Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tips for Brand New Alpaca Owners

So you just bought your first alpacas! We know how excited you are -- we can still remember the day, years ago, when we purchased our first. And we also remember that feeling of "now what?" that hit soon after the initial euphoria wore off.

Here are some tips to make sure your alpaca experience is splendid:

1) Contact the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI) and let them know you are a brand new alpaca owner. They can walk you through some of the basics of alpaca ownership.  Most importantly, you will want to get a herd code (ARI will assign one) and transfer your new alpacas to it. Transferring is often the responsibility of the buyer. For many reasons, including the IRS tax code, you will want your name to show up as the "owner of record" with ARI.
To learn more, visit the ARI website:
Make sure to take a look at ariACADEMY, a free online library of alpaca articles, videos and other resources.

2) Contact the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, AOBA, and join at either the farm or associate member level. Joining at the farm level will get you a subscription to Alpacas Magazine, the official journal of the North American alpaca industry. Joining at any level means your name will show up in membership directories and you will receive the AOBA newsletter as well as emails about events and actions that could be of benefit to you. Visit the website to find out more.

3) Contact local veterinarians and find one that you feel comfortable with, hopefully one with alpaca or llama experience. If none of your local vets have alpaca or llama experience, find one with sheep or goat experience. Discuss how the vet prefers to handle things. For example, does he or she make ranch visits? How much do they charge? Will they come for one alpaca, or do you need to coordinate ranch calls when you have several procedures to take care of? The more you understand about your vet's expectations, the better, and vice versa.

4) Contact local hay growers and secure a source of hay. Drought and other climate issues can make hay difficult to find some years. Alpacas need less protein than some other animals -- plain old grass hay is best. Small bales are likely the easiest to store and move for most alpaca farmers, but nowadays many hay growers put up hay in giant round bales that require special equipment to move. It is best to find a good source of small bale grass hay and buy as much as you can ahead of when you will need it. You will also need a place to store the hay you buy - hay storage should be in a dry, cool, protected area.

5) Contact local alpaca breeders and find one or more you can talk to easily. Raising livestock takes a lot of time and energy. Your compadres will be a source of inspiration, can assist with shearing or ranch-sitting (for your soon-to-be-rare vacations away from home), and can lend a hand and helpful advice  in case of emergency. The sooner you get to know them, the better.

6) Purchase supplies. You will need good-quality halters designed for alpacas plus lead ropes, a few basic medications, wormers, emergency first aid supplies, a cria delivery kit, toenail clippers, buckets and feeders, loose mineral mixes and a restraining chute.  We recommend every new owner put the book "Caring for Llamas and Alpacas" by Claire Hoffman on their bookshelf.

7) Review your facility and make improvements if needed. The best alpaca fencing is woven-wire fencing designed to keep dogs (as well as coyotes) out, strung on wood, pipe or metal posts. Gates should have latches that cannot be opened by the all-too-smart alpacas. Pens should be free of obstacles, including barb wire. Walk your pastures with the local ag extension service agent to look for poisonous plants. Fill in gopher holes and other dangers. Install waterers that will function even in the coldest of winters. Stalls should be clear of obstacles including loose or old wiring. Stall flooring should provide traction even in icy conditions. Do not use sawdust, sand or other bedding materials that will wind up in the alpacas' fleeces.

With these basic steps you will insure that your alpaca owning experience gets off to a good, safe and healthy start. Once the alpacas (and you) have settled into a routine, you can take your new experience to the next level by joining the state alpaca affiliate, checking with the Small Business Administration office nearest you for business planning help, and attending (or entering) the closest alpaca show.

We wish you all the best of alpaca ownership!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Saying Goodbye

It's a part of raising livestock but it's a part I'll never get used to...saying goodbye to "our" alpacas as they head off to become someone else's.

