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Monday, April 30, 2012

Alpaca Body Scoring

Alpaca Body Scoring

The essential part of alpaca health is keeping them at the correct weight.  Too heavy and they may have trouble getting pregnant, their fleece “blows out” or becomes course and are naturally unhealthy.  Too skinny and they cannot keep a good body temperature, are may not produce enough milk for their nursing cria and may be suffering from worms.  Ironically, they often have silky soft fleece because their body is trying to stay warm without the help of natural body fat. 

In winter alpacas can lose condition, because of malnutrition, and this can be masked by the fiber covering on the animal. Just because they look fluffy, the body itself may be super skinny and unhealthy.

There are many causes of malnutrition in camelids. But in each case the way to affect a remedy is to notice it early, and react to the signs. Alpacas can drop weigh quickly but it takes time to put it back on.

The best way to check is to get your hands on the animal and "body score" it. With your thumb and index finger in an L shape, place the crux or bottom of the thumb on the spine over the front shoulder of the alpaca, similar to where the withers are on a horse. 
Feel the backbone between fingers and thumb. The spine should feel like it is at a 90 degree angle.  If it is wide or almost flat, you have a heavy alpaca.  If it is narrow and thin, you have a skinny animal. 

We use a body score system of 1 throug 5, where 1 is extremely skinny and 5 is extremely fat.  Ideally your animals should be at a 3 or have an A framed spine.

1. UNDERNOURISHED - You can feel the ribs and backbone easily. No muscle or fat. IN DANGER! Quickly figure out why. Do they need worming, are they sick, poor pasture grass, etc. Fix the problem now or this alpaca might not survive. Get your vet involved.

2. THIN - You can still feel the ribs and backbone but there is muscle, too. HEADING FOR DANGER! Assess the problem and fix before they become a number one body score. Check for worms, poor feed, teeth trouble. Correct and supplement.

3. IDEAL - Your hand will fit nicely without being stretched too far or at a steep angle. There's the right amount of muscle and fat. Keep doing what you are doing, it's working great. Assess again soon to make sure they are maintaining their weight.

4. OVERWEIGHT - The angle of your hand is getting wider. It's now becoming hard to feel the boney structures. Cut back on the feed, move to another pasture with another overweight alpaca and cut back on feed. HEADING FOR DANGER!

5. OBESE - Your hand is flattening out. You can't feel any bony structures. This alpaca waddles and thighs might rub together. IN DANGER! Being this overweight is bad. Get this alpaca on a diet now.

An alpaca is stoic and may not seem sick to you when they are actually extremely ill. Write down your observations and call your vet if you are not sure. Hesitating may be fatal to your alpaca.
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Sunday, April 29, 2012

How Did You Get Into Raising Alpacas

Over the years, many people have asked us how we got into raising alpacas.  With James’ medical background, my manufacturing background and having raised a couple of dogs and horses over the years, how did we end up with a full –time business and 120 mouths to feed?

Years ago, we had been looking to get into our own business.  We were ready to work for ourselves and really become enthusiastic for our own company.  We researched restaurants and retail, ice cream shops and service industries.  Nothing really fit us.

Then, one day James was flipping through a Costco Connection Magazine and came across a couple who had retired, began raising alpacas and after 10 years still loved it.  James enthusiastically came to me with the article and I had four words for him.  “What’s an alpaca?  No!”

He went back to his office and on the MSN home page was an article from the Wall Street Journal about the financial benefits of raising alpacas.  This piqued his interest, but I still was not impressed.  I stated, "You did not go to school for 10 years to become a farmer."
On the way home from work, we had decided to move on to other ideas. Upon opening the mailbox, his sister had sent James a flyer with a note, "Wouldn't this be fun?"  The flyer was about how to start your own alpaca business. They had never discussed this topic before with each other.
Well, after having never heard the word alpaca before, and then being inundated with the idea throughout the day, I decided we had better at least check into it. We started making phone calls, visiting farms and researching how it would work for us.  The more we researched, the more excited we became. 

Six months later, we had purchased 8 alpacas.

