The Stud the Bred and the Cuddly or:
Mother Nature does not do politically correct.
Despite the “it’s all about the fleece” hype, no one makes enough money on alpaca fleeces to recoup the price of their live alpaca purchases, much less the expense of feeding, worming, vaccinating, and paying for vet care for their herd. If you don’t plan to run a petting zoo, the only way to recover your original investment is to sell live alpacas to others. To do this, you must become alpaca breeders, not just alpaca farmers.
There are so many aspects of animal breeding that seem strange or even uncomfortable to people who did not grow up on a farm. Most of us have never given much thought as to how animals mate and reproduce. We’ve seen two dogs sharing a candlelit, spaghetti dinner in a Disney movie or a cartoon skunk in love with a fancy cat. We learned in church about the two by two procession of animals into Noah’s ark. We might know that some animals mate for life, but we rarely remember that the majority of mammals do not, and this is especially true of herd animals. Nature seems to prefer a system in which the strongest male breeds all of the females in the herd, and the remaining males are unlikely to ever pass on their genes. The losers form “bachelor” herds and hang around the periphery watching one lucky guy get all of the action.
We may not like this, but it makes sense in a mathematical way. If a female alpaca can produce only one offspring per year, every female is valuable in the numbers game of reproducing and growing the herd, but it only takes one fertile male to breed every adult female in the herd. While the female spends up to 12 months contributing to one birth, the male can reproduce his genetic material hundreds of times per month. In the wild, the top alpaca stud will keep his harem for a few years, passing on his superior genetic material, until a younger, stronger stud can fight him and win. Remember this next time you hear someone trot out the old biology is destiny argument. Yes, Mother Nature does think those female mammals should raise the young, and she’s not big on monogamy, but she also thinks most male mammals are superfluous. Nature does not believe in political correctness for any of us. Thankfully, humans evolved big brains that – theoretically – let us make more nuanced choices.
Thus bred females are the most important part of any alpaca breeding business. The ability to gestate, birth, and nurture new life is the most valuable ability there is. Male alpacas are separated into two types, the stud sometimes called the “herdsire”, and the gelding. The vast majority of male alpacas are geldings. Their job is to produce nice fleeces, be trained and shown by small children in agricultural fairs, participate in parades and petting zoos, or be living lawn ornaments for wealthy people who like to have cute farm animals. In other words, they are cuddly, pets. They are nice to own, but not necessary to the breeding business. Lest you think the female alpacas have the better part of this deal, remember that most are pregnant almost all year, and they are also nursing last year’s cria while pregnant with the current one. This is their natural state, but we can be forgiven if it makes some of us feel glad to have birth control for our human selves.
Many small alpaca farm owners begin their herds by purchasing three or four bred females. Stud fees for very high-quality males were often in the tens of thousands when we began shopping for alpacas. A national show-winning herdsire might sell for $200,000 or more. It made more sense to buy a female already bred to such a male than to purchase a male outright. It is best to buy a female that also has a well-known sire. The first two questions about a bred female alpaca should be, “Who is she out of?” and “Who is she bred to?” Having both her sire and her breeding male be well-known and of good quality is very important. Mr. No Name alpaca might be a great quality male but, unless he wins big in the show ring, his offspring won’t have the brand name appeal of Mr. Show Winner’s offspring. So buying a pretty, fine-fleeced female alpaca, who is bred to Mr. Show Winner, and whose sire was Mr. Well-known Megastud will ensure that you end up with great quality, show winning, super salable cria, right? Of course not! Nothing is really that simple. We will find that out later.
In addition to purchasing good quality breeding stock, any new alpaca farm will want to figure out what their possible niche could be. As we visited more and more Maryland farms and saw that almost all of them had bought from the three largest farms in the region, I wondered if it were not a better idea to buy some alpacas that were not related to the breeding stock of all of the farms around us. Why not travel farther, make that extra effort to get unusual bloodlines, and see if that helped the salability of our alpacas’ offspring? We could still buy from one of the nearby farms if they had a female we really wanted, but we would try to have a more diverse herd.