When we got into alpacas, one of the things that led us in this direction was being able to have a livestock business where we didn't have to kill the animals. And it's true...this is a great business without the need to "harvest" anything except fleece. It wasn't until we'd been in the business a few years and our herd had grown large enough that we could start selling that the reality became clear. It's not so easy to say goodbye to a friend you've raised from babyhood, trained, fed, worried over, spent time with, grown to know.

One of the endearing things about alpacas is that they have personalities. Some are sweet and gentle, others bold and brassy. They have buddies and enemies within the herd, and each responds to our care differently. But no matter their "type," we care for them all. Which is why it's so hard to let them leave, even when we know they are going off to great new homes where they will be loved as well as here on our farm.

It seems the market for alpacas is recovering and we've had a regular flow of visitors to the farm recently, and a regular flow of alpacas going off to new residences with new owners. This, I must admit, is good for the bank account. But, boy, is it hard on the alpaca caretakers. The worst moment is when we wave goodbye to our former charges as they peer anxiously out the windows of the trailer that is taking them away.

Do "real" ranchers feel this way? Laugh if you will, but we miss every one of the alpacas we have raised and sold over the years, and, secretly, we hope we will all be reunited one day.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Things We Wish We'd Known...

OK, some of these are things we really DO know but sort of forgot.

Like the compost pile. We surely know that the best place for all those barn sweepings and pen cleanings is down wind and out of sight. So why didn't we do it that way? We have no good excuse...the pile just sort of started itself where it was most convenient and now, one year into the new ranch location, we are faced with renting big earth moving equipment and moving it to where it should have been all along.

Note to Self: don't forget what you already know or it will cost you in $$ and time!

Something we did not know, and did not factor into our ranch construction equation was how hard it is to get anything built in the rural parts of the world. With few contractors, just getting your project onto their schedule takes months. Then almost all building supplies end up needing to be ordered, and take weeks to arrive. And just about the time you get it all aligned, with the contractors scheduled and the supplies on hand, the bad weather sets in to delay everything. Which is why it has taken a year to build a simple two-car garage addition to our barn!

Something else we have learned the hard way is that while some things are cheaper when you get outside the more populated areas of the country, other things are not. Food, for example. Even though we live in farm country, the food prices at the one grocery store in town are astoundingly high. Construction materials are also not any cheaper, and, if they have to be ordered, likely higher in cost. Oh, yes...then there is the shipping you'll pay on all those Internet purchases! True, you can get almost everything off the Internet these days, but you'll pay a bunch for the opportunity, in shipping and delivery fees.

So what's the good news? We live in a fabulous area, with views that take your breath away any time of year. We have clean water and air, and enough land to grow our own hay and let the alpacas play in the pastures.

Our neighbors are The Best, always willing to help us out at the drop of a hat. And we are living the dream...even if parts of it are a little more complicated or expensive than we expected. Still, how do you put a price on freedom, peace and a country life-style? Priceless, even if we do have to give up a weekend to move the compost pile!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Zen and the Art of Snow Management

Those of you who live where it doesn't snow, or doesn't snow very much...skip to one of our other blogs, because this one is only for those who live where winter is truly winter!

2011 marks our 15th year raising alpacas, and every single one of those years has involved snow. One thing we have pays to have a snow management plan.

In fact, a snow management plan is just as important, perhaps more so, than a manure management plan. When it's below freezing outside and the white stuff is stacking up, how you move it and where you put it can be the difference between an easy winter and sheer hell (pardon our French!).

I like snow better than rain because I can move snow around and get it out of my way, and, with the proper equipment and clothing, I can even play in the snow, something I am rarely tempted to do with rain. But I have learned that snow has a way of making life ten times more difficult if you don't think ahead when you start to move it.

Here are some things I've learned about moving snow.

1) Figure out where to put snow. The first few storms are no big deal, but by February the snow piles are taller than we are. If we put the initial piles too close to the barn, house, garage, paths and roadways, we run out of stacking space. Better to have to move the snow farther at the beginning of winter so you'll still have somewhere to store more snow at the end of the season.

