The Andes come to North Dakota

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, has launched Northe...

Les and Deb Wellinghoff, originally from southern Illinois, have resettled near Tolna, N.D., and launched Northern Prairie Alpacas. Agweek photo by Jonathan Knutson.

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, has 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 said.

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


Alpacas on the Tolna ranch came through the past snowy winter, their first in North Dakota, just fine, she said.

"They're highly adaptable animals," she said.

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 that December.


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.

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 said.

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 corn into ethanol or durum into pasta.

Deb said Northern Prairie Alpacas' "clip" this year will be used in two ways.


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

Prices vary

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 said.

The Wellinghoffs declined 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 said.

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

'Unique and intelligent'

The Wellinghoffs said 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 said.

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

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

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.

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.

Growing industry

Few people in America have much experience with alpacas.

Before 1980, the animals were rare in the U.S., living mainly in zoos. But private individuals began breeding alpacas in the mid-1980s, and the number of the animals in the U.S. 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 150,000 today.

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

The Wellinghoffs would like to expand their herd to 20 alpacas. They said 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. 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 said.

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

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 said.

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 said.

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