Now, we care for over 120 alpacas, offer a variety of alpaca products and look forward to many more years of our alpaca lifestyle.

Farm Photo 1_edited.JPG

What's your story?

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Alpaca Industry Vocabulary

The Alpaca Industry Vocabulary

Every business has its own terms and language.   Here are some alpaca terms we use in the alpaca industry:

AOA - The Alpaca Owners Association

Blanket - The part of an alpaca’s coat that extends from the nape of the neck at the withers along to the tail and down the flanks to the belly and haunches.  This is usually the softest, "Prime" fleece.

Bred Female - A pregnant alpaca. The average gestation for an alpaca is 11 1/2 months.

Breeding - Induced ovulation (no estrous cycle) through physical copulation between sire and dam.  About 90% of alpacas become pregnant on the first breeding.

Camelidae - (Camelids) The larger family in which lama pacaos (the alpaca) is a member. This grouping includes camels, llama, guanacos, and vicunas.

Character - The overall evaluation of a fleece or lock as based on handle, staple length, fineness, density, luster, and softness.

Conformation - The shape or contour of the alpaca, resulting from the appropriate arrangement, or balance, of body parts.  Usally, the neck and legs are the same length and 3/4 of the length of the body.

Coverage - A North American breeder term for abundant fiber growth which occurs in areas other than primary blanket, i.e. between the ears (cap) and on the lower legs.

Cria - (Cree-a) A baby alpaca.  The word drives from the Spanish terms for creation and nursing.  Crias usually weigh 12-18 lbs. when born.

Crimp - The even, corrugated wave formation in a single fiber of huacaya fleece.

Curl - The spiraling, lustrous ringlets along the length of individual suri fibers which gives the complete drenched look.

Dam - An alpaca’s mother.

Density - The number of fibers in a specific area of an alpaca’s body.

Fiber - The fleece of the alpaca also known as wool or fur.

Fineness - The diameter in microns of individual alpaca fibers.

Genotype - The entire genetic constitution of the individual alpaca.

Handle - The way an alpaca fiber feels when touched; sometimes used interchangeably with “softness”.

Herdsire - A male alpaca with genetic characteristics desirable for breeding. Only the top 1-2% of males become breeding herdsires.

Huacaya - A type of alpaca with crimped wool that resembles a teddy bear. Alpacas of Montana raises Huacaya alpacas.

Hyperthermia - Body temperature elevated above the normal range.

Lama Pacos - Alpaca.

Live Birth - A portion of most alpaca purchase contracts involve a bred female in which the seller understands that the cria, when born, will be alive and survive for a stated minimal amount of time, usually hours. Alpacas of Montana guarantees a live birth for 24 hours.

Loft - The springiness in fiber as it returns to normal after being squeezed; sometimes used synonymously with fluffiness.

Parturition - The process of giving; also called birthing.

Pet Quality- A male alpaca whose genetic characteristics are not considered desirable for breeding; usually gelded at 12-18 months of age.  They are used for fiber production or sold as pets.

Phenotype - The entire physical, biochemical, and physiological make-up of an individual alpaca, determined both genetically and environmentally.

Prime Fleece - The best fleece an alpaca will ever produce, usually its fur coat called Tui.

Rebreeding - A standard portion of bred female sales agreement in which the seller offers rebreeding (usually free) to his sire in the event that the cria does not survive long enough to satisfy the live clause in the contract. This may also involve a free or reduced-fee rebreeding of the dam after successful birth of the cria.  A female is usually bred 15-19 days after giving birth.

Registry - The Alpaca Registry was created in 1988 and is the central storage and retrieval center for information on almost every alpaca in the United States.  The Registry records and maintains pedigrees, blood typing, registry numbers and other vital information on registered alpacas and makes this data available upon request.  When an alpaca is registered, a blood sample is sent to the registry to verify who are the parents.  A certificate is then sent out to the owner showing the alpaca's lineage for several generations.

Shearing - The once-a-year harvesting of alpaca fibers usually carried out in mid-spring in order to make alpaca cooler through the summer and allow the coat time to grow back before the cold returns.

