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Located in the mountains of Ashland, Oregon  
Mulberry Alpacas Saturday, 19 July, 2008  

Its all in the branding… 

Spring is here, the frist cria are starting to arrive and the annual round of shows and  auctions are now in full swing. First “out of the chute” this year was the Snowmass “Making of Champions” Private Selection Sale. Don and Julie Skinner offered 52 lots and by the end of the auction they had grossed an amazing total of $3,225,000 giving an average price per animal of $62,019.

Lot 7, Snowmass Invincible set a mind-blowing new world record for a sire at $580,000. Snowmass Invincible was purchased by Ernest Kellogg, (Double O Good Alpacas) and Nancy Johanson, (Alpacas of Brookhollow Farm.) Snowmass Invincible will be 4 years old in July and his first three fleeces have all been close to 17 microns with less than one percent of fibres over 30 microns, so he is definitely something special.

Don and Julie Skinner have been working on their breeding programme (and their brand “Snowmass”) for 22 years and have been winning shows throughout that time, so their success is well deserved. Nevertheless, one question resounding in alpaca circles is whether prices like this are good for the industry or bad? They certainly attract headlines and raise the profile of alpaca breeding but some feel these high prices can make the business appear inaccessible to those who are considering becoming breeders. In my own experience, I think that if they have any effect at all, it is to attract more people to the business. Americans have an astonishing appetite for life and with very few exceptions believe that with hard work and a little luck they can achieve just about anything - including building a brand like Snowmass and breeding a sire just like Snowmass Invincible.

The bigger issue occupying US breeders’ minds this spring is the issue of breed standards. There appear to be four prevalent opinions. There are those who say “I am absolutely in favour of breed standards”. There are those who say “I want to learn more about breed standards”. Then there are those who say to themselves, “I don’t care what they do, I am going to breed to my own standard,” and finally, there are some that are going to fight breed standards to the bitter end.

So why shouldn't alpaca breeders find a well-formulated standard desirable? For one thing, some argue that not all concerns shared by breeders of other species apply to the alpaca. Dog breeders, typically, would be hard-pressed to preserve breed types without standards, defining, for example, what distinguishes an Mghan from a Saluki. Left totally to their own devices and allowed to breed at random, the many diverse canine phenotypes would eventually mesh into a genetic Heinz variety. Indiscriminate out-crossing between breeds of sheep would also lead to the loss of a wide variety of unique and phenotypically different populations. To preserve the many breeds of cattle, breeders must have a clear understanding of how their chosen breed type differs from others with regard to size, head shape, horns, and other conformational traits. Interestingly I am told there exist over 500 different breeds of goats! In contrast, alpacas only come in two varieties - Huacaya and Suri. The crucial difference between them can be described in two to three sentences. Therefore, there are some breeders (mainly smaller ones) that say preservation certainly does not necessitate formulation of a breed standard.

So why do other alpaca breeders find a well-formulated standard desirable? They believe that breed standards provide a blue print for the breeder which indicates the quality of an animal and whether it will succeed in a breeding program or the show ring. Breed standards are a uniform ideal against which all judges can compare an alpaca, in addition to comparing the animals in a class and as such they would promote more consistency of judging from show to show. Standards discourage negative traits from being perpetuated in the gene pool, and discourage fashion or fad traits being established in the show ring. Breed standards would help reinforce the best interests of the alpaca as a specific breed with a specific function, therefore setting it apart from other breeds. They would specifically attempt to identify a "purebred" alpaca as opposed to a cross bred Llama/Alpaca (huarizo), thereby encouraging the maintenance of pure breeding. Finally, many believe that in the long term, standards lead to more uniformity in fleece quality which will become extremely important in the classing of fibre lots for processing and the creation of high quality end products.

So what happens next? I anticipate there will be a National Breed Type Conference later this year and a vote in favour of breed standards before the end of the year. American breeders have an eye to the international marketplace and sometime in the near future the “American Alpaca”  will begin to appear. Remember, it’s all in the branding.