Grazing Isn't Just for Cows Anymore
Judy and Steve Hoepker
Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch
Union County, IL
Judy and Steve Hoepker had a business and day jobs running a trucking company. Judy’s daughter Morgan was interested in knitting and grew fond of working with alpaca yarn. Because finding the yarn to purchase was difficult, they toyed with the idea of generating their own alpaca yarn and, guess what? The Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch (R.O.A.R.) was born.
This venture quickly took Judy, husband Steve, and daughter Morgan and son-in-law Tom into another— completely different—line of work that has brought them a new lifestyle, new friends, and a fun and profitable niche market business. The business? Alpacas and the harvest and creation of hand-made, quality hypoallergenic wool and yarn products.
They live and work outside of Anna, Illinois. The property included 10 acres, partially wooded. There wasn’t much fence or established pasture, but they started taking in animals from other alpaca farmers who were going out of business or retiring and pretty soon they were off and running.
According to Steve, “We had some 60 or 70-year old fence and we used other junk and a lot of redneck ingenuity to create a spot for everyone.” It didn’t take long before Judy and Morgan had a small herd and a few fainting goats as well.
The pair of rookie alpaca herders say they had a few mentors who advised and guided them early on. For the most part, Judy and Morgan are self-educated in their operations. They have attended seminars, workshops and other fiber events to gain knowledge.
“We learned pretty quick that the alpacas could pay for themselves,” Judy says. However, looking at the land they noticed erosion problems and recognized their need to grow their own grass and hay. Judy knew they didn’t have the funds to do it all on their own and do it right. They needed better fence to protect their growing herd. They needed a steady source of forage and a way to rotate and manage those resources. “We wanted to create a process that was truly sustainable. That was my vision from the beginning,” Judy says.
Health issues with the herd was a new challenge for the start-up company. After going to local veterinarians who were more familiar with cows, cats, and dogs than alpacas, the ROAR team began pitch-hitting in self-taught doctor skills as well. As luck would have it, Judy’s daughter, Morgan, was working on a biology degree. Morgan also loves working with animals. It was only natural that she stepped in and became ROAR’s farm manager. “Morgan had the scientific background and knowledge that’s become invaluable to our whole operation,” Judy explains.
Things were moving along quickly and issues with herd management, more herd health and safety concerns continued to mount. There were onsite resource issues on the farm’s steep and eroding slopes, unanswered questions, and mounting livestock and grazing system expenses that became a growing concern. Luckily, Judy had a friend who suggested they get in touch with USDA who could offer some help with all the livestock issues and fencing headaches they were up against.
Judy called the USDA office in Anna, Illinois and was introduced to the Natural Resources Conservation Service with all their conservation program options, including technical and financial assistance for small livestock operators like herself, and Soil Conservationist Sarah Wilson. They became fast friends and Judy and Steve became NRCS’ new customer—and their first alpaca farmers. NRCS works with private landowners of all kinds on a voluntary basis.
Wilson is more accustomed to working with landowners who have livestock like cows. But she quickly acclimated to the new four-legged grazing animals in order to assist the Hoepkers with their land and resource issues.
“It’s no surprise that alpacas have the same needs and issues as any livestock. They need food, water, and fences,” says Sarah. “And NRCS conservation programs are designed to address erosion and water issues on all kinds of operations, including those with alpacas.”
Establishing quality fences and gates for access and traffic was the first order of business. Digging a well and installing a hydrant and watering facilities was next. The west side of the acreage needed a grade stabilization structure to control water flow and stop erosion. Once the application for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was finalized and approved for funding, plans were developed and work began in July 2014. Because the land adjacent to theirs may be available and for sale soon, the Hoepkers are hopeful they can acquire it to allow more grass rotations, more grazing options, and more alpacas.
Judy’s energy level and excitement about all she’s learned over the last 5 years is evident from the smile on her face. “I can’t tell you how many things we’ve tried, learned, and made mistakes with,” Judy laughs. “But we keep learning more. We’re getting smarter, more efficient at what we do, and we’re more capable of handling things on our own now. We’re actually helping others involved in similar start-ups. It’s amazing,” Judy says.
When you raise cattle for beef, the end product is meat. When you raise alpaca, the ongoing end product is the fiber, or fleece. “Shearing alpaca is probably a lot like shearing sheep. I’d never done either before. It’s an art. And it’s a lot of work.”
Different parts of the animal’s body produce different grades of fleece. The ‘sweet spot’ is typically along the back and main torso. Fleece harvested from alpaca legs, chest and belly tends to be coarser. The neck of some animals can also be of better quality and able to use in production. The industry establishes different grade levels ranging from the finest (Grade 1) to thick/coarsest (Grade 6). “All alpaca fleece is soft, but it is key to know the difference because it directly affects value, pricing, and how you will use the yarn.” Both Judy and Morgan studied the grading/sorting/classing process and are working to become certified in making fleece grade assessments. This is a crucial skill to have, as all fleece inventory must be evaluated and sorted in order to price and sell.
ROAR has been in operation long enough to learn the realities of animal value, risks herd relations, and compatibility. They’ve already owned a few male alpacas who are territorial, combative, and who exhibit fleece and personality traits that are not helpful or profitable. There is a market for alpaca meat. “I suspect that with our growing herd, at some point, we will explore that as an option,” says Judy.
Judy is happy to show off her friendly and fuzzy alpacas and demonstrates some of the simple, hands-on tools and processes used to treat and prepare fiber for use. The fiber can be dyed or used in natural colors. Even higher-grade alpaca fiber is super soft and very warm. And all alpaca fiber is naturally hypoallergenic. Products ROAR creates and sells include:
- Baby coats
- Fleece-wrapped goat milk soaps
- Wine bottle holders
Judy reported in mid-November that the newly-seeded pasture looked lush and green. “All the grass is coming up, but our herd won’t get to graze on it until next spring. It needs time to establish good roots and healthy soil.” Their Alpaca will only graze pastures during daylight hours and never remain in pastures after dusk due to the risk of predators.” We bring them together every evening for protection in the dry lot. The risk is too great to leave them out.”
Even the generous amounts of alpaca poop generated on Hoepkers farm has value. They compost it and offer it to local gardens. Requests for yarn continue to roll in. Demand for products sold at craft shows is growing. According to Judy, this is the right time to be in the animal fiber business.
The family is eager to see their new company’s business and vision come true. Sharing their experience, telling others about what they do, and passing on all they’ve learned clearly gives them joy. They all hope to offer the ranch as an agri-tourism site and also plan to offer it as an outdoor classroom for FFA, 4-H, or interested school groups.
According to Sarah Wilson, “This is a unique farm operation and a special business enterprise. With some financial and technical assistance from NRCS, they’ve turned 10 rough acres that was unused into a thriving business where they create natural and sustainable products. I’m glad to be a part of such a great local success story.”
To learn how USDA’s NRCS can help your livestock operation or address natural resource concerns, call your local county office today. Visit Illinois NRCS to find the office closest to you.