Both llamas and alpacas are members of the Camelidae family. Modified ruminants with a three-compartment stomach, they have cloven hooves and chew a cud like sheep and cattle. The young of both llamas and alpacas are called crias. Although they were previously classified under the same genus as llamas, the alpaca genus was changed from lama to vicugna in 2001 following genetic analysis showing that the alpaca descends from the vicuña, not the guanaco (Kadwell et al., 2001). Other members of the family, guanaco and vicuña, are wild animals classed as endangered species and protected from hunting in South America. The llama and alpaca have been domesticated in South America for many centuries. There the llama is used as a beast of burden, as a fiber source, and as a meat source. The alpaca is used primarily for fiber production but is also a meat source in South America.
Llamas and alpacas are quiet, intelligent, easily trained animals that can provide fleece and potentially a variety of services to the owner. They are adaptable to different climates and terrains. Alpacas and llamas offer a comparatively low-impact livestock alternative. Their padded feet do not have the same effect on the ground as hooves. In addition, they have efficient digestive systems and tend to consolidate feces, helping to control parasites and ease manure collection.
Before starting a llama or alpaca enterprise, it is advisable to visit as many existing llama or alpaca operations as possible, to pick up ideas and learn about options. Pay particular attention to regional farms because care and feeding may vary in different parts of the country due to climate, parasites, and terrain. Each llama or alpaca operation is unique. Gathering many ideas will help in creating an operation that suits a producer’s particular situation.
Previously, when starting to raise either alpacas or llamas, the initial capital investment in breeding stock was fairly substantial. Though stock can still be expensive, since the mid-1990s the price of most llamas has been reasonable, and the price of alpacas has decreased as their numbers in the United States have grown. Raising llamas or alpacas is considered a high-risk enterprise by banks and other agencies and, consequently, a large owner investment is usually needed to obtain a loan.
A consideration for many llama or alpaca farmers is that marketing opportunities are not readily available in their locations. Developing markets for their llama or alpaca operation can take a large amount of the operator’s time and energy, and requires good “people skills” and a business plan.
Marketing of llamas and alpacas on the Internet is an option with both advantages and challenges that need to be considered. Producers considering marketing over the Internet should consult the Access Minnesota Main Street website www.access-ecom.info/index.cfm?xid=MN, which has an Electronic Commerce Curriculum that provides information on electronic commerce basics; finding business information and services online; exploring E-commerce websites; creating your website; promoting your website; Minnesota case studies; developing your Internet business plan; and much more.
While raising llamas or alpacas presents an alluring and fulfilling lifestyle with profit potential, prospective farmers must understand the seriousness of the investment, including high initial costs, as well as the fact that profit is not a guarantee. Some farmers feel that there is not a viable fiber market in the United States at this point, and experience a challenge in selling their fiber (AlpacaNation, no date). One study found that today’s prices for alpaca breeding stock are unsustainably high because fiber prices will never reach correspondingly high levels. If fiber prices improve due to increased demand, the study projects that supplies will increase and prices will drop again (Saitone and Sexton, 2005). These considerations should serve as a caution or preparation for those who are considering entering the llama and alpaca industry.
Llama and alpaca production practices are similar to those for sheep. Water needs to be accessible at all times. Llamas and alpacas are adaptive feeders, eating grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees. They can be kept on a variety of pastures and hay. Approximately three to five llamas or five to 10 alpacas can be grazed per acre, depending on the quality of the pasture. A bale of hay will generally feed an adult llama for a week. Because of the animals’ high feed conversion, hays with high protein, like alfalfa, are not recommended because the animals can easily become overweight (Dey, 1998). Rotational grazing of llamas and alpacas can help utilize the pasture to a greater extent. Using pastures to meet most of the nutritional needs of the animals will enhance profitability, because pasture is usually less costly than purchasing supplemental grains and hay.
During periods of stress, animals should receive supplemental feeds, such as small alfalfa pellets, oats, or blended feed pellets specially formulated for llamas and alpacas. Be careful if feeding straight pelleted feed because llamas frequently choke on the pellets. If pellets are fed, they should be mixed with a coarse feed or spread out in a large pan. The producer may also put smooth rocks in the pan to keep the llamas from gobbling the pellets too fast (McGrath, 1996). If a rich diet is continuously fed, llamas and alpacas will become fat, causing reproduction problems varying from poor conception to poor milk production. Free access to salt, minerals (with selenium in a selenium-deficient area), and clean water are essential.
