The Benefits Of Alpacas In The Australian Environment This Century

Introduction

Sustainability is no longer a good enough objective for Australian agriculture. We now need to improve the health of our degraded environment not just sustain it or conserve it as we have strived to do in the past.

Now with the help of new no-tillage sowing technology, new time control grazing systems and alpacas, a new species of livestock recently successfully introduced into Australia, we can start to improve our degraded environment. As well of course we need our agricultural enterprises to be economically sustainable.

A new term to describe this lofty objective is “regenerative agriculture” but the word “sustainable” is still very much in vogue. When agriculture is regenerative, soils, water, vegetation and productivity continually improve rather than staying the same or slowly getting worse. As well as being productive and profitable regenerative agriculture instils a deep sense of personal satisfaction in farmers, rural communities and observers alike. Revitalising the natural resource base rekindles our sense of self and our sense of place in the environment. (Jones 2002).

Australian agriculture operates in one of the driest, oldest, and more fragile landscapes on earth.

Cattle and sheep are the dominant livestock species used, across some two-thirds of the landscape, but they both have limitations and adverse impacts on agricultural ecosystems, often as a result of the declining terms-of-trade. Alpacas a new livestock industry is offering the potential of a higher level of profitability and the opportunity to use better management of ecosystems in a regenerative and sustainable manner because alpacas are ecosystem friendly (Charry, Kemp & Lawrie 2003).

As a practising soil scientist and agronomist I spend a lot of time looking at land degradation issues. These are mainly related to the physical, chemical and biological degradation of the soil resource. Especially soil erosion, soil structure decline, fertility decline including acidity, soil biological decline, and tree decline and salinity problems.

The alpaca industry has much to offer in helping to solve these problems when these issues are looked at from a holistic perspective. Their grazing behaviour, disease-free status, low animal hoof pressure, efficiency in conversion of low quality forage, excretion habits and amicable temperament are some of the attributes that make alpacas desirable for most Australian ecosystems, particularly for small-intensive farming and part-time farming, as well as for extensive, multi-enterprise farming operations.

My talk will explore this vital role for alpacas in improving our degraded environment as well as look at some ways that alpacas will become a viable addition to our other agricultural enterprises over the next decade or two. Some of what I say is speculative and perhaps a bit controversial but I hope that this may stimulate ideas and further debate.

Utilising our Native Pastures

Mature wether alpacas can survive on a low protein diet (7.5% crude protein) while sheep and cattle require at least 12% protein (Vaughan and Costa 1998). Additional protein is provided by micro-flora activity in their rumen. Alpacas are very good at maintaining a nitrogen balance because they can recycle urea in their saliva, they extract more urea from their stomachs than other ruminants and they excrete less nitrogen in their urine. This means that wethers will eventually play an important role in grazing especially in our poorer quality natural pastures.

Alpacas are also ideally suited to these rangeland conditions because they easy to manage with minimal fencing requirements and yards. In our rangelands alpacas will graze with other livestock in time control grazing systems. Larger numbers will be needed in rangelands for stock protection not only from foxes, dingoes and wild dogs but also from some avian predators (see later section) Alpaca wethers when not needed for stock protection may follow in the grazing rotation after the other livestock have been moved to fresh pastures. This will ensure that the wether fleeces remain fine and retain their value. Fibre fineness of alpaca fleeces can blow out much more than merino fleeces, increasing by up to 5-10 microns on nutritious pastures. They will also be used to control some woody weeds like sweet briars and blackberries.

Alpacas have split lips similar to kangaroos (Lawrie 1999) and they are also very selective grazers with low nutrient requirements. Alpacas may even eventually be used for land management and fire control in our national parks. That is if the “greenies” decide that they would still prefer national parks without bushfires and they continue to want the parks to go back to pre-aboriginal condition (circa 50,000 years ago) when there were abundant mammals (now extinct) grazing the landscape.

The amount of food an alpaca needs is similar to a sheep i.e. one dry sheep equivalent (1dse).

