There is something very endearing and mystical about the alpaca, which makes it such an enjoyable business. It is believed that the Incas and Aztec civilizations domesticated alpacas between 5000BC – 4000BC in the Andean Highlands making them the earliest form of domesticated livestock known to man. They recognized the value of the luxurious fibre, with the baby alpaca fibre being reserved for royalty. The value is evident today with Alpaca fibre being one of the top exotic fibres in the world. Alpacas demand a high price in today’s market compared to other forms of livestock. The high market value is what makes them a lucrative business opportunity but it is important to do some homework before you make an investment.
Alpacas are one of the easiest livestock to keep. Extremely hardy and disease resistant, they are easy to handle due to their size and overall nature. They are efficient feeders requiring relatively little pasture. An acre of good grassland can easily feed 5 alpacas in summer. Winter requires good quality hay and would recommend a supplement ration made for alpacas; particularly important for weanlings and pregnant females to be sure they are getting adequate nutrients. Extremely intelligent, alpacas are easily trained in a few sessions. People are naturally drawn to this calm, attractive animal and the luxurious fibre they produce which makes them very marketable. Locally alpacas have not commonly been raised for meat but for their fibre and breeding stock. All animals born will not be quality breeding stock. As the alpaca business has matured and developed in our country, the meat and hide industry is an alternate area being developed.
Following are a number of questions we have been asked over the years by people, curious and intrigued with the alpaca, and trying to educate themselves before purchasing and raising them. The answers are our opinions formed by 19 years of experience in the Alpaca industry. Realize you may get varying views on certain topics particularly related to fiber.
Question: How much land is required and are they expensive to keep?
Answer: If you have a few acres of land and a commitment to animal care yes you can.
Feed will cost about the same per animal as the family dog, you will also have registration costs for the cria, vaccines and deworming medicine twice a year. You will require good hay for winter along with supplements.
Question: What do I look for in a “good” alpaca?
Answer: If you are just beginning your search it is important to understand what makes a good alpaca. If possible, attend an alpaca show where farms will be bringing their best animals. By watching competitions and observing various animals you will see what the judges are looking for in conformation. Observe their movement and overall look and by the end of the show, you will know what a really good alpaca looks like. Often there are hands on sessions with the finalists, where you can examine and feel the fibre of the winning animals. Visiting alpaca farms is another good way to familiarize your self with alpacas; however it is sometimes hard for even experienced breeders to compare animals when not together. This will also help you see various layouts when you plan your farm pasture, holding pens and barns. Above all choose a breeder you feel you can trust, ask for references and check the references out. Setting goals for your farm or ranch before you start will help you with the important decisions required to start your alpaca herd and breeding program. There are a number of factors that come into play when evaluating the quality of an alpaca and looking for the alpaca that meets the goals you have set will help you focus your search. Do not be afraid to ask for detailed information on the alpacas you are interested in. Histograms and those of the sire and dam should be available as an evaluation tool when purchasing high-end alpacas.
Buyer must beware and do their homework. Check registration papers to be sure they are properly micro chipped and registered. The alpaca industry has improved leaps and bounds since the first alpacas were imported into North America. There has been tremendous improvement in the quality of the fleece that is now being produced by reputable alpaca breeders. If you have not upgrading your herd and carefully choosing breeding males you are probably seriously left behind in quality without knowing it. Competition in shows is the best way I know to see how your breeding program is working and where you fit in with the best.
What are the characteristics you look for in a good Alpaca?
To develop a good herd phenotype takes diligence, time and a commitment to alpaca excellence. The importance of good breeding and choosing your studs wisely cannot be over stressed. The following all are taken into account in our breeding program and may give you some quick guidelines to look for when choosing your stock.
• Bite - The bottom front teeth should align with the top pad not in front or behind the pad.
• Testicles: - males should have two good size testicles (at least 1.5 inches in the longest direction) fairly symmetrical and a firm consistency. Most reputable breeders will guarantee unproven males to be reproductively sound when sold, if it's not in the contract be sure to have it added.
