There are many helpful sites with alpaca related information, and we encourage you to visit them. That is exactly how we acquainted ourselves with the industry in addition to visiting farms and ranches. However, in the course of our learning we discovered that some of the information we garnered from the internet focused perhaps too much on the joy of alpaca ownership and the pleasant lifestyle that accompanies it, and too little on some of the hard realities. This is a great industry with amazing animals and delightful people and we are thrilled to be a part of it. What we hope to do with our FAQs is provide a forum for some straight talk about alpacas, in a tone you may not have found elsewhere. We love this industry the animals and the people who own them, but would have appreciated some more complete answers to our questions as we conducted our research, and maybe even some answers to some questions we didn’t know to ask.
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For those interested in zoology: Alpacas are classified in the phylum: Chordata; subphylum: Vertebrata; class: Mammalia; order: Artiodactyla; family: Camelidae.
A dictionary definition: 1.) A domesticated South American camelid noted for it soft wool. 2.) South American mammals Lama pacos of the camel family, found in Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, and herded at high elevations in the Andes. The alpaca is related to the llama, and has been known since 200 BC. The main breeding center is around Lake Titicaca on the borders of Peru and Bolivia. Alpacas are bred mainly for their long, fine, silky wool, and stand about 3-ft./1 m tall at the shoulder with neck and head another 2-ft./66 cm in length. Like the llama, it was probably bred from the wild guanaco and is a close relative of the vicuna.
In laymen’s terms: Alpaca are wonderful fleece bearing mammals, the raising of which can be both fun and profitable. There are two types of alpaca. The suri has fiber that grows very long and forms silky pencil-like locks. The other more common type is called huacaya and has shorter, more dense, crimpy fleece giving it a wooly appearance.
In North America, people raise alpacas for a variety or reasons. Some raise these amazing animals as compliments to other “exotic” breeds that they keep. Still others raise them simply for their fabulous fleece, which they shear, then felt, or spin into yarn for their own use or for sales to others. Most people that we know who are involved with alpacas have decided to make a business of it, by raising and selling animals to other breeders and people who are entering the alpaca industry for the first time. Their involvement may be as a family business conducted full time, or while still pursuing other careers or professions, or as a lifestyle adopted during retirement. The motivations and objectives are as varied as the people who have made these incredible creatures a part of their lives.
Perhaps not embodied in your curiosity, but in the interest of imparting broader knowledge, in the Incas, every potential use of an alpacas is realized. They are raised primarily for the value of their fleece both commercially and for personal use. But when animals reach an age where their fiber quality is no longer acceptable, or their reproductive years have expired, alpacas find a use not common in North America. They become a source of food and hides for their herdsmen.
Alpacas are approximately 3 feet tall at the withers (top of shoulder). Their neck and head is approximately 2 feet long, for a total of 5 feet from the ground to the top of the head. Some alpacas are larger, some smaller. Weights varies, but 150 pounds is a good average estimate with some weighing closer to 125 pounds and some larger animals approaching 200 pounds.
Alpacas have varying temperaments and dispositions. In general, they could be described as “shy”. While seldom aggressive, they are equally not particularly interested in being your “best buddy”. We think that an apt comparison to familiar household pets would be that alpacas are more like cats in their relationships with people, and less like dogs. Like cats, alpacas are perfectly willing to interact with human beings on their own terms, rather than being highly desirous of interaction with people as most dogs are.
It would probably be a fair generalization to say that a so-called “friendly” mother alpaca will communicate with their offspring that people are “okay”. Conversely, “shy” mothers will communicate with their babies that a cautious attitude should be maintained with respect to people. However, that is not to say that you cannot develop a level of trust and therefore a friendly relationship with the babies of “shy” moms.
In their native homelands in South America, alpacas live somewhere between 15-20 years. With the superior veterinary medicine and general animal husbandry practices available in North America, it is reasonable to think that alpacas will live at least that long or longer in the U.S. Of course with all animals, there is no guarantee of lifespan.
“A lot of care” is a relative thing. First of all, alpacas are relatively expensive when compared with other more common livestock, so breeders do generally provide greater care for them than you might find given to goats, sheep, swine, or cattle. Aside from climatic considerations (which are discussed elsewhere), probably the greatest concern is predation. While alpacas are herd animals and will protect one another, they are hardly a match for a pack of dogs, or other wild animals such as coyotes, or mountain lions. Most breeders either have adequate fencing to protect their herd from predators, or use guard animals such a livestock dogs or guard llamas.
Alpacas do require some regular and routine veterinary care including vaccinations, and worming for intestinal parasites. They also need to have their toenails trimmed periodically, and their fleece should be shorn once per year. In North America this is done in the spring.
