All About Alpacas
Alpacas are amazing creatures who are unlike any other livestock around today. They are gentle, sweet, and all have their own personalities. Curious about them? Read on to learn more!
What exactly is an alpaca?
The Alpaca is the domesticated species of the South American camelid. The Scientific name is vicuna pacos. While most people are familiar with their cousins, the Bactrian camel of China and Tibet and the Dromedary of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia, alpacas do not have humps and are indigenous to South America.
Within the Animal Kingdom, it is as follows, PHYLUM: Chordata CLASS: Mammalia (mammal) ORDER: Artiodactyla (even-toed hooves) FAMILY: Camelidae (camels, llamas, Alpacas,Guanacos, and vicunas). Being within the family of Camelidae (camels and relatives) they are appropriately distinct from other families in the mammal order. Artiodactyla (even-toed hooves) are placed in their own unique suborder, Tylopoda ("padded foot" or "calloused foot"). This suborder includes only the family Camelidae, which is divided into two tribes, the Camelini and Lamini. The Camelini includes only two species, the Bactrian camel (the “B” shape double hump camels, Camelus bactrianus) and the Dromedary (the “D” shaped, single hump camels, Camelus dromedarius). As for the rest of the family the Lamini includes four species: Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and Viçuna (Vicugna vicugna), which continue to roam in wild herd today, and the only two domesticated, Llama (the “common” Llama, Lama glama), and Alpaca (Vicugna pacos).
Within the Christian world view, the Alpacas and Llamas were created “according to its kind” (Genesis 1:24-25) were originally in North America after Noah’s Flood. We still can locate fossils in North America. They traveled to South America and became native there ever since and their Camel relatives are all over the world. For further information read this article.
The alpaca comes in two types of breeds: Huacaya (pronounced wah‑KI‑ah) and Suri (SOO‑ree). Huacaya’s are more common, and account for approximately 90% of all alpacas. They have fluffy, crimpy fleece giving them the cute iconic teddy bear-like appearance. As for Suri’s, they produce lustrous, silky, fleece which drapes gracefully and resembles Dred-locks.
Are alpacas and llamas different?
Yes! They are related, yet llamas and alpacas are noticeably different creatures. First, llamas are much larger, being twice the size of an alpaca, with an average weight of about 250 to 450 pounds, stand 1-2 feet taller than alpacas, and have banana shaped ears. Alpaca’s weight ranges between 100 to 200 pounds, and have much smaller and straighter ears. Another case of mistaken identity is alpacas are primarily raised for their soft and luxurious fiber, while llamas are principally used for packing or for guarding goats, sheep, and even alpacas. Their lifespan is roughly 15-20 years. The record is 27 years
Alpacas: Are they considered an "Exotic Species" or Livestock?
They are classified as livestock, like any other agricultural livestock. Both the United States and Canada recognize they are classified as livestock, like sheep.
Do alpacas make noise?
Alpacas are very quiet, docile, gentle, elegant, inquisitive, intelligent and observant social herd animals. They create a humming sound to communicate stress, concern, or even contentment.
They can make high pitch sound, called an "alarm call," which they use to communicating fear of a predator, unknown intruder, or anger towards another alpaca. As they are a prey animal, they are cautious and nervous if they feel threatened. They like having their own space and may not like an unfamiliar alpaca or human getting close, especially from behind. They warn the herd about intruders by making sharp, noisy inhalations that sound like a high pitch burro bray. The herd may attack smaller predators with their front feet, and can spit and kick. Due to the soft pads on their feet, the impact of a kick is not as dangerous as that of a hoofed animal, yet it still can give quite a bruise, and the pointed nails can inflict cuts.
Male alpacas also “sing” a love song to the females while breeding with a guttural, throaty sound called "orgling."
How many alpacas can one have?
The more the merrier! But don’t get over your head. Just like all agricultural animals they take work and time to care for. A rule of thumb is to always have more than one: at least have a pair. They were designed with herd and companion instincts. Never have a male or female in the same pen unless you want them to breed, as they can breed year around. Another thing to keep in mind is male alpacas need to be separated by age. Younger males need to be separated from older ones as they will occasionally fight for dominance. The younger males cannot defend themselves as well and might become seriously injured or possibly die. It is fine to have a llama of the same gender within the herd of alpacas. The best thing to do is keep them same gender within the same group to maintain companionship and the health of the alpaca.
