Finding Your Focus: Where Do Alpacas Fit?

We have been alpaca farming for 7 years now and we are still filled with the enthusiasm of brand new, first time farmers.  Doing what you love can make work seem like play.  Better than that, alpaca farming is filled with rewards when you find your focus and determine where alpacas fit into your lifestyle and farm style. We did a lot of research when we began our alpaca adventure (see CQ, March 2010, “The Great Alpaca Adventure”).  As a result, we were well prepared thanks to the generous time and advice that each farm we visited shared.  We also discovered CQ Magazine and a wealth of other reading materials that filled our heads with facts and visions of what lied ahead.

Information can be overwhelming to say the least, but it will also leave you well prepared for what’s ahead when you welcome your herd home.

But in those first few years, as we were buying animals, visiting farms, and going to alpaca shows, veteran alpaca breeders kept asking us one question that we could never answer.  We didn’t even know where to begin to answer it.

What’s your focus?

What?

At that point, we knew we wanted to raise alpacas.  That was it.  But apparently, to buy alpacas, or at least to buy the right alpacas, you need to know what your goals and objectives are right from day one –  or so we felt each time we were asked and had no clear answer.  We felt we could be in jeopardy of making some terrible acquisitions or fatal mistakes.

While it is important to be well informed, the good news is that alpacas are ideal for beginners.  Where you begin need not be where you end.  And in a few short years you can experience significant progress and find your focus, even if you didn’t begin with precision focus.

So how do you do it?  And what are your focus options when raising alpacas?

STERLING, Ont. (06/11/2015) - Heather takes a moment to look at the alpacas out in the pasture during Sunday chores. Photo by Callum Rutherford

Well, after many years we have become a breeding farm that focuses on farm starts.  We work with newcomers who are “kicking the tires” and trying to figure out if alpaca farming is for them.  We love it,  because their passion and enthusiasm reminds us each time we meet a new family, why we fell in love with alpaca farming too.

When we meet these newcomers, instead of asking them if they have found a focus, identified clear cut goals, or know what kind of alpaca farm they want to develop, we ask them instead why they are doing it.  How do you see alpacas fitting into your life?  What is your current farm configuration, and do you want to modify that to begin or keep it simple to start?  Will your kids be involved?  What roles would everyone in the family like to play on the farm?

Once we know more about them, what they are willing to do and where their passion lies, then comes the question – where do alpacas fit in?

It should never be the other way around.  We have experienced the greatest success by helping people to identify their passion, and then scaling their herd to fit that passion.  It’s been a formula for success.

Often, a focus won’t become clear until that family has been raising alpacas for a year or two and really begins to understand what they enjoy most about the experience.  After a few years you have a better handle on the industry too and are more comfortable and informed about making your mark on it.

Where can you leave your mark?

Some may chose to focus on the end product:  the fleece.  A Fibre Farm is a very important part of the alpaca value chain.  We raise alpacas for their elegant end product, what Incans called “the fiber of the Gods”, only allowing royalty in their society to wear alpaca.  Some farms make this their focus.  And there are lucrative opportunities here.  The quality of breeding stock has soared in Canada over the past 5 years, and yet only the top 10% of males are typically used for breeding.  Were one interested in raising a herd to produce a healthy annual clip at low cost, a fibre farm is the way to go.

WELLINGTON, Ont. (05/11/2015) - A child pets an alpaca at the Drake Devonshire Christmas Market  Photo by Callum Rutherford

Fibre farms are an excellent option for farms who want to limit pasture or stall configurations and only raise males or females, with no breeding taking place and no need to have separate housing and fencing for each sex.  Fiber farms produce the end product the market is seeking in both small or large quantities, but they also provide a productive home for those animals who breeders choose to eliminate from their breeding herds at great prices.  This keeps our breeding stock improving year after year as breeders become focused on using their best stock to improve their herds.

And some farms may chose to become Breeding Farms.  These are often the farms that chose to keep more limited numbers.  They have a passion for studying genetics and making careful breeding plans each year to constantly improve their stock and the herd’s fibre production.  They anticipate turn over in their herd to constantly be introducing genetic diversity.  And they have a specific goal for their breeding plan, be it to produce show animals, seed stock for new farms or alpacas for other breeding farms.

Heather Candler - Breeding farms will show their animals for feedback and exposure.Breeding farms might be more actively involved in planning activities, in addition to herd health and farm management activities.  Breeding farms will often show their animals at annual alpaca shows, to showcase their breeding program and receive feedback on their animals from some of the world’s top alpaca judges.

