Sunday, 20 April 2014

Small Farming – Alpacas

Alpacas were domesticated in South America for wool.  Alpaca wool is highly valued for its range of natural color, its texture and feel, and its insulating qualities.  Despite the value of the textile, Australian small farming of alpacas is at risk.

A family group consists of an alpha male, females and crias (babies).

Alpacas are curious animals – able to unsettle smaller predators, like foxes, by mobbing them.  They are used successfully as guardian animals in flocks of sheep to help protect lambing ewes – or simply in the home paddock to protect a chicken run (although they stand little chance against wild dogs or dingos).

Early attempts to import Alpacas into the Australian colonies were frustrated by export bans and mismanagement of the first flock.  Importation recommenced in the 1990s with numbers now well established and exceeding 100,000 animals.

While alpacas are generally submissive, unweathered males can become aggressive, and can do damage with fast repetitive kicks from back legs.  Aggression is usually directed at other males.  An ordinary flock consists of an alpha male, a number of females and crias (babies). 

Alpacas are ideally suited to the high plains and mountains of the Molonglo.
Alpacas are ideally suited to the Molonglo High Plains.  They survive well on both native and introduced grasses, have low susceptibility to diseases and infections faced by other introduced animals, have a very low impact on soft soils of the region (creating little or no erosion) and require no shelters beyond shade trees.  They remain comfortable in snow, rain or dry conditions.  They do not require special fencing – and are highly territorial.   

They can be run at about the same rate as sheep – although a pregnant or lactating female will require access to additional feed (up to the equivalent of 2DSE).   

Alpacas produce between 1-3kgs of wool annually.  Only the better wool (the ‘saddle’) is sold – which can reduce the effective yield by half to .5 – 1.5 kg per animal per season.  This compares relatively unfavorably with the yield from sheep.

So, why is the small farming future of Alpacas at risk?

While the cost of running an alpacas is limited to the costs of annual shearing (which generally includes clipping toe nails as well) – at about $20 per animal - the price gained from the sale of wool does not meet the cost of shearing.
Shearing requires special handling and expertise.  Here the animal is strapped to a mobile frame.

Alpacas might be farmed for a number of reasons.
  • Alpacas attract significant prices.  The market here is speculative, and prices sought and paid still are far in excess of the economic value of the animals (even though the resale market has seen prices fall steadily). Alpacas have been suggested as a possible meat source – but given the high resale value of the animals this is not a viable option.
  • Alpacas are a utility animal - they add value to other small farming activities.  The immediate utility  value of alpacas lie specifically through their guardian tendency.  They are also a boon to the home garden because they produce great slow-release fertilizer pellets which can be directly added to vegetable gardens (which they drop in specific locations for easy collection). 
  • An organised and reliable wool market has emerged in Australia through the Australian Alpaca Fleece Limited Company – as with sheep, higher prices are commanded by low micron clean wool.  Prices on fleeces can be obtained from the Company’s site at
  • Wool can be stockpiled or spun (with or without a variety of other textiles such as cotton or sheep wool).  Spun wool can be readily sold at a range of prices up to 20 times the value of unspun wool – and is keenly sought for home use.  Scarves and clothing made from alpaca wool command high prices – up to 100 times the value of the unspun wool.

Simply put, the economics of the market are threatening the rational economic use of this animal.  The structure of the private market which has emerged is extremely poor – with a significant disconnect between the price for producers and value added goods. This disconnect is threatening the viability of the industry - many farmers are starting to stockpile or simply destroy the wool.

Perhaps the answer may be in small vertically integrated cottage based industries, producing high value good for retail sale.  Significant economic returns would be a possibility.  Although labor intensive, there is significant potential for a market to develop here - perhaps in conjunction with tourist or other service-based activities.

Peter Quinton
Palerang April 2014

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