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Talkin' alpacas

October 18, 2008
By ANDY BATES, Enterprise Features Editor

Two words: Orgling and pronking. That's all it takes to realize alpacas are just plain cool. Think about it a second. What do cows do? Moo. Chickens? Well, they cluck. And pigs snort - or go "oink," if you prefer a cutesier version.

Don't get me wrong, I love cows and chickens and pigs and sheep and all sorts of livestock. But none of them, save for the alpaca, orgle and pronk - at least not according to my research, anyway.

Now, you're probably asking yourself, what do these words mean? Well, part of me wants to save that until the very end so you'll be forced to read all about these Andean Mountain transports that are steadily gaining popularity across the U.S., as well as right here in the Adirondacks. But, alas, I won't tease you like that.

Article Photos

What are you looking at? Me? Oh yeah, I forgot how cute I can be. But did I mention I’ll provide an average of six to 10 pounds of the snuggliest fleece you’ve ever felt every year? It’s true. Look it up.
(Enterprise photo — Andy Bates)

You see, when an alpaca is feeling especially giddy or pleased with itself and its herd mates, it prances around - kind of like a deer - and bobs its head in amusement. It's so beautiful, someone way back when decided to call it pronking.

Orgling, on the other hand, is one of those onomatopoeic words like moo and cluck. And it's a very important word, to boot. When a male is particularly enthralled with a nearby female and wishes to court her, he orgles. It sounds like a throaty gurgle, and it lets the female know his intentions. And, since alpacas are induced ovulators, it's the only way she knows what he's up to, and he has to keep orgling until he gets the job done, which can take up to 45 minutes.

In the AuSable valley, there's plenty of orgling and pronking to go around, with four alpaca farms located in the town of Jay alone. You might say Cal and Pat Coolidge were the trendsetters in the area. Pat even remembers the day they got their first alpacas - Nov. 3, 1999.

Fact Box

Thinking alpacas?

Here's a rough breakdown of what it costs

Acquisition of one pregnant female and one young female - $35,000

Insurance on animals for one year - $1,000

Equipment - $500

Small barn and fences - $30,000 (this can be more or less depending on what you choose, or whether you already have the infrastructure)

One year's feed - $300

Veterinarian and miscellaneous reserve - $1,100

Total: $68,000

-Source: Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association

Two years before that, the two saw an ad in Country Living and decided to send away for some information from the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, which at the time was a little pamphlet. Now if you send away for some information, you get a spiral-bound book.

That's a tribute to how the alpaca industry has grown nationwide, and it's also mirrored in the alpaca boom in Jay itself, as Seth Rosenblum and Trudy Russ followed suit later that same year, followed by Jay Ward a few years after that.

A little history

If you're thinking to yourself, "Man, I don't know the first thing about alpacas," you're not alone. It's possible you've passed by a few alpacas, or an alpaca farm, and thought they were llamas, which is understandable because the two are cousins.

Native to the Andes Mountains of Peru, mainly, as well as Bolivia and Chile, alpacas weren't imported to the U.S. until 1984. Shortly thereafter, the alpaca census was at a paltry 392.

For more than a decade after that, alpacas really didn't catch on. When the Coolidges purchased their first animals in 1999, a year after importation of the animals to the U.S. was halted, there were still only about 15,000 animals listed on the Alpaca Registry. Now, that number is close to 150,000.

So, why alpacas?

Quite simply, alpacas are the perfect animal for someone with a day job. You wake up, let them out, set out some hay and water, and that's basically it. Seth Rosenblum and Trudy Russ, whose numbers at Elfenwood Alpacas are in the teens, estimated it takes them only about 15 minutes twice a day to take care of their animals. For Jay Ward of AuSable Valley Alpacas, whose herd is about double that of Elfenwood, it takes about 10 to 15 hours of work per week.

It's almost like alpacas are half-pet, half-livestock, to hear their owners talk about them. They all have names, seemingly come whenever they're called and aren't so big as to be intimidating (only 150 pounds and about 36 inches tall where the neck meets the spine).

"We went to a horse show in Saratoga, and I got tired of looking at the horses," Rosenblum said of his first interaction with an alpaca. "So, I wandered to some alpacas nearby. I got close, one came up and kissed me, and that was it. We had this old farm here, and we needed some life on it."

At Jay Mountain Alpacas, Pat Coolidge walks out of the barn cradling a newly born cria (the term for a baby alpaca) as it coos and hums, its big, dark eyes looking straight into hers.

"They've just got this doe-eyed expression," she explained. "It's hard not to love them."

And it's easy to fall in love with a lot of aspects about them, not just their soft, gentle nature.

"I grew up with beef cattle, so I was familiar with raising livestock," Ward said. "Five years ago when I was looking to get into something like that, and our daughters were very young, I figured an adult bull wouldn't really be a good mix. I also wanted to raise an animal that didn't need to be slaughtered for harvest."

