CARROLLTON, Ohio – Frank and Jody Hezoucky started raising alpacas with one simple goal in mind – they wanted to build a business successful enough that one of them could stay home with their two young sons.
Jody said the initial investment was scary. Alpacas aren’t cheap – females cost between $12,000 and 25,000 and males go for $20,000 to $50,000. In instances where the animals are exceptional, prices can be even higher. The couple knew they’d have to mortgage their home to get the money.
But despite a few raised eyebrows from their friends and family, Jody and Frank got a home equity line of credit and bought two female alpacas for breeding.
Today, their business has grown from 4.5 acres to 53 acres and from two animals to 38. Jody now works on the family’s Carrollton farm, Lana Bella Alpaca Farm, raising children and alpacas.
For the first seven years, the Hezouckys’ alpaca business was based in Hudson, where the family owned 4.5 acres. About two years ago, Frank and Jody used Farm and Dairy to find a 53-acre farm in Carroll County that was better suited for their needs.
Cows and horses. Jody and Frank didn’t grow up around exotic animals – Jody had horses and Frank had cattle.
“We were not farmers. We were farmer wannabes,” Jody said.
But they knew they wanted to raise animals, so in 1997 they went to the county fair looking for ideas. Jody didn’t want anything that had to be slaughtered and she wanted an animal that would be safe for her children.
At the fair, the couple saw an alpaca and they immediately knew they’d found what they were looking for. Before long, it wasn’t a matter of if they could raise alpacas, it was a matter of how they would do it.
“My husband said ‘I don’t care what it costs, I want to raise alpacas,'” Jody said.
Within about three months, the Hezouckys were in business.
Fleece. There are two breeds of alpacas – huacaya and suri. The main difference between the two is their fleece. Huacaya fleece is wavy, giving the animals a fluffy, soft appearance. Suris do not have wavy fleeces, so the fiber clings to itself, forming pencil locks.
All of the alpacas at Lana Bella are huacaya.
In the U.S., alpacas are raised exclusively for their fleece. They are shorn once a year in the spring and each animal produces an average of five to 10 pounds of fleece.
Young alpacas are called cria and their fleece is very soft. Huacaya fiber is assessed based on fineness, density, consistency, crimp and character.
Frank and Jody do their own shearing and either sell the fiber raw or have it spun into yarn.
The couple has converted the milking parlor in their barn into a retail store where they sell alpaca fiber products such as hats, socks, ponchos, sweaters, coats and blankets. Jody makes some of the products from fiber produced by Lana Bella alpacas.
Reproducing. Jody said building the herd is a slow process because female alpacas usually produce just one cria every year. Females can be bred at 18 months and their gestation period is one year. They are bred within a few weeks of giving birth, so female alpacas are generally pregnant their entire adult lives. The average female alpaca has a return on investment of 70 percent over three years, according to Jody.
At Lana Bella, cria usually arrive in the spring and fall and this year the Hezouckys are expecting about 18.
Male alpacas that aren’t herd sire quality animals are usually gelded and live out their days as pets and fiber animals.
Frank and Jody keep four breeding males on the farm. They bought their first herd sire, Peruvian LB Remington, when he was 9 months old in 1999. The next year, he was the grand champion for age and color at the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association national conference and show.
Alpacas are curious, passive animals. Their only defense is to kick, run and spit, so they don’t even think about standing their ground if they perceive danger, Jody sad.
Feeding. Female alpacas weigh 100-150 pounds while males weigh 140-180 pounds. They eat 1.5 percent to 2 percent of their body weight in hay every day. During the winter, the Hezouckys’ herd eats about two bales of hay every day. In the summer, the animals graze on pasture grass. Besides that, alpacas only need free choice minerals, water and a little grain.
For grazing, one acre is needed for every six to eight animals.
At Lana Bella, the alpacas have a barn available to them, as well as some three-sided shelters out in the fields. However, Jody said alpacas only head for shelter in very extreme conditions.
The only maintenance alpacas require is shearing, toenail care, vaccination and worming, according to Jody.
“They’re expensive to buy, but they’re cheap to maintain,” she said.
Even though alpacas aren’t traditional farm animals, the Hezouckys don’t see themselves any differently than any other farm operation.
“We’re just your average people who decided to mortgage our house to buy a couple alpacas and turn it into a business,” Jody said.
Alpacas are about 36 inches tall at their withers. They stand about 4.5 to 5 feet tall at the tips of their ears.
Alpacas weren’t introduced to North America until 1984, so there’s not enough data yet to determine their average life span on this continent. In South America, alpacas live for 15-20 years.
Alpacas don’t have top teeth. Instead, they have a hard gum against which they crush grass, grain and hay in a back-and-forth grinding action. They have a split upper lip that helps with the back-and-forth motion. They also have short tongues that are firmly attached to their jaw, so instead of ripping plants out of the ground, they nibble them down to about 1/4 inch.
Alpacas are herd animals. It’s not a good idea to raise just one.
Alpacas all go to the bathroom in the same place. They usually pick three or four sports in the pasture to use as communal dung piles. Often, the animals also go to the bathroom at the same time.
Alpaca fleece comes in 22 colors.
Female alpacas usually sell for $12,000-25,000. Proven, top-quality sires can bring $20,000-50,000 or more.
Cria (baby alpacas) weigh 14-16 pounds at birth. They are usually weaned at 6 months.
(Sources: Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association and Lana Bella Alpaca Farm)