IN THE BEGINNING...
If you would have asked me ten years ago, what I thought I would
be doing for a living at the turn of the century, full-time
alpaca farming would have probably been on the bottom of the
list, if even on the list of all. However, through circumstances
within and beyond my control, I now live on a 150-acre farm in
Maine with my husband, our two sons, Charlie who is 6 and Petey
who is 2, along with a multitude of farm essentials such as
sheep, chickens, dogs, cats and the ever essential donkey. But
where did the 90+ alpacas come from?
Good question. Husbands do have good ideas every now and then
and back in the summer of ‘93, Tim stumbled upon an investment
article relative to alpacas. He gathered information and made a
presentation to me over dinner. I was hooked. I had some
livestock experience volunteering in zoos and aquariums while
growing up in Baltimore and my uncle owned a llama farm in
Colorado where we would visit in the summers. I knew llamas had
a cousin named alpaca, but that was about it.
Almost 10 years later we are entering the Fall of 2002 with over
90 alpacas on our farm. We have been raising and breeding
alpacas successfully enough to turn our farm into our full-time
business. Tim worked off the farm for the first 5 years, while I
managed the animals on a daily basis. As the herd grew, so did
the business and instead of hiring outside help, I hired Tim. He
already knew how to shovel manure and work the tractor.
Like any business, what you put in, you get out, but with
livestock, you add a few more variables. What are these animals
and what do I look for when considering purchasing breeding
IDENTIFY YOUR BUSINESS PLAN
There are many variables that will help you find the alpaca right for you. Firstly, where do you want your alpaca business to be and where do you want it to go? Fiber only or breeding? If interested in developing a fiber only business, then finding the best quality non-breeding fibered animals is the way to proceed. Having a variety of color will help as well diversify your product. Do you want to prepare, spin and knit or weave yourself or do you want to sub-contract these processes out? When sub-contracting out, you will have to work your cost into the cost of your product. Most craftspeople do not truly get compensated for their efforts adequately, but the love of working with the fiber and the end-product from your own animals is extremely rewarding in itself.
If interested in developing a breeding business, know what your goals are. Where do you want to see your business in five years? Ten years? What do you want to build your herd toward? Excellence in fiber? Excellence in confirmation? Particular colors? Have a game plan of which to begin. Know that plans change as events change and allow for that flexibility in your business plan. Everything looks good in black and white, but know when dealing with any business, shades of gray can appear.
LOOK LONG AND HARD AT THE ALPACA & THE FARM
Stay focused on your goal when beginning. Visit as many farms as you can, looking for a farm(s) you feel comfortable in dealing with. Ask about their opinions and values. You are investing a lot of money and you want to be comfortable in dealing with a farm that if a situation were to arise down the road, you would feel comfortable in working with them toward a resolution. Focus on finding the best alpaca for the money you want to spend. In looking at breeding stock, you are looking at two sides of an alpaca. Firstly, the conformation and overall body of the alpaca and secondly, the fleece.
We have been breeding since beginning with the alpacas - 10 years. We continue to breed to improve our stock generation after generation. We look closely at the female and mate her with a male who will add to her overall. There is no such thing as the perfect alpaca. Each has something that can be improved upon whether it be in their fiber or conformation. When looking for breeding stock, look for an alpaca(s) where the positives outweigh the negatives.
WHAT ARE GOOD CONFORMATIONAL COMPONENTS?
Lets start from top and work our way down.
Ideal ears are curved in and pointed at the top.
Preference plays a part.
Some folks like a short snout, some a longer one.
Fiber coverage on head can correlate to a denser fleece on the
A darker color on palate and gums can indicate darker alleles
and the chances that alpaca will throw color in its breeding
How the teeth align with the dental pad, but also how the jaws
line up as well. Alpacas loose their baby teeth roughly 2-3
years of age. The adult teeth come in from behind. We have seen
bites where jaw alignment is fine with the baby teeth off palate
slightly and when adult teeth erupt and mature, match evenly
with the palate. We have also seen that if trimmed at 8-10
months of age, the adult teeth align better and no more trimming
We like to see alpacas that are well proportioned. That is –
their neck length is equally proportioned to their body length.
Some alpaca have shorter necks, some longer, but ideally, the
‘typey’ alpaca looks like a well-proportioned animal.
