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 stock?
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 Conformation 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 body.
A darker color on palate and gums can indicate darker alleles and the chances that alpaca will throw color in its breeding future.
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 was needed.
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 today.
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 aspects.
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 stud male.
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?
About the Author: Cindy Lavan along with her husband Tim and their two sons Charlie & Petey, have been raising and breeding alpacas in mid-coast Maine since 1993. Actively involved with alpacas in every aspect, Cindy and her husband work their 150-acre farm themselves, shear their own alpacas and make end products right at the farm. Cindy has served as an AOBA BOD and recently as the chairperson for the AOBA Marketing Committee.
The goal at Chase Tavern Farm is to breed for the highest fleece characteristics possible in every natural color. Colored fiber is their niche and their many local and national awards prove they must be doing something right these past 10 years!
For more information on our farm, please visit our web site on AlpacaNation or our farm site at www.chasetavernfarm.com. We look forward to helping you reach your alpaca goals!