The New Zealand Alpaca Industry - Striding Ahead

August 2006
Russell and Carolyn Nelson have a lot to thank Americans for.

It was American tourists who first aroused their curiosity in all things alpaca back when the couple owned The Crossing, a boutique bed and breakfast business near Geraldine. An American guest gave Russell a knitted alpaca jersey that proved light and comfortable against his skin without the itching properties of wool. On further research the couple found the fibre to be fabulous and later bought 2 huacaya alpacas.

It wasnt long before the couple had made the biggest decision of their life when they agreed to sell the 2500 ewes and 150 head of cattle they owned on their 1000 acre farm to finance the purchase of nine Suri alpacas from Australia for AU $200,000. Six were female (two Chilean, three Peruvian and one of Bolivian descent) and three were males (one Chilean and two Peruvian). That wide genetic base was deliberate so that the Nelsons would not have to purchase again for some time.

Importing such an animal from Australia is not as easy as it sounds. Back in 1998 both countries required quarantine which stressed the animals. At $2000 per head to import Russell and Carolyn had an anxious wait until they arrived. The Nelsons were not the first people to import the rare Suri breed but were the first serious breeders of Suri in New Zealand.

New Zealand was the first country in recent times to import alpacas from South America. Initially the first shipment of alpacas was of a poor quality with many faults. Later, shipments came from Peru but almost all are now sourced from Australia due to the $20,000 to $30,000 cost of importing from foot and mouth regions of South America.

The alpacas journey to New Zealand, Australia, United States, Canada and now European countries has almost certainly ensured its survival as numbers had decreased by 90% in South America since the Spanish invasion. Being selectively bred for its fine fleece for 6000 years made the alpaca the oldest livestock industry in the Americas.

Here the alpaca, although valued for their fleece, are mainly farmed on lifestyle blocks and have grown increasingly popular. That rapid success led to the formation of the Alpaca Association of New Zealand, an industry body that now has around 1200 members and paid staff in its Christchurch office.

Russell is the current President of the Association.

Today only 3.6 million alpacas remain worldwide with over 6000 registered in New Zealand as at 2003. Of that worldwide figure only 6.8% are Suri alpacas.

While lifestylers remain the focus of breeders within New Zealand a new export market to England and growth in the Europe & United States means genetically superior alpacas from our shores have become extremely sought after.

Two different fleece types are found in alpaca. The more common Huacaya alpaca has a merino style fleece while the rarer Suri alpaca has a silky dreadlock look to it and is often described as the most luxurious fleece in the world.

Suri has a rare fleece that can fetch $100 per kilogram raw if it is under 20 micron. With finishing that price can rise as high as $150 per kilogram.

Animals shear around 3-6kgs of fibre each year at the Nelson farm.

On average with fleeces they receives around $35-40 per kilogram.

Micron can range between 15 and 30.

To date New Zealand does not produce enough fibre to meet domestic needs and imports much from South America. Shearing of the fleece proved to be a new experience for the Nelsons when they began with the alpaca laid on a specially designed shearing table - a far cry from the sheep shearing that Russell and Carolyn had grown up with.

The reputation of alpaca fleece is recognised worldwide with fashion houses who are excited by its potential. To meet this demand the Alpaca Association has set up a group to further explore opportunities in the fashion industry overseas, using Merino New Zealand as a model.

Russell and Carolyns decision to build up an alpaca stud may have seemed ludicrous in the late nineties. Many farmers believed it would be another goat or ostrich flash in the pan. But the couple had done their research in South Australia and had fallen in love with the animal.

Breeding is a slow growth curve with alpacas having an 11 and a half month gestation period. Although initial imports were not genetically strong, pioneers like the Nelsons have invested in better genetics via Australia and are seeing the results not only in conformation and fleece but also in price. The Nelsons held an unreserved auction last October. Top price paid for a Suri Herd Sire was $32,000 and the top price for a pregnant Huacaya female was $25,000.

While this seems like a lot of money it is insignificant when you consider the AU $66,000 Russell and Carolyn paid to secure a female Australian alpaca considered the matriarch of the industry for their embryo transplant programme.

Those considering buying an alpaca can expect to pay up to $800 for a wether and $2000 for an older female of lower quality. Average quality breeding females cost $6000-7000. The lower end prices have decreased significantly since the first imports, but the top end prices have increased, as quality is sort after both in the domestic and overseas markets.

Overseas interest means the industry will continue to grow and the numbers going offshore will help offset the increase in domestic animals.

Russell equates the management of alpacas to being much like managing sheep without the fly strike. However, when the first two alpacas arrived on their property the couple learnt very quickly the importance of older pastures such as cocksfoot with newer ryegrasses upsetting the animals due to the concentration of endophyte.

After just 24 hours in the house paddock Russells new purchases were shaking in what was supposed to be an almost zero endophyte ryegrass. It is a lesson he passes on to those that purchase the alpacas, especially lifestylers who may not have experience.

When Russell and Carolyn brought their property at Ashburton they were thankful that it reverted back to older dairy pastures of cocksfoot, brown top and Timothy. It has proved an ideal environment for the alpaca.

And while Russell has put his farming background to good use on the venture he admits he was a little stumped when he saw an alpaca giving birth for the first time.

After pushing the front legs and head out an alpaca will rest for 20 minutes to give the cria, which is left hanging, a chance to drain. This proved unnerving for a farmer better used to lambs with damaged swollen heads if a ewe is unable to push further.

Mating is also intriguing with the gentleness of the male allowing the female to sit during the process---a process that takes 10/30 minutes

Russell and Carolyn Nelson now have around 60 Huacaya and 60 Suri alpacas on their 30 acre property just north of Ashburton and all have names!

Russell would like to lower that number to 100 in coming years.

The couples fascination for the animal saw them set up an embryo transplant business in Australia three years ago to further improve the genetics in their stud. That move has paid off with the elite stud receiving a host of show awards including being named Supreme Champion in both the Suri and Huacaya sections at the Christchurch A and P Show last year. This double feat has never been achieved by a single breeder before and is a just reward for the enthusiasm and drive the couple have put in since selling their South Canterbury property in 1999.

This year marked another exciting milestone for the Stud with the birth of cria as a result of the first successful embryo transfer in New Zealand.

Financially the move from sheep farming to alpaca breeding has been highly successful. The gross and net income off the 30 acres they have now is more than the 1000 acres they previously farmed and there is no sign of a slow down within the industry.

As Russell saysI know alpacas are here to stay. It is an international market with opportunities for New Zealanders