2) Snow becomes ice with no warning. Where you walk or where the animals walk can become lethal if you don't make sure to clear down to the ground whenever weather permits. If things warm up, it's important to remove as much slushy melting snow as you can. That way when things chill down again, your paddocks and walking paths won't be as dangerous to you and the animals.

3) Piles of snow melt. And then freeze, creating ice rinks where the melt water pools. A rule of thumb: stack snow downhill and down wind from any place you want to use during the winter.

4) Wind + snow = Ugh! Drifts! Piles of snow become drift points, so make sure you are not creating a monster. Stack snow so that the wind will not unstack it when your back is turned.

5) Shovel while you can. If the weather permits, get out and remove snow. The longer you wait, the heavier it gets. Moving wet or compacted snow is like moving shovels full of wet sand - extremely heavy and hard to throw very far. The best time to remove snow is right after it falls, when it is still light and fluffy.

6) Don't forget to stop and smell the roses, or, in this case, throw a snowball or two, make a snow angel or just admire the way snow sparkles in the sunlight. While snow adds to the work load, it also covers up a multitude of sins and makes the world look clean and bright. Plus, it is like time-release rain.

So enjoy the white stuff while you have it, for all too soon we'll be sweating in the heat of July and wishing for a sudden snowstorm to cool things off!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I Need More Sales...An Annual Check Up

Selling. It's that mysterious thing we all know that we should do, without which our businesses will fail, and which sometimes seems to be in the hands of the gods. If it's not working, how do we know what to fix?

Here's a quick assessment tool that I created to help me analyze the results of each year's efforts, and to see where I need to make changes. There are only three steps, so it is perfect for busy alpaca ranchers!


Is your phone ringing? Is your email in-box filled? In other words, are people trying to contact you about the alpacas, your fiber, or your farm?

If not, or if the number of contacts is declining, or is not reaching the level you need, then... have a marketing problem.

Your marketing is not working. The goal of every marketing piece you use-- every ad, every website, every direct mailing -- is to inspire potential customers to contact you. If you are not getting contacted, then you need to change your marketing because if you keep doing what you've been doing, you'll keep getting the same unhappy result.

It is beyond the scope of this quick analysis to dissect all the ways to improve marketing, but I will just list a few options. You probably know, deep inside, what needs to change. You can:
  • do more marketing by advertising in more places, or more frequently, or with larger ads
  • be more visible, by attending more events or by hosting more ranch events
  • create a new marketing approach, which is important if you have been using the same marketing pieces for a long time
  • make sure your marketing targets the right people and gives them a reason to contact you.

If your marketing is working properly, then people are contacting you to ask about alpacas. The next, and very important, step is getting them to visit. The more people that visit, the more sales you make (alpacas and products, both). It is a very simple equation. To increase sales, you must increase visitation.

If you have plenty of contacts but not very many visitors, then you have a conversion problem. You are failing to convert the contacts to visits. The whole reason for getting people to call or email is so that you can invite them to visit the farm.

If this is where your plan needs help, then review how you respond to the people who contact you. Do you:
  • Personally invite each contact to visit?
  • Ask them for an appointment date?
  • Tell them about an upcoming event that they'd like to attend at your farm?
  • Reconnect after sending information to make sure they got it, and ask again about visiting?
  • Offer to put them on the notification list for upcoming events if they can't visit right away?
  • Invite them to attend shows, meetings or other events as your guest?

The final step for you to consider is what happens when the people you invite, show up. Do they leave with a good feeling, excited to learn more, and committed to working with you? Do they want to come back?

If not, then you have a commitment problem. Probably you are failing to ask for a commitment, or you have not shown the visitor why they want to return. Every visitor should leave your farm with positive feelings, excited to return, even if all they did was pet an alpaca or buy a finger puppet. Your business will prosper if your customers can't wait to tell everyone they know about the wonderful time they had visiting the alpaca farm.

