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San Francisco Examiner - Dec. 1999

By Elaine Larsen
Special to The Examiner


Montara Family celebrates the holidays with a pack of alpacas

Some of the female alpacas at the Hibbitses' Montara ranch form a chow line. 

At Christmas, the entire Hibbits family - including son McKinley, 3, and daughter Madyson, 9 months, will gather for a family portrait, along with an alpaca or two - which makes for an unusual and eye-catching holiday card.

Ken and Victoria Hibbits are proprietors of Alpacas By The Sea, a tidy 4-acre urban farm that is tucked into a residential neighborhood of Montara.

The farm is home to about 50 alpacas of several varieties and colors, including males or herdsires, scores of females and at least 10 youngsters.

Montgomery, the newest addition to the Hibbits' animal family, could easily be mistaken for a fawn. He has gangly legs and liquid brown eyes, but despite the deer-like resemblance, this tiny woolly creature actually has more in common with a camel.

He is a cria, or baby alpaca, a gentle, llama-like animal indigenous to South America. The alpaca has long been revered for its hair-like fleece some consider more luxurious than cashmere.

Born just two weeks ago, Montgomery or "Monty," as he is likely to be called, is one of the dozens of Alpacas bred and raised each year by the Hibbits, who in addition to an active breeding program, sell alpacas and alpaca fleece, shipping animals across the country.


Ken and Victoria Hibbits, above right, practice posing for their family Christmas photo, which will include 9-month-old Madyson and 3-year-old McKinley, as well as alpacas such as this male, Bolivian Thunder.  Ken, Madyson and Victoria all wear knitwear fashioned from the fleece of their alpacas.  Alpacas at above left wait patiently for their meal of hay and mineral pellets.

They also work with local spinners and weavers in commissioning everything from knitted sweaters and vests to baby booties and hand-woven blankets.

"Most people don't know what alpacas are and definitely don't have any idea about the value of these animals," said Ken Hibbits. "Alpacas are very enjoyable to raise and also have great business and tax benefits."

Alpaca breeding has become a profitable and enjoyable sideline for the Hibbits, who also hold down full-time jobs. The couple met on the job. Ken is a healthcare executive recruiter for a Burlingame firm, while Victoria is a sales director for a Mountain View company that makes diagnostic ultrasound medical equipment. They married in 1991.

But while alpaca breeding has definite financial benefits, it is evident that for the Hibbits, tending these gentle animals is also a labor of love.

"We were looking to breed animals, but it had to be something acceptable to the neighbors," said Victoria. "My parents had a pet store and dog kennels, and we lived on a small ranch in the Seattle area and I grew up around the breeding and show environment. I wanted the same for my children."

Ken, who hails from North Carolina, like his wife, is energetic and adventurous. When he's not working or tending alpacas he is a musician, skier, surfer and rock climber (hence his son's name). He had his eye on the Farallone View Farm on Tamarind Street ever since moving to Montara in 1986, and eventually purchased the property.

"We started with goats, but they were a lot of work," said Victoria, who was later introduced to alpacas by a fellow breeder in Southern California. "Once she saw the alpacas it was love at first sight," laughs Ken. A former horse farm that is zoned agricultural, the acreage was a natural for alpacas, who thrive on grassy pastures and rarely disturb the neighborhood. The Hibbits started with just two, but the herd has been growing steadily ever since.

Unlike their llama cousins, which can reach upward of 6 feet tall and 350 pounds, alpacas are about one-half to one-third smaller, standing at about 36 inches at the withers and weighing about 130-185 pounds. And while they do spit as their only means of defense, the naturally docile animal rarely aims at people.

"A lot of people are intimidated by the size of llamas, but even kids can handle alpacas," said Victoria, who before the birth of her children was active in local 4-H programs and was the only alpaca leader, around. "Together with my ranch manager, Cheryl Satterlee, we've wormed the whole bunch ourselves."
     

McKinley takes charge in a pen
of crias or baby alpacas
Young McKinley Hibbits gets a hayride in a wheelbarrow pulled by Don Saterlee, assistant ranch manager of Alpacas By The Sea.

Before she died last year, Victoria's 90-year-old grandmother, who also lived in Montara, would help halter-break the alpacas and even led them in Half Moon Bay's July 4th parade. Over the years, the Hibbits have formed a bond with some of the animals, several of which came directly from Bolivia, New Zealand, Chile and Peru. "Even my ranch manager knows every one of their names," said Victoria.

