Maine… The Perfect Place to Raise Alpacas
As the last of the baby alpacas or crias are born at the end of the birthing season this fall, Maine’s alpaca herd is expected to reach a record high level—totaling 1,000 of these valuable fiber producing animals which are originally from South America. With its abundant farm acreage, hearty cold winter climate, farming tradition, excellent bloodlines within its foundation herds and strong opportunity to capitalize on the State’s tourism industry, Maine had become perhaps the most perfect place in the Nation for raising alpacas. Most farmers in Maine belong to the Maine Alpaca Association which has reported a record crop this year of baby alpacas…many of which are of the very highest quality nationwide. Maine’s climate, in particular is perfect —the alpaca’s incredibly warm fleece takes them through the winter and they are shorn in May once a year before the heat of the summer. Since you can raise 6–8 alpacas on an acre, a very high percentage of Maine residents have the minimum 3–4 acres that are required for a decent sized profitable ranching operation. The small land requirement combined with available pasture acreage has helped to fuel demand for alpacas in Maine.
Alpacas are extremely appealing because they appear to be like big cute teddy bears. They have a regal and mystical quiet quality about them. These are medium-sized animals that are members of the camel family and they are easy to care for. “Like nothing else on earth” these creatures were bred by various cultures in South America which include the Inca. Centuries of selective breeding have resulted in the finest of natural fibers measuring just 20 microns (fine human hair is 100 microns in comparison). Their intelligence and quiet demeanor is captivating. They are raised for their fleece (not for slaughter) and for sale as breeding stock and they have become one of the very hottest alternative livestock in New England…now estimated at a 50 million dollar industry.
Maine’s alpaca farmers enjoy the fact that the herd goes lightly on the land. Alpacas are environmentally friendly having soft padded feet with just two toe-nails. Pastures which contain orchard grass are kept well manicured because alpacas graze with just one bottom set of teeth. And since alpacas naturally go to one communal dung pile, pastures are fresh and clean, as well as nicely groomed by grazing. Alpacas require only a simple three-sided shelter for protection… although much of Maine’s herd is housed in some great old barns or out buildings that Maine’s ranchers have adapted to their needs. Many of the State’s alpaca farmers relish the idea that some of these terrific old horse and cow barns are finding renewed use in an alternative livestock revolution. Alpacas weigh an average of 160 lbs, so the flake of hay and cup of grain they eat makes them economical to feed. One farm that owns 25 alpacas has recorded that the cost for orchard grass squared-baled hay, Blue Seal alpaca grain feed and the year’s veterinary bills average the same at $300/animal four years in a row, after they have analyzed their farm expenses.
The laws of supply and demand have helped to keep prices strong for Maine’s alpaca farmers. Alpacas birth just one baby and almost never twins. They can not be artificially inseminated… and most importantly from the supply side, they can no longer be imported from outside the country. All serious breeders have registered animals which are recorded with microchips and DNA blood samples. The national alpaca registry has been closed to all alpacas from outside the country since 1998 putting an artificial cap on the supply. Because there are 85–90 farms in Maine which own a total of just 1,000 animals, the average farm is quite small. Small farms which tend to hold onto foundation herd do not have large numbers of animals for sale. Prices for alpacas in Maine are about $15,000–20,000 for a quality bred female. These prices have been stable in part because only a fraction of the total herd is actually for sale. Many of Maine’s alpaca farmers start small…with just a few bred females. As the herd multiplies the investment grows. There are many tax benefits to alpaca ownership for those who have breeding stock —these include capital gains and depreciation as well as taking the loss of a growing ranching operation that has not started to sell livestock against other income a farmer may have. With sound business plans and the high value of alpacas, breeders in Maine have the potential to generate substantial income from modest size herds. This in turn helps to fuel the demand.
A growing number of alpaca farmers have opened small farm stores on their farms in order to market 100% alpaca yarn spun from their herds as well as other high end alpaca products. Maine’s strong tourism industry dove-tails nicely with this “agri-tourism component” of retails sales that can be added to a farm’s business plan. Maine’s strong fiber industry (as exemplified by the Maine Fiber Arts Group in Topsham) and the large number of small custom fiber processing mills, support Maine’s alpaca farms.
This Columbus Day Weekend, October 6 & 7 is Open Farm Day sponsored by the Maine Alpaca Association. Twelve alpaca farms around the State will open their barn doors to the public to show off their animals, sell luxurious fleece and yarn, give fiber processing demonstrations and answer questions about the industry. Some farms will have beautiful alpaca apparel, such as sweaters and blankets for sale.
Also Maine’s big alpaca show will follow the weekend after Columbus Day…on October 13–14 the New England Coastal Classic Alpaca Show will be held at the Pinelands Equestrian Center in New Gloucester. This is an AOBA certified level III alpaca show for performance, halter and fleece classes where hundreds of high quality alpacas can be seen competing in one place. They have a web site necoastalclassic.com.