Alpacas Are Your All-Around Animals

I have noticed lately that there are more and more alpacas on farms across the countryside. I know they are cute (have you ever seen an alpaca’s face?) but what is the rest of the draw that makes these critters so popular? I soon found out a number of things that make these docile animals family favorites.

Alpacas resemble small llamas in appearance and are the domesticated species of the South American camelid. They are bred specifically for their fiber and not for beasts of burden like llamas are. There are basically two breeds, Suri alpacas and Huacaya alpacas. The fiber of Suris grows quite long and forms silky, pencil-like locks whereas Huacaya fiber is shorter and is a more dense, crimpy fleece which gives it a woolly appearance.

Alpaca fleece is a lustrous and silky natural fiber. It is somewhat like hair, being very glossy. Unlike sheep wool, it is warmer, not as prickly and bears no lanolin which makes it hypoallergenic, a quality much in demand for those that suffer skin allergies. The fiber is used for making knitted and woven items similar to those made from wool. Alpaca fleece finds its way into blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves and a wide variety of other textiles. The fiber comes in more than 52 natural colors, with 16 being classified in the United States.

As an added plus, alpaca fiber is naturally flame-resistant. The carding, spinning and weaving is done much like the process for sheep wool. They are usually sheared once a year, typically in the spring. Each shearing, or cutting of the fiber, usually produces 5 to 10 pounds of fiber per alpaca. Just like most things, the fiber is graded according to quality. An adult alpaca might produce 50 to 90 ounces of first-quality fiber and 50 to 100 ounces of second and third quality.

Alpacas are social animals that live in family groups usually consisting of the territorial male, the females and their young. So, if you are thinking of owning one, you have to at least make it two. They require much less food than most animals of their size. Their diet consists of hay or grasses and they make great pasture animals since they have only their lower teeth. Instead of pulling the grass out by the roots, they chew it off so it can replenish itself. They typically eat two 60-pound bales of grass hay per month per animal. Because of this, one acre can typically support 10 alpacas.

Alpacas and llamas can be successfully cross-bred. Their offspring are called huarizo and are valued for their unique fleece and gentle disposition. However, regular alpacas weigh between 106 and 185 pounds and are also known for their docile disposition. They are small and gentle enough to travel short distances in the family minivan. I just don’t think I would go this far since they do have some rather bizarre habits.

One of these bad habits is “spitting” like their llama counterparts. Not all alpacas spit, but all are capable of it. The “spit” sometimes contains only air and a little saliva although it usually contains acidic stomach contents which is a green, grassy mix, and they project it at chosen targets. This spitting results in “sour mouth” for them which is characterized by a loose-hanging lower lip and a gaping mouth. The cause of this is the stomach acid and the unpleasant taste.

The object of this spitting, even though it causes them discomfort, is a form of defense. Usually reserved for other alpacas, it is sometimes directed at humans. I once was standing back watching a couple of llamas, just minding my own business. All of a sudden, one turned looked at me and spit. Is it something in my personality that attracts this behavior?

They are also quite verbal, making a variety of sounds, each being for a specific reason. When in danger they make a high-pitched shrieking whine. When content, they actually hum and a clucking sound means friendly or submissive behavior.

Believe it or not, you could say they are naturally potty trained. They use a communal dung pile where they do not graze. Females tend to stand in a line and all go at once. Because of this, some have been successfully house-trained and make house pets. I think not!

If you are thinking of getting into alpacas, the price to get started can be as open as the sky itself. A lone castrated male can go for $50 and the highest of champions can bring $500,000. Because of the high price commanded by alpacas in the growing North American alpaca market, illegal smuggling has become a growing problem.

It’s no wonder they are becoming more and more popular. They make great pets, produce fleece for a lifetime and females can be bred over and over for her entire adult life. What more could one ask out of an investment? I am still deciding if an alpaca venture needs to be added to my bucket list or not.

Published on Jan 14, 2016

Grit Magazine

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