Sire - The alpaca’s father – sometimes called “herdsire ”.

Specialty Fibers - The fleece and fleece products of the goat and camel families, including mohair, cashmere alpaca, vicuna, guanaco, llama, and camels.

Suri - An alpaca type, known for long “pencils” of non-crimped fiber resembling dreadlocks.

Tui - See prime fleece.

Topknot - See Wool Cap.

Unsoundness - Any condition that prevents a part of the body from maximal function.

Vicuana - A small (90 pounds) South American camelid with an extremely fine cinnamon and white color. Some consider the vicuana to be a direct ancestor of the alpaca and have the softest fleece in the world.

Weanling - A weaned alpaca less than one year old.  Most alpacas are weaned at 4 to 7 months of age.

Wool Cap - Wool on the alpaca’s head and between its ears which is considered a desirable aesthetic, also known as the topknot.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Picking out your alpaca(s)

Picking Out Your Alpacas

The alpaca industry is constantly changing.
The first alpacas brought into the country in the late 1980's were different to those imported in the late 1990's.
The quality of the alpaca in the U.S. has improved immeasurably over the past 30 years - within a single generational lifespan of the animal.  This is due to selective breeding programs, where often only 1-2% of the alpaca male population helps create the next generation.  This is called up-breeding, selecting the best of the best.  A male born or purchased from another farm must be better than those already used as herdsires.
We often grade our alpacas A, B, C and D.  Over the years, what was once a A quality alpaca five years later is now a C quality.  The fiber has become finer, longer, crimper and overall better because of selective up breeding.
In selecting your alpaca (either females or good stud services) basics are good health, good reproductive capability, zero genetic fault, and type/color to fit your own breeding goals/ business plan.
But you need more. You need the 4 "P"'s of alpaca purchase.
1) Progeny:  genetic quality (genotype) is best judged by looking at the alpaca's offspring -- not just one or two, all of them.   Consistently good progeny equates to strong genetic strength.  You want to make sure this alpaca can pass on its genes.  Some girls may not look that pretty over time, but they consistently produce terrific cria.
2) Pedigree:  younger animals, or newer studs, have no progeny.  In this case the pedigree of the alpaca (available on two registries -- assists judgment.  You want to make sure that the alpaca is not an anomaly, but can be reasonable expected based on its bloodline.
Parents with good progeny records.  Siblings with Show winning record.  Sires used by respected breeders.  These are indications that the offspring will carry the quality traits of the parent.  Pedigree is a reasonable way of assessing genotype.
Pedigree is harder for the newcomer, because it assumes prior knowledge of world renowned bloodlines.  This means research. Naming a stud "Captain Fantastic", does not mean it is fantastic.
But remember that the U.S. has had a registry for nearly 20 years now, and most of the "venerable ancestors" have significant numbers of offspring on the registry, winning shows, and acting as successful studs in their own right.
South American countries have not yet developed registries.  Imports therefore have no pedigree (and usually no progeny) data to assess.
3) Phenotype:  how an alpaca "looks".   We call this “curb appeal.  When walking through our farm, many people are drawn to the same animals because of certain traits – color, posture, a fluffy head or stove pipe legs.    Phenotype can be a reasonable proxy for underlying genotype.  Unfortunately not always.
 the U.S. research shows phenotype -- particularly fiber characteristic -- is immensely affected by environment.  Look at the farm’s current surroundings and ask how the breeder’s feels the fleece could be affected at your farm.  Temperature, rain, sand, head can all impact the end use fiber.
 4) Price:  clearly the price of your alpaca has to fit your pocket.  Generally higher quality animals carry higher prices.  But beware the reverse price "snob" syndrome.  Whilst a cheap price generally means lower quality, a higher price does not of itself guarantee better quality.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Alpaca Feed

