The straight scoop about breeding:
Pack llamas

What is most essential about a good pack llama?

Pack llamas dependably transport items, typically backcountry gear for backcountry travellers, thus for multiple days and over varied, sometimes difficult natural terrain. "Dependably" means that the llama is well-behaved and trustworthy, and available for the next day's shift (not running wild somewhere).

Specialist pack llamas may work in a string on voice commands, carry a small child, or cover 20+ miles day after day. These llamas are usually not found, let alone available for purchase, and won't be addressed here for that reason.

Who buys a pack llama?

• Experienced backcountry people who are no longer as fit as they once were, and yet desire to continue their backcountry travels on foot.

• Backcountry travellers who must transport more than they themselves can carry — childrens' gear or guests' gear; supplies for very extended journeys; photography, fishing, and/or hunting supplies; surveying and trail maintenance gear and supplies. These individuals may use llamas to augment their work, or purely for pleasure pursuits.

• People who enjoy lots of camping luxuries (more than they can carry comfortably) and are willing to hike at least a few miles away from their car for the additional solitude.

• People with any of the above goals who already pack with llamas, and need to replace one or more of their pack crew with a younger, same-sex individual compatible with their needs and other llamas.

Although a huge number of people who have never been packing or fishing or hiking say they are buying pack llamas, this is actually their own rationalization for getting some llamas. Those people are not part of the pack llama market, in no small part because they are rarely willing to spend the money it takes to get a trained pack llama.

What do pack llamas sell for?

Unlike the prices for every other part of the llama market, pack llama prices have been relatively flat since the early 1980s. (Flat is good compared to "steep nosedive".) The only change has been the number, type, and price for reject and cull llamas unsuited for packing that are advertised as packers (mostly to the type of folks in the last paragraph of the preceding section).

Depending on ability, training level, age, actual experience, and whether pack equipment is included, a pack llama typically sells for $800 - $3500. $800 might be for a youngster, too young to pack, with only a halter and basic training ... or it might be an 8-year-old llama who really can only handle that "few miles from the car". $3500 might be a PLTA certified master packer (MPL) in the 5-16 year-old age bracket. Most trail-ready, trained pack llamas fall in the $1500-$3000 range, although a temporary shortage (2017 to present) is resulting in pack-ancestry-bred weanlings selling for trained packing adult prices (you can't get into the market fast enough to profit from that, BTW — the few people with females for sale are asking $7-10K for them, including some proven infertile but heck-maybe-you'll-get-lucky animals).

Pack breeding stock with trail credentials are difficult to find, and typically cost significantly more depending on attributes and current competition on the market.

So there is profit in pack llamas?

Whoa, not so fast! The problem is that time and expenses to produce a pack llama are significantly higher.

Although people confident in their selection abilities may pay eyebrow-raising prices for unproven weanlings or yearlings, they are few and far between. Most promising weanlings to two-year-olds command about the same price regardless of age: $500-$1000, largely dependent on how capable the parents are and how promising the youngster looks ... and in no small part how much more the breeder is gambling they'll get if that youngster can be sold as a trail-proven animal or even breeder in a few years. Or the price may be set at rock-bottom ($200-$400) because the breeder has too many llamas and needs to move as many as possible, as soon as possible (buyer beware!!!).

This still sounds good compared to other llama markets ... until you factor in the price of breeding stock that has the credentials allowing your youngster to command those higher prices everybody wants to figure into the balance sheet. Whoops.

Then, factor in that even the most skilled breeders using (very necessary) stringent selection practices for potential breeding stock expect to "pull" up to 50% of their purchases out of their breeding herd for many years. (That just doubled the production cost.) Of course that's cheaper than continuing to breed these continually-eating animals and not being able to sell their continually-eating offspring (see above). Sound ex-breeders can be sold as packers, but longer retention means lower monetary return on those animals.

Trained pack llamas must be held until maturity (4-5 years depending on sex and other factors) to avoid physical damage while accumulating experience, which results in higher expenditures; however, their selling price is substantially higher. The time commitment for individual training and the interaction required to produce a desirable personal pack llama means that responsible and successful breeders cannot produce very many trained packers each year. Those who produce large numbers of trained pack llamas usually have one or more hired hands, and/or they train their llamas in ways that don't produce companionable packers, just "employees."

Profit after expenses, if any, is generally limited to repayment of training time invested at about minimum wage (or less), and is tied directly to the breeder's ability to produce excellent pack prospects that learn quickly every time and have desirable dispositions and coats.

For example, we figure the base expense of breeding and raising a castrated pack prospect is about $800; we also usually sell a fitted pack saddle and halter with the animal to minimize the possibility that the animal might be mistreated (and ruined) with ill-fitting or painful equipment — and that brings the total price to $1000 before any training, gas for transportation, money for farm sitters while we're gone on training trips ... let alone farm overhead!

An animal that takes to packing in one season with 40 hours of training and trail time (including individual work, not just being strung along with other llamas) is only making us a small "profit" if the animal is also so physically superior and charismatic that we can ask (and get) a higher price. A more average llama who has some physical "glitches" or some less-than-perfect temperament qualities — necessitating a lower selling price — already has out-of-pocket costs equal to the that eventual selling price; if that llama requires two packing seasons with 100 hours of training and trail time, you can see we're in the hole in a big way.