But while fleece is alpacas' product right now, the alpaca market is more for breeders than shearers.

In Peru, where alpacas number around three million, there are enough animals producing fleece to supply a textile industry. Here in the U.S. and other countries like New Zealand and Australia where alpacas have been imported, there aren't nearly enough to sustain a fleece industry. So, owners like those in Jay send their fleece to cooperatives and then receive yarn or finished products that they can then resell for a profit.

Still, the real profits to be made at this point are in the animals themselves. A gelded male will only fetch a price of about $500. However, a good breeding female will go from anywhere between $10,000 and $40,000, and a good breeding male can carry a price tag in excess of $100,000 - and some have sold for much more.

"Are the prices justified? Well, it's supply and demand like basic economics," Ward said of the escalating prices alpacas are fetching. Basically, there are a lot of people who want good breeding stock with established bloodlines, and there aren't many of them to go around.

Alpacas only give birth to one cria a year due to an 11-and-a-half month gestation period, so it's hard to see immediate herd growth. However, the Coolidges see things progressing to the point where a viable fleece industry is on the horizon. For that to happen, there would probably need to be about twice as many alpacas as there are now. Considering that the population has increased tenfold in the past decade, that number may not be far off.

"I think we're getting close to that goal, and there are a lot of people in the U.S. working toward that," Pat said. "I'd love to open an L.L. Bean catalog and see something made with 100 percent U.S. alpaca fleece."

Alpacas ... the investment wave of the future?

Let's face it. There aren't as many good investments to be made out there right now as there were even a few weeks ago. The country's biggest investment firms are folding or hemorrhaging money, and the nation's economic outlook is about as bleak as it has ever been.

"Investors have long turned to hard assets in market downturns, the idea being that if you invest in something real, it won't disappear, even if its value declines," wrote Jennifer Levitz in the Wall Street Journal, Oct. 3.

When that happens, she suggested, the place investors have most often turned is real estate. But that's not doing very well, either. In fact, Levitz cited, between July 2006 and July of this year, home prices dropped a staggering 19.5 percent, making it anything but a safe bet.

So, Levitz looked at what some people are investing in and came up with some interesting entrepreneurs out there. Some have invested in vintage wines and champagne. Others have become landlords of expensive city parking spaces that can be had at a premium price. But, she noted, one thing many people are turning to is alpacas when everything else seems to be falling through the fall.

And they're turning to alpacas for good reason. One is their breeding potential - while they only give birth once a year, they live for 20 and breed for a majority of that time - and the other is the tax advantages.

In May 2003, Congress passed the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act that, among other things, allows small business owners to write off 100 percent of newly acquired assets in the first year, according to a Wall Street Journal article entitled "Tax Breaks Spur Alpaca Market," published this past April. Since then, the maximum write-off for those assets has increased to $100,000, and it costs much less than that to get a small alpaca farm operating.

Plus, alpacas are considered livestock, so there are plenty of opportunities and incentives when it comes to tax benefits regarding food, medical care and start-up costs.

Like any financial foray, alpacas can be risky, and some think the fad will soon hit the ceiling, especially since there isn't a great demand for fleece.

However, alpaca is an attractive alternative to wool since alpacas don't produce lanolin, which is what causes allergic reactions to other fleeces. Also, it's lighter and warmer than wool.

So, if your 401(k) is plummeting, you have some acreage just sitting there, and you're thinking to yourself, "Hey, I'd like to give this alpaca thing a try," here are some things to keep in mind.

First, know that you don't need a lot of land to raise alpacas. They can be pastured at about five to seven per acre of land, but they don't need to be rotated to different fields as often because the soft pads of their feet don't destroy the land and they don't graze on it as much as other livestock. Nevertheless, they should be moved about every 20 to 30 days to different pasture, so you'll need a few acres for a sizeable alpaca operation.

Second, while they're mountain animals, they do need shelter. It can be as modest as a three-sided structure or as lavish as a full-scale barn with stalls. They'll also need fencing to keep them in and predators out.

Third, you'll need food. One alpaca will eat about a half-bale of hay per week. A horse eats about one bale per day.

Fourth, you'll need some basic equipment like lead ropes and harnesses and a trailer for transport, as well as veterinary care. Aside from regular checkups and nail-trimming, alpacas in the Adirondacks need to be vaccinated against menengial worm, which is transmitted from white-tailed deer and cycles through snail slime on the pasture grass. If an alpaca eats grass infected with the worm, the worm gets into the alpaca's stomach, eats its way through the alpaca's spinal cord and nests in the brain.

And, finally, you need multiple alpacas - two at least, since they're herd animals.

Another thing to keep in mind when thinking about alpacas is that you don't need to have everything right up front. You can purchase an animal and board it at a registered farm for as long as it takes to get your operation set up.



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