WHAT ARE ALPACAS?
The Alpaca (vicugña pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid. The camels that most people are familiar with are the ones with humps. However, there are four other camelids without humps that are indigenous to South America. Llamas and alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years. The other two varieties, guanacos and vicunas, continue to roam in wild herds today.
Alpacas played a central role in Incan culture and were cherished as treasure on the high Andean Plateau and mountains of South America in the countries of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. Among the people of the Andes, the woven fabric from the fleece of the alpaca was so soft and alluring that it was used as currency. Alpacas are members of the camelid family and were domesticated about 10,000 years ago.
The first importation of alpacas into the United States was in 1984. People in many other countries now raise and enjoy them. When full grown, alpacas generally weigh between 100 and 200 pounds and are approximately 36″ tall at the withers. They are cousin to the llama and are about half to one-third their size. They live about 15-20 years. Females reach maturity at about 18 months old and males at 2 1/2 to 3 years old. The gestation period is 11- 12 months.
ALPACAS ARE FIBER ANIMALS
The alpacas are most prized for their amazing fleece. They produce one of the world’s most luxurious and finest natural fibers. The demand for alpaca fiber throughout the world exceeds the current supply, which makes alpaca fiber valued at ten times the price of virgin wool. Annual shearing of one alpaca produces enough fiber for several sweaters. Their fiber is as soft as cashmere and lighter, warmer, and stronger than wool. It comes in approximately 22 basic colors with many variations and blends, which is more colors than any other fiber producing animal.
USE OF ALPACA FIBER
There are those who cannot wear wool, but are quite comfortable in fine alpaca clothing. Garments made from alpaca stay warm even when wet, making them perfect for outdoor activities. Fiber artists seek out the precious Alpaca Yarn, Roving, and Raw Fiber, both Suri and Huacaya, for their projects on a regular basis. Weavers and spinners around the world enjoy this wonderful fiber much like cashmere, once set aside for the Incan royalty alone. It is knit, crocheted, and woven into many durable, silky-soft products. Alpaca Sweaters, Hats, Scarves, Gloves, and Mittens, Socks, Blankets, Teddy Bears and other Alpaca Toys and available for sale.
TWO BREEDS OF ALPACAS
There are two distinct breeds of alpacas, the Huacaya (wah-KI’-ya) and the Suri (“surrey”). The difference between the two is the way their fiber grows. Both fleeces are soft and luxurious.
Most people visualize huacayas, when they think of alpacas. Huacayas look more like fluffy teddy bears and are the more common of the two types, accounting for about 90% of all alpacas. Their fiber grows outward from their body and is crimpy and thick giving them a “cuddly” appearance. The fiber is quite strong, but fluffy and very soft. It looks a lot like Corriedale and Romney sheep wool but without the lanolin. Huacaya fiber takes dyes well. It produces a soft, lofty yarn and can be commercially processed using the woolen or worsted process. Huacaya yarn is ideal for knitting or crocheting.
A suri in full fleece is absolutely breathtaking, with its locks blowing in the breeze. Suri fiber brings a premium price on the world market because of its unique characteristics and its scarcity. Suris are the rarer of the two types of alpacas.
The Suri alpaca has unique fiber characteristics that distinguish the Suri from the rest of the camelid family. Unlike the soft fuzzy look of the Huacaya alpaca, the Suri has long, separate, distinctive locks that drape down the sides of these elegant animals. The fiber of a Suri is either twisted or straight with a cool, slick feel that has little or no crimp. It has a high degree of sheen, and looks much like Angora goat fiber.
The worsted process is most often used for making Suri fiber into yarn. This results in a thin yarn often used in weaving. Suris look more delicate than huacayas, but they are just as well boned and muscled. Proportions and weights and are about the same for both breeds. Historically, most suris were white, but U.S. alpaca breeders have been selectively breeding to produce colored suris and now many colored suri alpacas are available.
The first Suris were imported to the United States from Bolivia in the winter of 1991. Subsequent imports came in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1998 from Peru, Chile and Bolivia. World wide, Suris account for only about 15% of the total alpaca population and are so rare that there may be fewer of them than the vicuna, the wild ancestor of the alpaca.
