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April 23, 2012

By: Dick Walker

From the Altiplano of Peru to the Heartland of NorthAmerica

History of the Suri Alpaca

The history of Suri alpacas in the USA started with the first importation of 100 white Bolivian Suris in 1991. Prior to that event this breed was unknown in this country. Even to the few camelid fanciers who had recently imported the more commonly known Huacaya alpaca, the Suri was a mysterious breed, little known outside of the Andean altiplano region of South America. Even in Peru and Bolivia it is estimated that only 3-5 percent of all alpacas are of the Suri breed. Suris may even be outnumbered by their wild cousins the Vicuna, a protected wildlife species and the ancestor to the domestic alpaca.

The origin of the word ‘Suri’ is shrouded in the mystery and legends of Aymaran and Quechuan natives of the altiplano of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Suri was originally applied as a descriptive term for the shiny, silky feathers of the Rhea, a member of the ostrich family, that were used as decorative adornments of Inca andAymaran royalty. Suri in its literal translation means ‘straight’. The defining characteristics of this fiber are that of a fine straight highly lustrous fiber with a very soft handle or feel. Archeological evidence of the domestication of camelids with suri type fiber dates back three thousand years in what is now Peru and Bolivia. During the reign of the Inca culture legend says that the Suri was bred exclusively for the use of royalty. After the Spanish conquest of Peru the number of Suris apparently suffered sharp and progressive declines.

Toward the end of the last century there were justifiable concerns about the viability of this breed. In the September 1999 Alpaca Market Report of the International Alpaca Association, Don Julio Barreda, a world renown alpaca breeder from Peru, made note of their declining numbers and challenged this group to initiate efforts to assure the recovery of the Suri. As it turns out, that renaissance is now occurring in the USA. Shortly after the first Suris arrived on farms and ranches in the US a group of breeders, hearing the callof Don Julio Barreda to ‘Save the Suri’, came together to form the Suri Network, an organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of this unique livestock breed. The rarity of this breed and the uniqueness of its fiber are expressed in the maxim of the Suri Network; Rarest of Breeds, Ultimate Natural Fiber.

In all, 1,694 Suri alpacas were imported between the years 1991-1999. At that time it was estimated there were only about 120,000 Suri alpacas in South America compared to several million of the more common Huacaya alpacas. After the last importation Alpaca Registry International (ARI) closed the Registry to alpacas of undocumented parentage and alpacas imported from any foreign country. Since then here have been no further importations. From this foundation the number of Suris in the US has grown to 37,000 ARI registered animals. This contrasts with the current number of Huacaya alpacas, now at 157,000.

In the beginning, alpacas were marketed in the USAalmost exclusively as rare and exotic animals to breeders whose chief interest was in collecting such unique investments. The tax advantages of such an investment were, and still remains, one of several factors attracting potential investors to the Suri industry. For those who are primarily attracted by a tax advantaged investment strategy, it is important to note that Suris remain one of the rarest of rare livestock breeds and that Suri alpacas are outnumbered by Huacaya alpacas by a factor of 4 to1. It is this rarity that gives our industry one of its greatest advantages for future growth. In Peru the Suri is not considered a minor but important player in an alpaca fiber industry dominated by the much more abundant Huacaya breed. However, it is conceivable that in the foreseeable future the USA could produce more Suri fiber than South America, something that is inconceivable for Huacaya breeders.

The intrinsic value of the Suri is expressed in the production of a very unique type of fiber that is found on only a very small number of fiber producing species anywhere in the world. Alpaca fiber is one of only a few natural, high fashion, luxury fibers, along with cashmere, angora,and mohair, that are used by fashion designers worldwide. Of these fiber types, Suri is produced in much smaller quantities than any other. The US Suri industry is positioning to become the dominant producer in the world. It is the long term goal of the US Suri industry to achieve that dominance in both quantity and quality of Suri fiber as well as the genetics that produce this product.

It has been a strategic priority for the SN over the past few years to establish the necessary prerequisites to facilitate the formation of a traditional livestock industry based on raising Suri alpacas. To this end, the association has turned to the Animal Science program at CSU for assistance. With the help of Brett Kaysen, PhD and Mark Enns, PhD many of these prerequisites have been identified. As part of this effort a business plan based on a traditional livestock model is in the process of being developed by the Suri Network. Dr Jennifer Bond, PhD in Agricultural Economics is also conducting an industry wide study to assess current and future markets for breeding stock, fiber and fiber end products as well as identifying target markets for the US alpaca industry. These are indeed exciting times for this industry.

To achieve dominance on a commercial level requires advancement in several key areas. One of those advances was to obtain recognition by the USDA that alpacas are indeed ‘domesticlivestock’ and not simply an ‘exotic’ or ‘companion’animal. This important milestone was achieved in legislation passed by congress in 2009.

