Alpacas are a South American relative of the Camel. Closer relatives include the domesticated llama, the wild guanaco, and vicunas. This family of animals originated on the plains of North America about 10 million years ago.
A common ancestor to the South American camelids migrated to South America about 2.5 million years ago. Alpacas were domesticated 6,000 years ago as a prized possession by the ancient Incas because of the quality of alpaca fleece, which was spun and woven into garments.
In the 17th century, Spanish conquistadors began their exploration and subsequent genocide of the Inca people. Many Incas fled to the Andes Mountains, bringing with them only the most prized alpacas.
In the centuries that followed, the alpacas that survived and adapted were much hardier, healthier alpacas due to the rough and demanding mountaintops.
South America began to breed and sell the alpacas, and currently hold 98% of the 8 million alpacas worldwide. While alpaca wool has always been known as a desirable fiber in South America, the United States and Australia are beginning to "discover" this material.
Alpacas in the U.S.
There are approximately 170,000 alpacas within the United States. Alpacas generally live 15 to 20 years, with a few living up to 30 years of age. They stand 32-39 inches at the shoulder.
At birth the cria weigh 10-17 pounds. An adult alpaca weighs 100-190 pounds. The reproductive lifespan of a herdsire is from 4 to 16 years of age. Prime years are from 5-10 years old. The average growth rate of the coat is 5 to 10 inches per year. The average yearly weight of the shaved adult alpaca coat ranges from 6 to 10 pounds.
Two Types of Alpacas
There are two types of alpacas, Huacaya (Wa-kee-a) and Suri (Sur-ee). Huacayas are the teddy bear alpaca, whose full coat presents a round and soft appearance. The huacaya fleece is crimped, very dense and covers all 22 colors recognized by AOBA (The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association). Huacayas account for approximately 90 percent of the alpacas registered in the United States. Alpacas of Montana raises Huacaya alpacas.
Suri alpacas have long dreadlocks. In full coat, these long, non-crimped, lustrous pencils hang downward, creating a layered and majestic appearance. Suris are very rare worldwide, with approximately 40,000 registered in the U.S.
Due to their size and efficiency, an alpaca farm may keep as many as ten alpacas per acre, assuming there is a good forage available. Free choice mineral supplements are also beneficial for pregnant mothers.
Grain is suggested only for the coldest weather, as too much increases the acidity in their 3 stomachs. Feeders should be low to the ground to minimize fleece contamination. Simple box feeders or heavy duty garden carts are often sufficient.
It's estimated that one 60 pound bale of hay will feed 20 alpacas per day when other feed is unavailable. Orchard grass hay is suggested, though some alfalfa is acceptable.
The pasture requirements include a planned rotation to prevent overgrazing and contracting worms. The alpaca is naturally gentle to the land. Its feet are padded and they leave even the most delicate terrain undamaged. The alpaca is a modified ruminant with a three-compartment stomach.
It converts grass and hay to energy very efficiently, eating less than other farm animals. Its camelid ancestry allows the alpaca to thrive without consuming mass amounts of water, although an abundant, fresh water supply should always be available - preferably 50 F year round. The alpaca does not usually eat or destroy trees, preferring grass shoots, which it does not pull up by the roots.
The following needs should be considered when designing fencing.
Alpacas should be weaned sometime between 6 and 7 months of age, depending on the weight of the weanling (preferably at least 50 lbs.), the condition of their dam (a few dams may become dangerously emaciated due to the nutritional load of a large nursing cria), the weanling's emotional readiness, and the schedule of his or her weaning companions. Often several animals at the same time are weaned, even if that requires delaying one animal's weaning and hastening another's.
- Young Male Pen When young males are weaned, they can move to a separate male paddock or pen. Few males become sexually mature before 18 months of age, however there are recorded instances of males successfully impregnating a female as early as 9 months of age. This usually happens as a result of pasturing young weanling males and females together. Because an unplanned pregnancy for an undersized and physically immature female weanling can present a number of dangers, it is best to separate these males into their own pen.
- Mid-Term Gestation Pastures The largest group of animals on many farms is the females that have been confirmed to be pregnant and who, together with their nursing offspring, can now be removed from their breeding pens.
- Late Gestation / Maternity Ward This is set up as a safety pen close to the house, where females within 30 or 45 days of their projected due date can be watched. At times, late gestation, weaning, and underweight animals can be together in one paddock as their nutritional demands and observational needs are similar.
- Breeding Pen When a pair are brought together, the breeding pen is used to ensure designation of the mother and father. Often they are left in together for several days to ensure the female is impregnated.
In moderate climates alpacas only require a three sided shelter. Severe cold, especially coupled with wind, requires a barn which should be readily available. Alpacas are hardy animals, and most prefer to be out in the open instead of being in a small enclosure.
Fencing / Predator Security
Alpaca seldom challenge a fence. Many alpaca breeders use a no-climb fence 4 or 5 feet tall. Alpaca fences serve more to keep predators out than to keep the alpacas in. Coyotes, fox and neighbor dogs can be a threat to these animals and must be prevented from entering the premises.
This requires a specialized predator fencing to prevent damage to the herd. We also utilize llamas as protectors in our pastures, as well as Turkish Anatolian livestock guard dogs. They are one of the only dogs that can take on a mountain lion and win, which our dogs have in 4 separate attacks. They are superior in defending our pastures, yet have a sweet, loving personality with people.
Alpaca Health Care
In their native lands, alpacas are not exposed to intestinal parasites. Therefore, they are susceptible to strong reactions to North American parasites.
A good worming program is essential. In areas inhabited by white tail deer, it is critical to maintain a program that will eliminate the risk of Meningeal Worms. Before every sale / purchase, animals should be given a professional exam to ensure quality and longevity of the alpaca investment. Every alpaca farm should have at least one scale to monitor weight on newborn cria. Nail trimming should be done if the nails are not sufficiently worn down by rocks or cement.
Alpaca shearing is done once per year in late Spring or early summer. We do our shearing in mid-May.
Alpacas tend to perpetually eliminate in the same area. It can be used as an excellent fertilizer, spread throughout the property to break down and decompose over time. A herd of alpacas consolidates its feces in one or two spots in the pasture, thereby controlling the spread of parasites, and making it easy to collect and compost for fertilizer. We utilize a forced aeration system to sell our alpaca compost as a concentrate (alpaca tea) or an alpaca potting soil.
Alpaca are one of the few livestock able to be fully insured for theft or mortality.
There are several established nationwide insurance companies in the business of insuring alpacas. Premiums are usually 3-3.5% of the insured value.