Last updated on 18/05/2022

Introduction

In New Zealand, the number of people moving onto 'lifestyle' properties has increased markedly over the last 20 years. Some are wanting a radical lifestyle or career change, others want to work remotely whilst living away from the city but in common is that all of these properties are set on large sections, usually at least one hectare and frequently much larger. Uses for the land are equally as varied and range from market gardening to bee-keeping to keeping animals. In this last group there are many choices and apart from the usual cattle, sheep and poultry, some have opted for goats, miniture breeds of cattle and ponies or alpacas. Each of these animals have their own needs with some being more demanding than others.
The purpose of this page is not to discuss or compare the virtues of each animal species but to explain the reasons why you may or may not want to have alpacas on a lifestyle property.

Sunsetestates Bastille - a fine densely fleeced brown stud male at Te Korito Alpacas

Although alpacas have been kept in New Zealand zoos for many years, they were only reclassified as farm animals in 1986. Until some 20 years ago and with limited numbers in the country, alpacas were still a novelty and thus attracted very high prices from breeders. Since then, alpaca numbers have steadily grown although the current New Zealand population is little more than guesswork. Almost certain is that the number of unregistered animals now exceeds those registered in the AANZ database. As a result, prices have dropped markedly and made alpacas a consideration for lifestyle blocks.
So why do people keep them and are they suitable for everyone?

What gives alpacas their appeal?


Existing owners will give a wide range of reasons and often describe their alpacas as:
  • Sensitive and peaceful with an inquisitive nature
  • Compared to cattle and sheep, they are extremely intelligent
  • Safe for their children to be around them
  • Reducing personal stress
  • Having only a low impact on their paddocks and general environment
  • Needing only standard fencing
  • Relatively easy to care for
  • Far more easily trained than other livestock
  • Producing a luxurious fleece
  • Having many different fleece colours, which is appealing
  • They are resistant to many of the usual livestock diseases
  • They can live in a wide range of climatic conditions
  • They are efficient grazers and ideal for keeping small acreages short

There are also different motivations for keeping them. These owners fall into three main groups:

  1. Owners of small herds

    This category of owners often has a group of males or wethers but occasionally non-breeding females and they keep them as pets for pleasure. Given that only about 5% of all males bred are judged suitable to be future studs, there is a seasonal wave of males available for sale, usually halter trained and relatively inexpensive to buy. Most people want these alpacas as attractive backyard nibblers and the characteristics given above make them very suitable. If the owners are interested in the fibre for crafts the alpacas will also provide fleeces for hand spinning. Better quality animals are becoming available from AANZ registered breeders and these should provide finer superior fibre. Some owners are not interested in the fleece so it may be sent to a fibre broker, privately sold, taken away by the shearer or even used in the garden.

  2. Commercial breeding

    Some larger scale owners wish to breed, show, sell and export animals on a commercial basis. Alpacas produce one of the most luxurious fibres available and commercial operations in New Zealand are now breeding animals with exceptional fleeces - crimped, lustrous and soft handling. As a result, alpaca farms with up to 1000 animals are now operating with some of these breeders being involved in animal exports to the U.K., mainland Europe and eastern Asia being the keenest buyers. These markets are subject to changing import and health regulations and have recently been hindered by transport disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It remains to be seen how long it takes until this business returns to normal.

  3. Agritourism

    Agritourism involves the provision of additional activities at a farm with alpacas for the enjoyment of visitors. These are designed to create extra income for the farm and may develop into a year-round main business. Such activities may include farm tours, alpaca encounters, overnight farm stays, holiday units, farm shops selling alpaca and other products, on-farm activities, etc, and farm visitors may use their stay as a base for other activities, adding to the local economy. These business activities may be combined with either of the other two groups.

Te Korito Quinn - a finely fleeced male at Te Korito Alpacas

Further Aspects

Income

The New Zealand Inland Revenue Department considers alpaca farming as an economically viable activity on small lifestyle blocks and therefore it qualifies as a farming business. Alpacas are a niche market animal that enable owners with small acreages to earn income. Discussions with your accountant are advised if you wish to operate on this type of basis. Obviously, there are economies of scale with increasing farm/herd size and owners are subject to animal and fleece value swings in the market. For taxation purposes, any business losses incurred may be offset against other income.

Showing

Showing alpacas in halter classes remains popular in New Zealand despite the obstacles and show cancellations due to COVID-19 restrictions. Many of the major breeders attend these shows when they are possible. Given the current COVID-19 restrictions and the showground requirements for whole-herd TB certificates, showing the fleeces only has grown in popularity. The freshly sheared blanket is carefully skirted and sent to the show for judging. The judges score the fleece for the required attributes thus providing valuable information (or verification) of a breeding program. Fleece-only entries at shows allow the alpacas to remain on the farm but if the owners still wish to travel, it allows them the social and networking elements.

Fibre

With the gradual move away from the plastic fibres used for clothing there will be a growing demand for natural ones and alpaca fibre is part of this change-over, if constrained by price and available supply. As a fibre it has a softness, tensile strength and an impressive variety of colours. There are 22 internationally recognised alpaca fibre colours although sixteen are recognised by the New Zealand Alpaca Association. Like all protein-based fibres, fleece may be dyed to any colour though buyers of alpaca products frequently want natural colours. Alpaca garments are lightweight and very warm.
Unless you are having alpacas simply as pets, the main focus should always be on the fibre end product. A few pet boys or girls can provide fibre for craft activities such as hand spinning, felting, natural dyeing and weaving. Larger volumes of fibre can be processed by the breeder or sold on to other processors.

