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Published May 24, 2010, 12:23 PM

North Dakota alpaca ranch is both business and lifestyle

TOLNA, N.D. — On a remote ranch home to exotic animals that snort and hum, Les and Deb Wellinghoff have found their “little piece of heaven.”

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

TOLNA, N.D. — On a remote ranch home to exotic animals that snort and hum, Les and Deb Wellinghoff have found their “little piece of heaven.”

The retired couple, who moved to North Dakota from southern Illinois two years ago, have launched Northern Prairie Alpacas.

Their plan is to sell their alpacas’ fiber and offspring while building up the herd, which now consists of eight adult animals. They hope their business can be profitable, or at least self-sustaining, in a few years.

“Some people wonder if we’re crazy. But this is where we want to be and what we want to be doing,” Les says.

Alpacas, native to the Andes Mountains of South America, can thrive in wintry North Dakota, the Wellinghoffs say.

Alpacas on the Tolna ranch came through the snowy winter of 2009 to ’10, their first in North Dakota, just fine, she says.

“They’re highly adaptable animals,” she says.

The Wellinghoffs didn’t move to North Dakota, or go into the alpaca business, on a whim.

They lived in southern Illinois near St. Louis. Deb, 53, worked in corporate management. Les, 66, a school teacher turned highway maintenance worker for the Illinois Department of Transportation, retired in 2004.

Les traveled to North Dakota for many years to hunt waterfowl and became familiar with the Tolna area.

Selling their home in Illinois and retiring to the country appealed to both Deb and Les. They enjoy nature and a little elbow room.

They looked long and hard before deciding to buy the farmstead they now occupy. The site had been deserted for many years; all that remained of the original farmstead was a granary, shelterbelt and the foundation of a hog shelter completely hidden by clumps of tall, dead grass.

In May 2008, the Wellinghoffs began building what they describe as a low-maintenance house for which they had created the floor plan. The house was finished in September 2008, and the couple moved permanently to Tolna Dec. 17, 2008.

They began building fences and shelter for the alpacas at the site in May 2009. They later brought in alpacas they had purchased in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The fences are straight and sturdy, but Les smiles when a visitor compliments his fencing skills.

“It was trial and error. You should’ve been here when we first started,” he says.

What to do

with the fiber?

Alpacas are valued for their dense but soft fleece. The fleece, or fiber as it’s often called, is shorn in the spring, much like wool from sheep.

One alpaca produces 5 to 10 pounds of fiber, which can sell for as much as $30 to $35 per pound, depending on its quality, the Wellinghoffs say.

Alpaca producers also can keep some or all of the fiber to knit or weave into products such as gloves or caps that potentially can fetch attractive prices.

Think of it as value-added agriculture: taking a commodity in its original state and transforming it to a more valuable state, like turning corn into ethanol or durum into pasta.

Deb says Northern Prairie Alpacas’ “clip” this year will be used in two ways.

Members of a fiber artist guild will turn some of it to yard. The rest of the fiber from the Tolna ranch will be sent to a mill, probably one in Kansas, to be processed into yarn.

Prices vary for animals

Alpacas also bring an economic return through the sale of their young. A female alpaca bears one baby, or cria, annually. A cria weighs 12 to 20 pounds at birth.

Three females on the Tolna ranch will give birth this spring. One had her cria in mid-May, with the baby weighing 15.2 pounds.

A fourth female gave birth last year; she’s on a Minnesota farm that’s closer to the male to which she’s being bred.

Alpaca prices vary widely, from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars per animal, depending on fleece and breeding characteristics. One breeding male fetched a record $675,000 at auction in February. Bred females are selling for an average of $15,000 to $20,000 at big-name auctions, although excellent breeding stock also is available for much-lower prices, Deb says.

The Wellinghoffs decline to say what they paid for their animals.

They plan to take their crias to industry shows to find potential buyers for the animals.

Getting into the alpaca business isn’t something to do casually, Deb says.

“Anyone considering raising this type of livestock must do their homework to ensure it is the right choice for them,” she says.

‘Unique and intelligent’

The Wellinghoffs say each of their eight alpacas, four males and four females, has its own personality and characteristics.

“They’re unique and intelligent. And they’re a peaceful animal,” she says.

