More Alpaca graze Colorado ranches | TheFencePost.com

More Alpaca graze Colorado ranches

Stephanie Alderton
For The Fence Post

They may not be big, they may look like wooly giraffes, and they may spit, but alpacas are the up-and-coming heavyweights in Colorado livestock.

Since the cute camelids first arrived in the U.S. from South America during the 1980s, hundreds of alpaca breeders, large and small, have sprouted up all over the country. Colorado is one of the leading states in the industry, with dozens of farms in the Denver area alone.

Alpaca have grown in both population and popularity among Colorado's ranchers 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.

Because alpacas are such low-maintenance animals, and their fleece is in such high demand, more and more farmers are showing interest in breeding them, either full-time or as a side business. But it is still a relatively new industry, and 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 very 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."

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One of the first things a potential alpaca breeder should plan for is a place to keep the animals. Alpacas don't 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 farmers should have at least one 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 seven 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, or "agist" them, which is another way breeders who do have land can make money.

As for the herd itself, ranchers seem to agree that newcomers shouldn't plunk down money for the first alpaca they see.

Hillary Devin, co-owner of Shambalah Alpacas in Franktown, said it's important to buy the best animal you can afford. She advised new ranchers to visit as many farms as possible before choosing their first alpacas, in order 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 don't usually buy multi-colored fiber. But when she does get animals with more than one shade of grey or brown, she often ends up selling their fiber to hand-spinners, who like its unique look.

It also depends on which type of alpaca you're looking for. Huacayas, the most common breed in the U.S., have fluffy coats that are 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.

Breeding and boarding animals is not the only way for an alpaca rancher to make a profit. The Schades recently opened their farm to agri-tourism, taking advantage of the fact that alpacas are naturally friendly and adorable to draw city-dwelling families to visit them. And while almost every alpaca farm pays for itself 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, placemats 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 that they are more economical and eco-friendly than other livestock, eating only two to three percent of their body weight and doing little damage to their pasture land.

Carol Hinrichs, the other owner of Edelweiss, said they're 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."