The Sweet Coo of SuccessJan 01, 2022 09:00PM ● By Karey Solomon
Warm brown eyes, fringed with flirty long eyelashes, regard a visitor with kindly interest. Dense, cuddle-worthy fleece invites touch as the animals coo questioningly. It’s easy to fall in love with an alpaca.
When Christian and Carol Howard moved back to their family farm in Port Allegany in 2002, they wanted to continue the farm’s tradition of raising livestock. “But I didn’t want to raise something I’d have to slaughter to make a living,” Carol says. A friend told her about alpacas, an animal she’d barely heard of until she visited that friend’s farm. Soon she and Chris began building a herd of their own and building a business they call Cinco C’s Alpacas (cincocsalpacas.com or (814) 598-1667).
Native to South America, alpacas, like llamas, are related to camels. Alpacas are much smaller than llamas, with blunter faces, smaller ears, finer fleece, and often gentler dispositions. “You have to love them,” Carol says. “It’s hard not to.” But for Carol, as for many who raise alpacas, working with their animals is both business and pleasure.
In America, unlike their native Peru, alpacas are not usually a food animal. This makes many American alpaca breeders very choosy about the animals they take into their herds. “There can be profit in the fiber if you do it right,” Carol says. “But our main profit is in selling animals and breeding to our herd sires. Some farms are using alpacas in agritourism. It’s a great way to make a profit on the farm because people are curious about them.” Carol doesn’t do that, but she invests a generous amount of time mentoring those who buy their animals and others who want to learn how to raise alpacas right.
They’re not inexpensive pets. While it’s possible to purchase an alpaca for as little as $250, an animal with good physical conformation and beautiful fleece is likely to cost many thousands of dollars more. Many alpaca breeders regularly attend shows, entering their best animals for judging, where points are divided between the soundness of the animal’s structure, and the beauty of their fleece. The impartial recognition of an animal’s excellence means breeders and those seeking a “date” for their females with another breeder’s prizewinning male, will pay more for a champion animal and continually strive to improve their herd’s bloodlines. The gestation period for a cria is eleven-and-a-half to twelve months, meaning planning ahead is essential.
“No doubt that in the U.S., breeding is more scientific, studied process,” says Chris Kendall of Kendall Creek Alpaca Farm in Bradford (kcfalpacas.com or (814) 362-4561). “In Peru, it’s jaw-dropping around every corner. There are millions of free-ranging alpacas in Peru and the Quechua Indians use the meat, hide, and fiber the way Native Americans used buffalo in the old West.” At the same time, Peruvian shepherds are able to trace bloodlines through the features of the animals they care for, and vigorously cull their herds in an informal effort at developing better animals.
Chris visited Peru after he and his wife Lori began their alpaca herd in 1997. “Alpacas intrigued us as investment opportunity,” he says. “They’re a docile animal, easy to care for—cattle and horses can be a little dangerous—easily handled, and we could take care of them ourselves. It’s a vertically integrated business model.” Every part of the animal can be useful, from its fiber and fleece, to its manure, treasured by gardeners. Then there are stud fees and animal sales. The animals deemed unsuitable for a breeding program are sold to be enjoyed as pets.
Despite his business approach to raising these animals, Chris found himself captured by their intelligence and sweet personalities. “They all have unique quirks and attributes just like humans,” he says. They’re also highly bonded to their biological families. On occasions when an alpaca born on his farm returns for breeding, “One noise from the animal and the mother will recognize her. They’ll stay together until the animal leaves.”
Nine years ago, Jean Russell put a lot of time into reading about and studying alpacas. Knowing her husband Jay loves animals, she took him to visit an alpaca farm, “And we came home with five pregnant does,” Jay says. “I didn’t know what an alpaca was when she first mentioned them, but now I wish I’d started this years ago. They’re neat animals, fun to be around, very curious and friendly.”
Their experience showing their prizewinning animals is further enhanced by Jay’s experience as a frequent ring steward, assisting the judge. Jean and Jay (russellsalpacaacres.com, in Burdett, New York) not only bring home ribbons—the experience has cemented amazing friendships. When Jay became ill last summer, several alpaca farmers showed up at chore time to assist, then took some of the animals home to care for them until he could resume farm work. Reach the Russells at (518) 817-1805.
They’ve also experienced another way their alpacas can enhance lives when they recently rented out two of their animals to accompany a bride down the aisle for her rural-themed wedding.
For fiber enthusiasts, alpaca means the fleece as much as the lovely animals who produce it. The hollow structure of alpaca fiber makes it much warmer than wool; its lack of the lanolin found in sheep’s fleece makes it comfortable for many who find wool itchy against their skin. And for spinners like Linda Voss Plummer of Galeton, Pennsylvania (artsyknits.com) the qualities of alpaca fiber make it a serious pleasure to handle.
“It has its own character,” Linda notes. “It’s not as crimpy as wool, but finer alpacas are very soft. I like to spin fine and alpaca likes to be spun fine. And has beautiful drape.” After Linda’s grandson helped her prepare four pounds of black alpaca from Cinco C’s, she spun yarn and knitted him a headband. Her son got a handknitted hat from the same fiber for Christmas. “I’m just loving this fiber,” she says. “And it goes a long way.”
Non-spinners as well as hand-spinners who want to experience alpaca for themselves can contact these breeders and others who maintain farm stores and offer alpaca products for sale.