Hembras (female alpacas) weigh about 60-70 kg body weight compared with merino ewes (45-50kg) but alpacas are 37% more efficient at extracting energy and protein from low quality feed. This is because the digestion process takes longer in an alpaca. It takes 63 hours for food to pass through the alimentary canal compared with 41 hours for sheep (50% longer than sheep and twice as long as cattle).

A dry hembra or wether weighing 65kg needs about 7 MJ (megajoules) of ME (metabolic energy) per/day. This could be fed entirely with about 1.3kg of hay/day that is one small square bale every 2 weeks. Research from Murdoch University indicates that better quality WA straws would meet this criterion for energy (Vaughan and Costa 1998).

However pregnant hembra and growing cria need a much higher plan of nutrition. Hembras in late pregnancy need one and a half amount times the energy (dse = 1.5) and lactating hembras twice (dse = 2) with 12-14% protein while weaned crias also need twice as much energy and up to 16% protein.

Improved Pastures

In more intensive grazing situations alpacas will be used to increase perennially by helping re-establish native perennial grasses and spread introduced perennial grasses. Poo piles provide an ideal seedbed for establishing both native and introduced perennial grasses, especially when no other livestock are grazing. To assist the establishment of perennial grasses any broad-leafed weeds can be sprayed out with cheap broad leaf herbicides.

Also alpacas prefer eating grasses and forbs rather than legumes so they are ideal grazing tools to help maintain legumes in the pastures. It is essential to maintain about 30% legume mix to provide adequate nitrogen for a healthy pasture.

Improving the Health of our Soils

Alpaca over time spread nutrients evenly around the entire paddock as they move their dung piles around. In small paddocks with time-controlled grazing and high stocking density it is believed that after ten rotations the alpacas have covered the full area of the paddock with their poo-piles with a dramatic improvement in fertility and native and perennial pasture establishment (Charry, Kemp and Lawrie, 2003). This is also illustrated by my aerial photo of dung piles in a four hectare paddock at Bonnie Vale which had been grazed with alpacas for more than twelve years.

The loss of soil nutrients contributing to our acid soil problem is not only an issue of nutrients leaving the farm in product but even to a larger degree the concentration of nutrients in dung on stock camps by traditional livestock. For instance sheep camp normally on the north eastern side of hills so that they receive the first sun at daybreak and cattle poop in streams and under trees where enriched nutrients in the soil cause the death of Eucalyptus spp. and other native trees. Also alpacas normally don’t ringbark trees as do goats and horses.

Alpacas help improve soil structure (see Table 1). They apply low pressures on the soil even less than kangaroos when both species are stationary and kangaroos are resting on their tails. The only domesticated grazing animal that is kinder to the soil is the camel. You all know that sheep foot rollers are used to prepare and compact road surfaces. Sheep are even worse as they drag their hooves along the ground and pulverise the soil surface when it is bare.

Table 1. Static Loads Exerted by Stationary Animals.

Horses (shod) 295 kPa
Cattle 185 kPa
Humans (shod)
95 kPa 
Sheep 82 kPa
Kangaroos* 46 kPa
Alpacas 39 kPa
Camels 33 kPa


Source: Lawrie, 1995
* Values for kangaroo were calculated including the surface area of tail of the kangaroo.
 

These pressures have been calculated as the weight per projected unit of contact. Considering the shape of cloven-hoofed sheep and cattle whose hooves are not flat these values may be under estimated especially on firm surfaces.

Conservation Farming and No-til Sowing

Conservation farming is the practice of sowing crops and pastures without cultivating the soil to preserve more soil moisture and prevent soil erosion. The use of no-tillage sowing equipment for sowing both pastures and crops is essential for preventing soil erosion and improving soil health especially increasing soil biota and soil structure

We will also see alpacas increasingly used in the mixed farming / grazing enterprises especially in no-tillage systems. This is not only because they are soft on land but also because alpaca wethers can maintain their condition on crop stubble (Vaughan and Costa 1998) unlike other livestock.

Alpacas will be used to reduce stubble levels and to control weeds like wireweed, which are difficult to control with herbicides allowing crops to be sown without stubble blocking up no-tillage equipment.

