Snowmass Alpacas

Genetics by Design

Charting your Course


–Into the future of the Alpaca Industry–

A perspective of Snowmass Alpacas LLC
"THE MAKING OF CHAMPIONS"
      Genetics by Design

By Julie & Don Skinner,


As modern alpaca breeders in 2013 we find ourselves sitting at a fork in the road of viability. We cant help but asking, "Where do we go from here?"

The alpaca industry, like many industries, is experiencing a large wave of uncertainty in the currently unstable economy. At the same time we are noticing opportunities on the horizon that are leading us into new industries. Despite our fears and frustrations we know that with the right planning we can chart our direction into sustainable markets.

Often when something extraordinary is in its formative stages it does not seem to be so extraordinary. The disappointments and setbacks that occur after years of hard work are enough to make many lose hope in the goal. In most cases those that give up, miss out at the onset of great fruition. This sentiment it is admittedly cliché, but it is a sincere cliché, that nothing worth having comes easily.

We all have to continually remind ourselves that the Alpaca Industry is actually very young in the world. Dare we use another cliché? Ok why not…Rome was not built in a day, or a month, or a year, or even 30 years.

The first Peruvian imports came into the United States in the early 90’s, and were the seeds for the best breeding programs today. In a period of two decades we have been able to create the highest quality alpacas in the world. Someday these world class alpacas will represent the average in the large herds supplying fiber to the finest fashion houses. It can be fiber fit Gods, if we make it.

 Today it is not hard to notice the incredible movement of interest in alpacas across the globe. There are now serious alpaca breeding efforts happening in many major countries. To name a few: Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, United Kingdom, South Africa, Japan and China.

The less than desirable markets prices in the current industry are a direct reflection of the quality of alpacas we are producing across the world. Right now, the global average of fiber diameter in herds is around 24-28 microns. This average is comparable to mohair and stronger dual purpose sheep breeds. This is precisely why the general textile market does not yet class alpaca fiber with the likes of cashmere and vicuna.

We have some work to do.

 

Vicuna fiber is not well known, but those who are looking for it are willing to acquire it at astronomical prices. We alpaca breeders know that the alpaca is the domesticated vicuna, and we know that at one time, before the Spanish conquest, Alpaca fiber rivaled that of its wild ancestor.

The goal of all world alpaca breeding programs is to bring the quality of alpaca fiber back steadily back to its former glory and beyond. It is a realistic vision that Alpaca will one day be comparable to the finest Merino wool… except with the softness of Cashmere, the fineness of vicuna, and the brightness of Silk.

 This is a whole new Alpaca, and is what drives us forward as invested breeders.

 In the meantime it’s not as gloomy as some may think. The alpaca industry is still thriving on the average fiber quality currently produced as it reaches the market in the form of saleable alpaca products. 24-28 micron Alpaca is being used in a blend with other fibers to produce socks, upholstery, formal outerwear, casual garments, and even rugs.

The fact that alpaca is used as an ingredient in blends to make products more valuable and desirable is the key that has created a world market demand for alpaca. The price of this stronger micron fiber has risen dramatically because of this worldwide demand.

The only downside to this phenomenon is that the finer alpaca is not being recognized as a luxury fiber that can stand salable on its own. Why can’t it stand alone? There is simply not enough volume of fine alpaca fiber being produced for the commercial mills and fashion designers to confidently move forward.

There are only a few designers retailers who are able to produce luxury 100% Royal and Baby Alpaca products, namely Kuna. They are pioneers in the luxury alpaca fiber market, and the demand for their product is real. Now the market has seen what can be produced from small bales of 16-18 micron alpaca fiber, they want MORE!

This is the standard goal for most alpaca breeders in most countries: breeding finer, brighter, and more uniform alpacas to satisfy the fine fashion market demand.

An important factor to keep in mind is that there is a scarcity of the alpacas which fit the model of excellence in luxury fiber production. While we have limited knowledge about the heritable genetic codes for fineness and color, we have programs in play working to enlighten this us in this field directly. The Camelid Identification System is one program that is well on its way.

We must also remember that the world alpaca genetic population is small, especially those alpacas with recorded DNA profiles. Recorded DNA profiles are of paramount importance in the development of luxury quality herds. There are 22 different colors of alpaca we need to breed to for increased fineness and uniformity.

 

 

If we compare the numbers of sheep with those of alpacas the big picture of our production problems becomes clear. We are millions of alpacas away from competing with sheep to fill the niche of the natural fiber markets. The static production numbers in the alpaca industry are the result of breeders who got into breeding with a model of fun and quick investment returns. Many of these breeders are now leaving the industry as they find their program model not reflecting the sustainable sales they had expected, and they are not interested in adapting their programs to meet the growing interest of advanced fiber breeding for commercial production.

This is OK!

Much of the original alpaca breeding philosophy did not take into account the need for an understanding of fiber quality. Breeding was geared more towards winning the fancy and fun rewards from alpaca shows, and towards good marketing programs. We had a basic set of 22 colored alpacas to choose from, and the fiber values were for the most part only generically understood. It was a fun affair for many years and without question built the base of what is now a valuable market industry. We have had top notch marketing brilliance come into alpaca industry thanks to the efforts of all those who have built and contributed to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.

The breeding model in the U.S has been a tremendously successful one which has inspired many other countries to try to replicate. The value of the alpaca was at it’s the peak surrounding the market excitement for these exotic, hardy, fun-loving, truly wonderful backyard investments. Everyone was profiting and everyone was having fun.

As business people we knew that the industry would grow to become more sophisticated in its understanding of the animal and its true commercial value. This understanding is now more important than ever and we need to put our focus here.

