Can cute and cuddly pay their way?
Nelson alpaca breeders are exploring ways of working together in a bid to lift their profile from cottage industry to commercial production.
With just an estimated 350 animals and 16 registered breeders, it has been a struggle to get noticed in a crowded fibre field, despite a reputation for softness, lightness and warmth.
For the past year, breeders have been meeting to discuss ideas for pooling their fleeces to produce a range of Nelson-branded products.
Judge, shearer and breeder Simon Kneebone, who runs 27 animals with his wife Soo in Redwood Valley, said talks were at an early stage as the industry found its feet after the recession ended an early boom in livestock prices.
"We have all these ideas which we are trying to narrow down and are at least six months to a year away from coming up with a strategy.
"There are a lot of people who make stuff here out of alpaca fleece but we need to agree on a product range and quantities we can supply."
Progress was likely to be slow because most breeders had fewer than 20 animals and there was a wide variation in fibre colour and quality, he said.
It would take a few years to build up herds, breed animals with finer fleeces and find outlets that didn't demand too high a profit margin.
At present, the fibre was used in everything from rugs, blankets, jerseys and scarves to animal beds, weed matting and seed pots.
The local industry was beginning to provide services such as dry felting. washing and carding, while he was in the process of building a wet felting machine, Mr Kneebone said.
As well as a lack of fibre of the same colour or standard, a major hurdle was the cost of shearing alpacas, he said.
"If you have 20 it's going to cost $500 a year, whereas if you have 20 sheep it costs only $50."
He was working with the Alpaca Association on ways of reducing this, including having designated days where people brought their animals into a central place to be shorn.
"In three days we could have all Nelson done. The shearer would charge by the day and it would halve the price."
However, it would take a lot of organising as not everyone had access to floats to transport stock and not all animals were halter-trained, he said.
Another obstacle people had to overcome if the industry was to grow was that animals who didn't make the grade needed to be culled. There was potentially a good market for alpaca meat, which was larger and leaner than sheep, and for their pelts, particularly in China.
"I know they are nice and cuddly, but at the end of the day they are livestock and you have to make them work."
The recession – which had reduced alpaca prices substantially – had at least made it cheaper for people to get into the industry, Mr Kneebone said.
"If you can buy three alpaca for $500, people can say I can do that."
Pet males could be picked up for as little as $200 and females for $300 to $400, he said. For those keen on breeding, there was good money in exporting, particularly to Germany, where top-quality animals sold for more than $8000.
An association southern representative, Murray Mills, who breeds alpacas for fibre which wife Charmaine turns into garments on their three-hectare property at Foxhill, said while the recession had hit sales, particularly of females, there was still a steady demand for males as pets from lifestyle block owners who wanted a couple of easy care, social animals to keep the grass down.
"People come and pick them out but they don't get them until they are fully halter-trained and learn how to lead them."
Those wanting to get into breeding still had to pay good money, although nowhere near what they used to, Mr Mills said. "You can pick up good females for $1500, and good stud males start at $8000 and go up $30,000."
What people often didn't realise was that the best fleeces came from non-breeding females and males who weren't used as studs, he said. "The more cria [offspring] a female has the worse her fleece will be because she is putting it all into her baby."
This made it more difficult for small breeders to improve their fibre quality, he said.
"People haven't got the numbers up here, that's why we have been getting together and when we decide we have enough fibre of one colour we can then look at what to do with it.
"It won't be an easy fix because we have a lot of different colours and people doing their own thing."
- © Fairfax NZ News