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Does Our Alpaca Show Entry Reflect an Accurate Image of our Alpaca Business Model?

Make Sure You Enter a Class that Meets Your Needs According to Your Business (or Hobby) Model!

A revelation came to me when I participated in the Sorting Grading Classing (SGC) Workshop offered through SUNY College.  Commercial Fiber buyers do not expect to purchase fiber lots where all of the staples are the EXACT length, but rather they buy it according to a staple length that falls within a certain range, often referred to as woolen or worsted.  Up until that time, I had been of the belief that when shearing the alpaca, I needed to take extreme care so that all of the cut staple lengths were precisely the same length, otherwise I would not be able to sell the blanket for a good price.  My thinking was further reinforced by one of the tallies on the AOA Fleece Judges’ Scorecard which awards up to 5 points for uniformity of length throughout the alpaca blanket.  That "ah-ha" moment came when I learned that fiber to be commercially sold (eg-ACOA) or sent to a co-op (eg-Certified Sorters), would be classed into one of two categories according to length: woolen or worsted.   

Of course, it is important for all alpaca farmers/ranchers to shear well so that the fiber is harvested in such a way that it is usable and that all second fiber cuts are kept to a minimum.  But holding onto the mindset of exact length being a necessity for a profitable commercial sale, meant that I would be best served to hire a professional shearer who could harvest that blanket with extreme evenness….a practice which I later came to realize is not a good business decision as it adds to my overall cost and reduces any profit that I make from the fleece sale.

It’s been mentioned that fleece shows and halter shows might not judge according to nor place emphasis on what the buyers and manufacturers want for an end product.  My question is, do we always enter the correct competition according to our Alpaca Business Model?  I believe it is important to consider each class or competition in terms of how it aligns with our business models…and taking that a step farther, our business models should be aligning the product to meet the demands of the consumer (commercial industry) or offering value added products of artistic expression and interest (artisan industry).

Several years ago, Ian Watt offered a Commercial Fleece Show that introduced the concept of a fleece show that would reflect what a commercial buyer is looking for in purchasing fiber.  I wish I would have supported it then.  Perhaps it would have helped start another class option to judge an alpaca fleece.   

Which brings me to today’s thoughts….an alpaca show entry should be an accurate reflection of an alpaca farmer/rancher’s business or hobby.  Below are a few examples that hopefully better explain this thought. 

Take for example, someone who is vested in an artisan livestock model, and value adds to the fiber harvest by felting fabric that is then turned into slippers.  I would think they would be better served to enter a  fiber arts show where there is an emphasis on fiber for felting, perhaps where the focus is on Grade III with a very close secondary to primary ratio so that the fiber does not require dehairing and so that the end product does not shed.  There might be minimal to no weight given for the alpaca’s phenotype.

Our current AOA Show System offers a spin-off class.  If you are in the Artisan Industry and you offer hand spun yarns, I would think you would be most interested in entering your fiber in this class, rather than entering an alpaca in a halter show.

Or, let’s say a commercial fiber producer would probably have as a goal that they produce a very consistent fiber across their herd that is reproducible year after year.  Imagine a fleece show where you enter many blanket fleeces and you are judged according to the consistency of your blanket fleeces.  A judging score for length might then be that all those fleeces are woolen length meaning they are all within 3 to 5 inches, that they are free of vegetation, none are brittle, all have equal brightness (or lustre), all have consistent color (or pattern), all have similar crimp (or lock) and so on and so on.  The FLEECE LOT is graded as a whole according to the defined criteria/categories.   There is a total weight for the fleece lot. 

Taking it a step farther, a halter show for a fiber producer might also look at the size and build of the animal as it relates to the terminal market, as opposed to how it fits into the gene pool.

As yet another example, let’s imagine someone’s business model is focused on gene pool production and embryonic transfer.  In that scenario, the farmer would be better served to enter an alpaca halter show where both conformation and fiber characteristics are judged and the fleece cannot be altered as it is in the fleece show.  I believe the error we make is when we promote a Champion Fleece as a Champion Seed Stock Producer animal.  There are too many alterations that occur to the fleece prior to entering it in the show.  Instead that fleece is as much an indicator of the skirter skill as it is an indicator of the quality of that alpaca.  Fleece shows should be the primary show for fiber producers.

A Walking Fleece Show is a good show for someone in the Animal Production Industry, where they are most interested in producing fleeces that require minimal skirting and yet does not take into account the phenotype nor the conformation of the alpaca, two qualities that are of the upmost importance for a gene pool producer.

There are production classes in both the AOA Halter and Fleece Competitions.  As an alpaca gene pool breeder, the most important  and relevant classes to compete in are The Get of Sire and Produce of Dam.  The Breeders Best of Three is of greatest relevance and importance for someone in Alpaca Animal Production.  Neither of these production classes are as relevant to enter for someone that is in the fiber production business.

And the above Production classes are not of relevance in the Artisan Business which follows a Value Added Model for their Business Plan.  Farmers/ranchers would be better served to focus on entering a show class that focuses on qualities and characteristics important for a value added model (eg-best felting fiber or hand spinning fiber).  Imagine taking our current Show System and offering classes where people are judged and awarded according to raising the most consistent herd of alpacas for hand spun yarn or felted products.

Alpaca Owners Association (AOA) has done a remarkable job of establishing and maintaining our Alpaca Show System as possibly one of the best world wide.   Within our Alpaca Show System are many opportunities for the alpaca farmer/rancher to enter a class that best reflects their business model.  I hope the AOA Show Committee will continue to offer a variety of competitions.  It is up to us to decide how these competitions best meet out needs. 

However, I believe the evolution of the small farm, medium farm, and large farm competitions  that we are seeing in the Show System are not taking us down the correct path, for they signal that the number of alpacas on our farm defines our business model.  While I agree that large and small farms should not compete against each other, I disagree with the reason behind it.  It is not because the large farms have an unfair advantage to “win,” but rather a large farm should have a different focus in how they evaluate their program.

In a Livestock Business Model, the end product farm is generally the farm with the most animals and the gene pool farm is the farm with the fewer number of animals.  In the dairy industry, the farms that produce the milk generally have the most animals.  They are also the farms that pay less for their animals to produce the end product, and in the dairy industry the end product is milk.  The breeding stock farm is generally smaller, spends much greater amounts of money per animal, and their primary end product is ET and AI. 

In the alpaca business, the large farms should be the fiber production farms and the small farms should be the gene pool.  Large farms (fiber production) should have less intense maintenance of the herd (lower costs per alpaca) coupled with  a different primary end product (fiber sales).  Smaller farms (gene pools) should have more intense maintenance of the herd (higher costs per alpaca) and a different primary end product (animal or ET sales).

Having a competition where a farm or alpaca is placed for producing an outstanding end product that is best suited for their business model might help us better focus on our business model and strategies.  Having a competition where a farm is awarded according to farm size simply attempts to make sure the competitions are fair and ignores the concept of competing according to one’s business strategy. 

As an aside, imagine the money you can save by shearing your animals yourself….now that we don’t have to have those exact lengths to sell our fiber to commercial buyers!