The alpaca is a member of the camelid or camel family, which also includes the llama. Ken Hibbits, who has become a virtual encyclopedia of alpacas, said current evolutionary theory has it there were once large herds of camelids in North America. Some of these species migrated to Eurasia, where they evolved into today's camel. The rest ended up in South America and were precursors to today's llama and alpaca.

There are four species, including guanaco, thought to be the predecessor of the modern llama and vicuna, which predates the alpaca. All four populate the highest plateaus, from the lakeshores to snow-capped Andean mountains.

Domesticated about 6,000 years ago, alpacas were revered and treasured by the Inca civilization. Their fleece was once reserved for Inca royalty; the large llama carried cargo on steep Andean trails. These camelid cousins provided these ancient peoples with food, clothing, fuel and transportation in often-harsh conditions.

Today, there are about 3 million alpacas, the vast majority in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. The center of the textile industry is in Arequipa, Peru, which produces yarn and other products for sale primarily in Japan and Europe.

Alpacas were first imported to the United States in 1984, a practice which came to an end last year. Today, there are about 20,000 of the breed in North America, compared to 200,000 llamas.
Each animal is registered with the Alpaca Registry International, based in Montana. It was begun by Eric Hoffman, author of "The Alpaca Book" and considered the leading alpaca expert in the nation. The hearty species adapts to varying environments, everywhere from Australia to Alaska.

Victoria, who has received training in documenting bloodlines, has traveled to South America at least four times with Hoffman to participate in stringent screening that protects against crossbreeding with llamas. Each baby is blood typed to prove its dam and sire. A databank with genealogy, blood types, DNA and ownership records is maintained at UC-Davis.

"The idea was to weed out the sub quality animals," said Victoria. "It was important to alpaca breeders to preserve a good gene pool. We only brought in the cream of the crop." Although consumers' tastes seem to change annually, with black fleece the current favorite, the Hibbits' stock is diverse. "We wanted to have a little bit of everything," explained Victoria.

The Hibbits, whose herd always attracts the attention of visitors, including the children at Farallone View Elementary next door, love introducing people to their furry charges.
     

Sharon Heinz, above, an alpaca breeder from Yuba County, brought two of her male alpacas to be inspected by Victoria Hibbits.
A pair of alpacas enjoy a quiet moment near sunset in their comfortable home at Alpacas By The Sea in Montara.

There are two types of alpacas - the Huacaya whose fleece has a crimp or wavy quality and the Suri, whose lustrous, corded fleece has no crimp. Split lipped like a camel, the alpaca has just a handful of teeth on the bottom row only. Browse feeders, they crop grass down to the level of a putting green.

Inquisitive and curious, alpacas interact well with people and each other, although the males tend to get territorial. When provoked, two competitive males will "neck wrestle" and strangely enough, bite each other on the ankles.

The animal walks on two toes that resemble nails with pads underneath. They are ruminants, which means they have a three-compartment stomach and chew cud like a cow or deer. They thrive on a daily diet of natural pasture grasses, along with some hay and mineral supplements. Ideal for a small acreage, alpacas require only a partial shelter, simple fences, and no more care than regular worming and vaccinations. Sure-footed, they tend to love playing water and will stand in the spray of an irrigation sprinkler if given the chance.

Males mark their territory with dung piles, which makes for easy cleanup. Even among females there is an established pecking order, "We're careful which alpacas we put in what pen," said Victoria.

The Hibbits are especially proud of their farm's layout, a unique design that includes a central corridor interconnecting all the pens and pastures for ease in moving the animals around. The animals are fed hay in a low trough specially designed with wooden slats to prevent scuffles between neighboring animals. "We try to emulate nature as much as possible," said Victoria.
    

Don Satterlee, above, feeds mineral pellets to Tennessee, one of the male studs at Alpacas By The Sea Cheryl Saterlee, ranch manager, carries a cria (or baby alpaca) named Reno to a new pen.

Although they vary in temperament, most of the Hibbits' alpacas can be easily herded or cornered by people with outstretched arms. Their border collie, Misty, is no herd dog, but a family pet.

Bay Monty, who takes after his carmel-colored father, for now is off on his own with his mother, Minstrel, a black-and-white huacya from New Zealand, to promote bonding.

