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Mercersburg, PA 17236

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Thoughts on the Alpaca Industry 2015

I grew up in rural south-central PA, the largest town in the county boasted a population of 1200. My father was a large and small animal veterinarian and for fifty years, he was the only vet in our county. His practice varied greatly, everything from dairy cows, to iguanas, and even a bear. There’s no doubt I inherited my dad’s love for animals and interest in their care. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, it was rare for women to go to vet school….thus I chose another route into nursing and eventually NP school.

Paradoxically, I also loved to hunt and fish. Deer, rabbit, pheasants, groundhogs, I knew the starting and ending dates for hunting seasons, daily limits, laws and regulations. Everyone I knew signed up for hunter safety in seventh grade and our school closed for the first two days of deer season as everyone took off anyway. Even today, the businesses in our town close so everyone can go hunting and the restaurants open at 3 am for hunter’s breakfast!

I’ve had my share of rescued animals over the years and I’ve cried uncontrollably at the loss of a pet. So when we purchased our first alpacas, it was with that same mindset that I began our alpaca business. In my mind, alpacas were livestock pets, a hybrid of sorts, that meant they would live a long and happy life on our farm and eventually die of old age. And in that world, everyone would love the animals as much as I, and alpacas everywhere lived the same lifestyle as at our farm.

I, like many alpaca farmers, accumulated many very nice males that were just a “hair” short of making the herdsire cut. Destined to gelding row, I would spend a great deal of time and energy finding them a good home. Most times I wouldn’t take anything for them, preferring that the new owners put the money toward the alpacas. Then came the realization that once they left my farm to live at these “good forever homes,” that owner’s situations could change for better or worse, and that these alpacas could be handed down again, and again, and again. They might end up on Craig’s List which meant many times eventual slaughter, or they might go to auction…which also meant slaughter. I feel great responsibility when I bring animals into this world to care for them to the end and the last thing I want is for their lives to be a “living hell.” So the question for me was which is worse, a quick death or a living hell and it had but one answer for me.

At some point, I read an article, “Farm Confessional: What Butchering Your Animals Really Feels Like,” by Katherine Dunn, published in Modern Farmer in October 2014. That reading exposed many of the same thoughts and emotions I too had about slaughter. It was a real eye opener to read her story and to share many of the same emotions with other farmers.

The other take away message from reading her story, was that all farmers love their animals. Seriously, would we get up at 3 AM to check on and treat them if we didn’t care deeply for them. The farmers I know, if faced with a decision between purchasing their own medicine versus medicine for their animals, would always choose their animal’s medicines. Most farmers work very hard to provide their animals the best life they can and many share the same sadness at the time of slaughter.

One story in the news has helped me immensely in deciding to slaughter my alpacas. And that is the problems we’ve seen in our commercial food chain, particularly with imported foods that are not regulated and checked by the FDA. In slaughtering animals from my own farm, I know exactly what has gone into the alpaca, thus my food, and I know the entire health history in the food chain.

One argument against slaughter that resurfaces from time to time is that responsible breeders should quit breeding if we’re not able to take care of the ones we have without culling the herd. In my opinion, that is both short sighted and suicidal for those breeding and raising alpacas as a business. This method of herd management is only applicable and appropriate for a hobby farm.

My most challenging part of slaughtering my alpacas, was not whether or not to do it, but rather how to do it. I knew I didn’t want to send them off the farm to be slaughtered. I did not want them to experience that fear. If they were to be slaughtered, it had to be on the farm, and it had to be without any fear on their part. My final thought was that I needed to be the one that would do it. I felt 100% that I could do it right and that I needed to be there for them until the end.

My alpacas that are to slaughtered are treated exactly like any of the other alpacas. They have the same feed, living conditions and most definitely, the same amount of attention and handling and love. I do not medicate them with any vaccinations or preventative monthly injections. It’s very unusual for my fully grown alpacas to need dewormers. However I do not withhold treatment if it is necessary. I simply postpone the time to slaughter.

Our routine for slaughter is rather simple. On our farm, one of the barns has a multiuse room. That room has a two doors, one that enters from the barn side and one that exits to the back and out of site of all the other animals. I take the alpaca in the room and remove their halter.  I turn out the light and then have someone positioned outside open the door.   As the door opens, the alpaca naturally seeks the light, sees a bowl of food on the ground, decides to stop for a nibble.  I use a .22 semi-automatic pistol and I shoot him in the back of the head where I estimate the location of his/her brainstem. If shot in this area, the alpaca will drop instantly and death is as close to immediate as I can imagine.

After the alpaca has dropped, we cut the jugular vein and carotid artery so that the alpaca will bleed out. We hang them by their hind legs using the tractor bucket for five minutes or so. Then we take them in to the butcher to be skinned and processed and we salt and dry the hide for later processing. One item to note is if you have an alpaca (or any ruminant) off feed, now is the opportune time to obtain rumen for transfer. Keep it warm and in a closed container to limit exposure to air.

I no longer have to worry that my “pet” animals will wind up in poor conditions. Conversely, I don’t need to worry that my family is eating contaminated meat that has unhealthy additives, etc. Operating as a commercial alpaca business is but one industry model and is not for everyone. However, if the US does not pursue and succeed in the commercial alpaca market, the cottage industry as we know it will resemble a hobby market complete with minimal financial gain and growth. There is plenty of room for many business models.