During the summer, attention must be given to avoiding heat stress and other heat related issues. In general, shade, ventilation and adequate supplies of fresh water are sufficient. In some cases, equipment to lower ambient temperatures such as evaporative fans and blowers may be needed to maintain more comfortable conditions for the alpacas.
The industry party line that you will see elsewhere, for the number of alpacas that can be raised on an acre of land is 5-10. The real answer is dependant on the condition and quality of the land itself. If you are assuming that you will be grazing your alpacas on whatever forage is naturally available, you may need considerably more land than one acre for every 5-10 animals.
We are familiar with several ranches in the arid/desert regions of the U.S. such as Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, where champion quality alpaca are raised on dry lots. And these are some of the finest and best cared for animals in the industry, consistently recognized by show judges. Obviously hay and other supplemental feed are required in this instance. Alpacas are amazingly adaptive animals and can easily thrive in these conditions.
Another consideration to the number of alpacas that can be kept in a given area of land centers on your business model. If you intend to have both males and females in your herd, you will need to plan your land use around the issue of keeping the genders separate at all times, except during the obvious times for scheduled breeding. Many breeders separate males from females with more than just the use of a single fence between two pastures. That is, they put alleys and other separations between pastures where males and females are kept. These separations naturally take up land. If on the other hand your business model calls for only having females and their young offspring, you may need only one pasture with some cross fencing to allow for separation of new moms with their crias (babies) from the rest of the herd and for pasture rotation, but no alleys or lanes to separate them, thus taking up less land.
Alpaca are instinctively foragers. That means they each just about any kind of vegetation that suits them. They generally eat grasses, but may eat leaves and other vegetation. To that end, alpacas do need to be protected from plants that could harm them. (See specific FAQ on this subject.)
Alpacas are allowed to graze on grasses but are generally given hay and supplemental feed. These supplements are especially formulated for camelids to provide sources of protein and minerals. Unlike cattle and other animals that are being raised for slaughter, rapid muscle development and weight gain are not considerations when raising alpacas and thus they do not require diets to accomplish those objectives.
Alpacas are ruminants, that is, they chew a cud. Specifically, they are a “modified ruminant” which means that they have a three-compartment stomach rather than the four compartments of a true ruminant. In any event, this enables the alpaca to efficiently convert food to energy and they require less feed than many other farm animals.
What are the plants that could harm alpacas if they ate them?
This should NOT be considered an all-inclusive list. However the plants listed below represent those that have been published by Dr. Murray Fowler, DVM as being potentially harmful to camelids and specifically alpacas. You should contact your own veterinarian if you have any doubts about plants that your alpacas might come into contact with.
The only published reports of definitive plant poisoning of camelids in North America involve oleander (Nerium oleander) and the prognosis is not good with treatments difficult. Even small amounts, if ingested, are usually fatal.
However, all ornamental plants are potentially hazardous. Other plants that MAY adversely affect camelids include the following:
Alpacas are very capable of living in the heat of Texas and other warm climates as well. And provisions for them are not extraordinary. They are basically common sense. Protection from the sun (shade), plenty of fresh water, ventilation involving circulation/movement of air, AND timely shearing (generally early to mid April, and no later than the first week of May) are sufficient. However, many breeders also provide mechanical means of reducing ambient temperatures such as evaporative blowers or fans. When temperatures are very high, it is not enough to simply move hot air around. Because alpacas dissipate much of the heat from their bellies, owners will often provide dampened gravel or even wading pools to enable their animals to reduce their body temperatures. The problem with allowing alpacas to “swim” is that it tends to rot their fiber if done too much.
Virtually every mature male alpaca is capable of breeding. However, simply being fertile does not necessarily make a male suitable to be a so-called “herdsire”. Generally, breeders will only use males with positive qualities for conformation, fleece quality and other favorable characteristics, in their breeding programs. It would be fair to say that the objective of the vast majority of breeders is to improve the overall quality of their own herds. This is an objective shared by other owners who seek stud services from other breeders. Therefore, the term “herdsire” refers to those breeding age males that impart the favorable fleece quality and physical characteristics that are sought in the industry. Males that do not possess these characteristics are generally not used for breeding. These males often are gelded, although some breeders will leave them intact. Doing so however, leaves the male somewhat more competitive and aggressive among his fellow males in a herd and also exposes the owner to the risk of unintended liaisons with females if a gate is accidentally left open.
What do people mean when they talk about “bloodlines”?