Alpacas are very smart animals, gentle, and easy to handle, each with its own personality. Shy, but very curious, quiet, and intelligent, alpacas are herd animals and therefore should not be raised in isolation. They develop relationships based on their position in the group. They learn by observing other herd members. Alpacas seem to sense the need to be sensible and gentle with children and are great favorites for 4-H projects, pets, and therapy animals.
Having only bottom teeth, alpacas have no way to defend themselves. Their feet have padding on the bottom so they cannot do much damage by kicking. Their primary self-defense is to run away and so their natural tendency is to flee when approached by a human. This becomes less the case once they get to know their owners, develop trust, and feel safe.
Sometimes llamas serve as guard animals for the smaller, less bold alpacas. Llamas are more than twice the size of an alpaca and their fleece is not nearly as delicate and fine as the alpaca fleece. Alpacas are quiet, other than the gentle humming you might hear between a mother and cria, or an unhappy alpaca. They do have an alarm call that one alpaca will emit to alert the rest of the herd that there is danger, typically a predator in the area. They spend much of the day lying down, or cushed, chewing their cud. Occassionally you might see the whole herd “pronking”, a sight to see when all four feet leave the ground as they follow each other in a dance around the pasture.
Alpacas are hardy animals that do not require a lot of special care. They are thrifty as well, needing only about a bale of hay per month even if they are in a dry-lot with no grazing pasture. A grass hay such as orchard grass or timothy is the type of hay that is best for them. For an animals that needs to gain some weight, it is okay to feed alfalfa, but otherwise feed in moderation as it will make them fat. Not only is this unhealthy for them but it significantly coarsens their fiber and lessens its value. Alpacas are ruminants, meaning they chew their cud. They require lots of good, clean water for drinking. Alpacas also need minerals that are specifically formulated for alpacas.
Alpacas are easy to care for, compared to most other kinds of livestock. They live in many climates and are very adaptable. Heat and humidity is difficult for them so large fans are a must in the barn in the summer. Alpacas can live in surprisingly small areas. Two to eight alpacas per acre, depending on the pasture quality, generally gives plenty of room. There should be some kind of shelter so they can escape extreme temperatures, rain and snow. Alpacas do not challenge fences, but they must be kept in a pasture to discourage predators. Dogs are one of the biggest threats to alpacas, and even the family dog that is not accustomed to livestock is a potential problem. Coyotes, wolves, bears, and mountain lions are other predators to be concerned about if they live in your area.
Alpacas are naturally clean animals, generally using only one area of their pasture as a communal “dung pile”. Alpacas have minimal aroma and tend to attract less flies in the summertime than other forms of livestock. Their manure makes great fertilizer, requiring no composting and gardeners love it!
Alpacas can get parasites, like all livestock. Owners should clean the dung piles frequently to lessen the risk of parasite contamination. Clean-up is easy since alpacas deposit “beans” in only a few places in the pasture. Check with your vet about periodic worming medications to prevent the usual internal and external parasites.
Alpacas are grazing animals and will also eat many kinds of trees and shrubs and, some of which may be poisonous. Contact your County Extension Agent to help you identify any problems in your area.
Shearing should be done once a year, for good health. Some owners in hot climates shear twice a year to keep the alpacas from overheating. Toenails need trimmed about every month or two. An annual vaccination is given to protect against tetanus and clostridial bacteria. Some areas also recommend annual rabies vaccination. Be sure to check with your vet to see what is recommended in your area.
EASY ON THE EARTH
Alpacas are sensitive to their environment in every respect, living harmoniously with our Mother Earth.
- Alpacas’ feet are padded and leave the terrain undamaged as they graze. They do not pull the grasses up by the roots.
- Alpacas have three-compartments in their stomach, which allow them to efficiently convert hay and grass to energy, eating less than other farm animals.
- The alpaca can thrive without consuming very much water, although an abundant, fresh water supply is most necessary.
- Alpacas do not usually destroy trees.
- Gardening enthusiasts find that alpaca “beans” make rich fertilizer. South American Indians use alpaca dung for fuel.
- Alpacas have one or two areas in the pasture that they use as community dung piles. This helps control parasites, and makes clean-up easy.
- Several soft, warm sweaters can be created from the fiber an alpaca produces in a year’s time.