Our other niche would be a true interest and involvement with our own alpaca fleeces. Every alpaca breeder tries to produce the finest, softest, most desirable fleece, but they differ on the question of what makes a fleece desirable. This brings us to a point of tremendous contention among alpaca breeders. I call it the “Cottage versus Industry” debate. In 1999, as in the present time, there were those in the alpaca business who claimed that we should all be breeding identical, superfine, white alpacas to supply an industry that would require huge amounts of these identical fleeces. In this scenario, a future U.S. alpaca fleece industry is somehow able to compete head to head with the huge Peruvian alpaca fleece industry.
Peru has far more alpacas than we do in the U.S., so they have the advantage of the economics of scale. Their alpaca processing infrastructure and their buyers are well established and of long duration. The pay scale of their workers is quite a bit lower than ours, but they have a well-trained workforce with multiple generations of experience. Yet there are those who claimed that this imaginary, U.S. alpaca fleece industry would somehow compete with Peru’s and make a good profit. They are still making this claim 15 years later.
In order to breed for this U.S. industrial market, breeders would want to buy only superfine, white alpacas. White fleece is preferred by the Peruvian industry because it can be processed in huge quantities and later separated into batches and dyed any color. Some of the recent proponents of the U.S. alpaca fleece industry model would also have us buy only alpacas with Accoyo bloodlines.
Accoyo is the name of a ranch in Peru, but also a name that some U.S. breeders have “borrowed” to refer to their own bloodlines, those that – presumably – originated on the Estancia Accoyo in Peru. These alpacas were skillfully line bred by Don Julio Barreda to be almost identical in their fleece characteristics. Accoyos are super dense, crimpy, uniform, and very fine. They are also all white, and they are inbred. Linebreeding is inbreeding done carefully and deliberately. It is known for fixing traits such as body size and fineness of fleece. It is also known for increasing the likelihood of birth defects and reproductive problems.
Since Tom and I never bought into the idea of this thriving U.S. alpaca fleece processing industry, we were free to pick the type of alpacas we wanted to breed. As a hand spinner, I liked unusual, natural colored fleeces, and alpaca comes in many beautiful colors, Like sheep, alpacas can be white, black, or gray, but they can also have fawn colored fleeces, reddish-brown fleeces, grayish-lavender fleeces, and maroon-gray fleeces. Natural-colored fleeces are far subtler in their coloring than dyed fleeces. The lack of chemical dyes makes them softer as well. Really crimpy alpaca fleeces can be used to make yarns with good elasticity that knit up into garments that fit well and hold their shape without drooping. If I wanted to spin colored, soft, crimpy fleeces, I was willing to bet other hand spinners did as well. We would look for female alpacas with those characteristics, along with good body structure, proper dental alignment, and well-known bloodlines. We would become lowly cottage industry breeders and be proud of it. Armed with the knowledge of what type of alpaca we wanted to buy, we began to shop in earnest.
The first alpaca I truly fell in love with was named Chanel. We discovered her at the Mid Atlantic Alpaca Association (MAPACA) show at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in northwest New Jersey. The weather was frigid at this outdoor, agricultural arena. It would have been perfect weather for selling alpaca fleece products, but none of the alpaca farms present were selling them. There was a couple from Ecuador selling alpaca and llama wool blend products from a truck/booth and I bought from them an “alpaca” wool pullover with llamas dancing across it as a gift for my mother. Tom, the kids, and I watched the alpacas being judged in the show ring, and we also visited the pens of alpacas lined up along the aisles of the large, open barn. In one of those pens, we found Chanel.