When alpacas were first brought into the United States in the early 1980’s, the early importers sought the finest animals that they could find to start the North American herd. With each successive generation of alpacas, improvements in conformation and fleece quality were sought. Because genetics were traceable and improvements in quality were somewhat predictable with each generation, the pedigree, or family tree became a point of intense interest. Today, the industry will generally refer to this as a “bloodline”. Bloodlines will usually refer to animals that have been the foundations of the North American heard.
The term “agisting” is alpaca-speak for “boarding.” Many alpaca farms or ranches offer agisting services to owners of alpacas who are unable to keep their animals themselves. Fees are assessed per animal on a daily or monthly rate, and will have various services included. Be sure to confirm the exact services that will be included whenever you consider agisting services.
It goes without saying that you will also want to assess the overall condition of the ranch where you are considering agisting, as well as the condition of the other animals that are there. These will be a good indication of the care your animals will receive, as it is unlikely that your animals will receive better care or more attention than those of the owner of the farm or ranch.
Alpacas are sheared (or shorn) one time per year, in the spring in North America. Some breeders of alpacas retain the fleece for their own use in the making of apparel and other finished goods from alpaca fiber. Others arrange for processing the fiber into rovings and yarn which are subsequently sold to spinners and knitters, or used for products they make themselves. Still others send their raw fiber to coops which process the fiber. In return for providing raw material to the coop, the breeder is entitled to purchase at wholesale pricing, the finished apparel that is made by the coop. The finished apparel is then sold by the breeder at retail prices via their own farm or ranch store, or an online store.
There is no simple answer to this question. The price is determined by the free market and is driven by the perceptions of quality and value held by buyers and sellers. With that said, there are some generalizations that can be made. And while these don’t cover all possibilities, they are good for the purpose of example.
A non-breeding male (that is gelded or still intact) that will be used only as a pet, fiber producer, or companion animal can range in price between US$300 and $500. This variance is driven largely by his age and quality of his fleece.
A proven breeding age female that has already given birth to a live cria (baby, in alpaca-speak) can generally range in price between US$2,500 and $10,000. Age, conformation and fleece quality as well as her bloodlines will be determiners of price. Older females with fewer reproductive years ahead of her may be less expensive even if she has great fleece and confirmation. Proven mothers, who are 3-5 years old with great conformation, excellent fleece, and great bloodlines and a show record can sell for prices well in excess of US$15,000.
A proven, breeding age male with great bloodlines and major show champion credentials (also called a “herdsire”) will typically be priced in the low to mid five-figure dollar range. If his offspring are performing well and being recognized for conformation and fleece in the show ring he could sell for considerably more. The record price for a herdsire, sold at auction was in February 27, 2010 at a price of US$675,000. The record price for a herdsire sold in a private treaty sale is US$750,000 for a half interest.
The short answer is no more complicated than what is obvious from a quick examination of the industry. People breed and raise alpacas, and sell the animals and/or their offspring to other breeders and to people outside the industry who are interested in getting involved, either as active breeders, or passive investors. In addition to selling the animals themselves, there are ancillary services that can be sources of revenue, including stud service, agisting (boarding), and brokering (representing other breeders in the sale of animals). And ultimately, the alpaca business is a fiber production industry. Finding and developing markets for raw or processed fiber may ultimately, be the most important and enduring area of revenue generation for the industry.
This industry is not as simple as merely putting a male and female together and 11.5 months later you have an instant return on investment. We are not aware of any business that does not require some amount of careful and thoughtful strategic and tactical planning, a deliberate approach, sound execution, and some level of capital investment, in order to make money. Naturally, there are varying intensities of demand for each of these components, but if making money is the objective of raising alpacas, you may rest assured that there will be some requirement for each of these components. To use overworked analogies, the alpaca industry is not “rocket science”, nor is it “brain surgery”, but it is equally not as “simple as falling off a log”.
We would be happy to visit with you to discuss your personal objectives and vision for how to accomplish them. We would be happy to share our experience in this industry and years in the world of corporate strategic planning to help you think through a plan that will help you meet your goals.
Let us say at the outset that we are not CPAs or attorneys, so you would be living dangerously to rely on anything we tell you about the tax benefits of raising alpacas. With that disclaimer made, it is true that there ARE tax saving opportunities that may accrue to you by raising alpacas. We enjoy many of them ourselves. For example, operating expenses such as food, veterinary expenses, supplies, travel, advertising, etc., may be deductible. IRS codes allow for the depreciation of alpacas as assets. In many states, agricultural exemptions may be sought to reduce real estate taxes. But, you absolutely need to consult with an accountant or attorney whose job it is to know with certainty how you might benefit from investment in alpacas given your specific situation. We would suggest that you consult someone who would also be willing to accompany you, should you ever be asked to sit across the desk from an IRS examiner to explain your return.
