Alpaca Research Rant
Mention alpaca farming to a group of random people and several of them will immediately lose their minds and begin to rant about “exotic livestock”, “farming fads”, “pyramid schemes”, “latest market bubble” and also, “emus!” and/or “llamas!” It will be very, very unlikely that these people have experience in livestock farming, any kind of farming, or know what the end product of an alpaca or llama is. This will not stop them from KNOWING that they are right, and you are doomed if you do not heed their advice.
On the other side of the proverbial coin are those who advertise and talk about cute, fluffy “livestock investments” and encourage you to spend your retirement years raising alpacas. You will spend your golden years sitting on your porch watching your adorable, livestock investments frolic through your fields and, also, multiply exponentially causing you to become filthy rich with hardly any effort on your part.
Con artists and their naive followers exist in every type of business. If there is good money to be made deceiving others, someone will be willing to do it, but they can’t do it without people who refuse to do their own research. I know there are people who do not enjoy researching a new and exotic subject, but I don’t really understand them. Doing research is one of the great joys and privileges of life. It’s what separates us from the people who bought Windows ME. I’m not saying that people who don’t do their research deserve to be conned, but remember that it is the alpacas that suffer the most due to lack of research and preparation on the part of their owners, and some suffer pretty terribly.
So, while people were lining up to tell me how crazy I was, I was in research commando mode. I ordered the only three books I could find about alpacas, two of which were mainly about llamas with a little alpaca information thrown in. My favorite was The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM. It was 255 pages and published in 1995.
This book cost $70 and offered a great deal of scary information about alpaca diseases, parasites, infections, developmental problems, and a list of possible birth defects printed in very small type, and covering one and one-half pages. A thorough reading of this book would cure anyone of the idea that alpacas are adorable, carefree “investments.” It wasn’t all unpleasant though. The first paragraph offered a lovely, poetic view of the relationship between the Andean people and the Alpaca. I reproduce it here,
“Ausangate is a magnificent snow-covered peak south of Cuzco, Peru, and the legendary source of llamas and alpacas. According to legend, Pachamama [mother earth] loaned alpacas and llamas so people of the puna could survive. Since the animals belong to Pachamama, they must be well-fed and never be treated cruelly. If they aren’t properly cared for, Pachamama will call them back to Ausangate and people will disappear.”
The above quotation is attributed to an “ancient Quechua legend.” Some people could read this and think only about the thrilling adventure of raising a mystical, magical animal. Others would focus on the idea that, if you don’t take good care of your alpacas, the Goddess takes them away, and you could be disappearing too! Both parts of the paragraph are important. Alpacas are a link to an ancient way of life, and raising them can feel very magical at times, but we must be committed to caring for our animals to the absolute best of our ability. A big part of that is doing the research.
I already knew that alpacas were one of four members of the South American camel family. The alpaca has traditionally been used for fleece, while the much larger llama was used for packing on steep, mountain trails. The guanaco is even larger than the llama, and usually allowed to run wild, while the vicuña has the most valuable fleece of the four, but has never been successfully domesticated. All four can interbreed and produce live offspring. I knew that alpacas and llamas in the U.S. were not slaughtered for meat.
I was already a knitter, and a serious lover of natural fibers, both animal and plant. For as long as I can remember, I have had the habit of stroking and admiring the weaves, knitting patterns and textures of my own clothing. Thanks to my Bostonian mother, I grew up wearing wool, mohair, linen, silk, angora, camel-hair and goose down. A lot of my childhood wardrobe consisted of wool sweaters and skirts, especially Fair Isle sweaters, and plaid, wool skirts. Many of these came from thrift shops because we were not rich, and these materials can last almost forever if properly cared for. Some people would call this wardrobe style, “preppy”, but I think it was common to most New Englanders of my mother’s generation. People who live in cold climates have to know about warm, durable clothing. When it comes to keeping warm while “breathing” and venting sweat, no manmade fiber can do what Mother Nature can do. In my research, I had learned that Huacaya alpacas (one of two varieties of alpaca) produced a fleece that is very similar to sheep wool, but not nearly as itchy as most types of sheep wool. As I had spent an entire childhood warm but itchy, it seemed that alpaca fleece and I might just be made for each other.