Another advantage of alpacas in mixed farming grazing areas is that they can be fed cereal grain with fewer problems than are associated with other ruminants Saliva flow in alpaca is much greater than sheep and this allows buffering against acids in the stomach. Another advantage of alpacas is that they have no gall bladder so bile is continuously secreted from the liver. This increases efficiency of their stomachs and also protects against acidosis, during rapid fermentation that can occur with cereal diets (Vaughan and Costa, 1998). However a word of caution one of our breeders has lost alpacas feeding triticale grain.

Protection of Livestock from Predators

The number of alpacas used to protect lambs and kids against foxes depends mainly on the size and the shape of the paddock rather than the size of the flock. This is because the alpaca will chase the foxes away if a fox is seen or smelt near the paddock. One mature (>15 months old) alpaca per 20 ha should be sufficient. Farmers have reported increases of lambing percentages of greater than 30% were foxes are serious problem.

If there is more than one alpaca in the paddock they may stay together and isolated from the flock but at night they will camp with the flock.

To protect against crows and some other predatory birds an alpaca would need to protect each lambing ewe for about 3 hours depending on the mothering ability and health of the mother. A rough guide of one alpaca per 100 ewes should be adequate.

When required for protection against wild dogs and dingoes, the more alpacas the better. At least 5-10 alpacas are recommended and even more in heavily timbered and rangelands with large paddocks. Alpacas have also been successful in preventing foxes from eating the tongues of calves during delivery.

Alpacas make excellent lead stock and recently during the bushfires one alpaca was observed to lead a flock of sheep to safety. Alpacas also chase unwanted wild grazing animals like kangaroos from small grazing paddocks. However at this stage it is not sure whether they will continue to do this when they realise that they are not predators.

Organically Grown Fibre

Very few chemicals are required for alpaca management i.e. no organophosphates for flystrike, no pesticides for footrot and no artificial colouring needed for producing the wonderful range of natural colours that alpacas provide. Dark coloured fleeces require less dye for dark artificial colours like navy blue.

Drenches are the only chemicals regularly used by some alpaca breeders for worm control. Drenching is minimal when no other livestock are grazed in the same paddocks especially in drier climates and also due to the sanitary use of dung piles by alpacas. In addition, alpacas are ideal for biological rabbit control because they force foxes to predate on rabbits in paddocks not being guarded by alpacas. Therefore farmers need not use baits to poison foxes and rabbits which may endanger the native wildlife.

Economically Sustainable

The price of alpaca fibre (up to 26u) is currently 3-5 times higher than the price of wool of equivalent micron. This plus the low cost of production of alpaca fibre due to no crutching, mulesing, tail docking operations and no dipping for lice or jetting for flystrike will help make running alpacas for fleece production commercially attractive at some time in the near future.

Alpaca fibre will be cheaper to produce than wool because alpacas don't need to be crutched (60 cents), dipped (35 cents), backlined (90 cents) or mulsed (90 cents). These costs plus the labour costs of handling sheep for these extra operations will be greater than the slightly more labour intensive costs associated with shearing commercial numbers of alpacas.

There is huge potential for value adding by blending alpaca with wool one of our major export industries in Australia. Alpaca blends well with wool combining the non-shrinking properties and superior strength of alpaca fibre with the elastic (non-stretch) properties of wool. A blend 20% alpaca with 5% of the wool grown in Australia would require about 40,000 tonnes of alpaca fibre. At the moment the Australian Alpaca Co-operative is only currently receiving 27 tonnes of alpaca fibre/year. So there is a huge potential market without considering other fibres. However the recent AAA 2020 Vision Report by Strategic Development Task Force (Anon 2004) predicted that there will be 1.2 million alpacas producing about 4000 tonnes of quality alpaca fibre in 2020.

The other long-term advantage for alpacas is that they have at least twice the longevity of sheep and goats. This means that a self- replacing flock of alpacas will only require less than half the numbers of breeding females to maintain a flock of wool cutters. Thus the culling rate of females will be able to be higher and the genetic improvement quicker.

In Australia with our low altitudes we have a natural advantage in producing superior quality fleeces because at high altitudes ultra violet light causes significant damage to the tips of fibre. This is especially evident in Peru the country that currently produces the majority of alpaca fibre for world use. As well we will follow the lead of many woolgrowers and add value on farm.

