Niche alpaca breeders Jeff and Jill Willis of Palmwoods have just won top awards for their junior alpaca fleeces, beating the biggest and the best studs in Australia. It has put Sunline Alpacas on the world stage.
EVER SINCE men and women first wore fur skins, they have appreciated exotic fibres close to their skin – like velvet, silk, satin, cashmere and mohair. Now the finest of alpaca fibres has become the feel of the moment and Australian alpaca breeders have made enormous inroads into the ultra-fine sector of this market.
Jeff and Jill’s 33 acre Alpaca stud is tucked away unobtrusively just outside Palmwoods. For ten years they have been breeding up to 70 alpacas and now Sunline Alpacas are in the spotlight.
At the recent National Australian Alpaca show in Sydney, Jeff and Jill astounded the larger southern studs by winning two of the six awarded age champion fleeces from animals 6-12 and 12-18 months. A total of 272 of the best alpaca fleeces in Australia were before the judges.
“It is a shot in the arm for all the work that has gone into our breeding program”, says Jeff. “We can see our youngsters now mixing it in top company. We have also managed to reduce our herd average by almost 2 micron over the last 6 years”
Alpaca wool is similar to merino but has a softer more luxurious feel and lustre to it. For breeders there’s good money to be made from the low micron, ultra-fine fleece, a sector that’s now renowned world-wide amongst the hundreds of Australian alpaca breeders.
Jeff and Jill smile when you ask them if this is a high income business. While local spinners and weavers may pay up to $80 per kilo for an ultra-fine fleece, you need large numbers to make alpacas lucrative.
“Some studs in South Australia for example have over 2000 animals with breeding programs in several countries,” says Jeff.
“We simply haven’t got the numbers,” he adds. “And of course, unlike sheep there’s an eleven and a half month gestation period with one baby alpaca at a time.”
“Our market niche in Australia is in fine fibre and to be an elite fabric like cashmere and mohair. That’s where we’re trying to position ourselves in the world market.
“We have one clip each year at present. We bring in a contract shearer and I put aside the pick of the fleeces for showing because that’s where you get the kudos. The next quality level we send to a mini mill in South Australia. They process it into yarn which we can then sell.
Fleeces are always in demand for the spinners and weavers.
“The rest of our fleeces – 26 micron and above – we send to a company of which we are shareholders, and they bale it up by micron, length and by colour. They shoot it off to Peru where it’s manufactured into garments and other products and is distributed wholesale to various alpaca shops.
Jeff and Jill came to alpaca farming seeking a semi- retirement activity they could do together on acreage. Jeff was an electrical sales engineer and although Jill grew up on an apple farm in Stanthorpe she has been a teacher and administrator.
“The thing about breeding alpacas,” says Jill, “is that you learn to turn your hand to many things, or they just don’t get done.”
Jill pulls out complex fibre charts that show the precise quality of a fleece. She reads this data with practised eyes. Then again, she reveals a skill for knitting the fibre too, showing alpaca scarves and hats that get made while watching TV or sitting in the car beside Jeff.
Alpacas have a habit of getting under the skin of those who breed them. Apart from their generally placid nature and huge eyes they are smart and make great pets – “paddock ornaments”, Jill calls them. You can now buy a breeding alpaca for about $1200.
“Mind you they’ve got as many variations in their personalities as humans,” adds Jeff with a laugh. “They’re very good mothers so they are protective of their young. But they can be stroppy and can spit at you.”
Jeff knows the importance of following a breeding program that will continue to improve the quality of the fleece.
“Nature and nurture are the key,” he says. “Nature is the genetics and nurture the feed, the environment, and how you look after the fleece while it’s on the animals back. Our superfine fleeces are finished off in New England where the higher altitudes give them nice cold nights.”
Mating alpacas has become a careful process of bringing top animals together at the right time. You need a stud male for 25 minutes, once a year and the males can be driven to the female – it’s a kind of mobile mating service. Jeff charges $600 for a mating with his stud male if females are brought to Palmwoods.
“This is an industry that will grow because the animal has adjusted well to Australian conditions,” says Jeff. “We have the feed and the expertise from the merino industry and we are getting value from the ultra fine fleeces.”
South America’s alpaca wool has been described as the fibre of the gods. It’s certainly a fibre that continues to fascinate Jeff and Jill Willis. They have just left for Patagonia to discover more secrets of this fascinating animal and its fleece.