In the United State and Canada alpaca herds range in size from just a few alpacas all the way up to a few thousand.
Can alpacas be hazardous?
No. They are one of the safest livestock to own. They do not bite or butt, or buck and do not have hooves, sharp teeth, or horns as other livestock have. The males have “fighting teeth” which are to be properly maintained yearly at shearing. When you see them in a field they are very aware of their surroundings and run and walk with intent. They can run very fast and still maintain control. They will even avoid children even at a full sprint. This is one of the many reasons why we own them compared to other livestock. Occasionally, an alpaca will reflexively kick (“Flash kick”) with its hind legs, especially if touched from behind, but the soft padded feet cause minimal harm, but will gain your attention quickly. Whereas being kicked by a cow or a horse will cause a variety of damage.
How does one care for an alpacas?
The alpacas need basic shelter and protection from heat and bad weather, same as other types of livestock. The shelters vary for each owner’s property limitations and geographical location. They also require certain vaccinations and anti-parasitic medicines based upon their location. They stand about 36” high at the withers (where the neck and spine come together); weigh between 100 to 200 pounds; and make easy-to- clean up, communal dung piles. Their fleece is sheared once a year to keep them cool in summer. Furthermore, their toenails need to be trimmed on an as-needed basis to ensure proper foot alignment and comfort. Unlike other livestock, alpacas do not have hooves — instead, they have two toes, with hard toenails on top and a soft pad on the bottom of their feet, which minimizes their effect on pastures and makes them an "ecological-friendly" livestock.
Do they take up a lot of room?
No. Since they are environmentally friendly they require little pasture and food, one can usually raise two to eight alpacas on an acre of land, depending on terrain, rain/snowfall amounts, availability of pasture, access to fresh water, etc. They can also be raised on a dry lot and fed grass hay. Consult with your local USDA office or local county extension office for specific local recommendations. Our alpacas are very spoiled with almost 100 acres to roam!
How clean are they?
They are among the cleanest livestock among all livestock. They have minimal smell and additionally, share communal dung piles. This makes a reduced opportunity for parasites, easier clean up, and health better than most livestock. There may be three or four of these areas in a pasture, spread throughout about 10% to 20% of the pasture. While alpacas are an extremely clean animal, they do enjoy taking the occasional dust bath!
What is needed for shelter and fencing?
Minimal in comparison to most other livestock. While the shelter requirements vary depending on weather and predators, as a general rule alpacas need at least a three-sided, open shelter, where they can escape from the heat of the sun in summer and from icy wind and snow in winter. If predators (dogs, coyotes, lion, bears, etc.) are present, then it is recommended to have a minimum of five-foot-high, 2' x 4' no-climb fencing. It is highly unadvised to use traditional horse fencing with 6' x 6' openings as curious alpacas have been hurt by putting their heads or legs through the openings.
What do alpacas eat?
Alpacas consume very little: one of the least compared to all livestock—approximately two pounds per 125 pounds of body weight per day. Their diet consists of grass hay and the occasional minimal amount of alfalfa flakes or pellets according to the needs of the alpaca, due to its overly rich protein content. The general rule of thumb is 1.5% of the animal’s body weight daily in hay or fresh pasture. A single, 60 pound bale of hay can generally feed a group of about 20 alpacas for one day. Alpacas are pseudo-ruminants, with a single stomach divided into three compartments. They produce rumen and chew cud, therefore they are able to process this modest amount of food very efficiently. Many alpacas (especially pregnant and lactating females) will profit from nutritional and mineral supplements, depending on local conditions. There are various manufactured alpaca and llama feeds and mineral mixes available; consult with your local veterinarian to ensure you are feeding the appropriate diet for your area. Alpacas also require access to plenty of fresh water to drink.
Alpacas have two sets of teeth for processing food. They have molars in the back of the jaw for chewing cud. But in the front, the alpaca has teeth only on the bottom and a hard gum (known as a dental pad) on the top for crushing grain, grass, or hay. Unlike goats and sheep that have long tongues which they sometimes use to rip plants out of the ground, alpacas have short tongues and nibble only the tops of grasses and other plants, resulting in minimal reduction of the vegetation. However, alpacas are also browsers and will often eat shrubs or the leaves, or pine needles from trees if given the chance. Be aware of this so to protect them from eating foreign objects. Always remove hay twine completely from the hay bales. This can cause choking or the twine being twisted in the stomach or GI track resulting in a painful death.