Walt Disney said it this way: "Do what you do so well that they will come back to see you do it again, and they will bring others."

So that's it: marketing, converting, selling. Three steps to a successful business. If anything here is not clear, please do not hesitate to ask because we want you to be as successful as you want to be.

Friday, November 12, 2010

10 Reasons Why We Still Love the Alpaca Industry

What's Good, Better, and Absolutely Fantastic
About the Future of Alpacas
Why We Still Love This Industry

By Deb Hill, Cloud Dancer Alpacas

Let's admit it...the past couple of years have been tough for our industry. It's true that taking the 'ostrich' approach to the difficulties we face isn't useful. Yes, we are completely aware that alpaca markets have been negatively impacted by the recession. Every week we hear about breeders that are forced to sell their herd, or their entire farm, and some of our best customers have been hit with loss of home equity, loss of retirement savings and investments, and uncertainty. Sales are down, prices are down, and breeders are worried.

While it doesn't do anything to help our situation, we need to understand that we are not the only industry that is feeling the effects of the recession. Alpacas are not the problem. The problem is the economy - banks failing, loans drying up, foreclosures and short sales, companies laying off workers, falling investment values. With all the bad news, sometimes it's easy to lose sight of what makes this industry worth the effort of hanging on until better times.
So here's our list of the top ten reasons why we still believe in the future of the alpaca industry. Let's count down (or up, depending on your point of view!) from #10 to our #1 reason that alpacas represent an excellent business opportunity.

#10. World-wide Industry - Let's not forget that an alpaca industry already exists. Alpaca fiber is known and in demand around the globe. We are not working in a vacuum here in the U.S., and we have possible partners in many other countries. We also have partnering opportunities with other natural fiber industries. Working together, we can make it through the tough times. Locally, we're greatly encouraged by the positive response of the sheep producers in our area to the idea of jointly promoting natural animal fibers. Nationally, there is strength in numbers. Internationally, alpaca fiber is known, loved, and highly desired. The market for what we do is much larger than we realize.

#9. Consumers Know and Love Alpacas - Some of us remember when our biggest challenge was that no one we spoke with knew what an alpaca was or why they wanted one. Try selling something no one has heard of! Our industry has done an amazing job of introducing U.S. consumers to alpacas, and it's a true success story. Alpacas and alpaca products are much easier to market now that people know and love them. Even here in the 'wilds' of central Montana, residents flock to see the alpacas and can't wait to shop in our alpaca store, a direct result of the industry's marketing programs.

#8. U.S. Alpaca Product Development is Up and Running - Just a few years ago, the only alpaca products we could get were imported from South America. And while we have nothing against that, we are excited by the recent announcements of U.S. product development. In addition to national programs, more and more individual breeders are investing in fiber development. Suddenly there are many more opportunities for our fiber, whether it is for socks, blankets, rugs, or yarns. Our industry is full of brilliant entrepreneurs who continue to experiment, right through the recession. Think about where that puts our industry as consumer confidence begins to return and the demand for U.S.-made alpaca items begins to grow.

#7. Finally, Alpacas are Livestock - When we started raising alpacas in 1996, hardly anyone used their fiber and the industry seemed mainly focused on providing tax write offs, rather than creating a true agricultural venture. But look at us now! Through the efforts of many, alpacas are federally-recognized as livestock, and our industry is making the transition from high-end fuzzy pets or tax deductions, to producing the best quality animals and fiber that we can. With EPDs, fiber testing, and other measures, we're bringing the state of the art tools to the breeding game. That means we will soon be producing the best fiber, to satisfy the world's demand. Go U.S. alpaca breeders!

#6. Alpacas Come With Ag Benefits - Yes, we could get all the benefits of being in agricultural by raising goats or cattle. But hey! How cool is it that a side effect of falling in love with alpacas is this: we get to live in the country, deduct our legitimate agricultural expenses, use depreciation and other tools to offset other income, and lower our property taxes through ag classification on our land? All this, and we don't have to kill anything, milk anything, get kicked or run over by big animals, and yard clean up is easy. Woo hoo! Sign me up!

