Two Days of Touring Alpaca Farms – What We Learned

This weekend was a celebration of National Alpaca Farm Day. Both days farms opened their doors to the public to learn about these wonderful creatures. We went to four farms and asked a ton of questions… below I will share with you some of the many things we’ve learned as well as some musings.

I had read about Alpaca Farm Day but I forgot about it until we serendipitously happened to drive by one with a large “open” flag flapping out front. So we drove in out of curiosity. It was a 40+ acre farm with only a few acres being cleared off and used. Some Buff Orpintons were the first sight to see as they ambled around their own personal pasture. Funny, they didn’t seem nearly as fat as our previous Orps, who were apparently morbidly obese, SIGH. There were Guinea hens in another pasture, and finally three pastures of alpacas, containing maybe 30ish animals. Here there was a little fiber shop, a woman dong a spinning demonstration, and tours every half hour. We took a tour, saw some of the babies (cria) out in the field with their mothers, and then we got to check out a young male up close. We got to spread it’s hair and check the fibers which should be a densely packed clumps of super kinky (“crimped”) very fine hair. The more crimps, the thinner the shafts, the higher quality the fiber was. Young animals had better fiber than older ones who’d get less crimps and thicker shafts as they aged, ultimately meaning they wouldn’t be as soft.

The man giving us the the tour told us about shows, about breeding quality animals, about how fiber was prized over confirmation but I have played this show game before and I was listening intently to the subtle buts. In this case the fiber was prized and judged above all else but confirmation also counted. Things that would disqualify or make for a “losing” animal would be things like a spot of a different color somewhere on their coat, a body that was too long or “rectangular” in appearance, the usual aesthetic bullshit that means nothing to the production of fiber. I loved how this farm was set up with lots of lush green pasture and healthy animals but their insistence on buying show quality animals to start with didn’t completely jibe with my own personal philosophy. These animals carried hefty price tags, they said a good foundation female would be $4,000 or more. That’s where I had a bit difficulty swallowing because at that price no animal, no matter how great their fiber, would ever make up that cost in fiber. At least I don’t think they would. Shearing an animal seems to cost $25 a head if you hire someone to do it for you (and every farm we went to did.) Unprocessed fiber only costs $35-80 per animal per year. Granted the more work you do with it the more money you get out of it but at that point you’re sinking a lot of time and energy into it and investing in all sorts of equipment to process it.

This farm had started with angora rabbits and goats. Why were there no goats to be seen? “They’re so much work! They’re constantly trying to outsmart you to get out of their pens, they get sick a lot, and take a lot more work…” OKaaay, so maybe we should pass on the angora goats…

The second farm we went to was…. holy shit. The word puppy mill comes to mind… here there were 60 or so alpacas on what the owners claimed was 3 acres (although it really looked like maaaybe 2??) 20+ of them were males, only four actual studs resided on the farm, the rest were extras. This place was being run by two semi-immobile people who were clearly over their head. There was no place to put all the crap so it was pushed to the sides of the fences with a tractor. It smelled. The animals here were also outrageously priced – up to 7 or 8 grand for one because of ribbons they had supposedly won. Never mind there was maybe two tiny patches of grass left for them, the rest was dirt and crap. The woman truly believed she was doing great things for these animals. Instead of hiding this place she proudly displayed an “open” flag, had a similar roadside fiber store, and spoke very highly of the quality of her animals – only two of which was friendly enough to approach us. We left shaking our heads.

On the second day of this event we went to a different part of the state to visit two other alpaca farms – one that advertised itself as a 130 head farm, and another that looked decently sized. I wanted to see at least one large farm because if you want to learn how to run things very economically then you should go to a large well-established institution that already runs like clockwork.

It was quite a drive through many miles of bright red, orange, and yellow trees. Absolutely gorgeous Autumn drive. When we arrived there was a Polish rooster trying to kick the crap out of a SIlkie (probably another rooster I’m guessing!) “What is that?!” Fish asked of the Silkie. “I LOVE it!” He’s funny sometimes. Behind these two loose chickens was indeed a large alpaca farm, 98 head in all. Free candy and apple cider was laid out for people to take and the pastures were right up front next to a little pen with what I can only call two mini alpacas. They were tiny, certainly no good for show, adorable little culls that the woman was using for outreach projects going to fundraising events and nursing homes. Wonderful, this seemed more my idea off a farm.