• Female - more vertical position of the vulva, not protruding out or shelving. The udder should have 4 teats. Again breeders should give guarantee that maiden female are reproductively sound.
• Tail - Straight not bent or crinked.
• Dark eyes – not light blue, which is considered by most to be a genetic flaw.
•Head: Broad forehead, with good width between the eyes and ears. Spear shaped ears not banana shaped which are a Lama trait. Good coverage on the topknot is a good indication on the overall coverage. We like a short triangular muzzle with fuzzy cheeks.
• Back: Slightly rounded to straight top line. Low set tail
• Chest: Good width between the front legs providing ample room for heart and lungs.
• Legs: proportioned with the body and neck (approx. 1/3 – 1/3 – 1/3).
Heavy boned alpacas in both sexes - good fibre coverage down legs adds a pleasing appearance.
Front legs should be straight with forward facing toes.
Rear legs straight: Not bowed out or bowed in. Some alpacas may appear sickle hocked (in) due to the heavy coat on the inner leg, watch for a smooth walk. Feet placement should be in line with front feet when walking. When observing the back leg from the side it should have a nice curve at the hock, with feet placed under the inner top of leg. A very straight back leg is called post leg and not desirable.
• Shoulders: should set smoothly to the body.
• Proportion: Front legs, body, back legs (line from inner top of leg to foot) and ground should be fairly square.
As the fibre is the end product that will sustain the alpaca industry it is the number one priority when beginning your herd. Alpaca’s come in (22 charted colors) virtually every natural color known in animals. The fibre is stronger than wool and good quality alpaca fibre will feel like cashmere. Processing is made easier as alpaca fibre does not contain lanolin. South America has run a successful commercial fibre industry for years. With the very recent immergence of alpacas throughout North America, Australia, New Zealand and European countries, alpaca fibre processors are springing up throughout these countries. To sustain a commercial industry requires a large alpaca population, and cooperation amongst breeders to support the fibre industry. The quality of the alpacas bred will set the tone for our industry and we have the genetics to breed world class alpacas. Canada and the US have set high standards for the alpaca fibre.
The following are fibre terms you should know.
• Crimp: is the curvature of the fibre. It gives elasticity to the fibre. Deep crimping means the U shape of the fibre as it comes back on itself. In Peru the most prominent breeders believe that in 90% of the cases, a crimped fiber is a visual indicator of fineness. There are many thoughts, beliefs and biases when it comes to crimp with many breeders preferring a certain style of crimp to another. I would caution that there is enough controversy amongst the fibre experts that the answer on the perfect crimp type is not definitive. Keep an open mind in this area and a close eye on research. A consistent crimp throughout the entire fleece is important and most breeders look for a high frequency crimp.
• Luster or Brightness: When opening the alpaca fleece you will find varying brightness. You will find some fleeces dull and dry. The ideal fleece has a nice sheen or brightness to it.
• Density: the closeness with which fibres are packed together will determine the density and the weight of the fleece. When an animal has a dense fleece the hand will be full of fibre when closing on the fibre. A dense fleece can be seen when the fleece appears to crack or separate with the movement of the animal.
• Staple Length: A good length in yearly fibre growth is another plus and this tends to be genetic. As the animal ages its staple length will typically shorten somewhat. As length has an influence on the weight or yield of your fleece a good growth length is a must. The monthly growth is in the range of 1 to 1.5 cm per month yielding 12 cm and more per year. The fibre on the neck and legs will not grow as fast or long as the blanket area. Manufacturing use varies for the different lengths: Worsted – for fibre above 4 inches and Woolen – for fleece length below 4 inches.
• Bundling: A quality in the fleece that when opened up the fibre will fall into tight little bundles with little webbing seen. This is a genetic quality that results from the fiber being aligned, dense and growing in unison. More density means more weight and a higher yield for your fibre.
