This article is also scheduled to be published in the August 2010 edition of The Alpaca Ontario Newsletter
Once upon a time, not that long ago, alpaca breeders focused on increasing their herds, breeding up and selling seed stock. New people came into the alpaca industry for promises of a country life, a simpler life, and a laid back lifestyle leaving corporate America behind. A small percentage of alpaca owners decided long ago that the fiber was the reason behind raising these lovely creatures, not quick profits or a certain lifestyle; and a cottage fiber industry was born. Amazing products came to market in the form of wonderful yarns, socks, blankets, felted items and more. As the US reaches almost 200,000 alpacas today coast to coast, the possibility of a commercial industry comes more into focus and viability of fiber herds is on the mind of enterprising individuals looking for a commercial fiber or textile industry.
Most alpaca breeders across the US have small herds numbering less than 20 and the alpacas are treated more as pets then livestock. In order for a fiber herd to be viable, emotions must shift from family pets to livestock herds, much the way cattle, goats and sheep are raised today. In order to run an effective fiber herd enterprise several hundred alpacas must be raised and expenses minimized in order for profits to be realized.
Location in the viability of a fiber herd is a huge decision and there are certain areas of the country that will not be conducive to profitability. For example, in the Northeastern US, M-Worm is a genuine concern for the health of alpacas. Until a viable vaccine is developed or somehow else M-Worm is eradicated, the cost of treating alpacas monthly with Ivomec is costly and cost prohibitive for fiber herd viability. With the cost of medicine, syringe, needles at the rate of 1cc/50 pounds, each animal will cost approx $1.50 per month. For a herd of 500 alpacas, that is $750 per month and that is before labor is even taken into account to round up the animals, dose them and let them back out to graze. In terms of location, other costs must be also evaluated. Feeding hay on a dry lot farm will be a deterrent to profitability. Large pastureland like those enjoyed by cattle or goat/sheep breeders will need to be obtained in order to keep feed costs down. Minerals will need to be kept as an expense, but grain supplementation is probably something that needs to be carefully evaluated against the bottom line. Adequate grazing areas with appropriate load rates of 5 – 7 alpacas per acre will need to be utilized not only for pasture preservation purposes but as well as parasite management.
While capital expenses such as land and animal acquisition need to be taken into account, it is the day-to-day expenses that really need to be managed in order for profitability to be realized. While researching livestock, I found countless articles on the science behind milk production in cattle based on certain feed rations etc. There is a science behind end product production and cost of input. Since fiber is the end product, more research needs to be done by what feed is optimal in a fiber herd in order to increase output and quality. Of course most would argue that fiber yield or quality is solely based on genetics, there is degree of change that can be brought about by nutrition and management.
Other expenses to consider are cost of labor, electricity, water, property taxes and insurance. These will vary drastically on a number of factors such as location, family/purchased land, and are beyond the scope of this article. Expenses such as shearing and vet bills also need to be managed. Shearing of alpacas today is a minimum of $25 per head. Sheep breeders enjoy a cost of $6 per head. Many would say this is due to the fact that sheep are easier to shear and the lanolin in their coats prevents blades from becoming dull as quickly as happens with alpacas. Others would argue that it is because shearers charge alpaca people more because of the cost of the animals. In either event, costs must be controlled and it would be prudent for the fiber herd owner to become proficient in this skill him/herself or have labor on staff that is proficient. Vet bills need to be carefully managed as well. Most alpaca breeders today go to extraordinary measures to keep healthy or even save the life of an alpaca. Some breeders even go so far as prosthetic devices, chemotherapy, extended hospital stays and more. In the future of the fiber herd, the harsh reality is going to be that the strong will survive and there will be a percentage of the herd lost each year.
Markets must be sought after to sell raw fiber to immediately upon shearing, so that the fiber producer concentrates on producing fiber and not marketing or advertising a finished product. In the absence of this, the fiber herd owner needs to be able to skirt, sort, grade and process his/her fiber and either needs to work with a mill or own a mill in order to process the fiber. Cost such labor for sorting, production, shipping, marketing and advertising also need to be taken into account.
The largest shift in building a fiber herd rather than a breeding herd as most farms exist today is in attitude and emotion; daily interaction and alpacas as extended family will be replaced by profitability and expense management of a true livestock model. There will always be small farms who continue to interact daily with the herd and have a lifestyle in which the alpacas are a daily part, these farm models will remain part of the cottage industry and the commercial industry will shift to the larger fiber herds across the country.