Raising alpacas continues to gain popularity with all sorts of people. Some are attracted by the lifestyle of owning a small ranch. Others see alpacas as an investment opportunity (though we would claim it a business, not an investment!) Those with a particular fancy for spinning and knitting may be attracted by the idea of growing their own source of lovely fiber. Whatever the reason, the choice to raise alpacas is not a easy decision. We've put together a set of questions and answers that we hope you find useful.
Q: What "breeds" and colors do alpacas come in?
A: There are two varieties of alpaca: huacaya and suri. You can see pictures of each at our website (see the resource box below). Both varieties have very soft fleece, though they look very different.
Huacayas are "fluffy" or "crimpy" and often "bouncy" to the touch. Suri fleece has straight fiber often with higher luster , that hangs down and tends to form "dreadlocks" . Both fiber types are popular in the textile industry, with cria fleeces generally bringing the highest price. Almost all the 130,000 or so alpacas in the United States are Huacaya. Only about 5% or so are Suri. You'll find eight "basic colors" of fleece in alpacas: white, light, fawn, brown, grey, black, multi-color, and "indefinite". What this really means is that there are a wide variety of colors out there, and some patterns, too. Pure white is very popular with the textile industry, since it can be dyed to almost any color.
Q: Do alpacas spit?
A: Oh yes. But not as often as you might think, and rarely at people. Spitting is both a defense and a way of communicating. Often, that communication is about who claims the food, or who wants to be "in charge" today.
And...just so you know... spit in this case is NOT saliva. It's genuine stomach juices, often including partially digested hay. It's a lovely experience.
Q: What kind of space do alpacas require?
A: Alpacas have 3-chambered stomachs, so they are highly efficient grazers , more so than almost any other farm animal. Pasturing density of 6 to 7 alpacas per acre is often reasonable , though density varies greatly with condition of the land, climate, and quality of forage. Don't forget that if you plan to keep breeding stock, you'll need several fenced pastures to accommodate groups of different sexes, and to allow for pasture rotation. Fencing is required. The good news is that alpacas generally respect fencing. 4' or 5' no-climb horse fence is a cost-effective choice. If you don't have the space for alpacas, consider boarding them at a ranch. Many alpaca owners begin this way.
Q: Are alpacas loud? Will my neighbors complain?
A: Though we can't answer the second question (it depends on your neighbors!), the answer to the first is that alpacas are generally very quiet. They hum quietly , especially when a bit anxious. If they see something truly worrisome, they may sound a warbling call that some describe as a cross between a squeaky toy and a hawk's cry.
Most of the time, such a call means that they've seen a housecat out in the pasture...
Q: We don't plan to breed alpacas. Do they make good pasture pets?
A: Definitely! Many people feel that the best alpacas for pasture pets are neutered males, often called "fiber boys". Alpacas are a herd animal, so you'll need at least 2, preferably 3. Alpacas are not like dogs. They are alert, curious, calm, and may very well come sniffing around when you're working in the yard. However, they will most likely spend their time with the herd, not with their humans.
Q: What do you do with alpaca fleece?
A: Alpacas produce fiber that is, bar none, the finest in the world for spinning and weaving. Do you knit? Then you're probably already aware of the exceptional qualities of alpaca yarn. Many small mills will take fleece, wash it, card it, and spin it, with several plying options. Knitting with yarn from animals you own is very rewarding! Do you spin? You can ask the mill to give you clean fleece or rovings. If fiber arts isn't your thing, you can sell your fleece to mills, spinners, or even fiber cooperatives.
Q: How big are alpacas, anyway?
A: Alpacas are camelids, but small ones. Babies, called crias, generally weigh between 12 and 22 pounds at birth. Adults generally weigh between 120 and 210 pounds. A good-sized adult stands about 36" at the shoulder, and can likely look you in the eye if you're under 5'3". This means they are much smaller and can feel less intimidating to some people than their bigger cousins, llamas (which are very nice, too - don't get me wrong!). When you know how to handle them, alpacas are generally easy to work with, even though they may weigh more than you do.
Q: How long do alpacas live? How much of that time are they actively reproductive?
A: Alpacas generally live 17 to 22 years, and are usually very healthy for nearly all that time. We currently have a 14-year-old girl at our ranch who is expecting a cria this summer, and often leads the herd in running the perimeter of the pasture! Females may be ready to begin breeding by 18 months of age. Males mature a bit more slowly, and are generally ready to begin breeding at around 30 months.
Q: How long are females pregnant, and how long is it after they give birth before they breed again?
A: Gestation periods in alpacas range from a low of around 325 to a high of around 360 days, with the average at about 345 days. Single births are the rule. Alpacas are normally re-bred at about 3 weeks after delivery.
Q: What are alpaca babies like?
A: Very cute. Incredibly cute. Terminally, insanely cute. They are generally up on their feet within 30 minutes or so after birth, and actively nursing within an hour. Though a bit shaky on their legs for the first day, they are up and with the herd very quickly. Weight gain during the first two weeks may be about a pound each day. Aside from some basic post-natal precautions, and some vitamin and vaccine injections, crias generally need little special care. Crias nurse for 6 months, though, so Mom will need extra calories and protein for nursing.
Q: What kind of care do alpacas require?
A: A small herd of alpacas is quite easy to care for. Fresh water, good hay, a small daily grain supplement, and some mineral salt should do the trick for feeding. As natural foragers, alpacas will eat almost anything your pasture provides, including (thankfully) blackberry vines. However, some plants are poisonous to camelids. The bookshelf at our website has a reference to a good book on this subject, and you can find more information on line. For shelter, depending on your climate, alpacas need a simple 3-sided covered shelter or a barn. Alpacas are generally shorn once each year, often in early May here in the Pacific Northwest. For some before and after pictures, take a look at the news section of our website. Shearing is a job for a professional, but it is relatively easy to work with an established local ranch to get in on their shearing party. In warm weather, especially in southern climates , heat stress may become a concern. Special cooling arrangements may be required.
Like other livestock, alpacas are susceptible to a variety of parasites, internal and external. Your vet will probably have a management plan that you can adopt. Alpaca hooves need regular trimming (every 3 to 6 months, your mileage may vary), but if your alpacas have been trained to know the "foot" command, trimming should not be a problem.
Q: How do I take the next step?
A: First, figure out your objectives. Breeding? Fiber farming? Pasture pets? Second, determine your timeline: how soon and in what order do you want to reach these objectives? Third, decide on your budget, and decide on whether you will have your own pastures, or will agist (board) your animals at a ranch. Fourth, take your time in finding the animals that will help you achieve your objectives. Don't be in a rush. Take your time. Talk to people from several breeding farms. Want to know more then just click on llama trekking.
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