Think it's easy to just breed better llamas to begin with? It's certainly the right way to do it, but it's far easier said than done. But more to the point, it's far easier to claim a llama is ideal than to make it so in the first place. Not only does profit usually evaporate when full disclosure is made (or when the truth comes out) about the average "pack" llama, but so does reputation. Honest breeders must compete with all the less-than-honest "breeders" and resellers who are perfectly comfortable selling unsuitable or marginally suitable llamas with minimal care and minimal training to uneducated buyers at prices that will always undercut the cost to raise fully-trained and properly-cared-for llamas.

Next, add in unplanned expenses. For example, one year a stud broke his leg to the tune of $5000 in vet bills. Another year we lost TWO working studs within six months and the only baby for the year. Yet another year, unusually strong winds damaged a barn roof and destroyed a shelter roof. Any real-world surprises mean that an operation already riding the margin goes into red ink for the year (the IRS likes "years" ... they don't "get" the "real world" at all).

Breeding excellent pack llamas takes significantly more knowledge than does breeding for other current uses, worthy pack breeding stock does not (and should not) come cheap. Just finding good pack llamas for possible breeding can take a LOT of time and money (we should know!). In sum, just the expense of acquiring many pack breeding prospects and then verifying which ones are genuinely excellent ensures you'll make no profit for many years to come.

However, if you live in a locale where rural land is cheap, many people are genuinely interested in pack llamas, wilderness is close at hand, costs pencil out for your situation and you have full-time work with no other hobbies or outside demands, you will probably be in the black over the long haul with pack llamas. To do better, you'll need to be an expert at social networking, manipulation and deception, just like the top-of-the-pyramid show llama breeders.

Ethical considerations specific to breeding pack llamas

If your llamas are from long-lived, Classic llama breeding stock, are sold trained, and perform as you represent, the ethical concerns are minimal. These llamas will be readily resold (within one season or less) if they need to be rehomed, and generally are welcome retirees when past their working years.

Even so, buyers can be liars (both intentionally and not), and harm can come to the pack llamas you've spent time training and breeding. What would you do if a buyer chose to ignore explict instructions for a particular llama's handling and caused him an injury that ended the llama's packing career? What if the buyer used a painful pack saddle, the llama protested, and the buyer wants a refund for the now-ruined llama?

Is there room for more pack llama breeders?

The short supply of GOOD pack llamas is unfortunately continuing to encourage the unscrupulous to produce and sell marginal llamas "for packing", which subsequently "prove" to those buyers (and all who witness their struggles with a down, spitting llama in the middle of a trail) that llamas in general can't make the grade as serious pack animals. These failures, in turn, depress both demand and prices. The same consequence comes home for those who select pack llama breeding stock solely for the current "in" trait (formerly extreme weight; now most often extreme height) without taking the llamas' actual performance and longevity into account. Bottom line — failures on the trail, regardless of the reason, do damage to llamas' reputation as pack animals.

Still, good, well-trained pack llamas that can perform reliably under real-world conditions and expectations are in healthy demand among those few who have already experienced what a GOOD pack llama can do. However, llamas live a long time and openings for llamas in such homes are sporadic. Too, pack llama shoppers often have special requirements, and no breeder can possibly anticipate even a majority of them, let alone have "inventory" on hand. Some need a trained female, now. But four years ago, you had only male babies, so although you have some females, they are not at the right age and stage of training. Two years ago, you had all females ... and the buyer who wants a younger llama to tag along with an existing string this year has only geldings, and can't take a female. The next caller won't touch anything that's not white; he's a deer hunter. You don't have any white llamas right now except for the just-born baby that won't even be weaned by hunting season, let alone capable of packing heroic loads. And so it goes.

Networking with other producers can be useful in theory, but in practice, we've found that the most aggressive in the network end up controlling buyer access to the others and generally get the most (and most lucrative) sales. When the network is a formal group, the majority just keeping paying various fees (and provide the membership mass necessary for the appearance of credibility) that support marketing and first crack at sales ... for the few at the top.

There's plenty of venom flowing from pack llama breeders and resellers, too. We used to figure it was the inevitable result of the bottom dropping out of the llama market as people who were financially overextended felt the need to blame someone other than themselves, but it just won't go away ... only the details change. Just as repulsive are the outright dirty tactics to coerce independent pack llama breeders to join the latest "organization" (there have been several) and to steer independent buyers away from doing their own research before buying.

So perhaps there's not as much "room" for other pack llama breeders as it would appear? Perhaps the organized pack llama breeders really don't have a viable marketing tool after all? Perhaps the llamas designated as "elite" by the organized breeders aren't as superior as claimed? Sounds a lot like the king's new clothes to us. Neither good llamas nor any market that truly has greater demand than supply needs any of that aggression and perception control stuff.


Pack llama breeding cannot be entered into lightly if success is the goal and should not be considered a potentially profitable venture for many years to come (even then, the level of profit is — realistically — minimal). It is also becoming obvious that producers of marginal "pack" stock aren't surviving long unless they jump on the current marketing organization's bandwagon (and even then, their demise is merely delayed and more costly).

Remember — all breeding is a gamble. No matter how good the breeding stock and how skillful the breeder, there are no guarantees that the outcome will be 100% saleable, packable llamas.

Nowhere in the world of llamas is it more impossible to hide false claims than out in the backcountry.