Improving alpaca fleece quality through nutrition

Wisconsin State Farmer

SHOREVIEW, MN - Warm socks. Cozy scarves. Comfortable sweaters. An alpaca is born with the ability to produce fine, high-quality fiber for soft, warm clothing. But, did you know fiber quality can be managed over time? One way alpaca owners are discovering they can improve fleece quality is through nutrition.

The ideal alpaca fleece will have a complete package of just the right density, micron, luster and organized lock structure. Improving the quality of fleece is important in the fiber industry when producing alpaca garments with a super-soft feel.

Nutrition is essential for alpaca health and quality fiber production. It’s important whether you’re competing at shows or simply enjoying the company of these fine-fibered friends.

During a roundtable discussion, three alpaca owners discussed how they’re working to improve their herd’s fleece quality with nutrition. Dee Stielow and her husband own an alpaca farm in Farm City , IL, where over the years they have enjoyed the science and hands-on challenges of providing the next generation of genetics in a young industry.

"As a small breeder, we’ve raised our own color champions in every color category, which we are proud of considering we only breed two or three alpacas a season," she said.

Whether it’s the hay or supplement quality, Stielow says what the animal consumes will impact its fleece.

"Many breeders recognize that overfeeding or providing the wrong feed will blow out or coarsen fiber. Proper nutrition is vital," she said.

Oklahoma City alpaca farmer Bobby Dickerson said they started their operation with just four suri alpacas a little over seven years ago.

Proper nutrition is vital to fleece quality management. Whether it’s the hay or supplement quality, what the animal consumes will impact its fleece.

"We travel all over the nation showing our alpacas and realize how important nutrition is to their fleece," said Dickerson adding that judges look for density, micron, luster and the organized lock structure of the fleece. "Improving the quality of fleece is important in the fiber industry when producing alpaca garments with a super-soft feel. The ideal animal will have secondary and primary fibers close together, even as they get older."

Over the past decade Jim Konyn and his wife have worked to improve the fiber of their flock of a dozen suri alpacas on their northeastern Wisconsin farm. The couple show their herd's fleece at shows and spinoffs across the nation.

Konyn says nutrition is part of the alpaca’s environment, which must lend itself to producing better fiber.

"They say you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, so if you're buying the cheapest nutrition you can find, you won’t get high-quality fleece. You must put quality in to get quality out."

Konyn says a seminar made him aware of the important role nutrition plays long before the birth of the animal.

"We attended a seminar given by Dr. Norm Evans and learned a cria’s fiber follicles develop in utero. It's important for the mothers to have the right nutrition to ensure proper growth and development of those fiber follicles for her baby," Konyn said. "We make sure our nutrition program includes high quality nutrition for our mothers to start the next generation off right."

Evans, a nutrition partner with Mazuri, encouraged Dickerson to begin testing the orchard hay that their feed program depends on.

"We balance the nutrient levels in the hay with Mazuri feeds to fill any gaps. To ensure offspring grow properly and reach full genetic potential, we’ve learned it’s crucial to provide the mothers with quality nutrition to pass on to her cria," Dickerson said.