2011-11-17 / Community
Alpacas provide furry alternative for Conejo Valley ranchers
But making a profit takes time and patience
For Deborah Low of Calabasas, the animals are not only “Disney cute,” but intelligent, gentle, smar, and easy to care for.
But as cuddly and Muppet-like as they seem with their fuzzy heads of hair, impish faces and silky fleece, alpacas are generally used as money-making livestock rather than pets.
Low, a Las Virgenes Municipal Water District employee, expects to retire from her day job one day with an alpaca herd in tow. Alpacas can produce an income stream through breeding fees and fiber sales and from the creation of blankets, scarves, toys and the like from alpaca fleece. Alpaca yarn, Low says, is “light, extremely warm and luxurious.”
“There isn’t the itch factor often associated with wool,” she said.
Making a profit from raising alpacas takes time and patience—and some start-up money.
“The general idea, of course, is to make a profit,” Low said. “That may take a few years . . . as it takes time to create a herd and start a breeding program that will give you alpacas to sell.”
Alpacas can cost anywhere from $500 and $50,000 each, depending on the breed and specific genetic factors. Most individual animals cost around $3,000.
And, if you don’t have enough property to keep at least two alpacas, you must pay $97 to $127 per month per animal to board them. The rate includes feed, but not vet bills, sheering services, show transportation or medication, according to Low.
She boards her herd of 13 alpacas at Alpacas at Windy Hill, a 24- acre farm in Somis. She estimates she spends about $1,700 a month on the animals but said many of her expenses are tax-deductible because she runs a business.
“When breeders are looking for new genetics and certain qualities, having a herdsire (stud) can make money,” Low said. “Since fewer people are buying alpacas . . . more breeders are selling fiber, either to large co-ops or individuals, and making things such as yarn, blankets, etc.”
Low said alpaca fiber has even been used for oil cleanup.
“When the Gulf of Mexico was full of oil, a lot of the lower-grade fleeces were sent to help mop up the mess,” Low said. “There’s a use for everything from the fleece, no matter what grade.”
Blankets are made from prime fleece sheered from the “saddle” area of the alpaca’s back. Secondary fleece comes from legs, belly and neck. “And if the animal has a coarser coat there can be thirds, such as around the tail and feet.
“Clever owners save everything,” Low said. “It’s the fiber I’m aiming to develop, and so I have bags and bags of sheared fleeces waiting for processing and projects.”
Tracy DiPippo, a Thousand Oaks resident, said she used to own horses and was looking for something to fill the void after they died.
A visit to a Somis ranch convinced her that alpacas would be her next great love. DiPippo now owns five alpacas and has started to sell products she makes from their fleece.
Low, DiPippo and most serious alpaca owners generally launch their own businesses, even though they board the animals at Windy Hill, the largest alpaca farm in California. Low has named her business Near Sawrey Farm Alpacas, and DiPippo runs her herd under Angel Dream Alpacas.
Nancy Helwig, who owns 50 alpacas, keeps them on her sprawling Thousand Oaks property that once housed horses.
“Alpacas are my livestock of choice because of the luxurious fleece they produce, their unique personalities (and) intelligence,” Helwig said.
“And, besides, I’m allergic to wool,” she added. “Alpacas are livestock, not pets. I always advise people (who) are interested in owning alpacas to take their time, do the homework, visit lots of ranches, ask lots of questions, and know what they want and what they are looking for.”
Aplacas and products made from their fleece will be showcased at a Holiday Festival at Windy Hill Farm in Somis on Sat., Nov. 19 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The farm is at 7660 Bradley Road.