#5. Alpaca Industry Organizations are Working for Us - Whether it's national marketing, industry publications, educational programs, or developing tools for breeders such as EPDs, our industry organizations are working hard on our behalf. I don't know about you, but not many of my former career paths included such dedicated teams of individuals volunteering their energy to provide help for my business. Ok, you are going to say that sometimes they make decisions we don't agree with. Well, sure. Name someone with whom you agree 100% of the time! Agreeing isn't the point...the point is, these people are working hard to make sure our industry succeeds, and we reap the benefits, whether it is national marketing, creating brochures or other materials to provide to your clients, offering shows for us to attend, providing continuing education, giving us fiber product opportunities, or...the list is really long! We've got a good support system, altho we sometimes fail to take best advantage of all that is available.

#4. We Have a Small Farm Business with Big Returns - We dare you -- name another livestock business in which you can make enough to cover expenses with just a handful of animals. Name another livestock business where you can make a profit with less than 20 animals. Can you do this with alpacas? Absolutely. Our farm is living proof. If we wanted to invest in, say, a cattle ranch, we would need thousands of acres of pasture and hay fields, massive barns, chutes and corrals, and big equipment. In order to be profitable, we would need hundreds of cattle. Want to take a guess at how much all that would cost to get into? Because few alpaca breeders have any livestock experience, we sometimes lose sight of just how unusual our situation is. We can have a small group of very clean, cute, amusing critters, cover our expenses or make a small profit with a relatively tiny up-front investment, and we can even take time off for a little travel, see the grand kids, or go to a show. Ask your local cattle producer how his world works, and you will quickly realize how lucky we have it.

#3. We Raise Rare Livestock with Inherent Value - If you've been in the industry for a while, you may think that the lower prices we have seen in the past couple of years are a result of having too many alpacas. Yes, the U.S. alpaca herd has grown - according to ARI's figures, there are over 170,000 registered alpacas. But let's put that in perspective...according to the NASS, which collects ag statistics for the U.S.D.A., there are over 6 million sheep in this country. There are close to 4,000 members of AOBA, compared with over 64,000 sheep producers. Have we still got room for expansion in the alpaca world? You bet! We don't have anywhere near enough alpacas to satisfy even a small portion of the consumer demand for our fiber products - we need minimally 500,000 and probably closer to 1 million alpacas to do that. Because of alpacas' long gestation, the rate of herd growth is slow. So the bottom line is: as long as there is a demand for alpaca fiber, there will be a demand for more alpacas to produce it. As long as demand exceeds supply, alpaca prices will remain strong. The past two years are not a reflection of the value of an alpaca, they are a reflection of the economy. Don't give up just as a tiny light is beginning to shine at the end of the recession tunnel - prices will stabilize as the economy improves.

#2. Alpacas are Naturally Green - Did you know that alpacas come in more natural colors than any other fiber animal? That their fiber does not require harsh chemicals during scouring because there is no greasy lanolin to remove? That their hardy constitution means treatment with antibiotics and anti-parasitic products is kept to a minimum? That they do not require energy-expensive milled feeds, or water-intensive alfalfa to be healthy? That they can be kept on small-sized plots of land, leaving other land in a natural state or available for some other agricultural venture? I can't think of many other farm animals that are so naturally "green". And guess what? The impact of more costly oil, "buy local" movements, and consumer concerns about how things are grown, harvested and created is creating rapid growth in "green" consumerism. Depending on which survey you believe, between 30 and 75% of U.S. consumers now buy "green." Our alpaca industry is poised to catch the wave.

