Hay growers looking for marketing niches should investigate the alpaca industry.

Compared to other livestock, alpaca numbers are low: There are currently over 70,000 registered alpacas in the U.S. But the industry has seen consistent growth over the 20 years since farmers began breeding alpacas in this country, says Jerry Miller of the 4,000-member Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.

Because alpacas can no longer be imported into the U.S., alpacas here are raised for breeding as well as their luxury fiber. Alpaca fiber is lighter and warmer than wool, naturally fire-retardant and contains no lanolin or oil, so it's hypoallergenic.

“Alpaca items, from socks to sweaters to stuffed toys, are beginning to catch on like crazy,” Miller notes. Awareness of the fiber is growing fast, he says.

Richard Wildt, Morgan, MN, agrees. He's been raising alpacas for 20 years and sells fiber products and alpacas for breeding stock and pets.

“Once people get a hold of this alpaca fiber and start using it, they come back,” Wildt says. “It's growing every year.”

Alpacas are ruminants that require much less feed than most animals their size (150-175 lbs). But alpaca owners, while disagreeing about feeding details, agree on the need for grass hay in the alpaca diet.

“Not all alpaca people want the same type of feed; we disagree with one another,” says Connie Bodeker, a suri alpaca breeder from Cannon Falls, MN. “Any good grass hay with 15-16% protein that's palatable and free of weeds and seed heads should be the base of a good alpaca feeding program. Everybody agrees that it's the best basic feed for alpacas.”

Bodeker, who has an animal science degree from the University of Minnesota, is choosy about the grass hay she buys for her 60-plus alpacas.

“We're very picky people, worse than the horse people by a long shot.” Yet Bodeker says she'll pay well for quality hay.

“We don't want a lot of debris because of the fleece production, and we want a very soft hay that should have a TDN of around 60%. Anything over 55% is adequate.”

Alpaca owners have a lot of money invested in their animals, she notes. Alpacas can live 20 years and still reproduce at 15 years, so Bodeker says proper nutrition can be more important than for some other marketed animals.

Wildt says he can't afford to be choosy about the hay in his region, where soybeans and corn are the predominant crops and grass hay is harder to find.

The money he spends on feeding his alpaca herd — which ranges from 260 to 400 head depending on sales and time of year — is split 50-50 between grain and hay. He buys about 5,000 bales a year and feeds his herd grain and hay twice a day.

Wildt says alpacas need dry hay year round.

“We have some friends on San Juan Island out in the ocean by the state of Washington. They have lush green pasture 6” high, but their alpacas still have to eat hay. They need some dry matter in their stomachs.”

Most alpaca owners have only a few head — the average farm is 10-20 alpacas. There are over a thousand alpacas at farms in states such as Ohio and Washington, says Cindy Berman of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, but that's unusual.

The number of alpaca owners in the U.S. jumped after 9/11, Berman says. “We attribute that to the fact that a lot of people wanted to get out of the cities. Alpacas are relatively low maintenance. It's a great lifestyle, and you don't need much land for them. Since then we've had slow, steady growth and more people are finding out what alpacas are.”

For more information and a list of alpaca farmers, see www.alpacainfo.com.