Alpaca Feed

Due to their size and efficiency, an alpaca farm may keep as many as five to 10 alpacas per acre, assuming there is good forage available. This greatly depends on your regional climate and if you have the ability to irrigate. In colder climates, the herd will need to be fed during the winter.  Based on 6 months of feeding, each alpaca will need approximately 1/3 to 1/2 ton of hay per year.  We feed our weanlings and pregnant females second cut 14-16% alfalfa/ grass hay while the boys general eat 8-10% protein grass hay.  Free choice mineral supplements are also essential for the health of the herd.  They should not be given a sheep salt blocks due to the selenium.  Grain is suggested only for the coldest weather, as too much increases the acidity in their stomach.  Also, because this is a new world camelid and pellets are a highly processed grain, most of the nutrition will not be utilized within their digestive system.  Feeders should be low to the ground to minimize fleece contamination.  Simple box feeders or heavy duty garden carts are often sufficient. 

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Alpaca Detox

Today was crazy busy at work, evening though it was Saturday.  It started at 5 AM, waking up my husband to send him on his way fishing over the next few days.  Then, onto the horses, feeding, moving a couple of herds of alpacas into various pastures, then onto paperwork.  I met with several groups of clients, travelling 183 miles in the course 14 hours, then back to paperwork. By the time it was 8 PM I was exhausted.

Again, back to feed the horses.  Then, as I walked through the alpaca herds, my pace began to slow, my body relaxing as I made sure everyone had made it without me for the day.  Eventually, I just sat down on the grass in the middle of a pasture, the late Spring sun still hovering over the mountains.  Alpacas, sensing the calmness and easing in the dusk as well, began to come over to say hello.  Some, strictly nuzzled in my coat pockets for treats and then moved on when they did not find pellets. But others were genuinely glad to see me, coming up to rub on my shoulder, one resting her head on top of mine briefly.  My neighbors probably think I am equivalent to a crazy cat lady, but alpacas are the best part of my day.  The best part of my job.  The work is in marketing, websites and creating the textiles.  Alpacas are the bonus - the reason - that I love my job.

Eventually the ground became too hard and I moved to the swinging chair we have set out in the pasture.  The sun eclipsed the distant hills as I sat on the welcoming cushions.  Our Anatolian Grizzly jumped up next to me, having timed his leap onto the gently swinging bench so as not to loose his balance and tumble backwards.  He offered his head, and then his belly.  But when I was slow to deliver many scratches from my exhaustion, he simply placed his head on my lap, content to have my arm around his shoulders.  We swayed back and forth gently.  The only sounds was the faint crunch of alpaca mouths enjoying newly sprouting grass.

I love my alpacas...

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Alpaca Shelter

Alpaca Shelter

In moderate climates alpacas only require a three sided shelter. Severe cold, especially coupled with wind, requires a barn which is readily available able to be blocked off from the wind. They tend to be a bit claustrophobic when they are completely locked in, so we have shelters with at least one door on two different wall.  This way one door can block out the wind and they can still access the outside.

Alpacas are hardy animals, and most prefer to be out in the open instead of being in a small enclosure.   As a general rule, 1 or 2 animals may use a 12 x 16 foot (192 sq ft) three sided open faced shelter with a 12 foot roof to “loaf” in.  In inclement weather, 12 to 16 alpacas will crowd in.  Given a choice, they will not crowd in more than one animal per 3 x 6 (18 sq ft) foot space.  They crowd in when the temperature is less than 20 F especially if it is raining or snowing.  When sunny, most will remain outdoors at all times. We have found some alpacas will run inside with the first drop of rain while others will stay out in a blizzard. When they stay in a large barn, they stay anywhere from 2 to 10 feet away from each other, utilizing ½ of the barn for lying and the dung pile for the other half. 

You do not need a big, fancy barn.  12' x 24' lean-tos worked for years before we built a large barn.