#1. Alpacas and Their People are Wonderful! In November of every year we mark another anniversary with alpacas. This month marks the beginning of our 15th year raising these extraordinary animals. Looking back over the past decade and a half, do you know what stands out the most? It's all the wonderful people we have met, all the friends we have made, and all the exciting, endearing, amusing, experiences we have had because of the alpacas. I can't think of many decisions in my life that have provided so many positive returns. Some of the best people we know are friends we met because of the alpacas. Some of the best times we've had are alpaca-related. We belong to more than just a tiny little fiber livestock industry - we're part of an amazing network of coast-to-coast friends and supporters.

So to all our friends and all our supporters, and anyone that loves alpacas, we offer this motto:
When the going gets tough, the tough get alpacas!

That's our story and we are sticking with it. Yes, our industry is facing some challenges right now, but name an industry that isn't? Economic downturns always end eventually, and once we work through the rest of this one, we expect rapid growth in the U.S. alpaca world. We plan to soar with it, and we hope you'll be along for the ride, too. Life didn't give us lemonade, it gave us alpacas. So let's get out there and squeeze some!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Labor Pains!

Over and over again through the years we have heard alpaca breeders state that it's almost impossible to know when your pregnant alpaca goes into labor.

Well, we beg to differ! While it's true that you won't see the alpaca in labor holding up a sign reading: "I'm having a baby", on the other hand, there are signals that you can learn to spot. In 14 years we have only missed 2 births! And even those had signs...we just chose to ignore them!

Most of the time, alpacas will deliver their crias between 335 days and 342 days from the last breeding. But alpacas have been known to deliver fully mature crias as early as 320 days of gestation, or to go as long as 380+ days before delivery. If you want to be at the birth, you quickly realize that you may be housebound for many weeks, unless you can learn to tell when your alpaca is nearing her deliver date, or is in active labor.

So what do we look for when determining if an alpaca is ready to have her baby? While there is no hard and fast 'smoking gun' rule, we look for a combination of the following:

-alpaca moves away from the herd and is off by herself.
-alpaca is vocalizing more than normal.
-alpaca is less interested or more interested in feed than usual.
-alpaca is rolling more than usual.
-alpaca is visiting the poop pile more frequently than usual.
-alpaca is stomping back foot on ground.
-alpaca drops to the ground suddenly, or sits down in a strange place (such as right in the middle of the doorway).
-udder is engorged and teats are enlarged.
-"waistline" disappears as baby moves into birth canal.
-alpaca's perineal area appears soft and the vaginal opening enlarges (looks longer).

If we see a one or two of these things, we know we are getting close. If we see several of them together, particularly physical changes to the udder and rear, in combination with vocalization and visiting the poop pile, we know the alpaca is in the early stages of labor.

Fairly commonly we hear something like this from breeders: "I checked my pregnant dam and nothing was happening, and then I went out two hours later and a cria was running around". Well, obviously, when they checked the first time, something WAS happening. The trick is to watch your alpaca for long enough to spot the behavior. If you take just a quick look, you may well miss the action. Alpacas are very good at pretending that everything is fine. Their instincts tell them not to let on when they are not feeling well. After all, the predator (you) might get them!

Since contractions can be 20 minutes apart at the beginning of labor, you have to be a patient observer to see one. But once the alpaca enters heavy labor, there is no excuse for confusion! In the late stage of labor, the alpaca is very vocal, very uncomfortable, and you can clearly see the contractions. At this point, delivery is 30 minutes away, or less, so this is not the time to make a quick run into town, or you will miss everything!

Most alpacas deliver 'by the book', without our help. But since our business is producing alpacas, and it takes almost a year to get one, it's well worth the effort to learn how to tell when your girls are about to deliver. You want to be there, in the rare case when the dam or baby needs help.

At the worst, the extra time spent observing your girls will mean a few less minutes for other things you need to do in your day. At best, it means you will know when labor starts and be there to make sure everything goes well.

And heck...wasn't spending time in the barn with our animals one of the reasons we got into breeding alpacas in the first place?!