3 November 2000

Long-term, not quick profit

While the alpaca industry is

becoming more commercially

orientated, farmers should

treat alpacas as a secondary

enterprise and understand

they will need to be

committed to realise returns.

Hannah Velten reports

IMPRESSIVE profit margins hide the fact that alpaca production is a long-term commitment and not suitable for those farmers wishing to make a quick profit.

"Farmers must understand that alpaca farming is a long winded, high risk affair that requires high initial capital," says Nick Harrington-Smith of Sussex-based Arunvale Alpacas.

With breeding females costing between £6000-£7500 each and only producing one cria (baby alpaca) a year, returns are slow (see panel).

Fibre sold through the recently established British Alpaca Fibre Co-operative is reaching a base price of £10/kg, with added payments for quality fibre. This price is gradually rising, but an alpaca will only produce about 3kg of fibre a year.

"You may get the variable costs back on the animal and a small margin from fibre sales," says Mr Harrington-Smith. But keeping and managing alpacas could not be simpler, he adds. "It is much like sheep management without all the health problems. They do not get foot-rot and incidences of scald and fly strike are negligible."

Routine tasks include foot trimming three times a year, worming and vaccinating for clostridial diseases twice a year, but they do not need to be dipped. Shearing is carried out once a year between May and June, with alpacas stretched out on a harness to be shorn. Because alpacas teeth continually grow, annual grinding may be needed to allow them to eat properly. Alpacas eat 1.5% of their body weight in dry matter, so they can be kept on short grass on marginal land. Stocking density is 10-12/ha (4-5/acre) and because they are so light – 65-75kg – they do not poach ground.

Feeding a 14-15% protein alpaca coarse mix is necessary in winter and for lactating females. This contains trace elements, minerals and vitamins that the alpacas lack due to UK conditions.

But care must be taken when feeding extra energy and proteins, as fibre quality is reduced. Levels must be kept back without affecting pregnancy and growth rates. But further research is being undertaken by Bristol Veterinary School into the physiology of the animal, as little is known.

Female alpacas are unusual in that they are induced ovulators, meaning that mating triggers off ovulation 48 hours later, so they can be mated any time of the year. Once served naturally, semen remains viable within the female for hours, so further services are not required unless the female returns.

Females can be served from one year old, have a gestation period of about 11.5 months and will give birth in daylight hours. They will continue to breed for about 15 years.

Being originally from the Andes, alpacas are hardy animals, used to extreme conditions and high altitudes. But Mr Harrington-Smith believes that UK producers may be tempted to house them, which he thinks will ruin their toughness.

"If farmers are interested in alpacas, they should think of them as a secondary industry running alongside the main enterprise."

Devon dairy farmer, Ian Waldron, took this advice. He was running a 105-cow herd but became disillusioned because of BSE and red tape. Four years ago he bought two female alpacas and ran them with the herd.

"Initially they fitted the bill, running alongside the dairy cows. They are easy to keep and require little land and no special housing or fencing," says Mr Waldron.

Because of the slow breeding process – one cria a year – it has taken a while to build up the herd to 45 breeding females but Mr Waldron sold the dairy 18 months ago, because the alpaca enterprise was more profitable.

Mother and cria Huacaya alpacas, the most plentiful breed in the world.

ALPACA BREEDING COSTS

&#8226 £7500 for a breeding female.

&#8226 3.5% insurance premium.

&#8226 £45-£50 variable costs, including forage.

&#8226 £1000 stud fee.

&#8226 £8500 for a cria sold at 15-16 months.