Chanel was fawn-colored. Her face and body seemed perfect, and her fleece was the softest I had yet felt. This was in a time when many alpacas in the U.S. were still imports from Peru and Bolivia. These imports were usually very skittish, if not downright hysterical, and spitting with fear. In contrast, Chanel was sweet and calm. She stood still while I reached my hand into her side and rubbed her fleece between my fingers. Just as I did this, her owner said “Just like butter.” It did feel almost moist and slippery to the touch. Chanel was out of a very famous sire, but she had not yet been bred to one. Most breeders will not bring bred females to shows, as the experience is way too stressful. All of the alpacas I had seen that day were pretty, but this girl was gorgeous. I wanted her. She was the first alpaca that really struck me as being superior to all others I had seen. We found out that she was to be auctioned at the 1999 All American Alpaca Futurity. When the auction day came, we bid on her by phone but dropped out somewhere around $26,000. Chanel would end up commanding the highest price of any female alpaca at that auction. We did not end up with Chanel, but seeing her in New Jersey made us decide to make an appointment to visit the Charlottesville, Virginia farm where she was produced and see the rest of their herd.
Excerpt from my alpaca breeder diary:
Sunday, June 06, 1999
Left the kids at my sister Krissy’s house at 7:00 AM to drive to Lanarks Llamas and Alpacas in Charlottesville, VA. We had met the owner, Antoinette Brewster, at the Eastern Alpaca Jubilee in New Jersey, and really liked the look of her animals. So we made the plan to visit and headed down south.
As you approach Lanarks, you can’t help but notice that you’re traveling back in time to the colonial Virginia of yesteryear. First, we passed the Historic Michie Tavern where the former presidents went to hang out and drink with the other gentry. Then we passed Monticello itself, home of Thomas Jefferson. Next comes Ashlawn Highlands, the former home of John Adams, then on past the Jefferson Vineyards to the home of John Kluge, once the richest man in America. Just past the hand-built stone fences of the Kluge estate sits Lanark Farm. This is the Old Dominion Virginia with a capital D.
The long, gravel driveway cuts through fields for miles around. Some have grass, but many are red clay dirt, which blows about and hangs in the air. It is the summer of the worst drought on record in Maryland and Virginia, and almost every farm is covered in the dust of one color or another. On the right side of the driveway are several fields full of alpacas. There are about one hundred and fifty in all. Some are black, some gray or dark brown, but most look peach-colored because the red clay dust coats their white fur completely. It is just past 10 am, but the temperature is already in the 80s. It will reach the mid-90s by lunchtime.
By the barn, we meet Milt, the farm manager, and Amanda, the herd manager. Milt is the perfect Hollywood cowboy movie extra, not tall but all wiry muscles with a calm direct manner. He wears jeans and a white woven cowboy hat. He learned his animal skills on a cattle farm in Vermont back when he was still a Yankee. He’s had his arm inside many a cow’s privates and isn’t afraid to talk about it, but doesn’t brag either. The first time I hear him casually mention “her vagina” (the cow’s) I have to freeze my face so I won’t look shocked. I can’t remember ever hearing any man say that word once, much less over and over the way this guy does.
If Amanda were a character in a movie, she would be played by Debra Winger. She is a size 6 at most, but with well-cut little arm muscles. She wears a tight white T-shirt and old jeans. On the back of her neck, under her upswept, wavy black hair is a small blue tattoo of Sagittarius the archer. Her eyes are blue. She talks to the alpacas in a high breathy baby voice and calls the little ones “my peas” but she sure looks tough when she’s slinging a bale of hay around. She knows each one of the many, many alpacas by name! She sneaks a cigarette here and there as she does her farm chores. I like her instantly.
Antoinette shows up a fashionable 15 minutes late. All attention rivets on her immediately as she is larger than life. She is very good-looking, resembling a slightly older Michelle Pfeiffer. Men must have followed her like pathetic little dogs when she was young but she does not act like “Southern Girl” and coquettish. She stands close to me and her voice is a little loud so that I have to fight the urge to back up, but she also has some serious charisma. That can’t hurt if your job is to sell animals. I’m shocked to realize that Amanda and Milt call her “Mrs. Brewster” instead of her given name. She has on a red and white checked shirt that is some fashion designer’s idea of a farm outfit but you can tell it’s not from the Southern States or the tractor store. I appreciate her directness. She is very professional, and she doesn’t tell us any fairy tales or offer any heartwarming stories. She assumes we are there to buy. She hands us a list of all of the bred females currently on sale along with their prices, dams, sires, and birth dates, and our tour begins.