In addition to reading books, I subscribed to Alpacas Magazine as part of my research. It was mostly advertising, feel-good stories about alpaca breeding, and many photos of high fashion alpaca garments from Peru, but it had a useful article in it now and then. I read everything I could find on the website of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), as well as the International Llama Registry (ILR) website.
From these sources, I found out that importation of alpacas to the U.S. began in the mid-1980s, mainly from Peru, but also from Chile and Bolivia, and blood typing for DNA registration in the U.S. began in 1988. Some alpaca breeders were fighting to close the registry to newly imported alpacas, making the alpaca herds already in the U.S. the only breeding stock available to new buyers. The scarcity of a product is key to keeping the prices high, and alpaca prices were very high at the beginning of the business. They ranged from $18,000 to $40,000 for a bred female, and even more for a beautiful male “herd sire.” Some breeders felt that the size of the U.S. alpaca herd did not contain enough genetic diversity. Others claimed that it already had too much diversity. I was not qualified to have an opinion on this topic in 1998, but I did see many alpacas that looked more like llamas during my early years of alpaca farming. In any case, the registration of newly imported alpacas would be closed in 1999, effectively ending alpaca importation.
I liked what I had found out so far, so I went to a couple of “Alpaca 101” seminars at nearby alpaca farms. The first was run by “Breeder A”, a female, ex-horse breeder. I would meet many of these during my alpaca farm years. Horses and alpacas seem to appeal to women far more often than men, and a person who is comfortable controlling 1,000 pounds of the horse will find a 140 pound alpaca very easy to handle. Horse breeders usually pay a veterinarian to find out when their mare is about to ovulate. Alpacas are induced ovulators, meaning an open female should ovulate when she is bred. That is a very useful trait and not one that is found in most mammals. Compared to horse breeding, alpaca breeding is far easier and much cheaper.
Breeder A shows us how alpaca breeders use a male to “test” the females that they want to breed, usually by penning up the female inside the barn and bringing the male to her on a halter and lead rope. The male will get excited, begin to make a loud noise called “orgling”, and then try to mount the female. If she crouches down, bending all four knees, or “cushes” for him, she is open and ready to breed. If she refuses, she may already be bred. This refusal is not very ladylike. The female spits on the male, and what she spits is not saliva but partially digested cud from one of her stomachs. It’s green, gooey, and smells like vomit. Adding insult to injury, many breeders use gelded males to test several females in a row. Each of the females that cush may be bred to a different male; one that is carefully chosen to compliment the female’s phenotype and genetic background. Males should, ideally, have some name recognition from a famous bloodline and/or show ribbons and, of course, not be gelded. The fact that the unlucky, testing gelding never refuses to try to breed females, even after he is so harshly refused every single time, is a powerful testament to the strength of the breeding urge in mammals. This poor guy never gets the memo that he can’t really have the job.
It is at this seminar that I am allowed to give my first worming shot to an alpaca. Nervous about breaking off the needle, I stick it in too hard. People nearby wince and I feel like a monster. I do much better at trimming the toenails since they are very similar to those of my goats. Breeder A impresses upon us the absolute importance of monthly worming, especially for the Meningeal Worm. This terrible parasite is adapted to the body of the white-tailed deer. Adults live in the lining of the deer’s brains and spinal cords, usually without harming them. The larvae are shed in the deer’s droppings and subsequently take up residence in snails and slugs. If alpacas or llamas eat these snails or slugs, the result is paralysis and lingering, miserable death. Unfortunately, we had many white-tailed deer in our area of Maryland.
I tried to pay attention to all of this vital information but the fact that it was my first time being near-live alpacas made it very difficult. They are absolutely gorgeous up close. The heads of the tallest ones are still a few inches below my 5’5”. The body seems to be about the size of a female deer’s but the neck is much longer and thinner. The fluffy Huacayas look like long-legged, long-necked Teddy Bears. The Suris have shiny, silky locks rather than springy fleecy coats. All have eyes that are large and luminous. Their faces range from the grave to serene to comical, depending on the temperament and coloring. Many are white, but some are fawn-colored, black, brown, or a dappled gray. One is a brown and white pinto. They seem nervous about the crowd of people there, but curious as well. Some let out an alarmed squeak when they are touched. Of course, I stick my hand onto a couple of fleeces when I hope no one is looking. They are so soft! There is no lanolin-type oil on the fleece, nothing but a bit of dust. There is a very faint but pleasant smell to their skin. They are nearly irresistible. It’s very hard not to buy one on the spot. Breeder A knows this of course. That is the point of “educating” would-be alpaca owners.
