Jo Parker, Rushmere Alpacas
?C?est fracturer? the doctor announced with great finality. ?It can?t be? I inwardly groaned to myself. I hadn?t finished my project here in Madagascar. How would I get home? And when I did get home, how would we cope with the four cria due to be born in the next month?
Keeping alpacas in our busy schedule was always going to be a challenge. Unlike many of the breeders we?ve met, my husband Neil and I both have full time jobs, Neil working as a senior surveyor for Connell?s Survey and Valuation and me with my own engineering consultancy, which takes me all around the world ? including Madagascar.
It?s not that we didn?t have activities to fill our leisure time apart from alpacas. I am a keen triathlete, training 7 or 8 hours a week as well as an amateur musician playing ?cello and double bass in various local orchestras and jazz bands. Neil is a keen ?wargamer? and paints replica armies not just for himself but for other competitors, each tiny figure accurate in every historical detail, although only an inch high. We were also volunteers at a local concert venue, working several nights a month ushering, selling ice-creams or whatever other duties were required of us.
We could have just kept a few ?pet males? to keep the grass down, but decided we?d buy breeding females and sell the offspring. We would not keep our own stud but would buy in matings, allowing us to choose the best stud for our ?girls.? Although it was not to be our only income, we wanted to run the small herd professionally and generate an income from our land. When I prepared a business plan I felt we could make a reasonable return on our capital and make a small profit.
We had one advantage as far as time went in that the land on which we would keep the alpacas was adjacent to the house and clearly visible from the house. When at home I could work and keep an eye on the alpacas ? a valuable benefit when crias are due. To minimise paperwork we did not set up a limited company or become VAT registered. My accountant helped us set up a simple partnership which allows the income (or losses) to be allocated to either one of us. Although I hoped to make use of our fleeces, with so little spare time I could see that the economics for a small breeder would not make that an income generating part of the business.
With the initial land we had which was already fenced we could have five or six alpacas, so in 2007 we bought our first two pregnant females. A further purchase at one of the alpaca spring fiestas and the birth of our first cria doubled the size of our small herd. Sadly the second cria died a few days after birth and our inexperience meant we failed to have a post mortem carried out. To complete the herd we bought a pregnant female with cria at foot later in the year ? just before the movement ban for foot and mouth came in. That slowed our progress as with no stud male of our own we could not mate our alpacas that year so the following year we only produced one cria, leaving us still with insufficient animals to consider selling any. However, we organised the fencing of some more land to give us some more flexibility and added a further alpaca to the herd. If truth be told by this time we were hooked. The animals had worked their magic and I loved working with them, grabbing any opportunity I could.
Although we had hoped to learn from courses in herd assessment and camelid handling, our other commitments so far have prevented us from attending any of them. However, we did manage to attend some evening meetings organised by local BAS areas, as where we are located places us on the edge of several regions. We gradually got to know other local breeders and one came to assess our herd. By this time we had learnt enough to realise what we had was unlikely to win any prizes. Our initial purchases had been based more on the ?cute? factor than any scientific approach and apart from our most recent purchase, a beautiful grey and possibly our latest cria, our alpacas would never win. She was tactful but honest. Talking to other breeders we have found this is a common tale. Sadly many breeders, some of them large and reputable, pass on their poorer animals to ?beginners?. Whilst it does mean people can make their mistakes, as we did, on less valuable animals not all breeders are honest about the quality and not all breeders price accordingly.
So that brought us to 2009. We had successfully mated all the adult females and this year we hoped to sell some of our alpacas, giving us a chance to improve our herd. That was when disaster struck in the form of a broken leg. Thankfully the first two cria arrived without a hitch ? both females. Although we had learnt a lot since the loss of the cria in our first year, we watched both like a hawk and I supplemented the feed of one with a bottle ? an interesting challenge with a broken leg but at least it gave me something else to do sitting down! As I was also at home more than intended it also gave me a chance to ensure that the alpacas were duly entered on the Alpacaseller web site. We priced the alpacas sensibly and were honest about their quality. A buyer contacted us who wanted one of the nursing mums and then a contact she had wanted the other one. We had sold our first four alpacas.
Whilst I was still in plaster we even had our first attempt at showing. Neil did the honours in the ring at the last ever Royal Show, whilst I watched from my invalid buggy. We came away with a first for our grey and a third for our mid brown home grown cria. The same results were repeated at the Scottish fleece show against a wide field, perhaps due to the fact that fleece sorting was something I could do whilst resting with my leg up on the bed.
However, we were very aware that we needed to think about our marketing. An advert on Alpacaseller could not always guarantee a sale. We were realistic about the market we were targeting ? small local land owners who wanted to gain as much enjoyment from the animals as we had. My enforced rest gave me a chance to produce simple leaflets to leave with the farm suppliers and the vets we used which have generated a surprising response, due at least to personal endorsement from the suppliers themselves based on their knowledge of our care and attention. I designed a web site ? which features a chatty blog recording our day to day activities with the alpacas and a wide variety of photos taken throughout the year. We also give a short biography of each alpaca, stressing that we know each one individually. I started producing press releases which lead to photos and articles in the local newspaper. All this has helped generate steady interest such that now all our targeted alpacas are sold and we are even thinking about buying one or two new females ? now with our greater knowledge of what to look for in an alpaca.
The Alpaca Futurity gave us a further chance to raise our profile within the alpaca and I decided to sponsor the small breeder award. Although we had no qualifying alpacas this year it did mean we were actively involved. It proved a good use of our time, allowing us to go to lectures, discuss potential stud males, view a huge variety of high quality alpacas and talk to suppliers about new feed materials and halters.
Sitting next to Chas and Rachel of Classical Mile End Alpacas at the dinner, we gained an interesting insight into the world of the larger breeder. That conversation and the memory of the rows of rosettes and sashes on the railings of the larger breeders lead me to reflect whether there would be a place for us small guys into the future and I felt there would.
In other areas of livestock farming, with sheep and cows, there are large and small establishments and there will be room for the Rushmeres alongside EP Cambridge and Classical Mile End. The herd is growing and of course the supply of newcomers to the world of alpacas won?t go on for ever. However, like all businesses, if you think through why you are in business, what are your targets, what is your target market and your ?USP? (unique selling point) it is possible to succeed whatever your size and we feel positive for the future of our small concern.
Who knows what the future will bring? We are changing. In March we visit Bozedown to attend their mating course and will bring back our first stud male, a son of their superb grey stud, The Chief. A neighbour has offered us sixteen acres to rent for a very reasonable sum and we are seriously considering it. However, we are in this because we love the animals so will not lose sight of the fact that we want to maintain the daily contact with the herd with a close knowledge of the character and behaviour of each one. That is our USP!