Alpaca on the menu
Alpaca meat looks similar to lamb when processed, but offers a milder-flavour.
FIVE years ago, the Hyde family owned 30 show alpacas – but, after years with below average rainfall, they no longer had the grass to sustain them.
Based out of Tallarook, the drought had hit hard.
Instead of animals surrounded by lush green growth, the alpacas were living on bought-in feed.
Felicia and Andrew Hyde, who started off with four alpacas as paddock pets, were caught.
“We had spent years growing our flock, had poured so much time and effort into breeding show animals, and then we had the drought and we had no way of feeding them,” Ms Hyde said.
“All the mainstream farmers – beef and sheep – could de-stock; but no one wanted alpacas in a drought.”
Looking for ways to manage the problem, the Hydes found an abattoir in Western Victoria that would process alpacas for meat.
“We were at a stage where we had to sell them and get out, or we had to find an alternative way to use them.
“So, 18 months ago, we decided to give it a go and market them for consumption.”
Alpaca meat has long been a staple in South America, but is largely restricted in Australia by the “cute” marketing that has been part of the hobby farm scene since alpaca breeding boomed in the 1990s.
In February this year, the Hydes launched Tallarook Meat Co – a business that revolved around not only selling alpaca meat, but also in changing the public perception.
“The biggest barrier, without a doubt, has been customers who can’t get past the idea that they are eating something cute,” Ms Hyde said.
“Those that do try it have been really positive – we have a number of recipe cards we hand out, and that helps people feel confident in the product they are taking home.”
Knowing the health benefits of their product, the Hydes took their meat to DTS Food Laboratories for testing back in January.
The results were clear: alpaca meat has up to half the saturated fat of beef, and in a 100 gram serve has 474kj, 24.8g of protein, and 1.2g of fat - 0.5g saturated, 0.3 mono unsaturated, 0.4g Polyunsaturated and 0.1g Trans fat.
“There are a lot of health benefits to eating alpaca, similar to kangaroo,” Ms Hyde said.
“It is very lean, high in iron and protein but doesn’t have the gamey flavour.”
After originally offering traditional meat cuts, the Hydes branched out into smoked ham, sausages and the aptly named alpacabana.
Selling only at farmers markets across Victoria, Tallarook Meat Co is slowly making in-roads with their increased product range.
“It’s a lovely tasting meat, with a lot to offer – I think it’s about educating the public,” Ms Hyde said.
Of course, there is still some tweaking to be done on-farm.
Each alpaca has a gestation period of 11 months, with the animals not processed until 36 months – a total turnaround time of almost four years.
“We are trying out different rates of turn-off – if we send them to the abattoir at two years of age, instead of three, there is around a 20 per cent reduction in the carcass,” Ms Hyde said.
“But we have to weigh that up against the extra 12 months of feeding.”
At three years old, each alpaca has a carcass weight of 35–40kg – with a 62 per cent return on meat.
The Hydes are changing their breeding focus as well – gravitating away from fibre selection and instead trying to develop an animal that is heavier-set with a quicker maturation.
“We still get three wool clips from each animal, which is great, but the quality of the fibre is no longer our driving focus.”
In the spirit of value-adding to their line, Ms Hyde has also started making felt, as well as offering hand-spun fibres.
Retailing starts at $20 per kilo – a small price, Ms Hyde explained, for an animal that takes almost four years to make it onto the table.
“As a commercial proposition, alpacas can’t compete with sheep or cattle,” she said.
“They only have one cria each year, are slow to mature and require specialised handling and shearing.
“Despite that, the price per kilo is similar to lamb.
“We are mindful of the fact that this is a niche product within an already niche market,” Ms Hyde said.
“At the end of the day, we breed sheep and cattle for meat; why wouldn’t we do it with alpaca?”
For more information, or to find out where you can buy Tallarook Meat Co products, check out their Facebook page of the same name.
FLEECE TO FORK: Andrew Hyde, together with his wife Felicia, own and operate Tallarook Meat Co – a new business that wants to see alpaca become a staple on the table.
LOVE YOUR PRODUCT: Even though she concedes alpacas make cute pets, Felicia Hyde knows that every animal must have a financial place on a working farm.
TALLAROOK MEAT CO: The Hyde family are proudly taking their alpaca products to five farmer markets each month.