Is the alpacas industry going to turn out to be like emus or ostriches?
No one can say with absolute certainty that it will not. HOWEVER, there are some huge differences between alpacas and the strange flightless birds that you ask about that would suggest that the alpaca industry will NOT follow the course that emus and ostriches did.
First of all, the growth of the herd size of alpacas will be at a much more gradual rate than that of emus and ostriches. A breeding pair of ratites could produce between 60 and 90 fertile eggs per year. It did not take long for the U.S. to become awash in these birds. Alpacas on the other hand have single births (viable twin births are not unheard of, but are extremely rare) and a gestation period of approximately 11.5 months. Also, mass reproductive practices common with other livestock are not currently in use alpacas in North America. Techniques for embryo transfer and artificial insemination have been developed in Australia but at the present time the alpacas that have not been conceived by natural means cannot be registered. For these reasons, the alpaca industry will not experience the explosive growth in herd population on any scale comparable to the flock size growth that emus and ostriches did.
Secondly, there is a growing market for the annual production of fleece from alpacas, and this is harvested without harm to the animal. Alpaca fleece is highly desirable due to its strength, softness, ease of handling in the milling process, thermal properties. At an increasing rate, it will become more competitive with other luxury natural fibers. The revenue generating by-products from emus and ostriches, on the other hand, required their slaughter. Additionally, demand for emu/ostrich hides, oil, feathers, and meat turned out to be far less than what many who raised these birds had hoped for. None of these have significant consumer demand. You have probably seldom, if ever, gathered the family up for a night on the town with the highlight being a delicious emu steak dinner. And how many pairs of ostrich skin boots can one person own?
Finally, the North American alpaca industry is closed to imports and will, as a result, only grow from within.
Its former name was the Alpaca Registry, Inc. ARI as it was commonly referred to, and the former Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) merged to form a single industry registry and advocacy membership now known as the Alpaca Owners Associaion or AOA. In short, "the registry" is a breed registry. However, it is much more than simply an administrative clearinghouse for paper records and documents. It is a state of the art, highly sophisticated system to document bloodlines of the alpaca industry in North America. Every registered alpaca is blood-typed prior to registration and a cria (baby alpaca) cannot be registered unless both its dam and sire are also registered and their parentage proven by blood test. Registration Certificates are issued to owners of alpacas by the AOA.
Buyers should never consider purchasing an unregistered alpaca unless their interest lies only in keeping one as a pet, with no intention of ever breeding, or at least not for breeding for the purpose of entering the animals in certified shows or re-selling of offspring as registered alpacas. Buyers should have no hesitation in asking to see the seller's registration documents prior to purchase.
According to an industry census there are approximately 186,000 registered alpaca in the United States. There are approximately 152,000 huacaya and 34,000 suri. These are held by approximately 13,800 owners. According to the census, there were about 6,900 alpaca in Texas, approximatley 6,100 being huacaya, and 800 being suri. Contrast the figures for Texas with those of other states and one could easily conclude that Texas is still underdeveloped as a market with good growth potential.
First of all, it is a false assumption that the industry is built on a "bubble." It is true that prices for alpacas are lower now than they were for the first few generations of animals that were bred after the first imports were brought to the United States 20 years ago. But, prices for high quality breeding stock have remained at current levels for a number of years, with the highest quality animals still appreciating in value. The world record price for an alpaca herdsire is $750,000 for a half interst.
While it is a virtual certainty that at some point in the future the value of the animals themselves will begin to tail off as the domestic herd size gets larger and larger, that event will be met by a more robust commercial market for their fleece, as more domestically grown fiber is available and U.S. mills increase their production.
This is to say that while the alpaca market today is heavily weighted economically in favor of the value of the animals themselves, there will be a day (10?, 20?, 30?, 40? years from now) where the value of their annual harvest of fleece will be the commercial driver of the alpaca industry. Our view is that the alpaca industry will never “burst”. But it clearly will evolve. The breeder who is aware of the trends in the market will adjust his/her business plans to address those changes in the industry.
There is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. The range of possibilities would be far too great to include here. Determining your objectives for getting involved with alpacas is THE most important first step. Secondly, and of great importance is to understand your desired or anticipated time line to reach your objectives. Naturally, the amount of money you want to invest will have a bearing on your start up plans. From these determinations, a specific plan can be formulated and executed. For example, if you simply want “pet quality” animals, then fleece characteristics, conformation, gender and fertility will be far less important considerations to you, than if you are wanting to start a breeding program and grow a herd. If you want to be a breeder, then decisions need to be made around issues like do you want to have breeding age males in your herd, or buy stud services from other farms and ranches.
We would count it a privilege to help you think through your options for starting your alpaca business.