The Hibbits' animals are tended regularly by Dr. Ty McConnell of Santa Cruz, one of the handful of veterinarians who specializes in alpacas. One recent Saturday he visited the farm to administer shots and confirm the due date of an expectant female.

In their breeding program the Hibbits follow a practice known as induced ovulation in which the male is introduced to the female on a set schedule. Females do not come into heat, but can be bred year round. Typically, they are bred 20 days after giving birth, and gestation is about 11 months. Baby alpacas are called crias, although once weaned they are referred to as weanlings. In Spanish, the adult males are called "machos," the females "hembras."

Breeding begins when the animal is about 11/2 to 2 years. A typical alpaca lives about 18-20 years, and a female produces about 15 offspring in her lifetime. Like other prey animals, babies take their first steps within 20 minutes of their birth and can run the first day.

The Hibbits have several prized males that they offer for stud, including, Bolivian Thunder, who sired baby Monty, and Hemingway's Tennessee. Animals sell fro anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 or upward of $50,000, depending on their characteristics or quality of fleece. Alpacas today are growing in popularity, bred not only for their coats, but also as show animals or family pets.

The alpacas are sheared annually each April or May by a professional shearer. Alpaca fiber, which has a cellular structure similar to hair, is valued for its natural fineness and silky feel. The animal has specifically been bred to downplay 'guard hair,' the outer coating found in sheep that gives normal wool its prickly quality.

The fleece also lacks the natural lanolin found in sheep wool, making it easier to handle for spinning. Naturally soft and lightweight, alpaca fleece comes in 22 natural colors, including white, fawn, brown, silver gray, black and rose gray. It can also be dyed or mixed with sheep wool, mohair or silk.

A single alpaca pelt or 'blanket' weights about 5-10 pounds and sells for roughly $5 an ounce. The diameter of each animal's fleece is carefully measured in a process known as 'micron count.'

The Hibbits have a working relationship with several spinners including Lynette Eads whose business, 'Mountain Lady Yarns,' is based in Sonara. She recently produced a sweater, two vests, a blanket and four sets of booties for the Hibbits family - all made from a single fleece from Bolivian Thunder.

"I've been spinning and weaving for about 20 years and alpaca fleece is my favorite fiber," said Eads, who first became acquainted with the South American animals on her parents' ranch in Hollister. "Alpaca fleece has a luxuriousness and softness to it that is like nothing else."

Once the alpaca is sheared, the fleece is cleaned with a blower and by hand. It is then hand-washed with a mild soap and allowed to dry. A process known as "carding" straightens and prepares the fleece for spinning. Eads uses an Ashford Spinning wheel to create a two-ply yarn that is then knitted or hand-woven into everything from sweaters and vests to scarves, hats, or baby clothes. Ken Hibbits' sweater required two pounds of fleece and took about 40 hours to make. For their daughter's baby blanket, Victoria Hibbits collected the fleece from the first shearing of 9-month-old alpacas.

A typical sweater ranges in cost from $250-$350, depending on the style and amount of work. Although alpaca products are available at some finer stores both in the United States and abroad, many products are sold through catalogue or via the Internet.

"The great thing about alpaca fiber is that many people who are allergic to regular wool can tolerate it," said Eads. "Some allergies are due to the coarseness of the wool, other times it's because of how it was processed. Most alpacas lack lanolin that bothers some people."

The Hibbits are popular gift-givers each Christmas, sending family members alpaca products destined to become heirlooms. "These are things that get handed down from generation to generation," said Ken.

Quick to extol the financial benefits of raising alpacas, Ken and Victoria Hibbits have been known to help others get started in the business, including temporarily boarding animals for people whose ventures are just getting off the ground. They are active members in the California Alpaca Association.

"Once you meet your first alpaca, you're likely to get hooked," said Ken, who never tires of being around these engaging creatures. "We live in a world with such fast-paced lifestyles. It's nice to come home to something that gives us so much enjoyment."

For more information about Alpacas By The Sea, call (650)728-LUCK (5825) or visit the Web site at: http://www.alpacasbythesea.com

 

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Alpacas By The Sea
P. O. Box 371628
1162 Tamarind St.
Montara, CA 94037
(650) 728-LUCK
Fax: (650) 515-3000

For further information on Alpaca farms, alpaca husbandry and alpaca sales,
write to:  Hibbits@alpacasbythesea.com