On a warm spring day, Mark Cross’ alpaca herd can be found frolicking in their pasture watching the world go by. Their gentle demeanor and Teddy bear appearance is translated into a peaceful humming noise or clicking, which means they are happy and all is right with the world.
Cross, of Rock Creek Alpacas, began his love affair for the animals five to six years ago and purchased the first seven alpacas of his herd in August 2010.
When Cross and his wife, Lori, were vacationing in Maine last year, they were able to visit some alpaca farms and get a feel for the business. He said with his wife approaching retirement in the next few years this was something they decided they wanted to do together.
“The one thing we heard time and time again from a lot of couples is that if you look at a lot of the folks in this (alpaca farms) they are retirees looking for something to do after they are retired and generate a little income,” he said.
When it comes down to livestock characteristics, alpacas are in a league of their own.
Cross commented that the animals are generally clean and they don’t have a strong odor like some livestock animals do. Their fiber is also in high demand.
“The thing that is nice about alpaca is that it’s four times as warm as wool, doesn’t itch and it’s waterproof,” he said.
As of right now, Cross’ alpaca herd has a total of 73 adult animals. By November, there will be an additional 26 crias or baby alpacas. Rock Creek Alpacas will see crias born in waves. Some females will give birth the third week of June and another group in October.
“The breeding season for them is in the spring and the fall because of the temperature. You don’t want a female to be having babies in the pasture when its 90 degrees and hot,” he added.
Another interesting fact Cross pointed out during a recent interview, is that females actually like to have babies. So, 21 to 30 days after a mother gives birth, she can be rebred and she will have another bundle of joy in 11 ½ months. The average size of a newborn cria is between 17 ½ to 18 pounds.
Cross’ employees will also take an active role in birthing crias. His staff recently completed a neo-natal course.
“Our vet came here and trained them. Ninety-nine percent of the births will be uncomplicated,” he said.
When it comes to breeding, Cross is partnering with Double O Good Alpacas, which is in Gainesville, Va. Rock Creek Alpacas will welcome Snowmass Matrix, the number one male in the United States who is considered a proven stud, in mid June. According to Cross, breeding with Snowmass Matrix will take the guess work out of breeding. His track record and lineage stand on its own. For Cross, it’s all about improving the breed.
The males currently living at Rock Creek Alpacas will have to wait until they are 2 years old to become breed eligible and then Cross will have to wait another 11 ½ months to see how well their offspring are going to turn out.
“You’re always setting the stage for the future. The main goal and objective is to increase the quality of the herd to increase the fiber quality. It’s much more certain if you breed a proven male to a proven female. You’re eliminating some guess work,” Cross added.
Earlier this week, Cross and his staff embarked on shearing the majority of his herd for the first time with the exception of his show animals. Mark Loffhagen, a seasoned veteran from Colorado, came out to shear the animals. He is a native of New Zealand who travels four months out of the year to do shearing across the United States. Patti Jennings, of Willow Bend Alpacas in Forreston, Ill., was on hand to buy the fiber that day.
Through a government grant, Jennings will have the alpaca fiber spun into a yarn that can be woven with the help of a mill in North Carolina.
“I am producing a very high-end fashion line,” she said. Her line of clothing will be sold in high-end boutiques in the Chicago area.
“This is a whole new thing,” Cross added. “Alpaca fiber is in high demand.”
At shearing time, a yearling produces 7 to 8 pounds of fiber. An adult on the other hand, produces as much as 12 pounds.
“The baby fleece is the highest quality – it’s finer. It’s much softer. It’s something you might want to put next to your skin,” he added.
Like animals, not all fiber is made the same. The leg fiber, for example, can be a little more course. The fiber, just in various parts of the body, can change a little bit. The lower-end fiber, he said, is usually used for rugs. The body, Cross added, is the prime stock.
The animals at Rock Creek Alpacas have also hit the road. The show animals have traveled to Oklahoma, Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota and this weekend will head for The Futurity show and sale in Nebraska, which is the extravaganza of them all.
Traveling to shows helps give Rock Creek Alpacas and others like it notoriety.
“Because of course you want to sell alpacas and you want to sell fiber and you want to sell stud fees. It gets your name out there. Plus, if you do the right winning, it generates better value of your herd,” Cross said.
Since alpacas originate in Peru, Cross would like to travel there someday to see those farms first hand. Peru has more than 3 million alpacas compared to only 400,000 to 500,000 in the United States.
Since Cross has entered the world of alpacas, he has received nothing but advice and support in his new venture.
“I plan to be the same way as I learn,” he said.