SOME FUN FACTS ABOUT ALPACAS

  • Alpacas evolved out of South America and are members of the camel (camelid) family.

  • Alpacas were most likely domesticated from a wild animal called a vicunya.

  • Alpacas are raised for their luxury fiber (like cashmere) that comes in more natural colors than any other fiber animal.

  • Alpacas eat grass or grass hay and are inexpensive to maintain.

  • Alpacas are herd animals and do not like living alone.

  • Alpacas are shy and their main defense mechanism is to run away if they get scared.

  • Alpacas can live in small pens and will tolerate a stocking rate of 10 animals per acre.

  • Alpacas are sheared once a year.

  • Alpacas live for twenty years or more.

  • Alpacas have one baby per year; gestation period is 11 to 13 months.

  • Alpacas are great with kids and are a wonderful animal for the small farm.

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 three million (estimated) 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 approximately 250,000 in all of North America. When compared to the North American Llama herd of about 500,000 (estimated), the excitement and unique business opportunity the alpaca affords the North American breeder is easily appreciated, especially given the fact that alpacas can no longer be imported into the United States from any other country of origin.

Physical Characteristics

Alpacas can be 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. 

Two Types of Alpacas: Huacayas and Suris

HUACAYA

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. The North American Alpaca herd consists mostly of huacayas (approximately 90%), and this plurality will remain virtually unchanged in the decades that lie ahead.

SURI

The suri (sir-e) is distinguished from the huacaya alpaca by its unique fiber characteristics. Suri alpacas 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.

Alpaca Fiber

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. World textile experts have appreciated the value and durability of alpaca fiber for many years. The best fiber (softest, finest, most uniform and dense) is found on the alpaca's sides and loin (it’s blanket). The leg, chest, face and neck wool often consists of thicker, less uniform fibers.

Behavior

Alpacas are herd-oriented. 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 halter trained and socialized to accept people.  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 (cold fertilizer). 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 newborn babies. Alpacas also have readily understood body language involving posturing with ears, tails, and necks- 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.)

Breeding

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 females from intact males at 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 6 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). 

 

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. 

 

The gestation for alpacas is approximately between eleven to thirteen months, and females (dams) almost invariably produce a single baby. A young alpaca is called a cria and normally weighs between 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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