Profitable alpaca production is about producing a fine fleece for market.
Sonya Hanson and Jeff Groene of Ice Pond Farm showcase their award-winning alpacas.
Photos by: Ice Pond Farm
If you are into alpacas for fun, top-drawer breeding stock may not be vital. However, if you ever expect to turn a profit at an alpaca farm, quality is key.
“We never compromise on fineness,” said Sonya Hanson of Ice Pond Farm, Fiskeville, Rhode Island. “The finer fleece will make a finer product. It’s all tactile.” (see sidebar)
Located in the Pawtuxet Valley, it is no surprise Hanson’s and her business partner Jeff Groene’s herd is bred with an emphasis on fiber fineness, and for uniform fiber characteristics that persist through the life of the animal on a sound, healthy frame. The valley is a traditional home to the textile business.
Hanson said the key is a good quality animal. “Never compromise on conformation or on animal health,” she said. “And never on fineness.”
With nine years in the business and 18 animals on the ground, the breeding strategy is to seek longevity and fineness. It pays off. Their Kosmo won the Spirit of the Industry Award two years running. The award goes to older alpacas who maintain fiber quality.
“We believe you need an animal whose fiber characteristics will be around for the life of the animal, not just a few years,” Hanson said. When they started, they had only females, adding males as they progressed.
When Misty Acres Alpaca Farm got started, Red and Connie Laliberte of Sidney, Maine, followed a similar path. They purchased a dozen animals – all were good females, however, they had no studs.
Finding good breeding stock was one of the first wake-up calls the Lalibertes got. Fortunately, they got good advice from Dawn Booker, a local judge who pointed them in the right direction with bloodlines and breeding.
“We visited farms as far away as Kentucky,” Red said. Now, with 11 years’ experience as an alpaca breeder, Misty Acres Alpaca Farm operation hovers around 100 Huacayas, with about 78 on the ground right now.
“We do a lot of breeding,” said Red. In fact, they have 14 breeding studs at the moment under the Misty Acres name. Some studs travel as far as Ohio and Kentucky for breeding. In fact, his Top Gun stud is finishing a six-month stay in the Buckeye State right now.
There is a lot of buying and selling involved, too. “You have to keep buying outside,” Red said. “There’s always something new or someone with better bloodlines coming up.”
That requires a lot of time on the road. Couple that with weeks spent at farm shows, flower shows and similar events, and it is little wonder that Red relies heavily on wife, Connie, his sister-in-law and his nieces for help with the operation.
Why Alpacas are Prized
Alpacas have been bred for thousands of years with an eye toward their fiber. Feel the hair on your own head. A human hair is about 100 microns thick. The softness and warmth of alpaca comes from the fact that it is the finest of all natural fibers, typically measuring somewhere around 18 to 26 microns — less than a quarter of the diameter of that human hair you are holding. Only the wool or fur of the Kashmir goat — cashmere — is in the same class measuring15-16 microns or a wee bit finer than alpaca. That is why breeders are proud of alpaca wool’s combination of softness, lightness and warmth.
Red figures he attends 28 shows a year. “I can be gone a month at a time, home only a couple of days in that time,” he said.
Hanson, too, pinpoints travel as a key to success. “We purchased three young females and went out on the show road,” she said. “We had a blast.”
Like many others in the alpaca business, she said it was a lot of work. “It was a lot of fun, too,” Hanson said. “You meet the nicest people.”
Most alpaca breeders are not farmers. Although Red grew up on a farm, he spent most of his adult life in construction. “I’d say 90 percent of the people who get into alpacas do not have farm experience,” he said.
While he is in business to sell breeding stock, he cautions newcomers against buying a $10,000 female when getting started. That is especially true for operations that intend to focus more on fiber production than on breeding stock.
“Buy a junior herd that is not suited for breeding,” Red said. “Have the males gelded and the fiber will still be nice.”
That is a money-saving idea, too. Almost every alpaca breeder has more males than they need.
“If you want to run your operation as a business, you need a five-year program before you make money,” Red said. Those five years will include time on the fair circuit, as both Misty Acres and Ice Pond Farms found, showing animals and winning some ribbons.
“You have to be a bit aggressive. It is a business. You need to be ready to work seven days a week. You must eat and sleep the business and work it hard,” Red said.
It saddens him that some producers get a year or two into alpacas and then find out that there is more work involved than they anticipated.