By the way, you can never build a big enough barn...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Capital Requirements of an Alpaca Farm

Capital Requirements  of an Alpaca Farm

Expenses required to start your business will vary depending on how much you already have established versus how many supplies you need.  Some entrepreneurs are already established facilities on their property, while others start from the ground up to invest in their business.
Many breeders start investing in alpacas by purchasing several females and one male. Others wait to purchase a quality breeding male. Prices can vary substantially depending on color, conformation, fleece quality, quantity, age and sex.
A small barn or shelter, built especially to house 15 to 20 alpacas, might cost about $10,000 to $15,000 if you contract for its construction. Fencing could add several thousand more dollars to your budget.
If you manage the herd yourself, you'll require an inventory of halters, shears, toenail clippers, lead ropes and other miscellaneous gear. These items would probably add $500 to your initial costs. Insurance is a consideration, and a year's supply of feed and grain will probably be required.

Here is a list to help you start looking at what you will need. 

Alpaca Purchase                                           $­­­­­­­­­­­­­______
Fencing                                                          $______
Website / Marketing                                   $______
Barn/ Shelter                                                $______
Insurance                                                      $______
General Supplies                                          $______
Feed                                                               $______
Veterinary                                                     $______

Total:                                                              ________

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are Alpacas A House of Cards?

With so much transition in our economy, I have been asked many times is the alpaca industry still valid, or is it a fleeting house of cards much like many other markets seemed to be- llamas, ostriches, buffalo and all of the others.  The problem with the meat based products (buffalo, ostrich) is that there is only so much room on Safeway's shelf for meat.  The cattle lobbyist are one of the strongest lobby groups in the world.  If Ted Turner with his 10K buffalo and $7 Billion dollars cannot bust through into the meat market and get shelf space, no one will.  Emus can be used for meat or their oil, but they are extremely difficult to raise and you have to kill them, not giving you a lot of product for the cost and risk involved.  I spoke with one guy who said they had to kill 30 ostrich a day to break even, so he could not make money.  Llamas are meant to be a beast of burden for packing or guarding.  We have 2 llamas that we use with our alpacas.  They were extremely high priced in the 80s and a lot of people got burned, but this was always a house of cards.  There are only so many people that need a packing or guarding animal. 

The difference with alpaca is that it hard to argue against extremely soft, warm, high performance clothing.  Who doesn't need warm socks or a hat when the weather gets cold?  The function of the alpaca is for its fiber.  Its a textile animal that has a viable, in demand product for a large majority of the population.  The are easy and inexpensive to raise, so you can make a profit with them as a textile based business.

The Alpaca Market

Market Influence of Price
Many factors will play into the actual value of your animals, including:
1.      Alpaca fiber is becoming more popular as more textile manufacturers, fashion designers, and purchasing public demand quality fiber, there will be a steadily increasing demand.
2.      Selective breeding in North America will produce a healthier alpaca herd and improve the fiber and conformation. 
3.      The price of quality breeding stock will remain high in the next decade.  Limited supply driven by increasing demand lead to increasing value of each quality alpaca capable of reproducing itself.
4.      AOBA and the regional associations of alpaca breeders market the benefits of owning alpacas and AlpacaWear™, fueling a dramatic interest in the United States among those willing to invest in alpaca.
5.      Given the slow reproductive rate of alpaca and the superb quality of their fiber, consumers will continue to want more fleece than alpaca farmers can produce, thus keeping the demand for raising alpacas and alpaca fiber high.
6.      Alpaca farmers who have been in business for four years or more routinely report returns on their capital expenditure which range between 25 to 60 percent.  Many variables can influence actual profits, but the investment of alpacas has proven over time a record for profitability and promises to become even more financially rewarding in the future.
7.      Unlike most other home business inventories, alpacas are fully insurable.  Monthly premium costs will protect from catastrophic loss of animals and capital. 

Animal Influence of Price
Factors influencing individual alpaca prices include color, conformation, fleece quality and quantity, age, and sex. Females sell for more money on average than males, but herdsire quality males demand the top individual prices. Well-conformed alpacas sell for elevated prices. Fleece density, uniformity and fineness also affect the animal's price. 
The range of value for females is currently between $2,500 and $25,000. Females with unique attributes have sold for more than $40,000. Young, unproven, high quality stud prospects routinely sell for between $7,500 and $25,000, and the highest quality males with unique characteristics or exceptional offspring have sold in excess of $100,000.  In the Spring of 2010, a new world record was set in Las Vegas when a herdsire was auctioned for over $675,000. Herdsire quality males are very rare. 

