Alpaca Facts

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Where do alpacas come from?

Alpacas come from South America from a region called the Altiplano. Three countries intersect at the Altiplano: Peru, Chile and Bolivia. Alpacas inhabit elevations of 3,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level, the lower elevations of the Altiplano.  The climate there tends to be dry, cool and sunny.

Alpaca’s prehistoric ancestors actually originated on the North American continent.  These were the first camels that migrated over the Bering Straight and into South America.  This camel ancestor evolved into camels, llamas, guanacos, alpacas and vicunas.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom:    Animalia

Phylum:      Chordata

Class:         Mammalia

Order:        Artiodactyla

Family:       Camilidae

Genus:       Vicugna

Species:     V. pacos

A Very Brief write up on Alpaca History

As far as we know, alpacas were domesticated at least 6000 years ago.  They were raised by the ancient Incas for their fleece as textiles were the major industry.   Only Incan royalty was allowed to wear fabric made from alpaca fleece.   When the Spanish arrived, alpacas were slaughtered nearly to extinction.   The alpacas that were left were hidden by moving them to pastures in the Altiplano.

The first exports of alpacas were to zoos in Europe in the mid 1900’s.  The original imported alpacas to North America actually came from Europe when in the 1980’s, the first alpaca farm was started in Ohio.  As alpacas gained popularity, imports began arriving from South America.  These South American imports provided a real boost to the North American breeding program by adding much needed variety and quality in the gene pool.

The importation of alpacas was closed in the early 1990’s.  There are currently over 168,000 alpacas in the United States.

An Alpaca’s life

An alpaca can live about 20 years. An average animal can weigh from about 110 pounds to 200 pounds. Alpacas are born at about 12-17 pounds although it is not uncommon to see weights as high as 20 pounds.

Alpacas have a strong herd instinct and do not like to be too far from the main group.  They spend most of their time eating but do take breaks to ruminate, nap and take care of other bodily functions.  One of the many nice things about alpacas is that they are very neat and use communal “piles” so they are relatively easy to clean up after.

They do play and wrestle with each other.  As the sun is setting, it is common for the young alpacas (called crias) to pronk and run around the field.  The adult alpacas that like to run will join them.

Alpacas are alert to their surroundings and inquisitive.  “They never miss a trick” we often say. They seem to immediately notice when something is different and go to check things out more closely.

The herd is checking out a dragon kite that just landed in their pasture.

What to feed an Alpaca

Alpacas eat primarily grass hay.  The hay can be grown by the farmer so that the alpacas can graze if you get enough rain or irrigate your field.  Or, like many Southwestern alpaca breeders, hay can be purchased in bails if it does not grow in the fields.  The latter is called dry lot. 

There are a few kinds of hay that are more suited to meet the dietary needs of the alpaca: bermuda grass, orchard grass and teffy hay are the most common.  Some grasses are acceptable like alfalfa and winter rye but have a high protein content and can make an alpaca fat and/or cause the fleece to coarsen.   Many breeders will mix a hay with a higher content of protein with a hay that has less protein like alfalfa and bermuda in order to save money.  This is acceptable but  tedious for the farmer.   

One great thing about feeding alpacas is that you can give an alpaca all of the hay it will eat in a day or so.  Although alpacas can colic on rare occasions, they do not colic easily on hay and grass.

Many alpaca breeders feed supplemental pellets to provide additional minerals and nutrients. Some breeders, like here at La Dolce Vita, use pellets as a method to increase daily contact and interaction with the herd.  Most breeders feel that pellets are optional.  You can get alpacas to take carrots from your hands. 

It is good to provide alpacas with free access to mineral supplements which are specially formulated for alpacas.  The alpacas will seek out and consume the minerals as each individual feels it needs.

Alpacas also need easy access to plenty of clean water.   You can use automatic waterers if you want. 

On the right, our alpacas doing what they do best. There are many ways to build a feeder. We chose to build a frame that reduces hay waste and fighting amongst the herd.

The facilities and climate control

Alpacas need shade in the summer and protection from the wind in the winter.  Usually a three sided shelter will do in most climates.  A barn is really nice but, luckily, not a necessity in the Southwest.  If you have really cold weather, and want to have the option to breed in the winter, then get a barn.  Barns are also good on the occasion when an alpaca may need some extra monitoring but this can be done in the pasture with some extra coral panels in a pinch. 

On hot days, if there is no wind, it is good to have at least one large industrial fan to generate some breeze.  Misters are a good idea as well.  There is a formula for determining when it is absolutely critical to take extra precautions to prevent heat stress: temperature + humidity.  If the sum is 120 or less, not to worry: turn on misters or fans and belly hose if you want. 130-150 or so = take precautions: turn misters and fans on and belly hose occasionally and keep a sharp eye on the old, ones that have health issues, animals under extra stress and crias.  150+ is very dangerous:  be very aggressive and vigilant about keeping animals cool.

We like to put out electrolytes when it gets hot.  The ones that are used for horses are fine for alpacas. 

