An Introduction to Alpacas
By Suzanne Cox
In 1999 my mother and I caught our first glimpse of an alpaca on a late night television commercial. We instantly fell in love with the cute, cuddly looking creature and began researching them online. At the time, there wasn’t really much out there about them. Alpacas are relatively new to the United States with the first imports arriving here in 1983. Alpacas are originally from South America with the majority of today’s current population still found in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.
After several months of researching alpacas, we brought home our first breeding stock in 2000. Originally alpacas were intended to be mine and my mom’s operation. Over the years, it has truly become an entire family affair with my parents and younger sister Kaylen now operating Kush Kuntry Alpacas and my husband and I beginning ANS Farms with our children.
When we first entered the world of alpaca, the general public was mostly unaware of their existence. I remember discussing them one time with a Farm Service Agent and him asking “Alpacas? Is that like some kind of emu or something?” We soon became used to giving an abbreviated history and description of the alpaca.
Usually the first two questions we get are “What is an alpaca? And what are they used for?” Alpacas are a camelid cousin to the llama. They were domesticated by the Inca’s in South America over 6,000 years ago. The alpaca was greatly prized for their extraordinary fleece, and they were the center of ancient civilization for thousands of years until the invasion of Spanish Conquistadors nearly drove them to extinction. The surviving Inca’s fled into the high Andes mountains, taking with them small numbers of the once flourishing herds. There are now over 4,000,000 alpacas found in Peru and while their numbers have since re-bounded, archeologists have found evidence that we are still far from achieving the extraordinary fiber characteristics found in those once royal breeding programs.
So why was alpaca fiber so special, and how is it different from other types of wool? Alpaca fiber is unique in many ways. It has incredible insulating ability, as well as great moisture wicking properties. Alpaca fleece is free from the lanolin found in sheep wool which often triggers allergic reactions. Much of the alpaca fiber produced is softer than cashmere, and warmer than wool although it is much lighter. Alpaca comes in over 20 different natural shades. There are two “types” of alpacas which show different fiber characteristics. The Huacaya is the most common type found in North America, making up roughly 90% of our registered population. The Huacaya has a dense, crimpy fleece which makes the alpaca resemble a soft fluffy teddy bear. The Suri alpaca’s lustrous coat grows in locks and hangs down from the body instead of fluffing out.
Alpaca fiber is highly sought by high-end luxury designers. It can be used alone, or blended to create amazing wearable works of art. My mother became so taken by the beauty of alpaca fleece and garments that she went back to school to learn how to weave. She is now a very talented weaver, who specializes in alpaca and alpaca blend products. Here is a sample of both natural and dyed alpaca, with 100% alpaca, alpaca x cotton, and alpaca x wool blends.
The fiber industry in North America is still in development. Due to the fineness and unique characteristics of the fiber, typical industrial machinery can not be used for processing. Most of the alpaca products made in the United States at this time are created by private individuals, small mills and cooperatives. This is a growing industry with limitless potential.
North American alpacas main value at this time is in breeding stock. Unlike sheep and other wool producing livestock, alpacas are slow to reach reproductive maturity. Most alpacas are bred between 18-24 months. They have a lengthy gestation of just over eleven months so their numbers grow slowly.
While my mother was most interested in the process of creating with the fiber, I found myself more drawn to the animal itself. I had previously shown horses and wanted to explore these options with alpacas. The alpaca show industry has grown tremendously since we first began nearly 12 years ago. There are three main events at most shows: halter, fleece, and performance. Many shows now offer other events such as spin-offs where a small sample of fiber is spun into yarn and judged by a hand spinner for it’s ease of use. Last year I entered a new female of ours in the PA Breeders Showcase. She won first place.
This female won her first fleece ribbon just one day prior to delivering her first cria. Here she is pictured with her new male cria Zeddicus Zorander at just an hour old. William could not wait to welcome the new baby.
It is important when breeding alpacas to always aim for a higher quality offspring in both conformation and fleece. Alpacas must be shorn annually. Once shorn, the fleece can be prepared for fleece shows. Fleece shows and spin-offs can give the breeder a good idea of what that particular alpaca’s fiber strength and weaknesses are. Just as halter classes can show the animals conformation strength and weaknesses. This information can be used to help make breeding decisions, so that matings can be made with the intention of improving the next generation.
Alpaca shows are not all work and no play. They also offer performance classes, where exhibitors can compete at obstacles, in showmanship, and in public relations classes. Other options are costume contests and other fun events such as egg and spoon and dressage. This was always my favorite part of shows when I was younger, and I enjoyed it so much that I entered into the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association apprenticeship program in 2007 to become a judge. I have been judging since 2008 now, and must say it is the most fun job I have ever had!
I am frequently asked about their temperament and nature. Alpacas are usually very gentle creatures. They have a very strong herding instinct and must not be kept alone. Although they are easily spooked, alpacas are also curious and friendly creatures. They seem to demonstrate a fondness for children, which makes them ideal for young families. Alpacas do not have teeth on top, so they are unable to bite. They usually do not spit unless provoked, and even if they do kick your injury will not be severe since their soles are padded. As you can see, children of all ages can handle them. I just returned from judging a show in Virginia where our youngest competitor was only 4 years old!
Here you can see a good example of both huacaya and suri alpacas being shown in showmanship by children ranging in age from 9-11 years.
As far as livestock go, alpacas are fairly easy keepers. They are very earth friendly too! Alpacas have a split toe foot with pad, so they tread lightly on pasture. This, paired with their habit of nibbling grass without pulling it up make them ideal livestock for small acreage. They can be stocked at up to 10 head per acre on healthy, well drained pasture. Alpacas only require roughly 2% of their mass in dry matter a day. So a typical adult alpaca will consume about two 60-pound bales of hay in a month. Most breeders supplement their breeding stock and growing juveniles on a commercial feed mix as well. Alpacas do require a yearly shearing as well as routine wormings and annual vaccines. They need toe nail trims and occasional teeth trimming. The unique thing about alpacas is they use a communal dung pile. Their dung resembles small beans, loose and tightly formed. Most alpacas will only “go” at this pile, making clean up a breeze! Alpaca manure is also special, as it is one of the few livestock manures which can be applied directly to your garden without ‘burning” your crops.
Perhaps the hardest part of alpaca husbandry is in keeping them safe. Alpacas have no method of defense other than running away. They require well maintained, strong fencing to keep out predators. Guardians are also highly encouraged whither they be donkeys or dogs. We have both on the farm and have had success with each.
Alpacas are easily trained when started at a young age. While usually easy to train to lead, load, and stand for trims, most alpacas do not like to have things hanging on/around them or covering on their heads or tight on their bodies. It is for this reason that costume contests are my favorite alpaca event!
While this may all look like childish fun, even the adults can’t help but get in the action!
These majestic creatures are definitely worth looking into if your family is considering a new livestock venture. Just be careful, as they will quickly steal your heart!
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