Physical and Social Environment
Llamas and alpacas must be provided with natural or manmade shelter with adequate ventilation and space so that they may escape from heat, cold, and precipitation. Depending on the climate, heating and cooling measures are also necessary (see the section on heat stress) (Camelid Community, 2005).
Fencing must be sufficient to contain the llamas and alpacas, as well as to keep predators out. Fences should be at least 48 inches high, though many producers recommend 60 inches, and no more than 12 inches from the ground. For those planning to raise llamas or alpacas, fencing predators out may be as important as fencing their stock in. Woven wire or electrified high-tensile fencing are some common choices. Use of barbed wire is not recommended. The animals must have freedom of movement and the ability to exercise in their enclosure. Note that llamas generally require more space than alpacas. Llamas and alpacas are grazing animals, and should be provided the opportunity to graze daily. Manure should be removed from the enclosure regularly, mud should be removed, and urine build-up should be treated to prevent parasites (Camelid Community, 2005).
Llamas and alpacas are herd animals and should never be kept alone. Furthermore, they should not be raised as a baby away from other camelids. Aggressive and territorial males may need to be in a separate enclosure, but they should remain within sight of the other animals (Camelid Com- munity, 2005). A male alpaca or llama that exhibits extremely aggressive behavior towards other animals and humans is termed a berserk male. Although uncommon, berserk males cause havoc in the herd, present a serious danger to humans, and are not retainable (Paul, 2007). Gelding can usually reduce or relieve this behavior.
It is advisable to seek a veterinarian’s advice or contact breed associations in your area for preventative health suggestions, specific nutritional requirements, or special problems prevalent in your area. Work with your veterinarian to determine what vaccination schedule is necessary to protect your animals from local disease risks. If you need to find a veterinarian, the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners (www.aasrp.org) offers listings of veterinarians who work with camelids. Below are descriptions of some common health concerns, including heat stress, meningeal worm, toenail trimming, dental care, and shearing.
Because llamas and alpacas are from the dry, thin air in the high plains and mountains of South America, they are not acclimated to the high heat and humidity in many parts of the United States, and are in danger of heat stress. Use of the heat index is a common tool for determining when animals are at risk. The key to combating heat stress is prevention; there are many practices to protect llamas and alpacas. Providing shade is an easy step. Shade can be provided by either trees or shelters, but good ventilation of shade structures is essential. Proper husbandry is another preventative measure and includes working or handling animals during the coolest part of the day, and planning for crias to be born in the spring. Shearing helps animals lose heat effectively and is one of the most important aspects of heat-stress prevention. In addition, proper nutrition can increase the animals’ resistance to environmental extremes.
Access to fresh water also helps prevent heat stress. Water should be kept in the shade, and electrolytes may be added if necessary. Another consideration is providing water for llamas to wade in, whether in the form of a pond, stream, or baby pool. Sandpits or concrete floors will also suffice as cooling areas. Finally, of utmost importance is monitoring for signs of heat stress, which include nasal flaring, open-mouthed breathing, increased breathing rate, drooling, depression, and loss of appetite. If these signs are observed, the first step is to cool the animal down by hosing, removal to a cool area, or placement in shade or water, and then call a veterinarian (Free and Ander- son, 2003).
Llamas and alpacas are vulnerable to common internal and external parasites. One of the most deadly is the meningeal worm, or Parelophostron- gylus tenuis, which causes neurological disease characterized by lameness, lack of coordination, inability to get up, paralysis, circling, and blindness, and can result in death (Duncan and White, 2000). Death may occur in just a few days, or ataxia may last for months or years. White-tailed deer are a natural host for the parasite, so areas with high concentrations of deer are at higher risk of meningeal worm (Durkes and Burcham, 2008). Preventative measures include exclusion of deer through the use of deer-proof fencing and removal of thick ground cover in pastures to control slugs and snails, which act as the intermediary host. Regular deworming with Ivermectin is often suggested, but this is controversial given the concern about the development of resistant gastrointestinal nematode populations (Duncan and White, 2000). A definitive diagnosis of meningeal worm can only be made postmortem, as it requires demonstration of P. tenius in the brain or spinal cord. The Baerman technique, which relies on detection of larvae in the feces, is the only antemortem diagnostic tool. However, this test is unreliable as hosts rarely shed larvae in their feces. Treatment of the parasite is difficult given the severity of the neurological symptoms, but Ivermectin and anti-inflammatory drugs are recommended (Durkes and Burcham, 2008). See ATTRA’s Managing Internal Parasites in Sheep and Goats for more about internal parasites. Llamas and alpacas are affected by the same parasites as sheep and goats, and the principles of management are the same.
