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Thursday, Apr. 28, 2016

Alpacas are a breed apart

Friday, September 10, 2010

Besides being cute and cuddly, alpacas have become a strong agri-industry in southwest Missouri. [Times Photo by Melonie Roberts]
They're cute, fuzzy and small enough to put in the back of an SUV as area residents can see for themselves at the upcoming National Alpaca Farm Days to be celebrated Sept. 25 and 26 at Morning Moon Alpacas near Freistatt.

Mike and Dianne Six, owners of Morning Moon Alpacas, have been in the alpaca industry for over 12 years, primarily for the prized fiber that can be harvested from these unique creatures.

"Alpaca wool is not like sheep's wool," said Mike. "Alpaca is 99 percent hypoallergenic. It has no lanolin."

The fine wool can be used for making everything from socks, sweaters, coats and blankets to dog leashes and placemat settings. There are 16 classified natural colors in the United States, and the wool can be dyed in a variety of colors.

"Alpaca wool is eight to 10 times warmer than sheep's wool," Mike continued. "It lasts forever. In Peru, there is an heirloom blanket that has been passed down through the same family for 2,000 years. It's durable."

When they started importing alpacas 12 years ago, Mike and Dianne decided that their goal was to enhance the quality of both the animal and fiber used in the textile business.

"We started with two alpacas several years ago, because Dianne, a knitter, discovered the fiber," Mike said. "When we first started in the business, we had to send wool to Peru to be processed. Now, there are about 80 mills in the United States that can process alpaca wool, along with other fibers. Dianne can order specialty mixes such as alpaca and silk, buffalo or yak, to use in her knitting."

Through a selective breeding process, the couple now has 41 animals in their herd.

"We moved here from Remington, Va., and made three trips to bring all of the alpacas here," Mike said. "We saved the pregnant females for last. One day after we arrived, Lady Freistatt was born. She was the first baby born on the farm here in Missouri."

A majority of alpaca babies are born between dawn and noon.

"Their natural habitat is in the higher elevations of the mountains, around 13,000 to 15,000 feet," Mike said. "Babies born in the day have time to get their strength. At birth, they weigh about 15 pounds and start to nurse within about 40 minutes. In two-and-a-half hours, the baby can run as fast as its mother. Herds migrate. New moms and their babies have to be ready."

Alpacas have been domesticated for over 6,000 years. According to Mike, the breed has been around for about 40 million years.

"They are one of the oldest living species," Mike said. "They are camelids, like camels and llamas, but smaller. Asian camels are direct evolutionary descendents of alpacas."

While llamas and camels are used as beasts of burden, alpacas are prized for their fiber.

"Alpaca is the Incan word meaning 'fiber of gold,'" Mike said. "Only royalty wore alpaca."

According to Mike, alpacas have personalities similar to cats.

"They are curious," he said, "but you don't want them too friendly. They are typically very calm animals. We work hard at that.

"Ibaque was a baby when she was imported," he continued. "Something happened and she has a mistrust of humans. Now, when she has babies, the first thing she teaches them is to fear humans."

One uncommon instinct the animals have is their sense of recognition.

"You can separate a mother and its baby early on and they can be apart for years," Mike said. "But if you bring that daughter back to the farm, the mother will recognize it before it's out of the truck." Alpacas have a variety of recognizable communication sounds. They make clicking noises when they are submissive or friendly, bugling sounds when there is danger, and a humming sound when they are content.

Like other herd animals, alpacas have an "alpha" male and female.

"There is a pecking order," Mike said. "They do a little tussling, spitting and wrestling. But an alpha male will not relinquish that spot until the environment changes. Every day, the alpha male puts the others in their place."

While alpacas are social animals that instinctively herd up, Alpaca females are kept separate from the males at Morning Moon Farms. This is a move designed to assist Mike and Dianne in the selective breeding process they have initiated to improve both the herd stock and fiber quality of their animals. Females have a gestation period of 11-and-a-half months, with their young weaned between four to six months of age. Within two to three weeks, the females can be impregnated again.

"People coming into the alpaca industry want established animals," Mike said. "Most people want to buy a pair of animals."

Alpacas tend to flourish in the United States where their food supply is abundant. However, animals imported into the nation have been exposed to diseases or parasites that they have never encountered in their natural habitat.

"There were no known medications for alpacas," Mike said. "Even in Peru, they were using experimental drugs. We have found that some drugs typically used for cattle, sheep and equine have worked in higher dosages because of their high metabolism."

The couple also add supplements and minerals not found in native soil to the herd's diet. By maintaining good herd health, alpacas can live to be 15 to 30 years old.

Alpacas tend to self-regulate their exposure to internal parasites by developing a communal dung pile, and they do not graze near it.

But the biggest threat to herd health is not disease or parasites, but the more common issue of dogs running at large.

"Alpacas will defend themselves with their hooves," Mike said. "But one dog can decimate a herd."

Looking to the future, Mike and Dianne say the alpaca market is solid and there is plenty of room for growth.

"Alpaca fiber is a novelty right now," Mike said, "but it is sustainable for the fiber future. It's second only to cashmere."

During National Alpaca Farm Days, there will be demonstrations of weaving, spinning and skirting alpaca fleece, along with educational tours. Tours and demonstrations will take place from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25 and from noon until 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 26. Morning Moon Alpacas is located at 18209 Highway H near Freistatt.

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