AS far as niche markets are concerned, alpaca breeding has been growing at a healthy rate.
The joint owners of Dandura Alpacas, Jenny and Keith McKenry, who have been farming on 51 acres in Harcourt North since 2005, can attest to that growth.
The star of their alpaca herd is by far and away Twinkle, a beautiful guard whose instinct is to protect everyone around him, chooks included. But more of Twinkle later.
The longevity of the alpaca industry was questioned when it first emerged in the 1980s, but alpaca numbers are steadily increasing in Australia, with the overall numbers in the vicinity of 130.000. Ms McKenry said a lot of work had been done by the Australian Alpaca Association to improve genetic standards and develop government links.
And she said there were more alpacas in the central Victoria region than any other part of Australia.
“The undulating land and the climate, it’s not particularly hot, make this region particularly suitable for alpacas,” Ms McKenry said.
“As well as the fleece market that is used in high-end fashion, the Australian alpaca industry is diversifying into a meat and skin market.”
However, most people make their money from alpacas by selling on their herd and they then value add to their profit with high-quality fleeces, as do the McKenrys.
And Ms McKenry said alpacas appealed to tree changers who wanted a herd that was easy to run. “Farmers with large herds of alpacas are actually rare,” she said.
“Eighty per cent of herds in Australia are small, consisting of 10 animals or less. Our own herd varies but we have had up to 55 alpacas, and on this basis we’re considered large.”
The McKenrys themselves have a breeding program focused on producing better breeders.
“Most of our alpaca income comes from selling on our stock to first-time or established breeders,” Ms McKenry said. “We also provide stud services. And we are very happy to give new comers advice.”
The McKenrys often sell their alpacas as a package. “People might buy four ewes ready for a spring drop, a ram, and a guard,” Ms McKenry said.
“Alpacas that we don’t believe will be good breeding stock are wethered and trained as pets or sheep guards. The guards need to be alert, be able to bond with their charges and have a good chase instinct for unwanted predators.”
And this is where Twinkle comes in.
“As soon as he came onto the property I knew he had a strong guard instinct,” Ms McKenry said. “We have a herd of Wiltshire Horns and he knows which lamb belongs to which ewe.
“When he was little Twinkle would keep watch while the other alpacas in the herd were feeding – he wouldn’t eat until they had finished.”
Like other alpacas, Ms McKenry said Twinkle would guard sheep, goats and chooks. “He has a wonderful personality and I’ve become very attached to him. I would never sell him.”
While the couple have left a former existence as senior administrators in Canberra, they are now enjoying the more elemental nature of their working days.
“I give injections, cut toenails, bottle feed and help in birthing. My first assisted birth was a premie from a first-time mum,” Ms McKenry said. “The vet couldn’t make it on time and I delivered her by myself – that was special.”