- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) - They may not be big, they may look like woolly giraffes and they may spit, but alpacas are an up-and-coming animal in Colorado livestock.

Since alpacas first arrived in the United States from South America during the 1980s, hundreds of alpaca breeders, large and small, have sprouted all over the country.

Among Colorado ranchers, alpacas also have grown in population and popularity in recent years. As of the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the state’s alpaca herd numbered 11,200 across 561 operations, placing the Andean animal among the top groups for alternative livestock. In 2007, the herd numbered 7,980, distributed among 485 operations.

Laura Ruppel, co-owner of Eaton’s Sunrise Silhouettes, said the appeal of alpacas reaches beyond their high-quality fleece.

“They are beneficial livestock in many ways. One of the reasons is their manure. It is nicknamed black gold,” she said.

The nutrient-rich manure has been a hit among farmers. Ruppel said one corn farmer in Weld County reported superior yields from his land fertilized with alpaca manure compared to more traditional cattle manure.

While alpacas offer an array of benefits, including their people-friendly demeanor, they do still remain a relatively new industry. Those attempting to break into it for the first time often struggle to make a profit.

It doesn’t have to be that way, according to Chris Schade, who, with his wife Christiann, owns C Squared Alpacas Inc. in Colorado Springs. He said it is possible to make an alpaca farm profitable, but it takes a certain amount of planning.

“It’s like any business. You need a business plan, a marketing plan,” Schade said. “You can’t expect to buy an alpaca and people will be knocking the door down to buy your fleece. That’s not how it works.”

One of the first things a potential alpaca breeder should plan for is a place to keep the animals. Alpacas do not require huge pasture lands, but they do need some land for grazing and exercise, and like other livestock, they sleep in barns during cold weather. Schade, quoting experts at Colorado State University, said ranchers should have at least 1 acre for every seven or eight alpacas, plus a sturdy barn or two.

His family started their business in 2003 with five acres and two pregnant females, the usual way to begin a herd. Their farm expanded to 7 acres and is now home to about 60 animals, some of which are boarders. Alpaca breeders without land often opt to pay other farms to board them, which is another way breeders who do have land can make money.

As for the herd itself, ranchers seem to agree newcomers should not plunk down money for the first alpaca they see.

Hillary Devin, co-owner of Shambalah Alpacas in Franktown, said it is important to buy the best animal one can afford. She advised new ranchers to visit as many farms as possible before choosing their first alpacas to get an idea of what quality looks like. She also recommended asking more experienced ranchers for advice and support.

“Find yourself an outstanding mentor,” she said. “That’s key, because . we’ve been ranching alpacas here in the United States since the ‘80s, so there’s no point in reinventing the wheel if you don’t have to.”

What constitutes a high-quality alpaca depends partly on where its fleece is going. For example, Devin tries to breed solid-colored animals, because consumer mills do not usually buy multi-colored fiber. But when she does get animals with more than one shade of gray or brown, she often ends up selling their fiber to hand-spinners, who like its unique look.

Huacayas, the most common breed in the United States, have fluffy coats used to make thick, warm material for sweaters, hats and other knitted products. Suri alpacas have fleece that hangs in curly dredlocks and is primarily used for scarves and other products that require silky material.

While many alpaca farms make profit at least partly by selling fiber, some farms, like Edelweiss Alpacas in Erie, use some of that fiber to make and sell their own products. David Hinrichs, one of the owners, weaves scarves, place mats and table runners, which customers can buy on Edelweiss’s website. C2 Alpacas also has a “fancy fiber farm stand” where customers can buy pre-made fiber products.

If Colorado’s alpaca farmers agree on anything, it is this: There should be more Colorado alpaca farmers. Schade pointed out they are more economical and eco-friendly than other livestock, eating only 2 to 3 percent of their body weight.

Since they eat the second cut of orchard hay, Ruppel said they also are cheaper to feed than a domestic dog.

When out at pasture, Ruppel said the animals’ padded feet are of benefit, since they are gentle on the land.

Carol Hinrichs, the other owner of Edelweiss, said they are remarkably people-friendly, too. Her husband used to get migraines from sitting at a computer all day, but that changed when he quit to start raising alpacas. She said the animals have a unique ability to calm people’s spirits, and she’d like to see more people raising them.

“Right now, the majority of (alpaca) fiber comes from South America because they have huge herds and mills,” she said. “Here, we have small ones, and we don’t have the quantity necessary for, say, the fashion industry. But there are people working very hard to change that. We need more alpacas.”

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Information from: The Tribune of Greeley, Co, https://greeleytribune.com

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