The numbers of alpacas since our inception some 50 years ago has grown to fill the back yard investment demands. Over time most breeders have become very discerning in the quality of our national herd and are working to improve the breed above the average. These factors on top of a sluggish economy has decelerated and confused the alpaca market which, for the most part, continues to base sales on the fun and fancy backyard investment model. Those who buy into the industry with these preconceptions find themselves owning alpacas of a specific quality that are not in the league with the high selling animals that they had hoped to be investing in. This has created an industry of breeders with stock that cannot meet the new standards being put forward.

 WHAT DO WE DO?

First we must seek to understand the quality grades of alpacas that exist around the in the country, and in world as a whole, so that we recognize the level of quality that we have within our own herds. At the very least this will tell you where you fit in the big picture and help you chart your direction for the future.

 

What we fail to realize is that we have very similar alpacas in terms of grades and qualities as found in Peru. There is only a small amount of breeding stock producing fiber on a quality level that fine fashion houses demand. The majority of breeders are producing what the world alpaca market has built its industry on, which is an average of 24-28 micron fleece of all colors and grades. Peru has been very successful overall with these numbers, because they recognize the fundamental value of the alpaca. We must work to understand and appreciate the foundational and realistic value of the majority of alpacas.

The beauty of this reality is:

As an all in one livestock, alpacas are unrivaled by other livestock breeds for its sustainable production of fiber, manure, and meat. More importantly alpacas are extremely economical to care for in comparison to other livestock due to their evolutionary ability to survive and withstand the harshest of climates. Finally they have softest impact environment these factors are crucial for sustainable farming, and are the fundamentals of the alpaca breed which should be promoted for their realistic merit.

Breeding is taking a turn towards the commercial elements with the highest demand. Fineness and consistency of fineness are key elements that we need to breed into all of our alpacas. The reality setting in as a nation is that we must discern which alpacas are going to fit into this ever improving alpaca breeding market, and which will not. Those males that do not meet the highest standards should not be used for breeding.

If lower quality animals are used for breeding, then those breeders are working to fulfill a completely different market demand. One that is in fact sustainable but resembles what is being done in Peru. This model of breeding is comparable to the sheep, which has a dual purpose of meat and fiber. 

This is a harsh reality for the backyard alpaca owner. No one wants to harvest meat from an animal they perhaps consider a pet. If you are finding however that you cannot compete with your alpacas in the advanced fiber market then you will with most certainty be keeping them as pets, or need to sell them for their realistic dual-purpose market value. The price of alpaca meat is that of an exotic meat, and is realistically a very good income if done properly. Despite those who are pushing back against the harvest of alpaca meat, there is a very strong interest in developing this end of the market.

My advice to those of you not interested in the meat market is to breed for high quality seed stock that produces valuable fiber. If you find that your present herd does not fit this model, then it is recommend you hire an expert consultant to guide you to the genetics you will need to improve your herd.

If the expert tells you to cull out individual animals you must be prepared to take that loss or you risk perpetuating a breeding program that is only viable for the dual purpose market that you do not wish to be in.

As alpaca breeders in this nation, we must have realistic directives for the marketability of our stock. We must all take the responsibility upon ourselves to discern with an unbiased eye, the different levels of quality within our own breeding herds. Those animals that do not fit the directive of our programs should be sold with an honest market assessment. Poor males should not be sold as breeding material… period. Even average quality males should be sold as breeding stock with careful discretion as they carry your name and reputation with them. Honest valuation is the key to long term success.

The same philosophy should be applied to females. If they are of poor quality they should be culled, or used as recipients for embryo transfer. If they are of average quality they should be sold as such in an appropriate market.

Another point we stress is that we cannot afford to be dumping poor genetics into the market just to make up for poor purchases. Snowmass is not immune to these market mistakes even after our many years of experience. We have purchased expensive stock at auctions only to find that the production levels of that stock are below our acceptable average. This can happen to any breeder, and if it does they will do a great service to themselves and others to take a loss rather than perpetuating a burden in the industry.

We can do our best to breed up low quality stock, but if we find the results do not meet our standards we must pay the piper and cull. This especially goes for an alpaca that has any conformational or genetic fault. In our heard the alpacas with these issues, both male and female are culled and used fulfill other demands. That is they are either sold on a low-end market as affordable fiber pets, or humanely harvested for their meat. There is also growing interest among sustainable farmers who are looking for stock that can keep weeds and grass down while producing valuable manure for their gardens. Alpacas are by far the most attractive stock for this purpose, as they have the added value of producing a fiber that can be sold to small outlets for supplemental income.

It’s so very important that we put the Alpaca Industry into a realistic perspective for all owners at all levels. There is a niche for everyone! All alpacas carry value! It’s up to us to understand the values of the different grades of alpacas so we can keep an honest conversation going about a true and sustainable market potential.

This is the conversation we will be having during our May 2014 sale and convention at our family ranch in Sandpoint, Idaho. We will be offering the very best of our breeding stock, and hosting seminars on how we are repurposing the animals which we consider below our production standards. The alpacas we offer for sale are phenotypically screened with 27 proven DNA markers profiled by CIS and ARI.

There will be a small reservation fee which is 100% refundable with any purchase during your stay. We have a selection that is being offered at prices affordable to everyone. As always Snowmass Alpacas is dedicated to the true success of all Alpaca breeders, and to creating a foundation for the future of a strong and viable Alpaca Industry.

We are currently building a specialized website that will host detailed information regarding the Snomwass Sale and Symposium. The site will be up and running shortly.  Best Regards to all,

Julie and Don

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