Curious creatures

Ranchers raise 70 alpacas prized for their fleece

Young alpacas approach Susan Kacsh at Pleasant Journey Alpacas, the ranch Kacsch and her husband, Glenn, operate south of Breen. The Kacshes oversee a herd of 70 alpacas. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Young alpacas approach Susan Kacsh at Pleasant Journey Alpacas, the ranch Kacsch and her husband, Glenn, operate south of Breen. The Kacshes oversee a herd of 70 alpacas.

BREEN – A couple here are opening their 70-head alpaca ranch to the public this weekend for the National Alpaca Farm Days observation.

Susan and Glenn Kacsh will be at Pleasant Journey Alpacas to introduce visitors to one of the five-member camelid family. The other four are the camel and the Andean natives – llama, vicuña and guanaco.

“We saw an Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association ad, took some classes and got into business,” Susan Kacsh said.

That was six years ago in Queen Creek, Ariz. They bought 35 acres here in 2010 and moved in a year ago. Today, their herd of 70 includes a few boarders.

The Kacshes breed mainly the huacaya strain of alpaca for its fleece, which is soft, three times warmer than wool and doesn’t cause allergies. They have a few of the rarer suri alpaca, the fleece of which hangs in dreadlocks in contrast to the smooth coat of the huacaya.

The Kacshes are among a growing number of alpaca breeders in the country, said Cindy Berman with the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. The AOBA, formed in 1988, has in excess of 3,500 members, she said.

“We’ve seen steady growth,” Berman said. “We’re in all 50 states and the Alpaca Registry has more than 177,000 animals listed in the United States.”

The Alpaca Registry has 192,545 registered alpacas worldwide, the vast majority in the United States (177,688). Colorado is the state with the most registered alpacas although it’s second to California in the number of owners (individuals or ranches).

The Alpaca Registry numbers declined in recent years as the general economy soured, executive director Darby Vannier said in an email statement.

“But we’ve seen signs of improvement the past couple of years,” Vannier said. “We have seen an increase in the number of small family farms around the U.S. and Canada.”

In addition to registering alpacas and tracking bloodlines, the registry transfers registrations, provides education and runs an expected progeny differences program – an estimate of the genetic worth of an animal as a sire or dam, Vannier said.

Alpacas are smaller than the llama, but larger than the vicuña and the guanaco. Male alpacas weigh 160 to 180 pounds, with the female coming in 20 pounds lighter. Baby alpacas, which are born without human midwifery, average 15 pounds at birth. Newborns are up and walking within two hours.

“Alpaca are very gentle, timid and curious,” Kacsh said. “Some like to be petted, but most don’t.

The herd occupies open corrals under the watchful eye of Charlotte, a Maremma, an Italian guard dog, and two llamas, Belle and Lobo.

“The biggest danger we have are coyotes,” Kacsh said. “But they also will chase away stray dogs.”

Kacsh has three herd sires, Adonnis Altitude, Alpine Volt and Never Summers Manchester – with the name derivations best left without explanation.

She recently bought a 4-month-old male – scheduled to arrive in the spring – which she expects to be of sire quality.

Alpaca breeders strive for quality of fleece – density and fineness are the desired qualities – as well as genetics, conformation and color, Kacsh said. There are 16 registered colors ranging from white to black.

“You never quite know what color you’re going to get,” Kacsh said. “I got two rose-grey babies and one dark-brown baby from the same sire and dam.”

The Kacshes exhibit their alpacas at national shows in Denver, Loveland and Dallas. Exhibitors can show fleece as well as animals at the events.

Show judges put 60 percent of their grade on quality of fleece and 40 percent on conformation, the skeletal aspects of the animal. There are divisions for male and female and within each, categories for age and color.

Kacsh hires professional shearers in the summer to remove alpaca blankets, as the sheared fleece is known. Many shearers are Australians or New Zealanders, who ply their trade at home and in the United States.

Kacsh sends raw fleece to a mill that washes, cards and removes extraneous materials. The fleece is returned as yarn or ready for spinning or felting.

There are not enough commercial mills, she said. Fleece processing tends to be a cottage industry, which requires her to sometimes wait a year to get fleece processed.

Cindy Berman with the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, said processing mills aren’t abundant because the national alpaca herd, 177,000 strong, isn’t large enough to warrant investment in equipment.