Producers tap market for natural products

Alpaca and llama producers lack a strong commercial industry, so many shear, process and market their own fibre

DENVER, Colo. — Visitors to the National Western Stock Show were treated to something completely different if they happened to stumble across the llama and alpaca show.

This is one type of livestock that does not mind posing for selfies or being hand fed tasty alfalfa pellets, and an event like this is an opportunity to show how these friendly, fluffy creatures are joining mainstream livestock production.

“Alpacas are cute and cuddly but they are livestock. If you want to get into alpacas you have to enjoy working with livestock,” said Mary Livingston at the show, which runs Jan. 9-24 in Denver.

“It is not a commodity business, and it is not something you can flip over if something happens.”

Livingston and her husband, Michael, have raised 120 huacaya and suri alpacas at Monument, Colorado, for the last 10 years.

Huacayas look soft and fluffy, while the suri type has long tendrils of shiny fleece.

Michael had previously raised sheep, but they both work off the farm and wanted easy-keeping livestock.

“This was a business we could operate while being employed full time,” she said.

However, they run the operation like a family farm, and their three boys are expected to work with the livestock to learn how to responsibly raise animals.

They keep their alpacas in dry lots and have to buy feed, preferably high quality hay that includes alfalfa to maintain health. Higher protein may decrease the fineness of the individual fibres, but they want strong, healthy animals .

The Livingstons sell breeding stock and are expanding into the artisan fibre product market.

Livingston is a self-taught spinner who uses the drop spindle technique and experiments with natural fibres and colours for knitting and weaving. She sells locally and through the farm’s website.

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Norm Johnson, who operates Chimera Ranch near Bennett, Colo., with his wife, Sandra, said those actively marketing their fibre products are still at the cottage industry level.

The Johnsons got into the alpaca business in 2009 because they wanted to diversify. They also wanted friendly, easy keeping animals. Norm works in information technology, while Sandra has retired and devotes her time to getting the fibre processed and spun for knitting and crocheting or felted for hats.

They have 80 huacayas on their farm and sell stock and natural fibre products.

The continuing challenge is taking the fibre market to the next level, even though demand seems high for natural, luxury products.

“We don’t have a strong commercial industry,” Norm said.

“We can’t shear our animals and drop them off at a processor.”

There are processors with small mills that can help.

“I can’t spin fast enough to make everything I need for my customers so I have part of it done at a mill,” said Sandra.

A shearer comes to Colorado for two months each spring and shears 80 percent of the alpacas in the state.

The Johnsons consider alpacas a good investment, but they tell potential customers to work with an accountant so they can take advantage of farm tax laws.

These kinds of livestock sectors can be volatile.

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For example, the Virginia based Double “O” Good Alpacas bought the herd sire Snowmass Matrix in 2010 for a world record-setting price of $675,000.

“That market is not here today,” Norm said.

“The entry to the alpaca market is more acceptable today and the average person who is interested in it can get into it, but they have to think about what they are going to do with it.”

Rob and Jill Knuckles of Tall Tail Ranch at Collbran, Colo., started raising llamas because they believe there is a strong fibre market. They entered four llamas at the Denver show and won grand champion banners for their suri llama and double coat llama.

They got into the business in 1995 and both work full time. Rob is a hair stylist and Jill works in human resources.

They raise their stock on pasture that has an elevation of 6,000 feet. Feed is not a problem because the farm is irrigated, but they do contend with bears and mountain lions and keep Pyrenees dogs to help fend off predators.

They attend four shows a year to promote their breeding stock but are placing increasing emphasis on fibre.

“Most of our customers are hand knitters and weavers,” Rob said.

Their breeding program works on body conformation along with continuing selection to improve the fleece because they want a silky, lustrous fibre.

Rob has learned to shear the animals himself and has become a proficient weaver.

They have both learned to blend the yarn with merino wool, silk and bamboo, which are dyed using natural plant based products.

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“There is a lot of momentum for buying local,” he said.