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History of Alpacas

Alpacas (camelids) were revered and treasured by the ancient Inca civilization. Today, alpacas still live on the Andean plateau in the mountains of South America. These beautiful animals were one of the key foundations to Inca commerce. The camelid provided food, clothing, fuel and transportation to the Incas who were accustomed to a very harsh and hostile existence.

The Alpaca and Llama have been domesticated for around 6000 years. Today, approximately 99% of the world's about three million alpacas are found in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. The center of the alpaca textile industry is in Arequipa, Peru. Yarn and other products are made from alpaca and sold primarily in either Japan or Europe.

Alpacas were first imported into the United States in 1984. Today, there are about 100,000 in all of North America. When compared to the North American Llama herd of about 500,000, the excitement and unique business opportunity the alpaca affords the North American breeder is easily appreciated.

Physical Characteristics

Alpacas are recognized by their compact size, abundant, soft fiber, long necks and ears that typically point slightly outward. Their short, wedge-shaped heads are adorned with much wool and large, expressive eyes. The alpaca's tail is naturally short and low set, often giving the alpaca the appearance of having a rounded rear end. The rear legs of the alpaca may be set very slightly under, but the hocks should never be sickled. The alpaca's front legs should look straight or nearly straight when viewed from the front. Their soft, padded feet have two toes from which nails grow out and down. This foot design, together with their small size allows them to tread very lightly over the terrain. Alpacas lack upper front teeth and enamel is absent from the insides of their lower incisors. They grasp forage with their agile split upper lip, nip it off with the action of their lower incisors against their upper pallet then grind their foodstuffs with their molars.

Adult alpacas usually weigh between 100 and 170 pounds and stand 2 to 3 feet at the withers. Their life span is 15-25 years. Alpacas come in twenty-two natural colors. Besides basic white and black, there are many beautiful shades of brown, gray, tan and fawn (cream). White markings often decorate the face, necks, legs and feet of alpacas. The paint (or piebald) pattern exists in the species but not appaloosa markings.

Alpacas come in two fiber types - huacaya and suri. The huacaya (pronounced wa-ki-a) alpaca is characterized by a fiber that is dense, crimped, and wooly in appearance. This abundant coverage gives the huacaya a soft and huggable look and explains the overwhelming popularity the huacaya enjoys worldwide. Ninety percent of the North American alpaca herd consists of huacayas, and this plurality will remain virtually unchanged in the decades that lie ahead.

Huacaya Huacaya Fleece

The suri (sir-e) is distinguished from the huacaya alpaca by its unique fiber characteristics. Suri alpacas are extremely rare. They represent only a very small percentage of the world's alpaca population. The fiber grows parallel to the body while hanging in long, separate, non-crimped locks. Suri fiber locks are made up of high-luster fibers and drapes down the sides of the body in a twisted or flat form of various size. Suri fiber has excellent luster, a slick hand, and extreme softness. The suri alpaca is an excellent investment because of its rarity and inherent beauty.

Suri Suri Fleece

Alpaca fiber is prized for its softness (equivalent to mohair and surpassed only by vicuna), uniform fineness and strength. It is three times stronger than sheep's wool. The value and durability of alpaca fiber has been appreciated by world textile experts for many years. The best fiber (softest, finest, most uniform and dense) is found on the alpaca's sides and loin. The leg, chest, face and neck wool often consists of thicker, less uniform fibers.

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Behavior

Alpacas are very herd-oriented and usually prefer the company of their own kind to that of other species. Within the herd, there is a hierarchy of dominant and less assertive animals. When frightened, alpacas tend to band together which simplifies moving them as a group.

The gentle character of alpacas makes them easy to handle by persons who understand their ways. While alpacas must become accustomed to human touch, most can easily be trained to halter and accept people. Rarely handled animals usually require some form of restraint for treatments but this can usually be accomplished by one person holding the animal. Adult male alpacas are typically less aggressive among themselves and with humans than are their North American livestock equivalents. Most male alpacas can be kept together in non-breeding situations and some in breeding situations as well.

Alpacas are intelligent and clean. Alpacas have three stomachs, are browsers and very economical to feed requiring only good grass hay and a mineral supplement. They produce practically odorless pellets (much like a rabbit) that are low in nitrogen and make excellent soil enhancers. They "go" in only a few spots making cleaning corrals much easier. Areas can be cleaned using either a shovel or a specially designed vacuum that mulches the pellets. The mulch pellets then can be used as fertilizer in flower and vegetable gardens.

Alpacas communicate with a variety of mostly quiet noises, body postures and an occasional spit when confronted by extreme adversity. Their most common sound is a soft, pleasant humming. They sound off an alarm call to signal the approach of an intruder. Some mother alpacas actually cluck to their new born babies. Alpacas also have readily understood body language involving posturing with ears, tail, neck primarily to establish pecking order in the herd. Young alpacas are especially curious and often communicate by sniffing and touching other animals.

