Alpaca breeder's patience pays off
You need plenty of patience to breed quality alpacas.
New Zealand herds are invariably small and vary widely in quality, top animals are expensive to buy, females take almost a year to produce an offspring and twins are rare.
But Murray King's perseverance has paid off with the Foxhill breeder winning big at the recent national alpaca show in Christchurch.
Of the three suri alpacas he took south from his Fifeshire Park stud, two came first and another third. Maverick, his star 22-month-old male, was judged champion in the light fawn colour class, while 8-month-old Merlin topped his junior division. Both beat strong competition from much bigger, fulltime breeders.
For Mr King - who runs 36 alpacas, including 20 suris, on a 4.5-hectare block while holding down a fulltime teaching job at Nayland College - it was a timely boost and a reward for 27 years of breeding.
"It was a real buzz and reaffirms we are on the right track because I don't go to all the shows as I can't afford to take the time off.
"The international judge was highly complimentary about Maverick and said he was a truly outstanding example."
It is not the first time he has bred a national colour champion - he won with a brown male suri in 2010 which died soon after - but this time he is hoping it will lead to bigger things, including more sales.
"Ultimately my goal is to win a supreme suri title."
Maverick would probably be retired from shows to concentrate on stud duties, while Merlin was just one of several quality youngsters he had, Mr King said.
Although the very best males sold for up to $30,000 and females for $25,000 often to overseas buyers, he would be holding on to Maverick.
"He is good enough to go overseas but his bloodlines are too valuable to me. I couldn't put a price on him."
The key to much of Mr King's success is a keen eye for picking good stock when they are very young and some punts that have paid off.
"I've been very lucky with people who have allowed me access to their gene pools."
An example of that is Maverick's mother, whom he bought almost two years ago from a friend and well known breeder who was retiring.
"To have her here on the farm is a real coup. She is pretty special and every single cria [offspring] she has produced has become a show winner."
Now going on 12 with another cria at foot, he hopes she will produce more national champions.
"She better have three or four more years in her otherwise she is going to be an expensive pet."
Mr King is the only Nelson stud breeder of suris - distinctive for their long pencil-like locks. Making up less than 10 per cent of the national herd which is dominated by huacaya, suris are prized for their silky fleece which fetches a premium on world markets.
He got hooked after seeing them in Japan where he was living at the time. He bought his first animals in Australia and was one of the first to begin breeding suris in New Zealand.
As well as producing beautiful fleeces, he said they were lovely, gentle animals to rear. "They are easy to handle and very intelligent."
His wife Yumiko and 12-year-old son William had no problem handling stud males which were bigger and stronger than them.
However, like most alpaca breeders, they only provided a supplementary and uneven income.
Most of the return comes from stud fees and selling animals - a couple setting up a farm park recently bought nine which they intend to breed from.
Making money out of the fibre has proved more difficult. He has a barn full of fleece but lacks the time to find markets for it.
Part of the problem is that the relatively few breeders are scattered, the amount of fibre they produce individually is not enough to support a commercial operation and fibre length, colour and quality is variable.
But Mr King said suri breeders were exploring setting up a collective to pool their resources and had recently received a grant to experiment with processing the fibre. The aim was to produce a variety of different yarns which could be used in a range of products, including exclusive garments.
"The trick is to try to add value.
"Alpaca is a luxury fibre and you have got to make sure the end product is perfect, particularly if you are aiming for the Asian market where quality is paramount."
He was also involved in a local group of huacaya breeders who were looking at ways to use their fibre.
Alpacas haven't been Mr King's only interest. Long fascinated by genetics, he began breeding canaries while at university, importing them from Australia.
In 2000 he won a national title for the best new colour canary after spending eight years breeding a mutation. He then dabbled in parrots.
Alpacas, however, required a lot more patience, he said.
"Canaries aren't so bad. A good mother can raise 10 to 15 babies a year. With an alpaca you wait for one and it takes 11 months."
But there will be no going back.
Instead, he is on the lookout for a larger property to expand his alpaca operation.
- © Fairfax NZ News