A couple of hours later I am lost in a fog of half-remembered animals, the teeth on this one, the color of that one. Which one had the good crimp? Which had the strange legs? I have taken notes furiously, but am not sure they are even correct. It is too much to look at so many animals, and the added strain of trying to remember the sire and dam of each one makes the whole task impossible. I need a scorecard with photos, genealogical trees, and pertinent footnotes on it, but no owner is going to remind you that the pretty one whose fleece you love is also the one with the bad bite. I’m panicking!
We break for lunch beside the pool next to Antoinette’s house. The pool has male and female bathrooms, a kitchen area with a sink, and a patio with tables on it. There are large statues of animals along the edge of the pool. For a second I forget why I’m there and wish desperately that I had my camera with me and that everyone else would momentarily disappear. I would kill if only my mother, who has never been rich but is yet a faithful reader of “Town and County”, could see this setup.
Antoinette discreetly leaves us to compare notes, and not a moment too soon. I am dying to see what animals Tom has fixated on. I turn to him eagerly, demanding that we trade lists. That is when it hits me. He HAS NO LIST! We have been tramping around in dusty hot fields for hours staring at this animal and that, and trying to decide which animal, if any, we will pay a small fortune for and Tom has NOT TAKEN NOTES! I briefly consider drowning him in the nearby pool but realize it cannot go unnoticed so I refrain. This explains why Antoinette all but ignored Tom and talked at me while we tramped around; She KNEW he would have no list. When I confront him, Tom’s defense consists of the lame comment, “I thought you were doing a really good job of deciding.” Grrrrrrr.
We head back out to the fields after a very good lunch at which Tom pigged out as usual, but Antoinette seems to find this behavior endearing and she starts to like him. She smoothly asks which animals we want to look at again. I am sweating bullets but finally, decide on Latte and Primrose. Latte is a lovely maroonish color with a white face, gray spots, and a crazy Don King-style afro. Her sire is Pizarro. I disapprove of this name due to its bad Karma, but Pizarro is a beautiful guy. Latte is bred to 5 Peruvian El Cid, a guy with a spectacular fleece. Latte radiates intelligence and self-confidence and so, sticks out in a herd of merely pretty faces. She is a queen bee. Her mother, Marguerita, is one of the animals I initially liked as well, but she is older than I wanted.
Primrose, I pick because I love her face and her perfect, crimpy fleece. Not the fleece on her body, it is summer, and that fleece is pretty short. However, Antoinette has the fleeces of each animal bagged up for prospective buyers to look at, so I was able to see Primrose’s shorn fleece from last year, and it is just what I want. Primrose’s famous sire, Drambuie is now in Australia. I have seen him in an ad in “Alpacas” magazine and he is gorgeous. Her mother, MA Krystal, is still at Lanark. Primrose is bred to Lanarks Peruvian Teddy, who also has a wonderful fleece. I have found my first two alpacas!
Having finally picked, I feel I can relax, but Antoinette surprises us. She offers to throw in two pet-quality males, and I must choose again. This is easier because they are free, so I pick two boys just because I like them. Polo, because he is so friendly and has a crazy white afro, and Lindt because he is cute and little and the color of caramel candy. (We would later change his name to Lindy because people thought he was named after dryer lint rather than fancy chocolate!)
For a big farm like Lanark, these not-quite-herd-sire males might be just another mouth to feed. The big money is in selling breeding stock, not pets. But it is a nice touch for Antoinette to offer them AFTER we have made the deal. For us, the boys will be invaluable. They are P.R. machines that can go to fairs and shows, and we don’t have to worry that the stress will make them abort their babies. I am pretty thrilled because I am one of those nuts who can never have enough cute little animals to take care of. Four alpacas feel like a real start to our farm. It is almost 4:30 when we leave and I feel exhausted and anxious but incredibly excited too. We are now alpaca owners!