Nick Veltjens - Talca Alpacas
How are we planning our longer term future? Have we really analysed our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, i.e. a SWOT analysis?. I know we have nibbled at the edges, but I feel we need to go further than that very soon. This is not a new thought, I've been pushing for a longer term vision on a global basis for a number of years - an industry plan.

This is why I am impressed with the Australian wine industry. Five years ago they prepared Strategy 2025, a plan for an integrated industry for the next 30 years. They are tracking it, and each vineyard knows exactly what contribution it is expected to make.

The strategy is not aiming to make Australia the biggest wine producer in the world, but the best. We would do well to take a leaf out the winegrowers' strategy book!

Our Alpaca industry needs to think much further ahead than we seem to be doing at present. We are still doing a lot of "navel gazing", and do not spend enough time to plan further ahead than the next "National Show".

I am pleased to see that our president, Ian Watt, is doing some number crunching to gauge the size of the industry. He has also expanded on his own vision of the future alpaca industry's commercial structure in Alpacas Australia recently, suggesting the development of elite studs. I agree with his idea of pushing the genetic development of top Alpacas by means of elite studs and daughter studs. We are at a point in the development of the quality of our animals, where sudden quantum leaps can occur in the improvement of the Australian herd. Unfortunately this is not yet happening in a coordinated way.

The fibre industry will ultimately be supplied with its raw products from the breeders' largest customer, the broad acre alpaca farmers. They will buy wethers, which means around half of the Australian herd.

Unless those wethers produce fibre that has the quality their customers expect for selling to their clientele in terms of softness, light weight, etc. those farmers will consider our animals neither viable nor suitable for the production of the fibre they want to sell.

If we look at what we have achieved in the last 10 or 11 years, we have bounded ahead in huge strides. Thanks particularly to Roger Haldane's insistence, we have consolidated our breeding with regard to solid colours, and have improved the average fleece quality every year.

The next step is to achieve what will be essential for broad acre farmers to be able to make a buck. Unless their farms are viable, they will not support us.

Animal Quality
The average quality of our animals is probably among the best - if not at the top - of the world, and our chance of improving faster than everyone else is greater, because the average age of our herd is young; I estimate it at about 3.7 years.

I have again done some research with respect to the viability of broad acre farms, and concluded that, broadly speaking, unless Alpacas produce useable fleece from 5kg upwards per annum per Alpaca at maximum 22-24 micron for say 10 years, we are not likely to attract the farmers that will drive the industry forward with herds of 1,000+ alpaca.

To achieve that target, Alpacas will have to be improved very rapidly. It is a task that can only be achieved in a coordinated way; otherwise the number of 'advanced' animals like that will remain too small.

How can we achieve such a daunting target?
We could start with our show judging. At present, in my opinion, our industry is operating on two levels.

The show judging circuit, which, while it is improving, still tends to follow more aesthetic lines, such as pompoms, leg coverage, "density" determined by feel, fine crimp.

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On the other hand, we have the advanced Alpaca farm productivity line. This concentrates on increasing follicle density by increasing the S/P (secondary to primary fibre) ratio, fast fibre growth rate, reduction of fibre diameter in primary fibres, and genetic changes to hold low mean fibre micron over most of the life of the Alpacas.

The show circuit criteria can be counterproductive, as the visual evidence for breeding adopted in the show ring is not necessarily representative of the methods of the farm production line.

"Density" as determined in the show ring and fleece judging sheets can favour coarser fleeces, as it is measured by feel and weight respectively. According to my investigations, two fleeces with the same follicle density, fleece area, crimp and fibre length, but different mean fibre diameter, will have very different fleece weights:

  • For two fleeces with 35 follicles per mm2, one with a mean of 20 micron the other with 25 micron will weigh 2.41kg and 3.59kg respectively. 
  • If the follicle density is increased to 55 per mm2, the equivalent weights would become 3.87kg and 5.75kg. (See the Fleece Weight Graph).
The success of increasing follicle density in the advanced Alpaca production line has been proven by Dr. Jim Watts in his SRS® (Soft Rolling Skin) enterprise in Merinos, where he has achieved a fleece weight of 12 kg per year in a ewe. The promotion of his ideas through Coolaroo Alpaca Stud is already showing a far reaching effect among the breeders who follow their lead.

Important in this breeding program is, that the improvement of robustness of those Alpacas must be simultaneous with increasing fleece weight. The heavier fleece calls for animals that have a strong frame (not necessarily bigger), larger chest space for bigger lung and heart operation, broader muzzle to allow for proper breathing for these animals to carry the heavier fleece in the sort of climatic conditions where sheep now graze. In my personal opinion we should also not insist on growing fleece all over the face, belly and legs, as Alpacas with high follicle density are possibly going to suffer more from heat stress than open fleeced animals, unless they have some skin areas for cooling (apart from absorbing Vitamin D).

The process of breeding such advanced Alpacas to a stage when they produce 5kg per annum will still take a number of years, and will, without a coordinated effort, be more sporadic than it should be.

Herds for Advanced Fibre Production
Most predictions for a viable fibre industry seem to rely on the number of Alpacas in the Australian herd reaching 500,000, and some predictions, including mine, expect this to happen around 2010.

It is not quite as simple as that. We may have the numbers at that stage, but will the quality of those animals be suitable for viable fibre production?

I have attempted to estimate what could be achieved. Such an estimate must naturally rest on a few assumptions, as we are talking about the sort of Alpacas that do not even exist yet anywhere in the world.

By 2007
We could assume that some quantum leaps in breeding could be achieved over the next 7 years, and that very optimistically 75% of all animals born in 2007 and later will be of the advanced production quality of producing say 5kg of fleece per annum.

By 2010
Our herd will consist of around 222,000 adult females, 210,000 wethers, 65,000 cria and weanlings of each gender, and perhaps 4,600 studmales.