A physical assessment of each animal should be done at least twice a year and should include weight or body score, mucous membrane color check, condition of incisors, and fiber coat evaluation. A detailed health assessment, such as fecal or blood analysis, or a veterinary exam, may be necessary if weight loss, pale color, or clumped stool is observed. Conversely, a review of diet and activity is necessary in the event of excessive weight gain (Camelid Community, 2005).
Toenail trimming is a vital aspect of camelid care. Though toenails often wear down naturally with sufficient exercise, when the nails do not wear evenly trimming is necessary for stability, loco motion, and long-term joint health. Overgrowth of toenails, the most prominent disorder of the camelid foot, may result in the nail being pushed out of its normal position or curving in various directions. Nails should be trimmed to keep toes in proper alignment. An ideal trimming time is when the animals are being processed for shearing. Nails can be trimmed using rose or shrub nippers, sheep nail trimmers, a hoof knife, primary shears, or equine hoof nippers. Confinement in a chute or gradual familiarization of the animals to having their feet handled may be helpful (Ault and Anderson, 2003).
Llama and alpaca producers will also need to undertake dental care. Of particular concern are the fighting teeth, which generally erupt at two and a half years of age. Fighting teeth rarely need to be removed from females or even studs, unless two or more males are kept together. If fighting teeth are not removed, the males could seriously injure one another. Fighting teeth can be surgically removed by a veterinarian or by the owner. Most animals are unthreatened and don’t experience pain through this procedure. The llama must be restrained during cutting to keep its head steady. Cutting requires two people: one to hold the mouth open and the other to cut. The holder should wear gloves and both people should wear safety glasses. A 11⁄2- to 2-foot long piece of obstetrical wire is sufficient for cutting. The person doing the sawing should pass a loop of the wire around the tooth and make one or two quick pulls to make a groove. The rest of the sawing should be simple, and the tooth should come off in a matter of seconds. Finally, the remaining tooth stub may need to be filed if it is sharp (Hoffman and Asmus, 2005).
Shearing is an important consideration for llamas and alpacas whose primary purpose is fiber production. Llamas used for other purposes may not require annual shearing. Shearing frequency depends on both the climate and the individual animal’s fleece characteristics. How close to shear also depends on the climate and on the animal’s skin color. A light-skinned animal with too short of a coat is vulnerable to sunburn.
Before anyone (new or established llama or alpaca producer) buys a llama or alpaca, the buyer should check out the seller’s herd and make sure the animals look healthy, well fed, and well treated. The buyer must ask questions of the seller and learn as much as possible about the animal’s health, diseases, and parasites. The buyer needs to ask about health records, breeding programs,origin of the seller’s stock, proof of health tests, and status of the herd, as well as other questions needed to determine that the seller is knowledgeable.
Proper handling of llamas and alpacas is necessary for the safety of both the animals and people. When using halters, they should be fitted such that the nosepiece allows room for chewing but cannot slide down and hinder breathing. Improperly fitted halters can be fatal. The nose bands of properly fitted halters should sit just below the animal’s eyes, and the head band should sit right at the base of the ears (McGee, no date). Be careful not to leave halters on all the time, and don’t tie animals to any stationary object, such as a tree or post. Llamas and alpacas can break their necks trying to get away or by jerking their heads. If you have to tie the animal up and leave it unattended, always use a bungee or other elastic extension (McGrath, 1996). Handlers should also avoid wrapping a lead rope around their hand or body, as serious injury could result if the animal takes flight.
Take care when transporting llamas or alpacas during extreme weather. The vehicle must be well-ventilated, and animals should be checked for signs of heat stress or hypothermia at regular intervals. Llamas and alpacas should not be tied during transport, as this can result in serious injury or death (Camelid Community, 2005).