpacas anatomy and it is essential that it is well fitting. An inspection of the mouth will show lower teeth that butt up against a hard dental plate on the roof of the mouth. These incisor teeth grow constantly and are used to shear the grass. A good bite is highly desirable in a breeding alpaca. However, it is not at all critical in a castrated male. Alpacas with bad bites can live quite happily eating hay, which is rather like you and I eating spaghetti and does not require incisors to bite it off. The rear molars should also be in good alignment so that the alpaca can grind away at the grass and cud. This is something more easily checked by a vet so falls into the last section.
Body scoring by hand involves feeling along the spine of the alpaca towards the shoulders and determining how much fat lies on either side of the spine. If on either side it feels severely hollow then that animal is too thin. At the other extreme if the back is almost flat due to the build up of fat between the spine and ribs then the animal is too fat. A very thin alpaca is given a body score of 1 and a very fat alpaca a score of 5. The ideal score depends on age and sex but should be in the range 2.5 to 3.5. This skill is easily acquired and all you will need to do is feel a good many alpacas and compare your scores with an experienced farmer to makes sure you are on target.
The huacaya should be well covered in a soft uniform fleece the only exceptions being the ears and the bridge of the nose. By uniform fleece I mean both in fineness and color. Use your sense of touch to get some idea of the fleece density and how silky it feels. Open the fleece with your hands to see if it looks glossy, which is good or if by contrast it looks chalky in appearance, which is less desirable.
Remember the closer to your ideal an alpaca becomes the more expensive it will become, so some amount of compromise may be involved. However, it is far easier to breed in better fleece characteristics than to attempt to breed out any genetic defects.
The suri fleece comes in a variety of styles the three main styles are known as the tightly twisted ringlet which is twisted over its entire length , the fan twist which is twisted but not over its entire length and isn’t quite as clearly defined in terms of lock structure as the first and the final type where only the tips are twisted. These styles can be dependent on the length of the fleece so may vary as the season progresses. The fibre should be glossy or lustrous and silky to the touch.
Two other sources of evidence.
The owner may also have a fleece histogram which is a scientific measurement of the fleece characteristics based on a series of industry standard tests. These charts can be useful however, they are by no means any sort of guarantee, an alpacas fleece will vary both over its life and during the season. So bear this in mind when reading fleece histograms.
Show ribbons- owners will quite rightly use show ribbons as a way to demonstrate the conformation and fleece characteristics of their alpacas. Currently alpaca judging is by relative comparison in the show ring. So its much easier to win a blue ribbon at a small regional show with maybe only a handful of animals in each class than it is to win a blue ribbon at a national show.
All winners get blue ribbons…but not all blue ribbons are equal. About 1 in 3 farms participate in alpaca shows.
Geneology or pedigree.
Every registered alpaca in the US is either an original import from South America or is the progeny of those imported alpacas. To register an alpaca a blood sample is taken from the new born cria and matched using DNA testing against the records for its mother and father. This means that for breeding stock it is essential to only buy ARI registered alpacas as that is the only way to know their pedigree. An alpaca that is not registered would be fine as a fibre only animal. Joining an Alpaca Registry gives you access to the database of records and from there you can identify both parents and any offspring. Some bloodlines are more desirable than others as you will discover.
Progeny or offspring.
Alpacas that have good characteristics as set out above but have yet to successfully reproduce sell for less than alpacas which have already produced progeny. There are two factors here.
Firstly the ability to reproduce and in the case of the female carry full term, give birth and nurture the newly born cria.
Secondly the quality of the offspring. In other words can the parents successfully pass on their desirable characteristics to the next generation? The proof of the pudding so to speak, not all ribbon winners go on to produce outstanding offspring.
Finally, a thorough veterinary exam is essential in any alpaca purchase. I strongly suggest using a vet other than the vet that is normally used by the selling farm. It is simply a conflict of interest for the veterinarian and by no means a reflection on their ethics.
So find a good alpaca vet and agree what examinations and tests you want performed. You may well want to decide before hand what would be deal breaking news. By visiting the hobby farms web site at abcdefg you can download a sample vet check form which details the type of questions you may want answered.
One of the many attractions of alpaca ownership is that the animals are relatively small and easy to handle. Although domesticated, alpacas are by nature animals of flight and instinctively prefer to remain outside of human reach. Having said that it is easy to halter train alpacas and they respond with enthusiasm to obstacle courses and agility based exercises.
To make your alpaca owning experience as enjoyable as possible I encourage you to take some time to learn about alpaca behaviour. Many of you will have heard of Monty Roberts and his famous book The Horse Whisperer. While I haven’t heard of any alpaca whispering there are experts in alpaca behaviour and the most popular is Marty McGee Bennett who offers courses, DVDs and books that will remove handling frustrations and greatly enhance your alpaca owning experience. www.cameliddynamics.com
Sources of alpaca information.
Visit an alpaca farm, go to www.alpacainfo.com or call 615-834-4195 and order a copy of the Alpaca Farm and Ranch guide. The Guide is a color catalog with extensive information and a list of alpaca farms you can visit listed by region and by state. Or if you are in a real hurry go to http://www.alpacainfo.com/newsite/farmandranch and use the on-line farm locator.
Take out a subscription to Alpacas Magazine, published five times a year (four quarterly issues plus one special Herd Sire edition), Alpacas Magazine is the official journal of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. The magazine covers a wide range of alpaca-related topics: from animal husbandry to the latest on alpaca research; human interest stories conference and show ring updates; and fiber and fashion / end product-related articles. Subscription is $50 per year.
Join a local alpaca association go to http://www.aoba.org/affiliates/affil_frame.html for a list of the many alpaca associations throughout the USA.
Visit an alpaca show go to http://www.alpacashows.com/upcomingshows.asp for a comprehensive list of AOBA certified alpaca shows
Visit an alpaca auction go to http://www.celebritysales.com to find an auction in your area.
Two types of alpaca
There are two types of alpacas; the huacaya (pronounced “wah-Ki-ah”) and the suri (pronounced “sur-Ee”)
The huacaya has a fleece that grows out from the skin, the individual fibres form into small groups called staples. This gives the alpaca a teddy bear appearance, assuming it hasn’t been recently shorn of course. Huacaya account for about 80% of all registered alpacas.
The suri has a fleece is made up of tight ringlets and these hang down from the body leaving a clear parting along the spine. Suris account for about 20% of all registered alpacas, but you had worked that out already hadn’t you?
Alpacas stand about 36 inches tall at the withers (shoulders).
Alpaca are not raised for meat in North America but they are consumed as food in South America.
Alpacas are light weight livestock. A female will weigh up to about 150lbs and a male up to 200lbs their soft padded feat ensure they are very gentle on pastures compared to cattle or horses.
Alpacas consume about 1.5% to 2.0% of their body weight each day.
Alpacas are modified ruminants and take about three days to process the grass and hay they eat. Their highly sophisticated digestive system has three compartments and makes them one of the most efficient eating machines in the world.
Alpaca husbandry is no more complex than keeping a dog. Appropriate food, fresh water, de-worming and a few precautionary injections plus some toe cutting. Shearing is a skilled task and in most cases best left to the professionals.
Alpacas like to create specific latrines in a field so collecting their poop is much easier than with other forms of livestock. This greatly helps with parasite control.
Alpacas can be expected to live fifteen to twenty years.
Alpacas are induced ovulators and are stimulated into ovulation by the act of breeding.