We talked to the staff there for quite a while before talking to the woman that owned the place. She was getting up there in age and decreasing her herd, although she said she was the first one to bring alpacas into NH, I want to say in ’92? They were focusing on blacks and grays now since they were selling better, though most of the ones for sale were white. Here I saw my first Suri alpaca, the ones with the dreadlocks. I didn’t get close enough to touch one but I would have loved to have felt/seen the difference in their fiber from the more popular kinky-haired Huacaya.

This place was set up really nice with a big barn, several pastures, lots of grass, no overcrowding. The people were very pleasant and answered all our questions. We talked for an hour and a half and learned a lot before we went back to our car. Back in the day that this farm started alpacas were all outrageously priced making a breeding farm very lucrative but these days with their numbers up the money was no longer there – “Nothing to retire on” if I remember the sentiment correctly.

The second farm we saw was smaller, having 29 head on 3 acres. Still grass was everywhere, no one was fighting, the place was very clean – the people here said they cleaned up the poop twice a day and sold it as fertilizer, just like the last place. Here we asked the same questions, “what is the most challenging part of raising alpacas?” and we got a sweet answer, “The heartbreak of losing one.” They pointed to a female out on the field with her cria. She had a large square shaved on her side with big Frankenstein stitches running up it. Three weeks earlier she suffered a problematic pregnancy – the cria was wound up in all sorts of odd ways and couldn’t come out. The vet believed him to be dead as he hoisted his mother on the operating table and started preparing to open her up. Low and behold the baby was alive and the mama was up and feeding it by the next morning. Not bad! She said in 16 years of breeding this C-section was a first!

After watching these lovely females for a long time we wandered around to see the studs. Here we were given another lesson on fiber – there was an intact male was going for cheap – why? Because his confirmation wasn’t great and his fiber wasn’t either. He would make a better pet animal. We got to see how his guard hairs were too long, longer than the rest, and stuck out to make a “halo.” We got to see their feet up close, to see how to trim them, and we got to see the weird vampiric-looking “fighting teeth” the males have that need to be clipped. We’d been told by all the other farms that Ivermec, a wormer, was important to prevent menigial worms but this was the first farm to tell us the Ivermec was a subcutaneous shot and that the worms were something carried by deer and slugs and what happens to an infected alpaca – the worms live around the animal’s spine and eat away until the animal slowly becomes paralyzed and dies. Not pretty. This was the first farm to mention the dreaded EE, a mosquito-borne disease that’s killing people and horses here. Apparently it has a vaccine. And they also shared with us they didn’t have any wethers/geldings, saying they had no trouble keeping intact boys together. This was all a lovely hands-on experience and we went home feeling we’d learned a lot. These people felt you should start with at least three alpacas or at least two with one being clearly older than the other – due to the pecking order. They said they started with two who were so nervous one miscarried. They calmed down after a third was added. We asked both farms we visited on this day what was a good price for a starter female, both agreed a “good” quality female, just nice enough to be bred would run $1,000-2,000. That seemed more reasonable than the $4,000-8000 we had heard the day before!

All and all I am looking forward to getting a few bred females in the Spring, how much we will pay and what quality they’ll be will be worked out from there. If I were looking merely to have the most profitable farm I would have invested in a few very expensive males and just had a stud farm – instead of selling babies I’d be selling “drive-by” breedings to surrounding local farms. It can be lucrative but that is also a huge gamble – with each trip to another farm (or show – ribbons will make each male worth more) you’d be risking the potential to pick up a disease or parasite to spread to the rest of the herd. My gambling days are over. That sounds like a nightmare to me but I wanted to point out it is another option if someone is reading this that also is considering an alpaca farm.

In any event we learned A TON, got to meet all sorts of adorable alpacas, and spoke to some wonderful people. We’ve decided maybe we won’t have goats (or will cut our desired 4-5 down to 2) and I think with the hatching eggs, the Belgian Hare babies, the alpaca fiber, and the alpaca poop, our farm might just actually be a functional somewhat profitable venture.

Below are photos from Day 2. Sadly I wasn’t with it enough to realize I should be taking photos on Day 1…

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