|Alpacas – Little Animals With Big Potential
by Michelle McNeal
As more and more small acreage owners seek to find ways to make use of their land, Illinois continues to grow in its diversity of crops and livestock. Just one example of this is the Alpaca. A cousin to the Llama, an Alpaca is raised for its fiber; and if you haven’t seen one in person, you probably will soon. The Alpaca is growing in popularity all over the United States since they were first imported in 1984. Illinois is no exception.
“When we began looking into this five or six years ago, there were about 19 farms in Illinois. Now, there are more than 100,” says Bart Leinberger. Bart and his wife, Rhonda, began Alpacas of Indian Point Hills in Petersburg about three years ago. The couple saw the animal in Northern Illinois, where they are more popular, and found them to be the perfect solution for utilizing the land on their farm once used to raise cattle.
“It’s not a get rich quick scheme,” says Rhonda. “You start out slow. We have a store now and are breeding to get the herd size we want. We looked at this for our retirement later on.” The Leinbergers began with three animals and now have 11, with five babies expected this summer.
Rhonda says the economy doesn’t seem to have slowed the industry. “Even in this down economy, prices have held pretty steady and Alpacas have held their value. The average price we see is about $16,000.”
That’s a pretty hefty investment, but considering the life expectancy is about 20 years, and females can produce young a good portion of that time, plus you get a great deal of fiber each year for minimal upkeep, it could be a good business venture for the right situation.
Rhonda says there are tax advantages to running the farm as a business and says that Alpacas are now considered livestock instead of exotic animals so they are covered under the farm bill.
“You can write off a large amount of the expense of getting started, as well as depreciating some out,” adds Bart.
But where is the market for Alpacas? Their allure comes from their unique coats. The fiber is naturally hypoallergenic, contains a natural water repellency, has a silk-like luster and clothing made with it has some natural stretch and is wrinkle resistant. Many compare it to wool but it weighs less, isn’t itchy and scratchy, contains no lanolin (which is what many people are allergic to in wool) and is much softer. In fact, Alpaca fiber is compared to cashmere for its softness. Because the fiber comes in 22 natural colors, it’s great for organic products, though it can be dyed any color as well.
Rhonda says the fiber can be made into a large variety of items such as teddy bears, socks, rugs, gloves, scarves, sweaters, jewelry and even swimwear and underwear!
The Leinbergers have a store in their home where they sell some pieces handmade and commercially made, along with different skeins of yarn.
“There is an appeal for the yarn locally. There is the draw that people can come out and see the animal and buy the yarn and then create something and know where it came from,” Rhonda adds.
“We have barely scratched the surface with our fiber,” says Bart. “Right now we send most of it to Kansas City to be spun.”
Since the industry is young, Bart says there is lots of room for growth.
“We still import fiber from South America because we can’t produce enough to keep the mills going,” he says.
The Leinbergers’ Alpacas are shorn each May and produce from five to 10 pounds of fiber each. The heat of Central Illinois is too much for Alpacas if they aren’t sheered. Native to South America, they are used to cooler temperatures and Bart says they don’t seem bothered by Illinois winters at all.
Besides the sheering, the animals are relatively easy to care for. They need their nails trimmed every eight weeks and a worming shot every month for a parasite carried by local white tail deer. Their coats should not be groomed and they prefer to be outside so very little shelter or daily maintenance is required. Also, since they are so gentle on the land you can raise six or eight on just one acre. And at about 160 pounds, they are relatively easy to manage. The big thing is they need protection from predators since they don’t have a lot of defense themselves.
“Coyotes and wild dogs are the main predators here,” says Bart. “We got two Great Pyrenees dogs to protect them, as well as putting up the high fencing.”
What advice do the Leinbergers share with those who ask?
“Do your research first. And buy the best breeder you can afford if you’re going to breed,” says Rhonda.
Bart also suggests attending a livestock show and visiting with Alpaca breeders. “People want to share information to grow the industry because we have to be able to supply more fiber,” he says.
Find out more by visiting the Leinbergers’ Web site at www.alpacasofindianpointhills.com or calling them at 217-632-2590. You can also visit the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association at www.alpacainfo.com and the Illinois chapter at www.iaoba.com.