Another focus might be Livestock Brokering for those farms and families that enjoy sales and excel at building a strong network.  In this instance it is not imperative to have a large herd, but to have an exemplary herd that demonstrates all the options to newcomers from hobby farm stock to show stock.  This allows you to educate prospective buyers about the variation in price, conformation and fleece amongst alpacas and to make choices that suit their budget and goals.  And it will often involve reaching well beyond your farm, into a network of other aligned breeders, to put packages together that meet the purchaser’s needs.

Heather Candler - Livestock brokers are always on the lookout for colour variety LOW RESWhile livestock brokering will not likely be the singular focus of a farm, it requires its own set of skills and passions.  It is here that we have found our focus at Oak Hills Alpacas.  We enjoy sales and strongly value the network of farms that work with us to offer their animals for sale.  Brokering livestock requires you to open your farm to newcomers and breeders who want to explore acquisition options.  You need to be creative and open in your approach to building a herd that works for that family at that time, and gives them something to continue to build upon in the future.  And it requires you to constantly be aware of stock that are available so you can present options to buyers at all times.  If you love to put together a deal that sees all parties winning and is good for the animals, then brokering alpacas may be where you find your focus.

You might find, after some time with your alpacas and working with their fleece, that your passion is fleece.  There are opportunities not yet realized in Canada, to Broker Fiber.  Those buying alpaca fiber are always looking for more, be it the mills, other producers that specialize in fiber products, or spinners and weavers.  And yet, despite the demand, there are many alpaca farms that are yet to get their annual fleece clip off to market.  You will find many barns filled with fiber.  These are typically farms that have busy farm families whose passions lies elsewhere in the industry.

Similar to livestock brokering, if you like to coordinate supply with demand, and are willing to build a network of alpaca farms and fleece buyers, and you’re willing to be a ground breaker, then fiber brokering might be your focus.

WELLINGTON, Ont. (05/11/2015) -  Shawna from the Shed helps lead her alpaca to the trailer. Photo by Callum Rutherford

What follows a passion for the fiber?  A passion for sharing that fiber with others.  For some, particularly those with retail experience, your focus may be on creating a Retail experience on your farm or in partnership with other farms.  By developing a retail component to your farm, you become the outlet for the end product in a value-added form.  When we began alpaca farming we were surprised by the demand for alpaca products – particularly socks and yarn.  If you plan to be home on the farm and have the ability to develop products and market them, you may find your focus in retail.  Rather it is participation in craft shows, farmers’ market, or developing an on-farm or on-line store, there are opportunities to direct market to customers and realize a healthy profit from premium alpaca products.

WELLINGTON, Ont. (05/11/2015) -  Heather holds Bow the alpaca so a child could pet him. Photo by Callum Rutherford

Whatever the appeal, there is no question that alpacas have a special draw, and some farm families are showcasing that to develop Agri-tourism businesses.  Is this right for you?  Consider the commitment it may take to develop a well-rounded tourism experience.   If you are ready to open up your home and make memories for other families who aren’t exposed to rural life, or the alpaca experience, then this could be your focus.  There is so much to be learned about alpacas and fiber farming.  Agri-tourism farms have a big role to play in connecting our communities to agriculture and the sustainable fiber it produces.  We have seen many teachers, marketing specialists and others find a comfortable niche and rewarding lifestyle in this type of farming.

STERLING, Ont. (06/11/2015) -  Heather pours some water into a water bucket during Sunday chores.Photo by Callum Rutherford

Finally, you may be just beginning to explore alpaca farming, having produced a few animals to your rural property, and want simply to enjoy raising these peaceful animals and learning about livestock at the Hobby Farm scale.  Alpacas are ideal for such adventures, producing an annual product with a market that makes them sustainable and potentially profitable.  Even at such a small scale, the lifestyle advantages that these peaceful animals provide will have you cancelling your meditation classes to spend more time in your barns, listening to the alpacas hum along with you.

If you are about to begin farming, visit an alpaca farm.  Get to know a little more about alpacas, and spend some time asking yourself what you really want to do with your farm?  How much time do you want to spend? How much money do you want to invest in start up?  And how much fun do you want to have along the way?

Once the fun begins, the focus will be clear.

Where You Can Leave Your Mark on the Industry:

  • STERLING, Ont. (06/11/2015) - Heather takes some time to get photos of the Alpacas for the website. Photo by Callum Rutherford

    Fibre Farm

  • Breeding Farm
  • Livestock Broker
  • Fiber Broker
  • Retail
  • Agri-Tourism
  • Hobby Farm

 

Photos by Callum Rutherford & Heather Candler

Originally published in the March 2016 issue of Camelid Quarterly.  A special thanks to the editors for their permission to reprint.