In Australia we also lucky to be able take advantage of valuable research conducted by the CSIRO, Universities and State Government agencies on fibre production industries. So that the alpaca industry can take advantage of advanced breeding research as it already has done with ET (Embryo Transplants) and will eventually do with AI (Artificial Insemination).

This along with International Alpaca Registry set up by our Association and fibre production breeding projects like our annual fleece data project and our Across- Herd Genetic Evaluation (AGE) program will help develop our industry as a world leader. (Davison 2004)

Meat Market

Fortunately we have the potential with alpacas, like sheep, to cull poorer quality and older animals and sell them for their meat. A specialty alpaca viande’ market is currently being explored by enterprising breeders.

Although an estimated wholesale price of $100/head is not yet very attractive to most breeders when guardian alpacas can fetch from $300-500/head.

Several trials have been successfully conducted in Australia to introduce viande’ in the gourmet market. Recently, chemical analysis, using a non-representative sample of wethers, indicated that alpaca meat is essentially very similar to other commercial available meats (Charry, 2003).

Table 2 shows in a comparative manner the initial results obtained in Australia about the nutritional value of viande’ in a comparative manner to beef and lamb.

Table 2: Viande’: Preliminary Chemical Analysis

Beef Lamb Alpaca
Water (g/100g)
73.8 73.6 76
Protein (g/100g) 21.6
22.0 21.7
Fat (g/100 g)
N/A  N/A N/A
Cholesterol (mg/100g) 
60  66 56
Iron (mg/100g) 2.2 1.8 1.9 
Saturated Fatty Acids (% total) N/A N/A 45.7
Mono Unsaturated Fatty Acids (% total) N/A N/A 39.1

Source: P. & R. Lahey, 2003, Personal Data Obtained from Dr H. Greenfield, Report RN327942, the University of Sydney.

However alpaca meat is apparently also low in fat as well as cholesterol. Poorer quality cuts would be ideal for the specialty production of biltong (dried meat product).

Acknowledgement and About the Author  

John and Julie Lawrie and their family have been involved with alpacas in Australia for more than 15 years. We are original members of both the Australian Alpaca Association and the Central Western Region of NSW. We have been and are still very much involved in Association activities.

We manage up to 300 alpacas on our homestead block near Wellington which we integrate with a sheep and cattle enterprise with wheat/canola crops on our nearby farm. Our five children have all contributed to the success of our family business over many years as well as John's brother and sister and their families.

John and Julie believe the Australian alpaca industry will become the major producer of highest quality alpaca fibre in the world within 20 years. We have been members of the Alpaca Co-op since 1996 and continue to provide our entire annual clip to the Australian Alpaca Fibre LTD (AAFL) to produce quality Australian made products for local and overseas markets.

Conclusion

Alpacas are already showing that they can be successfully bred over a large area of Australia and improve the profitability of other livestock industries and as well as helping sustain and even regenerate the environment.

References


Charry, A.A. (2003), "Viande: Have you tried it?", Alpaca Chat, AAA Central Western Region NSW, Winter 2003, Vol.4, Issue 4, p. 15.

Charry, A.A., Kemp, D.R. & Lawrie, J.W. (2003). "Alpacas and Ecosystems Management", In Proceedings of the 14th International Farm Management Congress, International Farm Management Association, Perth 15-20 August 2003.

Davison I (2004) National Alpaca Review, Issue 4.

Greenfield, H. (2003) Report RN327942, the University of Sydney

Lawrie J. W. (1995). “Selecting and Planning your farm for Alpacas”; pages 3–8 in Alpacas, Australia Autumn Edition.

Lawrie J .W. (1999) “Pastures for Alpacas in the Central West”. Alpaca Chat. AAA Central Western Region NSW, winter 1999, Vol 2, Issue 3 p 11.

Jones C. (2002)."Recognise Relate and Innovate" Rangeland Report DLWC, Armidale.

Vaughan J. and Costa N. (1998). “Nutrition of Alpacas”. Town and Country Farmer Vol 15. No. 4

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