Another important landmark in the evolution of the Suri industry was the adoption bySuri Network membersin 2008 of an official Suri Alpaca Breed Standard. This is a document that clearly states the attributes of the ideal Suri alpaca. When considering an investment in Suri alpacas, even a new buyer now has access to commonly recognized criteria for evaluating their investment options. In the absence of such a standard, a novice buyer has very little to assure them of the suitability of their purchase. From an industry perspective the adoption of a breed standard is an important step in establishing a common objective for breeders across North America. Without such a model it is difficult for a livestock industry to achieve success as there is no common understanding of what ‘success‘ looks like As in any endeavor, having a common goal is crucial to achieving results in a timely manor. With a breed standard even novice Suri breeders have a clear idea of what it is they are attempting to produce and experienced breeders have a clear target to aim for.

Clearly identifying what the industry wants to produce, as specified in the Suri breed standard, is most useful in guiding improvement on a national level if combined with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the Suris that are currently in production. Knowing this will allow the industry to identify those traits most in need of improvement. To that end the Suri Network has initiated a ‘Herd Classification’ program. This is a program offered to members to facilitate an objective and unbiased evaluation of member’s herds. An individual trained and qualified in the certification process evaluates and assigns each individual Suri a score according to a point system based on the Suri breed standard. The database generated by this program not only enables each breeder to guide breeding decisions and evaluate herd improvement but also serves as a tool for the industry to use in determining progress toward national goals for herd quality.

There is no doubt that the next step toward assuring the continued success of this industry involves the application of accepted animal science technologies that have been proven and widely adopted in other livestock industries. EPD technology, Expected Progeny Difference, is the most important one these to apply to alpaca breeding. The application of this statistical tool to alpaca breeding has huge potential to bring about timely improvements in Suri alpaca genetics on a national scale. At present breeders choose which sire and dam to mate based largely on two criteria. One is the phenotype of the alpaca. Simply stated the phenotype is what an alpaca looks like, what is described in the breed standard, and what is evaluated in the show ring. The other criterion is the pedigree which is simply the genealogy of the alpaca. Neither of these involves an assessment of the true genetic potential of either the sire or dam and when used together are at best only about 50% reliable in predicting improvement in the offspring’s phenotype compared to that of the parents.

Without going into a detailed discussion of EPD technology, the defining feature of EPDs is the ability to reliably predict the expected improvement on a selected trait between parents and offspring based on a statistical analysis of prior breeding results. Without looking at the actual genotype, this is the most accurate way available to make informed, high probability breeding decisions. Fortunately for Suri breeders this technology will soon be available to us. This information is being developed on two fronts. The classification program through the Suri Network, will provide trait evaluation statistics tothe corresponding data base being developed at ColoradoStateUniversity. Evaluation of this data will provide information that can be used to identify those traits on which to concentrate in the Suri EPD program. ARI is currently collecting information on fiber production traits and this will eventually be used to calculate EPDs for these selectedtraitsfor both Suri as well as Huacaya alpacas.

Bringing science and statistics into the breeding barn will result in more rapid and predictable advances in the quality and quantity of Suri alpaca fiber. The entire alpaca genome has recently been sequenced. In the future, with some diligent effort at better understanding the genome, genetic improvements can be addressed more directly.

Having developed a Breed Standard and thereby knowing specifically what traits are most important in Suris as well as having an ongoing program to classify Suri alpacas in order to know what actually exists on the farms and ranches in North America will give our industry an impressive advantage. Knowing what we have now and what we plan to create in the future will serve this industry well.

The Suri Network has a very active program coordinated through the Product Development Taskforce that is focusing on issues pertinent to the commercialization of North American Suri Fiber. This is a very exciting and productive endeavor. While working to expand the niche markets that have already been created for Suri Fiber, this group is establishing the ground work for commercialization on a much larger scale. Suri fiber is already a valued commodity in a global market. The keys to enhancing future profitability involves issues like branding, quality assurance, understanding consumer expectations, producing and marketing value added products and a number of other issues of importance. There are challenges ahead but, non are insurmountable.

One of the biggest challenges is to expand the numbers of Suri alpacas in order to produce a sufficient amount of consistently high quality fiber for production of commercial quantities of yarn. The best way to overcome this hurdle is to attract more breeders into this market. Our industry needs to expand in order to achieve long term success. Alpacas are very suitable livestock for both small as well as large scale farm and ranch operations. Being quite easy to raise, the Suri is an ideal breed for those seeking to enter the world of livestock production for the first time. The marketing campaign in USA Today is aimed at attracting attention to this very progressive livestock investment opportunity and one of many ways the Suri Network is serving to Preserve, Protect and Promote the Suri alpaca.

Dick and Nancy Walker own SuperSuris Alpacas in Mead, Washington

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