Front legs should ideally be straight down from the shoulder.
Some alpacas front legs come closer in and make a V shape. This
would not be as ideal. When screening for importation, alpacas
were allowed a degree of variation in the front legs angulation
but nothing too great. From the side the front legs should be
straight down from shoulder. A large percentage of alpaca have
good front leg
Back legs. When the alpaca is standing on level ground,
there should be a natural hock or bend in the back leg (when
looking from the side). When the bend brings the animals foot
too far front, they have a greater hock. From the back, watch
the animal walk or run forward. You can see how the legs move.
Do they rub together or do they toe out? Is this going to cause
them any damage in their future? Probably not but know your
alpaca(s) conformation so we can start building better alpaca
Don’t forget the back. I like to see a flat back line with a
nice curve to tail. Llamas tend to have longer, straighter backs
and straighter conformation than alpacas. They have been bred
for thousands of years to carry weights. The more weight the
better. Alpacas have a more rounded end then a llama and have
been bred to give more fiber.
Traditionally speaking, white and fawn colored alpaca tend to
have finer fleeces. This is because in Peru, the goal was to
breed for as much fiber off an animal to sell to the European
market and white was the color of choice so their customers
could then dye it any color they wished.
Micron Counts, Standard Deviations and Co-Efficients
Micron and its associated numbers are just ONE of the factors I
use in evaluating a fleece. Micron itself means the average
diameter of the sample of fibers sent in for evaluation. You
take a 2”x2” sample of fleece from the center, mid of the
fleece and submit. Know that humidity, etc. can interfere with
results, so we sample of dry fleeces only. The lower the micron
the better. Hence numbers around 17 - 25 for microns are good.
We will not use a male for breeding if his micron is over 30
microns, no matter how wonderful he is in all other
SD stands for standard deviation of the micron. Looking for a
number again, lower the better but no higher than say 5-6 in a
CV is co-efficient of variation. Lower number there better as
well. Shows uniformity through out the sample and chances are it
will correlate to a more uniform fleece in micron. Over 30 is %
of fibers in that sample over 30 micron. Lower numbers again are
desirable and this is something we look at closely for breeding
males. Again, color of fleece will effect numbers.
Remember I said usually white for light fleeces have lower
microns and if you can find a lower microns in color you are
doing good. Example - white good microns 19-22 black 22-25. They
do not use micron numbers in Peru. They have women who sort the
fiber by handle or feel and judge it accordingly as baby, fine,
superfine or coarse and sort that way. Americans have to take it
one step further of course.
Handle, Luster, Strength, Crimp & Lock
Just as important as micron and its associated numbers are the
fleece's Handle ( how it feels to touch) Color, Luster (or
sheen), Strength (over all health of the fiber), Crimp (waviness
- in huacaya fleeces Suri does not have), Lock, cleanliness and
Presentation of Fleece. In fact, these factors from a
handspinning point of view are more important to me. My fiber
customers and end-product customers want to know how a fiber
feels, not its micron.
Density of a Fleece and Fiber Coverage
Traditionally speaking, the denser the alpaca the more coverage
it may have. Well, that ‘s not always the case. I have had
nationally award winning fleeces that have come off of well
covered and not-so well covered alpacas. “Unless you are using
the fiber between their toes, what good is the coverage anyway?”
I have been asked. Good point. However, if you are utilizing the
leg wool, which we do for co-operative projects, this enables us
to get every bit of fiber off the alpaca and turn it into
something to sell. Off and on the farm fiber sales totaled
approximately $10,000 for us in 1999. This amount easily paid
for all feed costs associated with all fiber animals on our
farm. We did incure costs to make product, but profit was higher
than our expense.
WELL CONFORMED, WELL FIBERED, WELL PRICED ALPACAS
Know that your alpaca business, fiber or breeding will grow
naturally as your herd grows. Focus on finding the best stock
for the price you want to spend allocating a reserve for
insurance to protect your investment, veterinary, stud and
develop expenses. Folks starting today have a wide realm of
resources on which to start that we didn’t seven years ago.
Learn from our growing pains to build a healthier and happier
herd for the future.
We work with many farms, established and new, to find alpacas
that are right for them and that will help them reach their
goals. Alpacas are not right for everyone. We want you to enjoy
your alpaca journey, start to end. What will you be farming by
the year 2005?