Does birthing require human assistance?
In most cases their young, which are called cria, are born without assistant or intervention. Unlike other livestock, they will normally give birth during daylight hours, between the hours of 10 am-2 pm. A cria normally weighs between 15 and 19 pounds, and is usually standing and nursing within 90 minutes of birth. The cria continues to nurse for about six months until it is weaned.
Where do Alpacas thrive? Cold or hot climates?
Generally, they can thrive in both climates. Alpacas are amazingly designed and resilient animals, and are designed to live in the extremes of both very hot and very cold climates. In hot, humid climates, alpaca owners need to take extra precautions to make sure that the alpacas do not suffer from heat stress. These include: shearing fleeces early in the year, providing fans and ventilation in the barn, offering cool fresh water for drinking, and hosing off their bellies (where heat is dissipated) on very hot days.
Can Alpacas be trained?
Alpacas are very intelligent animals and are fairly easy to train. It is best to start training them when they are young so that they will accept a halter and learn to follow on a lead. Some owners enjoy training them for obstacles; some even compete with their alpacas at agility competitions. Also, it is helpful to train alpacas to ride in a trailer or a vehicle if they ever need to be transported to a show, medical needs, or another farm or ranch. Alpacas are easy to transport, as they normally cush (lay down with their legs folded under them) when traveling.
What can you do with alpacas?
Mostly, alpacas are raised for their soft and luxurious fleece (sometimes called fiber). Each shearing produces roughly five to ten pounds of fleece per animal, per year. This fleece, often compared to cashmere, can be turned into a vast array of products from yarn and apparel to tapestries and blankets, rugs and saddle pads. The fleece itself is recognized global textile market for its fineness, softness, light-weight, durability, excellent thermal qualities, and luster.
In addition to selling the fleece and the animals, many alpaca owners operate a retail store or cottage industry selling alpaca end-products—either on or off their property. Products are sold directly to consumers at their store or over the Internet. Many also sell alpaca products through craft fairs, farmers markets, and retail sites. Sales of these end-products can provide considerable supplemental or main income to alpaca owners.
What's so special about the fleece?
Let’s begin by comparing alpaca fleece with wool from most breeds of sheep. Alpaca fleece is a fiber and not a wool. Alpaca fleece is stronger, lighter, warmer, and more resilient. Finer grades of alpaca fleece (known commercially as "Baby Alpaca") are hypo-allergenic, meaning it does not irritate your skin as sheep’s wool sometimes does. Compared to sheep’s wool, alpaca fleece contains no lanolin and is therefore ready to spin after only minimal cleaning. It is sought after for its unique silky feel and superb "handle," alpaca fleece is highly sought-after by both cottage-industry artists (hand spinners, knitters, weavers, etc.) as well as the world commercial fashion industry.
Alpaca fleece has a great variety of natural colors, making it very much in vogue: 16 official colors (white; beige; and shades of fawn, brown, black, and grey) with many other subtle shades and hues. White, light fawn, and light grey can be readily dyed, thus offering a rainbow of colors for the fiber artist. Alpaca fleece can also be combined with other fine fibers such as merino wool, cashmere, mohair, silk, and angora to attain incredibly interesting blends.
When I buy an alpaca, do I need to purchase a registered alpaca?
Yes. Anytime money is invested, you need to take all the necessary steps to help assure that your investment maintains its value and registered alpacas do just that.
Alpaca Owners Association, Inc. (AOA) is the largest alpaca pedigree registry in the world. While AOA provides services to alpaca owners all over the world, they primarily provide pedigree registration and member services to the United States and Canada. AOA is one of the few livestock registries of any kind that requires that every animal be DNA tested back to its parents before being registered. As a result, AOA registered alpacas are highly desired.
Are there organized exhibitions and competitions for alpacas?
Yes, there are many alpaca shows (both show ring and fleece judging competitions) held throughout North America where owners can showcase their animals and fleeces. The AOA endorses and certifies regional shows and fairs throughout the United States. AOA manages the show rules, trains the judges, and offers further assistance to these certified shows. AOA also hosts the National Alpaca Show & Auction and National Fleece Show each year.
