Tuesday, July 25, 2017  



ALPACA LOVE: Soft, Fuzzy, Fun-loving and Versatile

By Melissa Shearwood

Alpacas are big on personality, versatile in farming and are in the beginning stages of making a huge impact in the United States. There are over 25,000 that have been imported into the U.S. since 1984 from the South American countries of Peru, Chile and Bolivia but as of 1998, all imports were halted. The easy going animal is just recently making its way to our country, but the Incans treasured their alpacas thousands of years ago in the Andes Mountains of Peru. They revered the animal in their religious ceremonies and discovered the unique qualities of alpaca fleece and clothed themselves in garments spun from the luxurious fleece.

Alpacas truly are a unique animal and are great companions, pets or farm animals. They have no incisors, horns, hooves or claws and are mild mannered. With an average weight of 135 pounds (usually between 100-200 lbs.) and a size of about three feet tall, measured at the withers (the top of their front shoulders), they are fairly easy to handle.

More Alpaca Facts
The alpaca’s popularity here in the U.S. is easy to understand. They are soft and friendly looking and everyone that loves animals wants to hug one. Alpacas belong to the Camelid family which includes camels, llamas, guanacos and vicuñas. They are gentle creatures with individual personalities and quirks that make them a pleasure to be around. With a life span of 15-25 years, they are a long term investment that will bring their owners great enjoyment for years. They have soft hooves, which is a great asset to farm raising them. Their hooves do not damage the land in any way and they can easily be moved from field to field. Alpacas do not usually eat or destroy underbrush or trees and prefer tender grasses, which they do not destroy by pulling up at the roots. They have no upper front teeth so they do not bite but may playfully nibble on you. Alpacas are a modified ruminant with a three compartment stomach. This means it converts grass and hay into energy very effienciently and eat less than other farm raised animals. They can also survive without consuming very much water because of their Camelid ancestry, but fresh water should always be readily available for them. The Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI) should have every single alpaca in this country in their registry. ARI is the only nationally recognized alpaca registry in this country. Any alpacas imported after 1998 cannot be registered and non-ARI registered alpacas have little to no value in the market. If the animal is not registered with them, beware. Closing the registry to new imports has limited the supply of alpacas and prices have remained stable since then.

Because alpacas are such social animals, they would be lonely without a partner or playmate and should always be bought in pairs if they are a first purchase, preferably two males. When a female is purchased, she is usually pregnant, so you are essentially getting two for the price of one. The sound that alpacas make when communicating with each other is unusual to say the least. It is a humming sound and some have said it resembles the chants heard long ago by ancient monks meditating in the Himalayas. Alpacas also will occasionally spit, similar to their llama cousins. They will usually only spit when feeling threatened. It is a defensive behavior. This spit is almost always directed at another alpaca. It usually occurs while defending a cria (a baby alpaca), feeling threatened or even defending their food supply. Seldom is the spit directed at humans, unless that person spits at the alpaca first. Alpaca spit is a fine spray that consists of hay or grass that has been partially digested and it does not smell very nice.

Alpaca Fleece
There are two types of alpacas, the Haucaya and the Suri. The difference in the two types is their hair fiber or fleece. The Haucaya (wah-ki-ah) alpacas are round and woolly looking and their fleece is crimped. The Suri (sir-e) alpaca fleece is long and flowing and has the appearance of small dreadlocks. Alpacas are sheared for their fleece once a year in the springtime. This gives them a nice short haircut for the hot summer months. Their fleece is one of the finest, most luxurious natural fibers in the entire world. It is softer than cashmere and lighter, warmer and stronger than wool with the strength of mohair, without any lanolin. Lanolin is natural in sheep’s wool and irritating to some people.

At one time, only reserved for Incan royalty, alpaca fleece is now making a debut in the U.S. and becoming highly popular. There are approximately 22 basic colors recognized by The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), more than any other fiber producing animal. Alpaca fleece does not have to be treated with harsh chemical washes, as does wool, so it can basically go straight from the alpaca to a spinning wheel. A single alpaca, with a growth rate of six inches annually, can yield anywhere between 4-12 pounds of fleece each year. Fleece prices are approximately $1-$5 per ounce, depending on the fine quality. This rare and magnificent fleece is now available to many weavers and spinners around the world to create spectacular fine clothing. There is not yet enough alpaca fleece in the U.S. to support any commercial manufacturer to produce clothing. Though U.S. alpaca breeders are working towards the common goal of being able to supply the commercial industry with an abundance of fleece, it is a long way off. The AOBA has committees already addressing every single aspect of this growing industry. The Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America (AFCNA) accepts fleece from is members and is working on increasing the awareness and demand of this fantastic ‘new’ luxury. This is all the very foundation to sharing this fabulous fleece with the general population eventually.

Items made with alpaca fleece are widespread. There are finger puppets, toys and the softest possible stuffed animals for children, as well as socks, sweaters and jackets for all to enjoy. There are blankets, hats and scarves to keep you comfy too. Any garment made from alpaca is sure to be a treasure or become a family heirloom to be passed down to the next generation.