• Fineness: a low consistent micron gives alpaca fibre the soft, lustrous feel. The mean is the average fibre diameter in a test sample expressed in microns. One micron is one millionth of a meter. As the alpaca ages its micron count will typically increase for the first few years and then level off. Ideally we want our breeding males to have a very slow increase in micron count for the first few years and stay low (mid 20’s or under). Many alpacas will have a low micron as a yearling and take a jump of several microns in a year, which is referred to as “blow out”. Fineness is primarily determined by genetics but is also influenced by nutrition and the health of the animal. Something to remember is when conditions are poor and the animal is stressed finer fibers are produced. This fibre is often poor quality and will have stress breaks when the fibre is pulled. As well, being overweight may increase its micron count substantially.
• Coefficient of Variance (CV) is an equation that enables various populations to be compared to each other. The presence of coarse hair (guard hair) will affect the CV (coefficient of variance) of the animal. If an alpaca has a low CV even if the micron is higher it will have a better feel or handle than a fine animal with guard hair or a high coefficient of variance.
• Standard Deviation (SD) indicates how the fibre diameter in the sample varies from the mean. The smaller the SD the less variation from the mean, which is a good thing. One standard deviation (+1, -1 either side of the mean represent 68% of fiber measured.) Ex: if the mean is 24 and the SD is 5 then 68% of the fibres will measure between 19 and 29 microns.
• Medullation: most often referred to as guard hair. These fibres are usually dull, straight coarse hair lacking in crimp so are easily seen. All alpacas will have guard hair, most apparent in the chest and underbelly area of the alpaca. The ideal fleece has little guard hair through the blanket, shoulder, hip and low down into the belly. This coarse fibre will cause the feel or handle of the fleece to be harsher. The higher % of fibers over 30 microns severely affects the feel of the fibre and is known as the prickle factor.
Micron is really important and our goal is to get the lowest consistent micron on our breeding stock but there are other factors as important ex: the CV, the SD. Histograms are a “useful tool” when choosing an alpaca. Density of the animal, a very important factor to look for is not shown in a histogram.
What color is the most marketable?
The white-fleeced alpacas (usually imported from Peru and Bolivia) have typically had the better fleeces. Natural fibre color has become very popular in the high fashion industry. We are meeting the challenge to breed the best fleece qualities into our colored alpacas in North America. Today in the show rings we are getting outstanding alpacas in all colors but typically larger classes of top fleeced animals are in the white classes. Top quality colored alpacas in general and studs in particular, demand a good price. With continual breeding of quality colored animals we are becoming more consistent with our colored genetics.
When researching alpacas you may find a number of multicolored alpacas (appaloosas, piebald and pintos). When sorting for a true color or the commercial fibre industry, you need to sort colors carefully to avoid color contamination, which is labor intensive when working with multicolored fleeces. Breeders for the commercial fibre industry look for solid coloured animals (especially in the “blankets” (or body) of animals). Multicolored alpacas can be quite attractive but are typically a niche market for those interested. There are many beautiful tweeds etc that can be made with mixing fiber, particularly for the cottage industry.
Other Important Factors to Consider:
Marketing: As in any business, marketing is an important aspect. When you have grown your herd to where you can begin your sales you will need to put reasonable effort into marketing. This can be done in many creative avenues. Presently one of the most profitable is the Internet. Other avenues are entering shows to build up your reputation and making people aware of the wonderful fantastic animals you have purchased and raised. Breeding fees can be a good source of income if you have outstanding studs. Newspaper and magazine advertising is a good avenue for advertising. Lists of prospects that have asked for information are available to members from various associations including Alpaca Canada & AOBA. Setting up local sales for your products to introduce people to the wonderful world of alpacas has often opened up sale opportunities. Alpacas due to their inquisitive endearing nature are a natural attraction “Alpacas are addictive”. We know the importance of constant exchange and contact with fellow breeders and that is the reason we continue to support local associations and shows. Shows are an excellent way to evaluate how you are doing in your breeding program as well as bringing public awareness of this beautiful animal and its exquisite fleece.