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alpaca Fencing and Pastures

Alpaca Fencing and Pastures

One of the biggest benefits of alpacas is that they are so sweet and gentle.  They are not aggressive, nor will they kick or bite or try to harm you in any way. However, this is also one of their biggest downfalls.  They are a flight, not a fight, animal.  Thus, you need to help keep them protected.  Fencing is not so much to keep them in, its to keep everyone else out.

 The pasture requirements for alpacas include a planned rotation to prevent overgrazing and contracting worms.  The alpaca is naturally gentle to the land. The alpaca's feet are padded and they leave even the most delicate terrain undamaged. The alpaca is a modified ruminant with a three-compartment stomach. It converts grass and hay to energy very efficiently, eating less than other farm animals. Its camelid ancestry allows the alpaca to thrive without consuming mass amounts of water, although an abundant, fresh water supply should always be available. The alpaca does not usually eat or destroy trees, preferring grass shoots, which it does not pull up by the roots.

Cross fencing:
Weaning Paddock
      Young alpacas should be weaned sometime between 4 and 7 months of age, depending on the weight of the weanling (preferably at least 50 lbs.), the condition of their dam (a few dams may become dangerously emaciated due to the nutritional load of a large nursing cria), the weanling’s emotional readiness, and the schedule of his or her weaning companions. Often several animals at the same time are weaned; even if that requires delaying one animal’s weaning and hastening another’s.
Young Male Pen
When young males are weaned, they can move to a separate male paddock or pen.  Few males become sexually mature before 18 months of age, however there are recorded instances of males successfully impregnating a female as early as 9 months of age.  This usually happens as a result of pasturing young weanling males and females together.  Because an unplanned pregnancy for an undersized and physically immature female weanling can present a number of dangers, it is best to separate these males into their own pen.

Mid-Term Gestation Pastures
The largest group of animals on many farms is the females that have been confirmed to be pregnant and who, together with their nursing offspring, can now be removed from their breeding pens.

Late Gestation “Maternity Ward”
This is set up as a safety pen close to the house, where females within 30 or 45 days of their projected due date can be watched.  At times, late gestation, weaning, and underweight animals can be together in one paddock as their nutritional demands and observational needs are similar.

Breeding Pen
When a pair is brought together, the breeding pen is used to ensure designation of the mother and father.  Often they are left in together for several days to ensure the female is impregnated.

Shelter: In moderate climates alpacas only require a three sided shelter.  Severe cold, especially coupled with wind, requires a barn which is readily available.  Alpacas are hardy animals, and most prefer to be out in the open instead of being in a small enclosure.  However, holding stalls and pens may be set-up for expectant or sick animals. 

Fencing / Predator Security: Alpaca seldom challenge a fence.  Many alpaca breeders use a no-climb fence 4 or 5 feet tall.  Fences serve more to keep predators out than to keep the alpacas in.  Coyotes, which are numerous in the area, are a threat to these animals and must be prevented from entering the premises.  This will require a specialized predator fencing to prevent damage to the herd.  We use llamas to help protect our alpacas from predators in addition to livestock guard dogs, Turkish Anatolians. Anatolians are one of the only dogs capable of fending off mountain lions, coyotes, foxes and other dogs.  They are docile and sweet, loyal to their herd and will defend against any threat.  Grizzly, our male Anatolian, is 4 years old, weighs 165 lbs and can run up to 35 mph.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Alpaca Herd

Today we continue to search through our many lady alpacas in the fields, looking for ideal combinations of herdsires and dams.  Need more crimp?  Here's Enchantment.  Fiber length you say?  Burgundy is your guy.  And soon enough, our matches from last year will be here. Baby cria are the best part of the business.  The love they have for their moms and friends.  The witching our where they run around at dusk and play tag and king of the mountain. 

Raising alpacas is truly a unique, incomparable business.

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