A few decades ago, the sight of an alpaca in a field would be enough to stop traffic. But now, these exotic-looking creatures with long legs, big eyes and fluffy fleeces are becoming the livestock of choice for many small farmers.
Alpacas belong to the Camelid family, along with their larger cousins, llamas and camels. Camelids have padded feet, rather than hooves, which are gentle on the land. Like ruminants, alpacas live on grass and chew their cud. However, the alpaca’s digestive tract has three (not four) chambers. On average, alpacas live for about 20 years, and adults weigh 100 to 200 pounds.
There are two breeds of alpaca. The most common is the Huacaya, whose crimped fiber grows straight out from the body giving the animal a fluffy appearance. The Suri has silky straight fiber that hangs in locks.
Raising alpacas as livestock or pets?
Traditionally, alpacas were bred in South America for their fiber. Their fleece is softer, stronger and warmer (at the same weight) than sheep’s wool. An adult produces up to 10 pounds of fiber each year. The fiber is processed differently than sheep’s wool, and the cost of processing can be substantial. Consequently, it can be challenging to create a viable business raising alpacas solely for the raw fleece. Many owners sell breeding stock and/or value-added products such as hand-woven scarves, felted bags or knitted socks.
These animals are often raised for pleasure instead of profit. Those without good enough fleece or conformation to be breeding stock are often sold as pets.
“Alpacas are very docile,” say Daniel and Peggy Emmerich, who raise alpacas and goats at EnchantedMeadows Alpacas and Goats in Wausau, Wisconsin. “We can walk amongst them without them bolting off in fear. Male alpacas will fight a little with each other for dominance, but we have never had a male alpaca get aggressive towards a human. We let our grandkids freely move about in the alpaca pens.”
Debra Schneider of Indiana’s Lit’le Bit of Heaven Farm credits alpacas as having a “very unusual power” to calm people around them. The Schneiders switched from raising horses to alpacas after their son was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and their daughter was in a serious car accident.
Part of the peaceful nature of the alpacas comes from their silence. With their soft foot pads, they walk quietly in the pasture. They are rarely vocal, except for humming when content.
Caring for alpacas
One reason folks like alpacas is their ease of care. The animals respect fences, can be easily halter-trained, and don’t require much work.
Generally, a single acre of good pasture can support five to eight animals. The pasture can be fenced with 4-foot-high woven wire (sheep fencing), although 5-foot-high fences are used sometimes for the males or in areas with large predators.
Alpacas need shelter but are winter hardy. Even in Alaska and the Yukon, alpacas are kept in uninsulated, unheated barns. In hot areas, however, it is important to avoid heat stress.
When not on pasture, alpacas require hay, preferring leafy second-cut hay. Fifteen alpacas eat about as much hay as one horse. The actual number of bales required depends on the length of the winter, the reproductive state of the animals — growing, lactating and pregnant animals need more than geldings — and the quality of the hay.
Females in late gestation and early lactation usually need grain, as do growing young. Alpaca supplements are available at farm stores across the continent. The herd is usually given free access to a mix of minerals and salt.
Males are often bred once they are 2 years old, females at 1 1/2 to 2 years. Alpaca females don’t go into heat. Instead, the act of mating usually stimulates ovulation.
After a 345-day (11-month) gestation, females give birth to one offspring, called a cria. Birthing is usually simple. Alpacas almost always have their young in the middle of the day (making sheep farmers green with envy). Another advantage is that alpacas can postpone going into labor for up to two weeks if they sense a storm coming.
Newborns usually weigh 14 to 20 pounds. Adult females can be bred again within a couple of weeks after giving birth. If the mother dies or doesn’t have enough milk, the cria needs to be bottle-fed colostrum within the first 24 hours of life. Frozen alpaca colostrum is available at some veterinarian offices and is shared among alpaca owners. Goat colostrum is an acceptable substitute.
Some owners wean the crias at 6 months of age. As with most livestock, weaning is stressful for all involved (including the farmer). Many alpaca owners allow for natural weaning, which often happens when crias are around 9 months old.
Alpacas are shorn once a year. Some shearers specialize in alpacas, and sheep shearers won’t necessarily do the job. Many owners learn to shear alpacas — which is considered easier than shearing sheep or angora goats.
Their toenails need to be clipped. You can get special alpaca toenail clippers, but many people simply use garden shears, or sometimes hoof nippers or nippers designed for ceramic tile.
Camelids use communal piles of droppings. This makes it easy for farmers to collect and compost the manure. In barns, peat moss or bedding can soak up the urine. The ease of collecting droppings leads to a secondary income source — ‘paca poo.’ Because of its relatively low nitrogen level, the raw manure won’t burn plants. However, before being used on edible plants, the manure should be composted to destroy potential pathogens.
