They're child friendly, environmentally friendly and have a downright pleasant disposition. That's why local alpaca farmers say raising the South-American natives that have been domesticated for centuries is a great business for newcomers to the life of farming.
What are alpacas?
No, they're not llamas, but they are related. Alpacas, llamas and camels are classified as camelids, but alpacas were not bred as pack animals to carry things.
Sue and Ike Caston at Patchwork Meadows with their Alpacas
Instead, alpacas were domesticated thousands of years ago in South America - they're native to the Andes mountains - where they are used for their hypoallergenic fleece coat which is sheared annually.
The fiber from the coat can be turned into yarn, rovings (a twisted strand) or felt.
They're shorn without harm and produce five to 10 pounds of fiber that comes in 22 natural colors. The fiber can be blended and dyed as well.
Sue and Ike Caston hold an alpaca in the barn at their farm. (The Leader-Herald/ Amanda May Metzger)
Their coats are incredibly soft and at this time of year several inches deep.
There are two kinds of alpacas: huacaya, pronounced wah-KI-ya, and suri. The two have different kinds of fiber with huacayas having a waviness or crimp. While huacaya have a fluffy appearance, suri alpacas have a silky appearance as their fiber forms pencil locks and hangs down. Most alpacas stand about 36 inches tall and weigh between 100 and 200 pounds.
Their babies are called crias, and the mothers carry them for 340 to 370 days.
In North America, sheep's wool and cashmere from the cashmere goat are well known for warmth. In South America, alpaca fleece is dominant. It can be as soft as cashmere and contains no lanolin or other byproducts, so it is hyopallergenic. People who can't wear wool can usually wear alpaca, which only began catching on in the United States in the 1980s.
In New York state the Empire Alpaca Association was formed in 2002 when 16 farms expressed an interest in being an affiliate of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.
The group hosts the Empire Alpaca Extravaganza, an event where alpaca farmers can network, show their animals and learn from other farmers.
Local farmers Sue and Ike Caston, who own the Patchwork Meadow Alpacas farm in Canajoharie, and Patrick and Jennifer Clear, who own the Alpacas at Clear View Farm in Fonda, both operate breeding farms.
The Castons are retired, and their farm is three-generational as Sue's mother and the couple's twin daughters help run the farm.
They've been at it eight years and started with four huacaya alpacas. Now they have 62.
There are many options for people who can't start fulltime farming. Some farms offer financing for the animals and will house them until the owner is ready to open their own farm.
Six to 10 alpacas can be raised on as little as one acre of pasture, according to the website www.alpacafarmsnewyork.com.
Alpacas graze pasture, eat hay and have about 1/2 cup of grain per day as well. Fresh water is also a must.
"We feel strongly about breeding up every generation," Sue Caston said as she introduced the crias at her farm Wednesday. Each has a name and a personality, all friendly and curious as they scurry up to visitors.
The Castons and Clears also take their alpacas to shows. Judges look for a nice crimp and check their teeth and other features. The shorn coats can also enter competitions. Both said it's a great place to network with other farms and buy and sell animals.
"It's a friendly business," said Ike Caston, who added the people in it seem as friendly as the animals.
Both the Clears and Castons said the alpacas seem to have a soothing stress-relieving effect on humans from their careful movements to the humming sound they make.
They're also perfect for children to help raise as they don't have much of a kick. Their feet resemble dog's feet as they're padded, so they don't damage terrain. Their teeth are different from many other grazing animals. They have bottom teeth and then the top plate is like a hard gum, so they don't tear up grass from the roots.
As well as being friendly, they're low-maintenance, too. They don't have much of an odor, they don't need to be shampooed and they tend to defecate in a designated area without any training, controlling the spread of parasites.
"This is a unique business for someone who wants to deal with livestock but hasn't been a farmer before," Ike Caston said. "It really gives everyone a sense of purpose and satisfaction from the animals."
The Clears both continue to work full time. They're about five years into their venture. Patrick Clear said they spent about $32,000 to start their business. That includes the cost of the animals, Amish-made barn, fencing, and heated water buckets.
They now have 16 alpacas. They started out with two pregnant females, which included a breedback program meaning the cost of their next round of crias was included, and a yearling male to be the herd's dominant breeding male. While there is a dominant breeding male, alpaca herds are matriarchal.
"This was experimental for us," said Patrick Clear, but the couple's family loved the business.
Now they're planning to grow their herd to about 30 to 35.