Alpaca Breeding
Female alpacas are considered to be of breeding age when they are between 14-18 months old and weigh an average of 95-100 pounds. A dam’s pregnancy lasts for approximately 11-12 months and they seem to be able to breed for 12-14 years so breeding dams can produce at least 12 cria. The population growth rate for alpacas is extremely slow because of their breeding cycles. Expect a single birth (twins are rare and normally do not survive) to occur in the morning before lunchtime. It is their instinct to give birth in the morning so that the cria will be able to move and run by nightfall. Dams are ready to mate again within 14 to 21 days after giving birth; a female alpaca’s main goal is to be pregnant. They are induced ovulators; a dam will not go into heat like other animals. She releases her eggs in response to mating and the sire will make a mating sound to ‘get her in the mood’.

Alpacas and Taxes
If you are looking for an investment, an alpaca farm has excellent tax benefits. Always consult a tax advisor for specific advantages. Unlike other investments, alpacas are 100% insurable. Breeding stock held for more than one year is subject to capital gains. Of course, all expenses, such as feed, supplies, tractors, travel, advertising, veterinarian care, computers, etc., are all tax deductible. It is possible that there will be a significant reduction in real estate taxes as well, depending on your state’s farming laws.

Many alpaca breeders will finance your purchase because they are not inexpensive. Breeding dams can cost $10,000-$40,000 and quality sires can cost from $5,000-$35,000 and have been know to sell for over $200,000, depending on their lineage. It is also common for the dam’s offspring to sell for the same price or more than what was paid for the dam because of the restricted supply. Breeding alpacas are considered a capital asset and it appreciates over a five year time span. Income derived from the sale of a capital asset is also subject to a lower tax rate than regular earnings. There are more tax benefits and these are all added benefits to increase the attractiveness of owning these fabulous, low maintenance animals.

Alpaca Lifestyle
Caring and breeding alpacas is a lifestyle that appeals to people from all walks of life. Whether they decide to become full-time breeders or just start a part-time business, the alpaca lifestyle is a pleasure either way. Alpacas are easy to care for because they are intelligent, disease resistant, safe, quiet and clean animals. These qualities add to their stress free lifestyle. They need little acreage and 4-8 can live on a single acre. Their shelter consists of a three sided enclosure to provide shade in the summer and shelter from the wind in the winter. Since their natural habitat is high in the Andes Mountains, our winters in the U.S. are tolerable to them. The summer time heat is a different story. Even though they are sheared in the spring, summer heat is harsh and they should always have access to large electric fans and adequate shade.

They are easy to clean up behind as well because they chose a spot or two to use as a bathroom in their pasture and they will all use the same area. This, in turn, helps control the spread of parasites and makes cleaning out their pens easy because it is concentrated into one area. The manure is widely sought after to use as fertilizer for farmland or gardens because it is all natural.

There are events all over the county that families can attend, be it a local farmers’ market, local and state fairs, auctions, farm open houses, country fairs and, of course, the alpaca shows. David Headley, of Kino Alpaca Criations, states, “We love to do the local farmers’ markets so that people can see the alpacas and connect them to the products we sell.” Breeders are most interested in showing their stock, especially at the AOBA shows. The object at an alpaca show is to have your alpaca win ribbons in its class. As alpacas win ribbons at shows or win best in show, their breeding value rises and their offspring are more valuable also. There are different variations of alpaca shows. Typical alpaca show divisions judged are as follows: alpacas by color, alpacas by sex and age, handling on an obstacle course and some shows have judging of shorn fleeces. (When alpacas win and place in shorn fleece divisions at shows, the price of their fleece goes up as well.) Interestingly enough, grooming for alpaca shows is completely different from grooming for cat and dog shows. For alpacas, the show handlers are not allowed to wash, brush, clean or groom them. Their fleece is judged on being 100% all natural.

The alpaca lifestyle has bought many families across the United States an impressive financial windfall as well. Hobbyists may have one or more high quality dams or sires to breed occasionally and also sell their fleece annually. Alpaca farmers that specialize in breeding stock are capable of making a decent living with these wonderful animals, once they learn the ropes. From selling alpacas, selling breeding rights, boarding, selling the fleece and now some are even selling their waste; there are several ways to make a nice profit from alpacas, once you get educated about them. Most experienced farmers are more than excited to share their knowledge with new owners too. If you do not feel that you have the time right now to be a complete hands-on owner, there is always the option to purchase a portion of an alpaca at an existing farm and become a partial owner. You may even wish to buy an alpaca, or two, and board them at a local farm. With this option, when you are ready to set up your farm, you will have your alpacas and be well on your way to a full-time, fun-loving alpaca lifestyle. Donna Higgason, of Clearview Alpaca Farms says, “It’s worth it to do something you love that loves you back so much.”

A special thank you to Gary and Donna Higgason and Melanie Hundley Sisson, of Clearview Alpaca Farm and David and Bonnie Headley, of Kino Alpaca Criations, both in Essex County, for their time and wealth of information about alpaca farms. Visit Clearview at www.clearviewalpacafarm.com.