What about South American Alpacas?
South America has perfected the management of Alpacas. Alpacas are maintained in herdswhich live on the level heights of the Andes of Ecuador, northern Bolivia, Southern Peru, and Northern Chile. Alpacas are noticeably smaller and distinct compared to llamas, also unlike llamas, alpacas are not used as pack animals but are valued only for their fiber. Alpaca fiber is used for creating various knitted and woven items. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a extensive variety of textiles and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, socks, coats and blankets, rugs, and saddle pads throughout the world. The fiber comes in more than 52 natural colors as classified in Peru, 16 as classified in the United States and 12 as classified in Australia.
Alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years. In fact, the Moche people of Northern Peru used alpaca images in their art. Their fiber was used in royal clothing. There are no “wild” alpacas. The closest living species are the wild Vicuña, which are native to South America. As previously stated, camels and llamas, the alpaca are classified as camelids. The alpaca is larger than the vicuña but smaller than the other camelid species.
Of all the camelid species, the alpaca and vicuña are the most valuable fiber-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the quality and quantity of its fiber, and the vicuña because of the softness, fineness and quality of its fleece. Alpacas are too small and were not designed to be pack animals. Instead, they were bred exclusively for their fiber and meat.
Within South America, Alpacas are social herd animals that live in family groups comprising of a territorial alpha male, females and their young. They are gentle, elegant, inquisitive, intelligent and observant. They are a prey animal, thus they are cautious and nervous if they feel threatened. They like having their own space and may not like an unfamiliar alpaca or human getting close, especially from behind. They warn the herd about intruders by making sharp, noisy inhalations that sound like a high pitch burro bray. The herd may attack smaller predators with their front feet, and can spit and kick. Due to the soft pads on their feet, the impact of a kick is not as dangerous as that of a hoofed animal, yet it still can give quite a bruise, and the pointed nails can inflict cuts.
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A Little More History
Historically, As the Conquistadors brought European livestock to South America (especially sheep), most of the native alpacas were either slaughtered or relocated into the highest, most inhospitable region of the Andes which is known as the “Altiplano”. It is a high mountain desert, which is a dry, barren, relentless winds, and has minimal food. Peruvian historians’ believe that approximately 90% of the entire world’s population of alpacas died during the 1500’s as a result of this disastrous eradication by the European explorers.
In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution transpired throughout Europe. Immensely sized mills were constructed in England. A man by the name of Sir Titus Salt stood out in history and his mill uniquely capitalized on alpaca fiber. While the rest of the world and his fellow mill owners were processing sheep’s wool, Sir Titus had a corner on the market by obtaining raw alpaca fiber from South America and creating it into gorgeous and deluxe cloth. Alpaca cloth became highly sought after by the British royal family. This caused an explosion of popularity and from there spread to the fashion houses of Continental Europe. Alpaca fiber regained its prestige as a natural animal fiber fit for royalty. As the Inca population of South America once called it the “Fiber of the gods” and used it for their royal apparel. This was great news for the poor alpaca shepherds of South America because since then it has given them a way to support their families by selling the alpaca fiber to be used worldwide.
How did this camelid with amazing fiber qualities spread? Originally, there were no set “procedures” in place for the exportation of alpacas between the world and Peru, Chile and Bolivia. These South American countries cherished their alpacas and wanted to protect their heritage and livelihood. Yet by the 1980’s economic and social unrest ravished South America, and they made the choice to open the gates of exportation of the alpaca to the world including United States, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Europe.
These were limited and prized exports yet they benefited the alpaca immensely. Alpacas came by plane or ship to the U.S. Between 1984 to 1998 they were exported. Each qualified alpaca which was imported into the United States were granted a pedigree registration by the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (or “ARI”) which is located in Lincoln Nebraska. The ARI pedigree certificates is verified through DNA blood-testing to ensure precision. This ARI certificate is a valuable and a crucial document which gives the lineage of each animal. Other treasured information includes colors and date of birth. In 1998, U.S. breeders the ARI pedigree registry its exportation doors to further imported alpacas to the United States. Why would this happen? The simple answer is to protect the health and value of the animals within the United States.