"I said no spitting!" is something you may hear if you visit an alpaca farm during treat time.
The Census of Agriculture 2007 reported 659 alpaca farms in Ohio for a total of 10,677 alpacas - marking Ohio with the second highest alpaca population in the U.S.
Alpacas, closely related to llamas, are members of the camel family.
Gail Ross feeds carrots to some of her alpacas at Ross Alpaca Ranch in Hubbard.
Olivia and Ryan Chovan house eight of them on their property, Oryan Farms, in Hubbard. They built their barn in spring 2008, starting with only three alpacas, and it grew from there.
The two breeds are Huacaya and Suri, Huacaya being more common. Huacaya alpacas are "poofy, like a sheep" but Suri alpacas' fiber "grows straight down, forming dreadlocks," Ryan Chovan explained. If examined closely, a Huacaya fiber is crimped, where the Suri fiber is straight. Suri alpacas originate in the extreme conditions of high mountain peaks in Peru, contributing to their admired locks, which Chovan said makes them majestic.
"We breed for fineness, and we breed for density," Chovan explained. Fineness refers to the softness of alpacas' fiber, density to the amount of hair follicles each animal yields per square inch or centimeter.
This luxurious fiber can be shorn each year, producing a hypoallergenic material that can be processed and dyed, and the fleece is used for products in the textile industry from blankets and sheets to tapestries and teddy bears. In raw form, it is used for felting and other crafts. The processed fleece can sell from anywhere between $6 to $12 an ounce, Chovan said.
The Chovans also breed for quality and diversity, priding themselves on a natural approach to alpaca farming. Instead of palletized grain, the Chovans use raw grain with flaxseed; they also give the alpacas a daily holistic wormer in lieu of pesticides. They believe having fewer animals enables them to recognize medical problems more readily than if their attention was divided between larger numbers.
Diversity relates to color variety; there are 22 natural alpaca colors, ranging from the most common, white, to the least common, gray, black and maroon. Coloring is key for fiber production and shows, but color prediction isn't an exact science. A female only produces one baby per year; the gestation period is 11 months. Extensive records, including bloodlines and offspring, assist owners with breeding methodology. Alpaca Registry Inc. is a national database registry which authenticates the parentage of alpacas in the U.S., Canada and other countries, a service utilized by many alpaca farms.
"Alpacas show by color, age and sex," explained Gail Ross, 56, of Ross Farms in Hubbard. She cares for 115 alpacas, 23 llamas and 3 goats on her 25-acre farm with her husband, Paul, 58. She started out with three alpacas, her decision based on alpaca farming being a no-slaughter industry that required very low maintenance and little space.
Ross said her alpacas each consume three pounds of hay daily and a cup of "chow" (alpaca crumble). Water is also an important staple in their diet, and Ross utilizes automatic watering methods to cut back on labor.
"You can't use water barriers for alpacas," Ross warned. "They can swim!"
The animals also enjoy carrots and apples, as well as grazing. "We had to cover the trees they'll eat the leaves, and they'll also eat the bark," Ross said.
With the price of alpacas down due to the current state of the economy, Ross said there's never been a better time to get into the business: "Ten years ago, I paid $14,500 for a producing girl. Now, you can get three nice girls for that."
Karen Owen of Alpacas of Eagle Creek in Niles began alpaca farming four years ago; she currently owns 12.
"They're a very lovable animal that children can handle. They'll come right up and lay down beside you they're very gentle," she said.
Even with the increase in alpaca farming in the U.S. over the last several decades, the fiber industry is still in need of expansion.
"It'll never be cotton," Ross said. "It's a slow-growth industry by its nature."
"The North American herd is just not big enough for a large fiber industry yet in this country," Owen said. She wants more people to get involved.