Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008
K-STATE VETERINARIAN SAYS EDUCATION IS NECESSARY BEFORE BECOMING AN ALPACA OWNER
MANHATTAN -- They're as soft as cashmere and as huggable as your best friend. They also make great companions and can have high value. These are just some of the reasons alpacas have become common livestock and pets, according to a Kansas State University veterinarian.
"They are extremely friendly when they're not stressed, and that's part of their allure," said Dr. Meredyth Jones, clinical assistant professor at K-State's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. "Not only are they pretty to look at out in a field and intriguing animals, but they're very curious. They come right up to you."
However, before jumping into the alpaca industry, Jones said it is important for would-be buyers to educate themselves, something she suggests doing before purchasing any animal.
Alpacas, animals native to South America, can be high financial investments, costing between $5,000 and $15,000; if interested in purchasing a breeding male alpaca, the cost can reach $50,000 to upward of $100,000.
People purchase alpacas for different reasons, Jones said. While some have alpaca businesses for primary income, others own alpacas as a hobby or side business. Regardless, Jones said owning an alpaca can be labor intensive, as with any livestock species.
Alpacas are an agreeable livestock option for people just starting a farm because they need less land and they're less likely to cause injuries than cattle. While Jones said alpacas might kick or spit, she compared being kicked by a 150-pound alpaca to a 1,000-pound cow, which can have very different outcomes.
"When some people retire, they may choose to live out in the country and own some land. If you're going to raise some kind of livestock in retirement, alpacas are a safe option," she said. "They're companions. I think that's a real draw."
Alpaca owners can make money by selling the alpaca offspring and the alpaca fiber. However, when selling the offspring, Jones said the male babies, or crias, have a low value if they're not of breeding quality.
"There's really not a market for those males, so there's an expense for taking care of those animals that aren't giving a significant return," she said. "You're not going to be able to sell every single animal you create for $15,000. There are going to be some that are of much less quality."
Some alpaca farmers are also spinners and knitters and sell items that they make from the alpaca fiber, such as scarves.
"The problem is that the public has not largely grasped onto the concept of alpaca fiber," she said. "It's costly and it's not mainstream, not like wool. It's much better quality, but the perceived utility by the public hasn't met the cost of it yet."
If purchasing an alpaca, Jones recommends buying at least two instead of one because alpacas have a significant herd mentality and don't do well by themselves.
She also recommends housing the alpacas separately from other animals because they're susceptible to diseases, and a multispecies farm could spread diseases back and forth.
While Jones said the alpacas are not necessarily high maintenance, it is important to monitor their health.
"They're fairly hardy and they don't get sick a lot," she said. "The problem with them is, just like most other livestock species, because they are prey animals in the scheme of life, they tend to hide their sickness until they can't hide it anymore. I think that's why many people think they're prone to disease, because once they look sick they tend to go downhill in a hurry.
Alpaca maintenance requires an annual shearing in the spring and annual teeth trimming, as well as feet trimming a few times a year. They also require vaccination and de-worming programs like other animals.
Jones is the veterinarian in charge of K-State's camelid teaching herd, a group of alpacas that was donated to the university by the Mid-America Alpaca Foundation for the teaching of medicine and surgery of camelids. The veterinarians at K-State regularly provide information to other veterinarians and llama and alpaca owners.
Jones thinks the alpaca industry has a strong future.
"At about the time that llamas started to kind of wane, alpacas came on strong and are gaining in strength," she said. "It doesn't appear that it's going to be one of those fly-by-the-night industries."