The Fence Post
By: Rona Johnson
Photo: By Joshua Polson, The Greeley Tribune
Photo Caption: Matrix Rose, one of the Milligan's prize winning alpacas, struts as he walks across his paddock at Red Granite Ranch in Livermore, Colorado.
When Sharon and Marc Milligan decided to move out to their 450-acre ranch near Livermore in northern Colorado, the plan was to raise buffalo.
That was 12 years ago.
Today, although some of their perimeter fencing is designed for buffalo, they run about 450 alpacas on Red Granite Ranch. But not just any alpacas — they started with bloodlines they could be proud of.
"We decided that not only did we want to raise them for the fleece, which is a developing market, but we also wanted to be an outstanding seed stock source," Sharon Milligan said.
They purchased their first animals from Snowmass Alpacas. Snowmass was one of the first importers of alpacas into the U.S.
So with 11 females (dams) and three males (machos) they started their venture.
One of their males Matrix Rose has been a gold mine for the Milligans.
In fact, the sire of Matrix Rose sold for $675,000 at auction.
"He is very well-known and has produced many champions," Milligan said.
In addition to the 11 females, they also were allowed to choose a female that already bred to Matrix Rose, otherwise they would have needed to wait a full year before they would produce a baby alpaca, or cria, from him.
After that they bred their own alpacas and acquired more females.
"In the first years we made some good and some lucky decisions," Milligan said.
Those decisions resulted in their being awarded the 2010 Futurity Small Breeder of the year, 2012 Futurity Reserve Medium Breeder of the year and the 2015 and 2016 Futurity Reserve Large Breeder of the year.
The Milligan's, who raise the Huacayas (pronounced wah-KI-ah) breed, also show alpacas and are sponsors of this year's Alpaca Owners Association National Show. The show, which is held in different places every year, will be held March 17-19 at the National Western Complex in Denver.
Milligan expects there will be about 1,000 alpacas at the show.
Along with the Huacaya, other breeders will also show Suri. The two breeds do not compete against each other because their fleece cannot be compared. The Huacaya have fluffy fleece and the Suri have long fleece that drapes over them.
Alpacas are featured in two national shows a year. One is a halter show and the other a fleece show. The Denver show is a halter show and this year's fleece show will be held in July in California, Milligan said. But alpacas in both shows are judged on their fleece. The only difference is that alpacas don't have to be at the fleece shows. This allows breeders to show fleece from alpacas that may not pass a halter show because they have a droopy ear or some other flaw, Milligan said.
The fleece is judged on its density, structure and fineness.
"We will be taking 38 animals to the show and they cannot be groomed," she said.
They alpacas have to be pasture-ready, which means they can only have the fleece around their heads trimmed so they can see, and their tails can be cleaned.
There are other state and regional shows around the U.S., as well.
The Milligans shear, sort, grade and sell their own fleece and they collect fleece from other ranchers. The fleece is bundled into 200- to 350-pound bales. The price per pound for the fleece varies depending on the quality and the market, Milligan said.
Alpaca producers, like the Milligans, hope to grow the commercial market once they can convince the wool mills it's worth their time to shift from sheep wool to alpaca fleece.
Milligan expects it will take some time to develop commercial fleece markets like they have in Peru and China because the average alpaca farm in the U.S. has less than 50 animals.
The Milligans shear their adult animals once a year and use sheep shearers to do the job. Milligan said they pay about $25 to $35 per animal so it's well worth a sheep shearer's time to learn to handle alpacas.
Male alpacas weigh about 200 pounds and females weigh about 150 pounds. Because they are so light and they have pads on their feet, they are easy on their environment, Milligan said. They also don't rip vegetation out of the ground by the roots.
Alpacas can have cria year round. An average cria is 12 to 15 pounds.
"Our smallest was 9 pounds and our largest was 24 pounds," Milligan said.
Because alpacas are members of the camelid family, which includes camels, they do spit.
Alpacas can live to be 20 years old.
"We have a female who is 16 and is still productive," Milligan said.
Along with the shearing, alpaca producers have to watch the teeth and toes on the alpacas so they don't get too long and sharp.
Alpacas come in many colors, including white, beige, fawn, brown black, gray and several other subtle shades.
Predators do prey on alpacas, which is why the Milligans have a llama to stand guard.
The only predator they've lost animals to is rattlesnakes, Milligan said.
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The Fence Post