Ron and Ruthann Dies with two young stud alpacas, Kico, a ?classic silver gray,? and Magic, a deep brown nearly black.
Ron and Ruthann Dies have learned that high-demand, fiber-producing alpacas are very intelligent animals with strong, individual personalities since founding Prairie Wind Alpacas farm at Lehigh in 2005.
You can tell they have that point correct if you get the camera out to take a picture of them with two young alpacas, and the other alpacas line the fence to look at the stranger and tilt their heads at the camera.
Even the alpacas having their picture taken?Kico, a classic silver gray color, and Magic, dark, almost black?watch intently, obviously interested in the camera and the stranger.
But then you find out that you are only part of the excitement.
Ron Dies said the alpacas also are lined up because they want to know where the haltered young studs, Kico and Magic, are going afterward.
?It?s breeding season,? he said.
Alpacas are smarter than you figure, although ?breeding season? is a misnomer.
Dies said part of alpaca management is getting males and females together only in the spring or the fall because the gestation time is about 11 months. You want the babies born in the milder seasons of the year, he said.
Alpacas, unlike most animals, don?t have regular cycling breeding seasons. Dies said the females respond quickly to the presence of the male and become ready for breeding.
That?s only the beginning of what you have to know about Alpaca production to become successful. But once you learn, alpacas are profitable, he said.
You also learn quickly that you have to have a pocket full of cash to get into alpaca production?or a banker who loves your idea.
Dies said good females can cost from $18,000 to $100,000 per head, depending on bloodline.
The prices for top-end males have gone from about $75,000 several years ago to a range of from $150,000 to $300,000 today, he said.
Ron and Ruthann own 16 alpacas, and it?s an investment they want to take care of.
They have learned it is important to invest in higher-quality animals rather than seeking low prices.
One of their studs is the grandson of the alpaca judged with the best fleece in Canada.
Ron Dies noted the highest alpaca-producing nations in the world, such as Brazil and Peru, would happily buy all the fiber produced in North America if they could because they can?t meet world demand.
The Peruvians recently exported an 18,000-pound bale of alpaca fleece to Japan that was worth over $1 million, Dies said.
Finding a mentor
Ruthann said that when you get into raising alpacas, it is essential that you have a human mentor, someone with years of alpaca experience who will be there to offer advice when needed.
The mentor can be there for advice on harvesting fiber (alpaca hair), nutrition, health care and behavior, she said. The most experienced person in Kansas is Jodie Stickney, who owns Smokey Valley Alpacas at Lindsborg.
She recently called Stickney for advice on a female with a young cria?an alpaca baby?that was spitting green odoriferous saliva all over her whenever she approached, a typical alpaca defense measure.
?It solidifies almost right away, and it?s hard to wash off,? Ruthann said. ?It?s really unpleasant. Usually they don?t do that to their humans. They do it to other animals or to other alpacas to keep them away from their food.?
Stickney told the Dieses that somebody in the alpaca female?s past probably had taken crias away from her at too early an age. She told Ruthann to slap the female across the muzzle, then step into her space with her hands up telling her back.
When Ruthann followed the recommendation with no threat to the cria, she said the female immediately learned. The animal doesn?t spit at her anymore.
Other alpaca defensive methods are stomping with the front feet and, more occasionally kicking. The kicking doesn?t impact like it does with some farm livestock, Ruthann said, because the alpacas have toenails instead of heavy hooves.
Ruthann said one alpaca is always on watch for the herd. They only make two sounds?soft moaning or a shrill ?siren-like? call to sound an alarm. If the alpaca on watch sounds the siren call, all of the alpacas come pouring out of the barn, all watching in the direction of the threat, to form a defensive position.
Ron Dies said one of the family Schnauzer terriers got into the alpaca pen, and was nearly stomped to death before it could be rescued.
A Great Pyrennes dog was kept for a short trial as a guard dog, but it and the alpacas ended up behaving aggressively toward each other, he said.
The female alpacas almost never fight with each other, but male alpacas may in competing for breeding. Ron said the males have sharp ?razor teeth? that must be clipped to keep them from injuring each other.
That said, the Dieses say watching alpacas is one of their greatest joys. They especially like to watch the alpaca pronking?bounding like deer in play and joy of life?especially at dusk.
Ron said, ?They are one of the most loving animals I know of. They know right away if you?re mad or upset. They respond to your moods.?