Alpacas are susceptible to many of the intestinal parasites that affect ruminants. A serious parasite is the meningeal worm, carried by whitetail deer, slugs and snails. The parasites are controlled by the same dewormers used in goats and sheep. Also, some ranchers apply diatomaceous earth (DE), a nontoxic powder, around the pellet pile.
Bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) virus, which is carried by cattle, can cause health problems and abortions in alpacas. All new breeding stock should be tested for BVD virus before coming onto the farm.
Tips on buying alpacas
Before you buy, Dan and Melanie Hicks of Irishtown Alpacas in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, recommend going to alpaca shows and visiting a large number of farms. “You need to get your hands on a number of animals” before you can fully appreciate the range in quality of fleece. “You want a nice crimp and fineness,” Melanie Hicks says.
Alpaca breeders often send fiber samples to labs to get an objective description of the fleece. The diameter of the fiber reveals the fineness of the fleece. Below 20 microns is considered top grade, whereas over 32 microns is Grade 6, the lowest rating. The fiber histogram describes the relative abundance of the different grades. Start by looking at the histogram, says Dan Hicks. But then “you still need to feel the fleece on the animal to ensure consistency.”
To sell breeding stock, start with registered stock. Small-scale owners might not register their animals, but beware of buying unregistered stock from a larger operation. There is likely a reason the animal isn’t registered — such as poor teeth or being inbred.
Regardless of whether you’re keeping alpacas as pets or livestock, it’s essential that you have at least two of the animals.
“They want to be together,” says Melanie Hicks. “They need to see each other.” For that reason, the Hickses dismantled the box stalls in the horse barn they renovated for alpacas.
The question of culls
Whenever you breed livestock, the offspring vary in their characteristics. Some won’t make the grade as breeding stock. The problem could be physical (bad overbite, coarse fleece, poor conformation, low milk yield) or behavioral (aggressive, poor mothering). You don’t want to perpetuate these characteristics.
What are your options? You can keep the animal as nonbreeding stock. If it has good fleece and good health, you might not lose money on the animal. However, if it has poor fleece and health problems, it doesn’t make financial sense to keep it.
You can keep or sell the animal as a pet. However, if the number of alpacas continues to grow, the market for alpaca pets may become saturated.
Alpaca owners also can follow the example of cattle, sheep and goat owners — keep the best animals for breeding stock and send culls for slaughter. Alpaca meat is lean, high in protein, and has a mild flavor.
Snowmass Alpacas in Idaho, for example, describes its operation as a group of ranchers who have lived on a diet of meat protein all their lives. They give away animals to people who want fiber, a source for manure or a 4-H experience. But they also sell and eat alpaca meat.
Slaughtering alpacas for meat is controversial. Some believe the reputation of the animals will be tarnished. Others feel that slaughtering culls will improve the overall genetic stock and fleece quality.
Any way you spin it, if you happen upon affordable, good-natured, quality alpacas, they are a true joy on acreages large and small.
Wear local fibers
The growing interest in natural and organic food, as well as the ‘buy local’ movement, is spreading into fibers. Clothing companies struggle to meet the demand for fiber that is produced in an ecological manner in North America. Alpaca socks now mix with Armani alpaca suits, baby clothes, and even jeans (with 20 percent alpaca denim). Who knows how far the industry will go, but the motto of the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America is “The fiber is the future.”
Alpacas, like llamas, spit when disgruntled. Most of the spitting occurs between alpacas; you just have to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Mary Donaty, who has been raising alpacas for more than 25 years, says she has been spat upon four or five times. In each case, she says, it was her own fault because she “got in the middle of a family disagreement.”
Tax shelter or pyramid scheme?
Currently, the money in the alpaca business comes from selling breeding stock. The North American alpaca business began in the mid-1980s. As with other exotic livestock (remember potbellied pigs and emus?), the first imported individuals were expensive, and their offspring sold at astronomical prices. People invested in alpacas partially based on these inflated prices. Whether this is considered a ‘speculative bubble’ or pyramid scheme, the fact remains that the number of North American alpacas is growing, and the price of breeding stock is dropping. It is unknown when or if the market will become saturated and prices will plummet.
In Uncle Sam Will Help Buy You an Alpaca, John Stossel states, the “Alpaca Breeders Association asked its members, on a scale of 1 to 10, what motivated them to get into alpaca breeding. More than half rated tax benefits a 10.” Websites of alpaca associations describe how to reap tax benefits from raising alpacas — something not commonly found on other livestock websites.
EnchantedMeadows Alpacas and Goats
9357 County Road O
Wausau, WI 54401
1820 Elmwood Drive
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, E1H 2H6
270 Rapid Lightning Road
Sandpoint, ID 83864
A Lit’le Bit of Heaven Farm
25610 Salem Road
Arcadia, IN 46030
Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America
P.O. Box 349
Decatur, TN 37322
Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association
5000 Linbar Drive, Suite 297
Nashville, TN 37211