Detailed Information About Alpacas & Their Habitat
What Are Alpacas?
Alpacas are a gentle, inquisitive member of the camelid family, originating from the high Andean Plateau and mountains of South America. They are closely related to the wild vicuna and are also relatives to the llama. They are defenseless from predators and find safety and comfort within their herd.
Adult alpacas weigh between 100 and 200 pounds and are about 36 inches tall at the withers. Females begin reproducing at approximately age 2 and have one baby (called a cria) at a time, between 11 and 12 months, with spring gestations typically running longer than fall gestations. Twins rarely occur, and when they do, likely, one or both will not survive. Alpacas can live for 20-plus years if well cared for.
Alpacas produce one of the world's finest and most luxurious natural fibers, and it is clipped from the animal once per year without causing it injury. Soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter, and stronger than wool, it comes in more colors than any other fiber-producing animal (approximately 22 primary colors with many variations and blends). This cashmere-like fleece is prized the world over and is gaining popularity in the US.
There are two types of Alpacas, Huacaya (pronounced wah-KI'-ya) and Suri (pronounced Surrey). Huacaya alpacas represent approximately 80 percent of the US alpaca herd, while Suri alpacas represent the remainder.
Suri alpacas have long lustrous locks of fiber or fleece that grow in "dreadlocks," giving the Suri alpaca a unique appearance. Huacaya alpacas have long crimpy fiber that stands up from their skin which makes them look like cotton balls or teddy bears. Both Suri and Huacaya have the same warmth, softness, and strength properties, making them luxury textiles.
Alpacas are gentle and easy to handle. They don't have incisors, horns, hooves, or claws. Clean-up is easy since alpacas deposit droppings in only a few places in the paddock. They require minimal fencing and can be pastured at 5 to 10 per acre; however, small acreage can support significantly more alpacas if given suitable quantities of quality grass hay and room to play and run.
Llamas are cousins to the alpaca but are almost double in size. An adult alpaca weighs between 100 to 200 pounds, whereas a llama can grow to approximately 400 lbs. Llamas were domesticated to be beasts of burden and haul heavy loads on their backs. Alpacas were domesticated for their ultra-soft, warm fleece made into textiles. The alpaca's closest relative is the wild vicuna, a protected animal in South America. The vicuna's fleece is the most luxurious animal fiber in the world.
Alpacas typically live 15 to 18 years, and some even live to age 20. Females can be bred when they approach 18 months of age, but they generally make better mothers if bred at age 2. They have an 11 to 12-month gestation and give birth to one baby alpaca, known as a ‘cria’ per year. Birth weight usually is around 15 to 17 pounds. Crias can often stand and nurse within 30 to 60 minutes following birth.
Alpacas graze on grasses and other types of forage. They do not pull up the grassroots, so pastures renew if the animals can be rotated around. If pastures are not available, a low protein grass hay is best. Alpacas will consume approximately one 100-lb bale of grass hay per month per adult. High protein forage such as alfalfa or clover is detrimental to animal health and quality fiber production.
Alpacas prefer open pastures to a barn, shelter, or stall but easily take to stables, barns, and enclosed areas in the worst of harsh weather. They are content with simple shelters in the cold winter months and appreciate good ventilation, shade, and fans in hot weather. Alpacas are "earth-friendly" and cause minimal stress on their pastures. They have padded feet and graze in an efficient and non-destructive manner. Free choice of hay, fresh water, occasional grain, and a three-sided shelter will maintain them in comfort.
Alpaca owners and breeders come from all walks of life. Many are doctors, financial advisors, educators, or cattle farmers, to name a few. Some raise alpacas as a full-time business; others commit part-time. From young families to empty-nesters, phased retirement to full retirement, raising alpacas offers countless options for everyone.
Alpacas offer a very attractive business and farming opportunity no matter where you live: urban, suburban, or rural. Urban dwellers can board (or "agist") their alpacas at nearby farms/ranches to enjoy the benefits of ownership while living in a large city or suburb. People also raise alpacas for companionship and to enjoy a rural lifestyle.
Alpaca farming and management are not difficult. The major areas are occasional grooming, trimming of toenails, sometimes teeth, and annual shearing. Annual vaccinations for tetanus, clostridia organisms, rabies, lepto (in endemic areas), and control of parasites are recommended. Please consult a vet knowledgeable about alpacas where you will be raising them.
If traveling for short distances, they can be transported inside vans or other larger vehicles. Most folks put down a piece of old carpeting or inexpensive Astro-turf to minimize the impact on the vehicle's carpeting if an "accident" occurred. However, most of the time, the animals will "cush" (sit down) for the journey. Longer distances generally require transport in a livestock trailer.
No. Alpacas are non-aggressive and tend to move away when they feel threatened. They assert dominance with other herd members but are submissive and non-threatening towards humans. Their feet are padded, they do not bite, and they are small enough to be safe even around small children.
The answer is generally yes. Alpacas have proven to be amazingly resilient animals, and alpacas are being raised successfully in California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alaska, and many Canadian provinces. Certainly, in the hotter, more humid climates, the alpaca breeder does need to take health and safety precautions, like shearing fleeces off early in the year, providing plenty of fresh waters to drink and dip their bellies into, and areas of shade.
The initial cost can range from a few hundred to several tens of thousands of dollars. Your reason for owning alpacas will determine the cost of the animal. Non-breeding fiber or pet stock will be at the lower end, while high-quality breeding stock will be at the higher end. Price is determined by pedigree, fleece qualities, show history, age, and other factors.
Alpacas will occasionally spit at each other. This is usually exhibited during feeding and other times when dominance is being asserted. This does not injure the other alpacas, and no herd member seems to take the spitting too seriously. Alpacas, unlike llamas, usually do not spit on people unless they feel threatened. If they do spit at each other, you don't want to get caught in the crossfire--alpaca spit is rumen from the gut and is unpleasant.
Alpacas are intelligent, inquisitive, curious, and highly adaptable. They tend to follow the lead of the dominant herd members but cooperate with their handlers during halter training, loading for shipment, and other times when on a halter and lead. They learn new tasks quickly and seem to enjoy interacting with humans.