Surprisingly, a couple of hours of this seminar are dedicated to a talk by our host’s accountant. I learn about pass-through entity tax write-offs, limited liability corporations, farm building depreciation, and how not to be labeled a “hobby farm”. The pass-through entity was not a dangerous alien life form, but a way to reduce our income tax payments. As Tom was keeping his job at the FDA, we would be able to write off farm equipment, barn building, fencing, and other expenditures against his income, unless we ended up earning the dreaded hobby farm label!
If the IRS decides that a person is pretending to have a farm business, but is not really trying to make money, this business is labeled a hobby farm. The IRS will refuse any tax write-offs and levy their usual financial penalties against the owners of the farm. Apparently, many people who want to own horses, cattle, open fields, orchards, grape arbors, alpacas, emus, and the like, also feel that they should be subsidized in this lifestyle by having reduced taxes. They want the life of the “gentlemen farmer,” but they would also like to be able to write off some of their expenses and reduce their tax burden as if they were a real farmer. Why not breed that horse once or twice, or sell a couple of cows, and get a big tax break? Answer: because the IRS does not agree that hobby farms are businesses. In fact, the accountant warned us that the IRS is likely to audit any small farm business that does not make a profit in two out of five years, especially those containing “exotic” livestock.
The funniest part of the day happens when Breeder A discusses the size and firmness of the male alpaca’s testicles as indicators of fertility and demonstrates this by lifting the tail of one of her males and cupping his testicles in her hand. I am in awe of her aplomb. I try imagining myself doing something similar without laughing but I can’t. Catholic school has ruined my chances of being a serious-minded livestock breeder.
Whilst I read, visit, and read some more, Tom is doing his own research about fencing, pasture seeding and management, barn building, livestock trailers, tractor accessories, and vaccination shots. If you have to vaccinate livestock, it is very helpful to have a pharmacist in the family who can figure out the dosages. Tom invites the county agricultural extension agent to our farm to test and discuss our soil. He later takes some soil management classes from the Agricultural Extension Office. He talks to anyone who might know something about farming, our neighbors, random guys at the Southern States Co-op, the veterinarian who cares for the goats, and the dairy farmer who rents one of our fields for a dollar per year.
Of course, our farm research included our local agricultural fair. Since moving to Frederick County, we had always attended the Great Frederick Fair. And it was great in every sense. It was not a county fair, but a huge regional fair lasting almost two weeks and including participants from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Delaware as well as Maryland. In 1998 the fair was in its 136th year, and a new llama and alpaca show had been added to the multitude of livestock shows offered. We were eager to attend. Llamas having gained popularity in the U.S. before alpacas, there were four classes of llama handling and only one class of alpaca handling that year.
The alpaca class turned out to contain only one entry. We didn’t learn much about alpaca handling, but this indicated that the local market was not yet saturated, and also that this large fair was willing to change with the times and add livestock that some other farmers dismissively called “exotic” to their fair schedule. In fact, we were doubly blessed in our location because, not only did we live very near to one of the largest and most important agricultural fairs in the U.S., we also lived 30 minutes from the largest fleece and wool show in North America, the Maryland Sheep, and Wool Festival. Our location had turned out to be a very fortunate one for would-be alpaca breeders and fleece sellers.
Even if you do research your plans thoroughly, and have a good idea of how you can succeed, you will still have the doomsayers trying to drag you down. People buy into the idea that only those who follow the socially accepted paths to success will be rewarded, and all others will be a failure. If everyone refused to work endless overtime, drive in 2 or more hours per traffic a day, and rarely see their own children, while doing a job they didn’t even love, what would happen to our society? It’s an interesting question.
In Washington D.C. and its environs, these were just the kind of working conditions that most “professionals” put up with throughout their working lives. I wanted out of that system. I think a lot of other people did too, but it’s frightening to take the risk. If I do it, if I am allowed to give up a well-paying career to go and play with fluffy animals and keep my kids with me, instead of at daycare, and it turns out that I make good money, and my family has a fun adventure together, that wouldn’t seem fair to all those who stayed on the corporate treadmill. But life isn’t fair. Taking a chance sometimes pays off in a whole lot more than just money.