Alpacas love water and use it as a cooling device in warm weather. Most enjoy ponds, pools and sprinklers and will come running when they recognize a person with a hose. Lying in water for extended periods of time, besides being immediately cooling to the animal, does cause fiber loss on the alpaca's legs and underside. (They do not become bald but appear shorn in these areas.)

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Uses

As rare and treasured as alpacas are in North America, they are essentially domestic animals that have been bred for thousands of years for fine fiber with consideration also given to meat production and ease of handling. In North America, alpacas are appreciated for their fiber, form, gentleness and amusing personalities. While the emphasis of the infant industry is on the production and perpetuation of the species in the U.S. and Canada, alpacas are also purchased as fiber sources, show animals, pets and living forms of art.

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Breeding Alpacas

Female alpacas are ready for breeding when they have reached 75% of their adult weight which usually occurs between 18 and 24 months of age. Since a few may become pregnant as early as 6 months of age, it is important to separate young ladies from intact males from this age until they are ready for breeding. Sexually mature females are induced ovulators and do not exhibit estrus cycles typical of most domesticated animals. If not pregnant a mature female is almost constantly "open" or "receptive" to breeding.

Males mature more slowly than females and typically begin breeding at 2 1/2 to 3 years of age. Some, however, are precocious as youngsters and should be separated at about 8 months of age from receptive females since fertilization by a young male is possible any time after the penis no longer adheres to the prepuce (sheath). Males "orgle" continuously while breeding which lasts a minimum of 15 minutes.

Breeding is done in a prone position and takes at least 15 minutes since the male dribbles, rather than ejaculates, semen into the uterus of the female. While breeding, the male makes a continuous orgling noise and moves his front legs occasionally along the sides of the female. The mating process induces the female to ovulate so that she can become pregnant.

Methods of determining pregnancy include: (1) observing a female's receptivity to an intact male, (2) determining blood progesterone levels after 21 days, (3) internal ultrasound and/or external ultrasound. The first two procedures are indirect assessments and at times may be misleading. Unfortunately, the anatomy of many female alpacas is too small to allow rectal palpation or visualization of the pregnancy of internal ultrasound.

The gestation for alpacas is approximately between eleven to eleven and a half months, and females almost invariably produce a single baby. A young alpaca is called a cria and normally weigh from 10 to 18 pounds at birth. A cria is usually ready for weaning at 5 - 6 months.  An alpaca birth usually occurs in the morning with some birthing in the early afternoon.  It is rare that a dam will birth in the evening.

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Provisions for Alpacas

Fencing

While alpacas like to investigate new areas, they do not tend to run away so keeping them home is seldom a problem. However, adequate fencing is critical to their survival. Exterior fencing must be high enough and tight enough to keep out all potential predators including the neighbor's dog. Woven wire or any solid material that rises from ground level to a height of five feet usually suffices. For added protection, some owners add an electric wire along the top. Internally, any combination of boards, woven wire, cables and barbless wire that stand about four feet and does not allow the smallest animals to escape under or through will do.

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Housing

Alpacas are hardy creatures that adapt to all climates and have minimal requirements in the way of shelter. Access to an open barn or simple overhang that offers protection from storms and ample shade in the warmer seasons is all that is needed and is preferred to strict confinement.

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Feed

Alpacas are extremely efficient utilizers of feed, alpacas do well on pasture or clean, grass-type hays. Overfeeding and dependence on the use of protein-rich hays, such as alfalfa, are unhealthy and should be avoided. Females in their last trimester of pregnancy, nursing mothers and growing youngsters require higher levels of protein and may benefit from supplemental feeding. Fresh water should always be available along with mineral salt. Alpacas are sensitive to the deprivation of essential minerals including, but not limited to, selenium and phosphorus. When green forage or hay from areas of specific deficiencies is fed, animals must be directly compensated for the mineral(s) that are lacking in their feed.

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Health Care

Although generally hardy and disease resistant animals, alpacas greatly benefit by preventative medicine and ready access to veterinary services. A priority for new alpaca owners should be to enlist the services of a veterinarian with alpaca and/or llama experience or, if none is available, find a local veterinarian who is interested in the species and very willing to learn.  Regular selenium supplements are required in many areas to prevent white muscle disease, while Vitamin D may be required to prevent rickets. An alpaca's nails should be trimmed regularly and not allowed to grow long and curl.  This can be done with or without a restraining chute. The teeth should be inspected and incisors trimmed if they exhibit excessive growth. Shearing alpacas once a year will further add to their happiness and well-being.

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The Alpaca Registry

The Alpaca Registry documents the pedigrees of registered animals and helps assure the perpetuation of the alpaca as a unique species in North America. The registry requires blood typing of all alpacas and has received widespread support from the alpaca community as evidenced by the inclusion of at least 95% of the North American alpaca population in the registry at the time it officially closed (March 30, 1989). With the closing of the registry, only animals which qualify by blood typing as the offspring of registered alpacas are automatically eligible for registration.  Visit the ARI website at www.alpacaregistry.net

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David Kabbai - 619.890.9297 - 1.877.611.1319