There are a number of things to consider before launching into alpaca ownership. First, talk to and visit as many existing breeders as possible. You'll gain insight into the variety of ways different farms have structured their operations and their businesses and you'll begin to develop an eye for the types of alpacas you like.
The key for any new alpaca owner or breeder is to understand what draws you to these animals and what type of business or lifestyle you want to create around that. You can choose to become a breeder and breed and sell breeding stock and services. You can invest in alpacas by buying them but keeping them on another farm (agisting) or by co-owning them with another buyer. You can enter the show circuit and raise and train show animals. You can raise pet quality animals for companionship and pleasure. You can focus of fiber and fiber arts. You can operate a farm store and sell alpaca end products (yarn and sweaters, for example) and by products (fertilizer, for example). Alpacas can be a huge additional draw to an agritourism operation or form the basis for creating one. Some of these could be big money operations, others are not.
Once you've defined your own interests and goals, look for shows and seminars and workshops in your area. The more you can educate yourself about all aspects of alpacas and the alpaca business, the more informed your choices will be. Then, based on this information, you can (and should!) develop a business plan to help you define how you can best meet your goals. Many existing breeders are willing to help new alpaca owners with this.
Some new alpaca owners begin with a few geldings to test the waters. Others begin with a few bred females and grow a herd slowly, learning as they go. Others begin with an entire herd, so that they are "in business" immediately. All of these (and many more) methods can be successful, the important thing is for you to understand what your own goals and expectations are and to choose a plan that can get you there.
Why Are They So Darn Expensive?
At this stage of the industry's development, price is based largely on the scarcity of the animals and is directly related to the individual breeding potential and the potential quality of the offspring.
For example, a gelding (castrated male) has no breeding potential and is therefore the cheapest alpaca to buy (often less than $1,000). On the other hand, a high quality male with many good progeny (offspring) on the ground has a very high breeding potential and can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. He can also command a high income from the stud services he provides. Young, unproven males are often considerably less.
A female's price is a reflection of her quality, age, breeding history and that of the herdsire to which she is bred. Females can be worth anything from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Currently, income from females is derived from selling the offspring. However, breeding and business plans should account for the growing fiber market.
Demand for alpacas has increased dramatically every year since their introduction outside of South America. Just as an example of the rising interest, the US breed association (AOBA) exceeded 3,000 members in 2002, when there were none in 1990 and only 1,000 in 1997. As it's grown, AOBA has spawned several important organizations within the alpaca industry like a national fiber co-op (AFCNA), the show division, and Alpacas magazine to name a few. AOBA and AOBA-affiliates, like GLAA, are also able to provide marketing support to new and existing alpaca owners.
Currently demand still exceeds the supply and the current scarcity of alpacas is likely to continue as, in 2000, the members of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) and the Alpaca Registry (ARI), voted to close the registry to new imports. This means that alpacas imported to the US cannot be registered (similar to a pedigree for other pure breed animals), which has had the effect of curtailing new imports. So, in the US, the animals themselves remain relatively scarce, causing the current and forseeable future prices of alpacas to exceed their value as fiber producers alone.