There’s an up-and-coming livestock trend in the region. Alpacas are common in the high plains of Peru, Chile and Bolivia, where people have used their fleece for clothes and their dung as fuel for centuries. They haven’t even been in the U.S. 20 years, but their low environmental impact, cold weather tolerance and high-priced fleece make them an increasingly popular choice for farmers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Skye Rohde reports:
There’s an up-and-coming livestock trend in the Great Lakes region.
common in the high plains of Peru, Chile and Bolivia, where people have
fleece for clothes and their dung as fuel for centuries. They haven’t
even been in the U.S.
20 years, but their low environmental impact, cold weather tolerance
fleece make them an increasingly popular choice for farmers. The Great
Consortium’s Skye Rohde reports:
(ambient sound of barn)
Alpacas stand about five feet from head-to-toe. Fluffier and smaller
than their llama
cousins, they have long thin necks, big eyes and four bottom teeth.
Pack animals with
their own pecking orders, they communicate by humming.
(sound of alpacas humming)
Bob and Ellen Chamberlain have eight animals at River Bend Alpacas,
their farm in
Croghan, New York. They’ve done a lot of research into alpacas, but
it’s a side business
for them right now. He teaches physics at the local school and she
substitute teaches, in
addition to raising three kids.
Ellen Chamberlain coos at Jambalaya, one of the three original alpacas,
who took a year
to warm up to her.
She scratches Cyrus’ neck as he leans into her shoulder. She kisses
Valentine, whose cria
– or baby alpaca – should be born any day.
“People say they have bad breath, but I don’t think so.”
Skye Rohde, to Bob Chamberlain: “Do you agree?”
Bob Chamberlain, laughing, “Bad breath.”
Ellen Chamberlain: “Oh, Cyrus, you’ve got a bug bite on your eye
Breeders and owners love alpacas’ curiosity and easygoing
personalities. They say it
doesn’t cost much more to care for an alpaca than a dog. An acre of
land can easily
support seven to 10 of them, and alpacas’ hooves are padded, so they
don’t dig up the
ground as much as other livestock.
Marilyn Otteson is a veterinarian who treats alpacas in Auburn, New
“They’re easy to take care of. They don’t require a lot of special
things in the way of
feed, for instance. And right now, this time of year, a lot of them
are out on pasture.
They get supplemented with a small amount of grain. They’re also very
neat animals. As
a group, they usually choose one or two spots in the barn or outside to
use as their dung
pile, they call it. You worm them periodically. You trim their nails
and watch their
teeth, and that’s about it.”
There are around 45,000 alpacas in the U.S. right now. Ohio has more
alpaca farms than
any other state, and there are more than 800 farms in the Great Lakes
Right now, alpaca owners make most of their money selling animals to
other owners and
breeders. A pregnant female sells for around $15,000. A stud male
goes for between $15
Alpacas are shorn every spring. Their fleece – said to be warmer than
wool and as soft as
cashmere – sells for 3 to 5 dollars per ounce. Some owners sell it to
the Alpaca Fiber
Cooperative of North America. Others spin it into yarn themselves to
knit hats and
Skeptics say alpaca farming is still a bit of a risky proposition
because it’s so new. They
worry that fleece prices may fall if production exceeds demand. They
say with three
million alpacas worldwide, the U.S. can’t compete with South American
countries in a
Duncan Hilchey, of Cornell University’s Department of Rural Sociology,
buyers must keep tabs on the market for alternative livestock products
into the business.
“It’s possible to get those prices. But in a very narrow market, you
know, if it’s a niche,
suddenly you get a lot of people producing the product and the value
goes down –
dramatically – and it’s not profitable at all.”
This isn’t the first time exotic livestock have become popular, but in
the past they’ve
fizzled. Hilchey says the ostrich and emu fads failed because owners
didn’t promote the
animals’ meat, feathers and oil enough to shift from a breeders’ market
to a viable
Alpaca owners say the industry is still growing, since alpacas have
only been in the U.S.
since 1984. They like the relaxing lifestyle and collaboration that
come with raising
But Ellen Chamberlain says the learning curve has been sort of steep.
“It was just a real learning experience for me. Because I had had dogs
and cats and that
sort of thing, but never any major kind of livestock before, and
certainly had never filled
a syringe, let alone given a shot to anybody. Maybe my dad once with
his insulin, but
besides that… so that was all really new.”
And the Chamberlains say they’ve had a little “bad luck” – although
they’ve been hoping
for females, five of the six crias born to their alpacas have been
males. They say they
don’t want more than 20 animals – the most their pastures can hold.
Only now are they
ready to sell their alpacas.
Sorting fleeces in her barn, Ellen Chamberlain says even with the risk,
she’s excited about
“I think everybody knows that the future success of this whole thing is
in learning and
growing and that. And the more people you get involved in it with, and
the stronger it’s going to be.”
The next big challenge for the Chamberlains might be shearing the
next spring, something Ellen has a little experience doing. But first
they’ll focus on
taking care of their three new crias.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Skye Rohde.