Ruthann joined a mother alpaca without adequate milk in raising one cria last year named Kissy. Another female alpaca seemed to sense the problem, and joined in by nursing Kissy with her own youngster?which is a highly unusual bonding, Ruthann said.
So, Kissy grew up bottle-fed and nursed by two mothers, becoming affectionate to all three ?parents,? and growing to larger size than her peers.
Ruthann said it is critical to check that crias are nursing adequate colostrum after birth, and adequate milk levels later.
Ron and Ruthann said they gave up ?a very nice house? to buy the house they live in with 21⁄2 acres to provide room for alpaca barns, pens and grazing.
Although an alpaca has a high purchase cost, it is, compared to other livestock, low maintenance when it comes to feed and care.
Ron said the general estimated cost to feed an alpaca for a year is $75, and they can be grazed on tiny plots like his field-fenced lots.
They are grass-eaters, not broadleaf eaters, and they liked the good brome he planted, Ron said. He was concerned when ?native bermuda? began taking over in the lots, ?but they loved it, and grazed it right down.?
He said 275 bales of brome hay will feed the herd for the winter with likely some left over. Each animal also gets a cup of alpaca pellets each morning and each evening in the confinement of the barn. They can also be fed supplements of alfalfa pellets, beet pulp or calf-manna.
The routine is part of the training to teach them to easily be haltered.
?They don?t like being caught and held for shots and things, but not many animals do,? he said.
Instead, the Dies animals can be led into a chute for easy handling. The ?good-natured? animals must be wormed annually, injected again with wormer in a critical time 30 to 60 days before giving birth.
Ron planned and built the alpaca buildings, pens and even part of the fiber-cleaning machinery.
Every May, a professional from New Zealand comes to shear the hair, called fiber, from the animals at a cost of $27 to $35 a head, a price well-justified to get it done right, Ron said.
Prone to be dirty
Since alpacas like to roll in straw, snow or mud, the fiber has to be cleaned. The crias produce the softest, most valuable fiber, but also are prone to be the most dirty, somewhat like playful human children, he said.
Ron looked at cleaning machines costing in the thousands, then bought $25 in materials to build his own?a cylindrical round cage to contain the fiber with paddles on the outside that drive air into it all driven by an electric motor.
From there, the fiber goes to another machine using two hand-cranked toothed cylinders to press, and draw the fiber, carding it, into ?batts? loosely bound together.
The alpaca fiber can also be marketed to a professional carder, who uses bigger machines for bigger quantities. Either process produces fiber ready to be spun for materials, Ron said.
He said big, industrial producers or millers of carded fiber don?t exist in the United States, but only in nations like Peru, the world?s leading producer. There, alpacas were native animals biologically closely related to both the llama and the camel.
The only commercial mill in Kansas, he said, is in Phillips?burg, and is of a ?cottage industry size.?
The world demand for alpaca fiber is there, Ron said, and Kansans need to get in on it. He and Ruthann have joined in donating fleece to eastern manufacturers to introduce products such as $200 to $300 blankets that are light weight, hypoallegenic (unlike wool), very warm and water resistant to a point.
Small loom businesses craft many products from alpaca, including sweaters.
Ruthann used ivory soap and water to compress fiber into felt to make a hat. She owns a teddy bear from Peru of alpaca wool sewn on alpaca skin.
She said Peruvians harvest the skin from animals after they die for such things, and are the only people in the world with sufficient herd sizes and industry to do so.
Ron said a properly fed alpaca can live to be 25 years old.
Ron and Ruthann market their yarn, checking the Internet for prices that can vary according to quality. An animal?s production of five pounds of ?blanket fleece? from over the top and the sides can end up bringing them $13 an ounce while the ?seconds? fleece from neck and legs may bring $9 an ounce.
Demand and prices vary with demand and color. There are 27 variations of color, from deep mahogany to white, Ruthann said. The white usually is used for any dyeing while the other colors are used in natural shades.
Considering the future
Ron and Ruthann are in their 60s and have been thinking how much alpaca expansion they might want to do for retirement income. Ron said they considered expanding to cottage-industry size production themselves but are thinking it wouldn?t be wise at their age.
For the time being, he is keeping his job as a quality assurance technician for Agco, but full-time alpaca farming is in the future, he said.