They bought their 25-acre property on Old Trail Road in Fonda hoping to get into farming. They rented fields to a dairy farmer, and when he retired, they got all sorts of advice.
Patrick Clear said some people urged them to start a dairy farm while others said growing corn or soy beans would be best.
Then they toured a few farms and at Staghorn Valley Alpacas in Delanson, they said, "this is something we might be able to do," Patrick Clear said.
From there they spent about 1 1/2 years researching alpaca farming. They visited 10 other farms and took an online course before starting.
The cost of getting started depends on intent. Alpacas come in different price ranges. Someone who wants to raise them as pets, but not necessarily for the fiber or breeding, can buy them typically from the $200 to $500 range.
"Some people just want to have them as pets. They're so docile and pleasant," Sue Caston said.
People who want to raise them for fiber can buy them from $2,000 to $5,000. The grade of fiber ranges from 1 (the best) to 6, so these animals would have fiber from grades 1 to 4.
"This would be for you if you're not interested in breeding and just want the quality fiber," Patrick Clear said. "The better the fiber, the more it's going to [cost]. The older the animal, the less it will be. They typically live 20 years, so the fiber gets coarser as they get older."
Farmers who want to have breeding programs may look at spending $10,000 to $20,000 for a dominant sire with good genes, but "the sky is the limit on that," Patrick Clear said. Alpaca males with excellent genes have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the farmers said.
Breeding females may cost $5,000 to $20,000. Price depends on genetics, color and age since they start breeding at 2 years and stop at 15 years.
"The goal is to breed for fineness and lasting fineness," said Sue Caston. Fineness is measured in microns, which measures the width of a single alpaca fiber strand. In many cases, alpaca fiber can have a finer micron measurement than cashmere.
When it's time to purchase an alpaca, the farmers consider many factors. First they visit the farm where the animal lives. They do a fiber check looking at the length, density, softness and thickness, Patrick Clear said. Then they look at the color to see if it matches their breeding program, the price and most importantly the genetics.
Alpacas have a certificate that provides their genetic history. Farmers have to be careful as well to make sure there's not genetic overlap or inbreeding.
"Once we figure out the genetics and color, and whether it fits into our breeding program, then we decide on the animals," Patrick Clear said.
There are several revenue streams from raising alpacas. Many farms - including Patchwork Meadow and Clear View - have gift shops featuring yarn from the local alpacas, some handmade local products and some from Peru or other places where the fiber is dominant.
The raw fiber can be sold to local spinners who buy it by the pound. The knitting yarn also is popular. The animals themselves can be sold. Farms also pay to breed with an alpaca at another farm. Patrick Clear said another revenue stream is the manure from the animal, which is low in nitrogen and a great fertilizer.
Some farms charge for visits and tours, but both the Castons and Clears provide tours for free saying visitors are the best part of the business.
Many farms belong to fiber cooperatives, which means they are given a credit for the fiber they provide to the co-op, and then they can purchase things like sweaters, blankets, stuffed animals and the popular scarves and socks from the co-op to sell.
Shearing day typically happens in the spring. It's a long day as the alpacas are held down while their coat is sheared in one piece, the Castons said. They hire a shearer to come in to do the job. The professional can do it in about eight minutes per animal. Patrick Clear said he has sheared an alpaca laying the animal down on wrestling mats while it took him about 30 to 40 minutes to complete the process.
Now the Clears hire a professional as the herd grows.
From there the fiber heads to a mill. In the U.S., the mills are mini mills meaning they process about 50 to 100 pounds of fiber a day. As the industry grows, larger mills may open that can process 1,000 to 2,000 pounds per day.
Alpaca fiber must be processed on different equipment than sheep's fiber because the oils from the sheep's fiber would gum up the alpaca fiber and damage it.
Clear said half of his family's herd is white because as the industry grows and larger mills start up, white fine fiber may be more in demand as it provides a blank palette for many color options.
"As you get mills that size [1,000 to 2,000 pounds a day] they want white fiber as the industry grows and the market expands. There's going to be a big demand for very soft white fiber," Patrick Clear said.
The Castons said there is a world market for alpaca fiber, and its popularity is growing as it shows up in nationally-known brandname clothing.
J.Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap are just some of the retailers beginning to offer alpaca-blended products for men and women.
"This is a wonderful business," said Ike Caston, who is enjoying his working retirement spending time with family and the animals. "Everybody gets along with everybody and helps everyone."