Alpacas are herd animals that communicate with each other through clicking, snorting and, most importantly, soft humming.

Local visitors to the ranch sometimes mention that the alpacas look like sheep with long necks, Deb and Les say.

Alpacas have three stomachs, eat grass and chew cud. They deposit their odorless pellets in concentrated areas away from the feed source.

An alpaca’s gestation is about 11½ months, leaving about 19 days for rebreeding.

“They’re easy to rebreed,” Deb says.

Three of the four males at Northern Prairie Alpacas recently were gelded. Deb and Les refer to the three as “the fiber boys.”

The fourth male will breed the females.

Learning all the time

The Wellinghoffs did considerable research before starting their alpaca ranch.

“I visited a lot of farms and asked a lot of questions,” Deb says.

Even so, there’s always more to learn about the animals, she says.

The Wellinghoffs have worked closely with Cherol McManus of the Ahjoomas Alpaca Farm in Cannon Falls, Minn.

She and Sarah Balser own the farm. They say on their website that ahjooma is a Korean word for aunt and that they took the name because they’re ahjoomas to two children from Korea who were adopted by friends.

Deb and Les worked hard to understand alpacas before starting Northern Prairie Alpacas, says McManus, who’s been in the alpaca business for seven years.

“There were very well educated. They’ve just been a pleasure to work with,” she says.

Few people in America have much experience with alpacas.

Before 1980, the animals were rare in the United States, living mainly in zoos. But private individuals began breeding alpacas in the mid-1980s, and the number of the animals in the United States began to rise, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.

Nationwide, the number of alpacas has shot from about 64,000 in 2004 to about 150,000 today.

The association says that raising alpacas can provide income and an enjoyable lifestyle for both young couples with children and empty-nesters looking for a change.

Deb Wellinghoff says raising alpacas is both a business and lifestyle choice.

The Wellinghoffs would like to expand their herd to 20 alpacas. They say keeping the herd small will allow them to give each alpaca regular attention and handling.

Location brings challenges

Les and Deb love where they live.

Squirrels strut across their backyard, and birds swoop in to feast at the feeders the Wellinghoffs put up. Les and Deb immediately recognize each type of bird by its shape, color or call.

Waterfowl are common in the surrounding area, and sometimes wild turkeys are seen.

Les and Deb also like the people in the area.

“If you need help, they’re there for you,” he says.

But their rural, isolated location — the nearest towns, Tolna and McHenry, N.D., are both about 15 miles away — has its drawbacks, too.

Coyotes haven’t been a problem yet at Northern Prairie Alpacas, but the predators are a concern.

Les and Deb are thinking about bringing in llamas — another South American animal that’s closely related to alpacas — as guards. The much-bigger llamas often protect alpacas on alpaca ranches.

Veterinary help is another issue for Northern Prairie Alpacas. Although alpacas are relatively healthy animals, they need annual vaccinations, routine parasite control and occasional nail trimming. But because alpacas are so rare in this region, vets in north-central North Dakota understandably know little about the animal, Deb says.

But Dr. Marie Henderson with the Cooperstown (N.D.) Veterinary Clinic, about 45 miles from Northern Prairie Alpacas, agreed to work with the alpacas.

“We’re just so fortunate that she was willing to take this on,” Deb says.

Henderson says she’s had a lot to learn, but that she’s enjoyed working with the alpacas.

Only in North Dakota

Finding someone to shear the Tolna alpacas is a challenge, too. This spring, Northern Prairie Alpacas is bringing in Marty Hoffman of Integrity Shearing, formerly of Montana, who recently moved to Guthrie, Okla.

Shearing sheep is an art because the animal is controlled with the shearer’s feet, while alpacas are tied down when the fiber is removed, he says.

Hoffman has sheared for 14 years and began working with alpacas in 2008.

“I like alpacas. They have a lot of personality,” he says.

Despite the challenges of operating the business in Tolna, the Wellinghoffs are happy with their location.

“We couldn’t have done this anywhere but North Dakota,” Les says.

The combination of alpacas and well-off-the-beaten-path location is satisfying, Deb and Les say.

“This really is our little piece of heaven. It’s just what we wanted,” she says.