While he has only a grade-school education, he states that it takes every bit of knowledge acquired during the 30 years he ran his construction company to run the alpaca operation.
“It is not for everyone,” he said.
There is no particular reason why Misty Acres focuses on Huacayas. “We liked them. That’s how we got started,” Red said.
The homeplace features two large barns, including a heated one. When the young are dropped in the late Maine winter or early spring, heating is almost a prerequisite to ensure they make it through to the warmer months. Farther south, producers can get by with typical barns, but the 30 mph winds blowing across from Canada can bring snow into May and will make it tough on a young animal.
The operation got started when Red told his wife that he had enough of running his drywall company. Like many others in the business, he started raising alpacas for fun but soon realized that alpacas require a commitment if the operation is to be a success.
As Misty Acres got close to 100 animals, outside challenges came up.
Sonya Hanson and Jeff Groene of Ice Pond Farm showcase their award-winning alpacas.
“The day of the $20,000 female is over,” Red said. “You may get a top-quality male that will get near that … but not a female.”
In addition to steering newcomers to junior herds, Laliberte advises new buyers to buy a “package” of animals so they get off on the right foot.
He often suggests that a start-up grab three or four females and maybe a male. He sells his females bred. “If they buy eight females, they’ll have 16 animals a year later,” Red said.
“We want to get them into the business and do well,” he said. “If we sell buyers packages at affordable rates, they are more likely to succeed.”
While he knows some of his top studs could command $5,000 for a breeding – or, could force buyers to purchase a female by a top-end stud – he realizes that most buyers do not have that kind of money, especially when starting out.
It takes a while for bred females to drop babies. Typically it is 11-and-a-half months. Then, the dam has to wait another couple of months to be rebred.
Simple genetics dictate that the herd will grow slowly. While over time an alpaca producer can expect a 50-50 mix of males and females, reality shows that one year a herd might see 14 males and six females and then get 11 females and nine males the next year. It comes down to good fortune.
Whether male or female, animals need to be fed. When grain spiked to $5,600 a cwt, Red cringed. He fears that simple inputs like grain are pricing some producers out of the market. Even a $50 weekly grain bill can wear on a small producer.
Red likes to buy good second-cutting hay with a lot of orchardgrass for his herd. He often will truck-in square bales from as far away as Pennsylvania.
Hanson, too, prefers second-cut orchardgrass hay, perhaps with a bit of alfalfa. She likes to source feed locally and figures they fill three-quarters of their hay requirement from nearby farms. Typically, they will run out and pick up hay themselves. In addition to free-choice hay and water, animals get a cup of grain each day. That provides kelp, fiber and vitamins to make up anything missing in the program.
All fiber produced at Misty Acres Alpaca Farm goes into production. Red runs a well-stocked store. “We don’t just have a half-dozen pairs of survival socks sitting on the shelf,” he said.
The clippings from both Ice Pond and Misty Acres go to the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool co-op in Fall River, Massachusetts, where fleece is turned into a nice assortment of scarfs, handbags and similar top-end products.
Hanson saves some for her own use but relies on the co-op to handle the bulk of her material.
Overall, Hanson figures they are more about breeding than retailing product. “For us, it is about even on product and breeding – and I think most alpaca farmers have a mixed game,” she said. “For most small farms to bring in income, you have to sell product and animals.”
A breeder’s research and talent comes out on the show circuit. “When a 10-year old male wins a banner at a show and he puts breeding stock on the ground that will maintain quality fiber, that’s just the greatest thing,” Hanson said.
Paying it forward
It doesn’t just happen overnight. And it requires experienced hands like Red and Hanson to help newcomers get off on the right foot. “If you don’t help beginning farmers get into the business, it is not going to grow,” Red said.
Hanson agrees. “The first thing we do is ask the customer what they want to do with their alpacas. We try to match the animals to what they want to do,” she said.
Some stock buyers simply like alpacas and are looking for a few to dress up their farm or farmette. “If that’s the case, we won’t offer them animals from the show string or breeding program,” she said.
A customer who wants to build a core breeding program with show animals will be steered to animals with proven bloodlines.
“In every case, we make sure they know about herd health, giving shots, animal husbandry,” Hanson said. “We want to be sure they have a hay contact.”
“Be sure you know the ins and outs of the business before you buy any animals,” Red concludes.