Somewhere within the pasture, we strongly recommend setting up a catchment area; a smaller pen with a gate on it.  We also recommend using pellets to get your alpacas in the habit of going into the catchment area.  This is essential to assist you in care and keeping track of the overall health of you alpacas. We have found that this has made our herd more friendly and approachable. 

Other Basic Care Alpacas Need

Alpacas should be shorn once a year, usually the late spring is good in most circumstances. Most farms hire a shearer to come and perform this task.  Shearing can be done by the alpaca owner but it takes some practice to master the task.  Not only does a shearer remove the fleece to keep the alpaca cool, he/she is trying to preserve and maintain the staple length of the clip for fiber processing.

Alpacas occasionally need their teeth and toenails trimmed.  The frequency these tasks need to be performed can vary greatly from one animal to another.  Toenails can be trimmed with either goat toenail clippers or a small pair of horse nippers.  There are many different ways that teeth can be done. We use a Dremmel tool. Some farms purchase a “tooth-o-matic” or use OB wire.  Male alpacas grow fighting teeth at about 2-3 years old that need to be cut as well.

As a part of your training, the farm where you purchased your animals should show you how to trim teeth and nails.  The should also show a new breeder how to recognize when teeth and nails need to be trimmed.   A vet or the shearer can also perform these tasks if you are uncomfortable with them.

Breeding and reproduction.

Female alpacas become sexually mature at about 1 1/2-2 1/2 years.  Male alpacas reach maturity at 2-3 years.  A female alpaca can have 1 baby, called a cria, a year.  Twins can happen but they are rare.  The gestation for a cria is 350 days.

Alpacas are induced ovulators so the females can get pregnant at any time of the year.  Veterinarians recommend avoiding the really hot seasons for birthing as they feel that crias can dehydrate easily and the added heat can be hard on a female in late pregnancy.  With proper facilities, climate controls and vigilance, a farmer can breed alpacas at any time of the year.

An alpaca’s labor is really short; about 30 minutes to an hour and a half or so from the first signs of labor.  The crias are usually taking their first steps within about 1/2 an hour and attempting to nurse from their moms in an hour or so.

As far as cria care goes, mom takes care of most everything. The only things the breeder need to do is dip the cria’s umbilicus in anti-bacterial solution and give initial shots. We give the clostridium types C and D, tetanus and oral e-coli antiserum within 24 hours of birth. It is recommended that the cria get weighed every day for the first 1-2 weeks. This will help a breeder identify any feeding issues or other possible health concerns, however rare.

We think that babies are the best part of farming and encourage new breeders to give it a try.  Nothing is more fun than watching the antics of the little ones in the field.

Routine Medical Care

It is good to weigh and body score your alpacas on a regular basis.  Our alpacas get weighed at least once a year at shearing.  We do not hesitate to weigh an alpaca if we are suspicious about it’s health.  Body scoring, however, is probably more important than weight as it is a better indicator of the alpacas overall body condition.  This is easy to do and can be incorporated into your routine handling of your herd.  It consists of placing your hand on a certain location on the spine of the animal and judging how far apart your hand is spread out, and other simple obdervations.  The farm where you purchase your alpacas should show you how to do this.

Alpacas benefit from vaccinations and worming.  La Dolce Vita Alpacas does yearly clostridium types C and D as well as tetanus.  Since it is so dry here, we have routine, random fecal testing done to see if the alpacas need worming at all. 

Worming regiments can vary greatly depending on the climate.   Places that get a lot of rain, or where the ground tends to be damp most of the time, need more frequent worming schedules.  Some climates require worming as frequently as every other month.  A breeder needs to talk to other local breeders and the vet to determine frequency and which wormers are the most important.

The rest of this page has to do with the basic care and breeding of alpacas.  Compared to other large livestock, alpacas are relatively easy to care for and are generally healthy.  The routine care is not difficult for a new farmer/breeder to learn.  If you have owned other large livestock in the past, alpacas are a cinch.

Shearing day is a big team effort. We make a big party of it. Everyone works a little and really lightens the load.

A cria coat is good to keep a baby warm in cool weather.   This one is made of a fun polar-tech fleece.

Can’t get enough baby pictures. Can You?

The Alpaca Biz

We are often asked the question: can you make money in this business?  Well...yes!!!  It is a multifaceted business.  A breeder can make money in at least four different areas: stud services, sales of both alpacas and fiber products, and boarding.  It has been our experience that all four of these areas can make a farm profitable.  We feel you need at least some of all four of these.

As with any business, there are some tax benefits that are really helpful.  For example, the first 5 years all of your durable goods and equipment can be depreciated.  This is particularly useful because it takes about that long to establish the four elements in the previous paragraph.  If you are serious about having alpacas as a business, we always advise talking to a CPA.

There is so much to say here.  Please call or email us and we are more than happy to discuss this with you in more detail.

Some highly motivated ladies that came to our farm for the San Diego Yarn Crawl.  We love their cute army shirts.