Matings

For owners of small alpaca herds on smaller sections, owning a stud male is not likely to be a good option. To avoid disruption, such males need separate paddocks preferably away from the females, which necessitates having two males. Should an owner wish to breed, a good start would be to discuss options with a local AANZ member as they are frequently stud male owners. They will be able to provide good advice and suggest suitable males that would fit with your breeding aims and budget. The cost of a mating varies considerably but the stud owner should guarantee a pregnancy.

Reasons for Caution

Longevity

Many potential owners of animals will consider the life span of the animal when deciding to purchase. In the case of alpacas, a lifespan of around 20 years is quite realistic. Obviously, the older the animals bought, the more health issues are likely to be encountered over time and unless the previous owners have kept good health records and can provide them, the animals may already come with health liabilities. Purchasing animals from AANZ member farms reduces this risk two-fold:

  • as members must conform to the MPI code of Welfare for llamas and alpacas and will have the experience to ensure the health of their alpacas. This document sets a minimum standard for the health and welfare of alpacas which many AANZ members exceed.
  • Registered alpacas will have a brass eartag, conventionally in the left ear for males and right ear for females. Each tag carries the registration number of the animal which can be looked up in the Pedigree register to verify the animal's age.

Facial eczema (FE)

Facial Eczema is a very serious disease that affects alpacas even worse than sheep, especially on the North Island. You are strongly encouraged to read about this; the biology and prevention is covered in detail in this Facial Eczema page and a less detailed version is provided in this AANZ Newsletter. Alpacas are at high risk from the disease and unless the methods described in these articles are used each year, the animals will accumulate damage to their livers until there is complete failure. Protecting the alpacas is an essential daily task during the post-Christmas FE season but is not difficult. Reputable owners and breeders will take these measures but unfortunately there are less reputable breeders who may cut corners.

Need for two alpacas at minimum, ideally three.

Most are aware that as herbivores and prey animals, alpacas instinctively need to be part of a herd. When there are multiple animals, a heiarchy is established, the correct behaviours can be seen and the herd functions normally. Alpacas should never be alone for any extended period as a single animal needs to always be on its guard and can never relax. This leads to pathological stress and sometimes death. A minimum herd size of three is strongly recommended which of course means that the land area needed to keep the herd is slightly larger. Ideally, three alpacas can be kept on one acre.

Other stock

It doesn't take much imagination to realise that larger stock animals such as cattle, donkeys and horses could be a danger to alpacas. One kick might easily be lethal. However, even smaller stock such as sheep and goats are a risk as they ram opponents with their heads, particularly true of the males. Non-equine livestock also carry the same varieties of parasitic gut worms as alpacas and since they poo all over paddocks, it ensures that the alpacas will be constantly reinfected with these worms. Pigs are totally unsuitable as paddock companions and are particularly dangerous to crias. There are also a number of zoonotic diseases affecting the usual livestock that can jump to alpacas.
Essentially, alpacas should be in their own paddocks to remain healthy and safe. Cross-grazing with horses is valuable as they seem to relish the lush grass that grows around the middens. This in turn keeps worm numbers down and horses are unaffected by the same worm species as alpacas.
There are owners who keep their alpacas in with other species and their assurances are frequently seen on social media. To balance this, it should be added that owners are not likely to advertise on social media when there has been a serious or fatal event. The need for separate paddocks can be significant for a lifestyle block and may be an issue if different species are wanted.

Fleece value

Whilst once a valuable product for the alpaca owner, fleece values have dropped markedly in recent years. In part this is due to increased supply (although not necessarily increased quality) but mainly due to the failure of government, industry and Association bodies to research and develop 'value-added' markets for New Zealand produced fibre. Whilst most of the major breeders have specific markets for their large quantities of fleece such as for knitting wool, in duvet manufacture, etc, the situation is dire for owners of small numbers of animals. Much of their fleece output is currently dumped, composted, stored in the back of a shed or sold to fleece brokers whose main use for it is in tourist-focussed products. COVID-19 has severely disrupted this latter market so there is now a glut of fibre and very poor returns. In time, international tourism should return to pre-COVID 19 levels, as should fleece values.
It should be noted that even the best returns for fleece do not cover the cost of shearing and alternative value-added markets are desperately needed to support the industry as a whole.

Animal values

In the early years of the alpaca industry, animals frequently had sales values in excess of $10,000. The higher quality tiers aside, the values of animals has dropped steadily over the last 20 years due to an ever expanding alpaca population. A significant part of the more recent breeding has not been by AANZ members and the numbers of alpacas (of unknown quality) being sold through particular sales channels has depressed prices considerably.
Should you choose to buy from a reputable source, this means that ever better quality, AANZ registered animals are available at lower prices, especially with larger breeders leaving the industry. Potential owners who have an aim of breeding alpacas should not expect to see improving animal prices over the coming years.

In Conclusion

It is fair to write that with the fall in animal values and the very low returns from fibre, alpacas are not going to make any money for the smaller herd owner. However, given their nature they are an absolute pleasure to have on the farm or lifestyle block. They do have particular needs which must be provided for, just like any other livestock species and background research to understand these needs and quirks should be done before committing to buy. Moreover, owners must accept that getting their hands dirty is part of alpaca ownership. This website has an Alpacapedia of information starting with the basics to assist all potential and existing owners.

If you have ambitions to breed, buying alpacas from an AANZ member is highly recommended. There are many considerations to be weighed up before taking the plunge there but these are outside the scope of this article and best discussed with several alpaca breeders.
Potential owners simply wanting 'back yard nibblers' for their block should consider alpacas that are unwanted, have been abandoned or 'given away with the block' when a property owner sells up. Unfortunately, these alpacas are available all too frequently but from personal experience, I know they can be wonderful animals. If you would like to adopt some of these, contact me on or any other AANZ member for advice and possible contacts or enquire on NZ Alpaca Facebook pages.


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