PEORIA, Ill. — A central Illinois city known more for mining equipment and corn and soybean farms played unlikely host to a large specialty animal agriculture event the weekend of March 23-25: The 2018 Alpaca Owners Assoc. (AOA) National Alpaca Show.
More than 800 of the animals, along with their human entourages, made it to Peoria to fill the Civic Center Convention Hall. In the days before the show, the “alpacalypse” was promoted by a barrage of local print and television media – and the people of Peoria responded enthusiastically.
“It’s been a great success,” said Bud Synhorst, executive director of the Lincoln, Neb.-based AOA, on the event’s final afternoon, when eight National Supreme Champion ribbons were awarded to the finest registered Suri and Huacaya alpaca specimens in the country.
“The people of Peoria have been pouring in here since we opened on Friday, taking selfies with the alpacas, checking out the animals and shopping with our vendors. We’ve also had several different farmers who have walked through to learn more about the industry. We’ve had great turnout.”
The four-year-old AOA provides registration and DNA bloodline confirmation for alpaca varieties, and also markets the industry through shows and promotion. More than 260,000 alpacas are registered by the association, which promotes the industry through sponsorship of 20-30 shows per year. None, however, are as big as the National Alpaca Show, which will move from Peoria to Denver in 2019.
“This is the biggest show in the country. We’ve got around 830, 840 entries here today,” said Synhorst.
He explained in order to earn a spot in the Supreme Champion competition, alpacas must compete in regular halter classes and win the color championship or a regular best-bred and -owned class at the national show. Another way in is to win a color championship at any AOA-certified show during the previous year.
Alpacas from across the country were also judged in a show ring competition for conformation and fleece quality across many categories. In the halter show ring, “they are judged based on the conformation of the animal, the structure, how it looks, how it walks, the fleece, the consistency ... just the entire package,” said Synhorst.
In the walking fleece competition, judges rate the “blanket” of the animal. “The fineness, the luster, the crimp, the softness,” he said. “Is it consistent from shoulder to rump and from the top down?”
From a production standpoint, raising alpacas can provide a positive return on investment, according to Synhorst. “They will eat hay and straw and supplemental feed. They are really easy on your pasture. They are not tearing up your pasture like a cow or a horse, and you don’t need nearly as much land.
“We have people with over 100 alpacas on 15 acres,” he said. “Like any small business, you want to build a model that is sustainable for you and also profitable.”
The gestation period for an alpaca is around 11.5 months. “Females are only bred once a year, so you really have to be selective about your breeding decisions,” Synhorst advised.
Though there is a small market for alpaca meat and hide, the primary commodity produced by the animal is its fiber. Alpacas can also add value to farms that have expanded their operations to include agritourism.
“You can do a lot of things with the fiber. I’ve seen saddle blankets made from alpaca fleece, dog leashes,” he explained. “People are also doing agritourism with alpacas on their farms, where people pay to come out and interact with the animals for a couple of hours.
“Alpacas are great for that because they have a bottom set of teeth and an upper pad, so biting is not a huge issue. Some of them will walk up to you and check you out, but they are not a charge animal. They are a very family-friendly livestock animal.”
Alpacas are often confused with their larger and less marketable cousins, llamas. Synhorst noted while their South American lineage is intertwined, their differences are profound.
“Alpacas and llamas are very similar; both are part of the camelid family. The biggest difference is size – a llama is going to get to (weigh) 350 to 400 pounds, while an alpaca will cap out between 150 and 200. Llamas have big banana-shaped ears. The fiber is also very different – the alpaca fiber is just a lot finer and softer.
“The big difference in the two (alpaca) breeds is the fiber. Structurally, they are built the same. The Huacaya has more fluffy, teddy-bear fleece that is very soft, while the Suri has the longer, more dreadlocked fleece. Both are very beautiful fleece.”
Do alpacas spit? “Sometimes, but not a lot. Sometimes if there is a food (competition) issue, they will spit at each other. It’s not as frequent as some of their cousins.”
Alpacas have a lifespan of 20-25 years. They were first imported to the United States in 1984. Their fleece, which comes in 16 natural shades, is known for being as soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter and stronger than wool. The animals are quiet, but might make a humming noise to communicate or an occasional shrill sound to send an alarm.
To learn more about alpacas and the AOA, visit www.AlpcacaInfo.com
In addition, the AOA has published an Alpaca Owners Guide that can be requested through the association.