Ability to breed up: When purchasing an alpaca if possible see her offspring as well as her sire, dam and related family members. Often you will find a female that doesn’t look particularly outstanding but consistently passes good qualities to her offspring. If a female is consistently producing good cria from various studs she has this breed up quality and you have a winner in your breeding program.
It is important when buying a stud to be aware of his genetic background. If you see severe flaws in conformation or fiber of his ancestors you may choose to pass him by. Sometimes a stud may look outstanding but not pass his qualities on. If a stud is pre potent he stamps his desirable traits consistently onto his offspring. Set high standards for the studs we bred our females to. They will be the cornerstone of your breeding program and what turns your farm from average into outstanding.
ARI and CLAA registration: In Canada we are often asked what the difference is between double and single registered alpacas. Registration does not reflect quality at all; there is the full range of quality in both single and double registered alpacas. Many of the early imported alpacas were initially registered with both registries. Reciprocity between the two registries has not worked out. Alpacas whose parents have both ARI and CLRC are double registered and can be sold into and registered in the US as well as Canada. At this time the ARI does not allow alpacas to be registered with them unless both parents are presently ARI registered. CLRC only registered animals cannot be presently registered in the US. Give careful consideration to this before you make a decision. To find out more about registration go to the http://www.claacanada.com/ for the Canadian Llama and Alpaca Registry and for US registration go to http://www.alpacaregistry.net/ for the Alpaca Registry Inc.
Registration certificates: Be sure animals are fully registered before you purchase. Be sure to see copies of all registration papers and that it is in the contract to transfer registration certificates upon purchase.
Temperament: As in most breeds you will have varying temperaments. In general alpacas are curious, inquisitive, somewhat shy animals. You will get some that are very congenial and friendly and others that can be quite high strung and harder to handle. These traits definitely tend to be genetic.
Price Entry Level:
So you have decided you are ready to take the plunge and now must decide what to spend for your animals. You can start with show winners or top quality stock, buy the best and start at the top. With a few prize winning females you can start a dynamic herd. You can maybe spend a little less and purchase females that may not be quite as showy but are still excellent quality. The offspring from these gals may be producing the show winners.
There are always females in a breeding program that breeders are willing to sell at a lower price. For some reason they are not quite as desirable as their sister alpaca or a breeder may have many producing females from the same lineage. Always avoid purchasing an animal with major conformation defects.
* Note of interest - just because an animal has a high price tag does not guarantee a top quality producer, it may be marketing. I have seen many disappointed people who have found this out the hard way. Do your home work, check out offspring etc. Quality genetics in ancestors does make consistency more probable.
Package Deals: are often a very economical way to enter the industry. A package may include a top quality female and a few middle quality females, and perhaps an excellent stud that can breed them for the coming year. They can be quite flexible to the customers needs. The price on packages is usually reduced and the buyer may have an excellent start into the business.
Pet Quality: You may just want to have a few alpacas for pets and their lovely fibre. There is always an excess of good quality males that do not make the cut as herd sires or studs. These boys make excellent pets and fibre animals. They often can be purchased for a few hundred dollars, but be sure you have at least two animals as they are community animals and need company.
We hope this information helps you in your search for “Your Perfect Alpaca”. Our goal is to help people make educated buying decisions. Set firm goals for your Alpaca business, purchase animals that meet these goals, plan your farm set up, plan your marketing strategies, have fun with the animals and your fellow breeders and you will be successful.
We wish you the best in your research and hope you’ll give us a serious look if you decide to join the alpaca business. Happy customers are important to us. (See customer comments @ http://www.beniuksalpacas.com/comments.htm). We look forward to hearing from you.
Stella and Garry Beniuk
22048 Twp Rd. 522
Sherwood Park, Alberta
Ph/ Fax: 780 922-2987
“Raising the Bar”