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Thinking About Alpacas? Some Basic Questions and Answers
Raising alpacas continues to gain popularity with all kinds of people. Some are attracted to the lifestyle of owning a small ranch. Others see alpacas as an investment opportunity (although we’d argue it’s a business, does not an investment!) Those with a special penchant for spinning and knitting may be drawn to the idea of growing their own source of lovely fibers. Whatever the reason, choosing to raise alpacas is not an easy decision. We’ve put together a set of questions and answers that we hope you find useful.
Q: What “breeds” and colors do alpacas come in?
ONE: There are two varieties of alpaca: huacaya and suri. You can see pictures of each on our website (see resource box below). Both varieties have very soft fleece, although they look very different.
Huacaya is “fluffy” or “crimpy” and often “bouncy” to the touch. Suri fleece has straight fibers, often with a higher sheen, which hang down and tend to form “dreadlocks”. Both fiber types are popular in the textile industry, with cria fleece generally fetching the highest price. Almost all of the approximately 130,000 alpacas in the United States are Huacaya. Only about 5% or so are Suri. You’ll find eight “base colors” of fleece in alpacas: white, light, fawn, brown, gray, black, multicolored, and “indeterminate.” What this really means is that there is a wide variety of colors out there, and some patterns too. Pure white is very popular in the textile industry as it can be dyed to almost any color.
Q: Do alpacas spit?
ONE: Oh yes. But not as often as you might think, and rarely in humans. Spitting is both a defense and a way of communicating. Often that communication is about who claims the food or who will be “in charge” today.
And… just so you know… spit in this case is NOT spit. It is real stomach juice, often including partially digested hay. It is a wonderful experience.
Q: What kind of space do alpacas require?
ONE: Alpacas have 3-chambered stomachs, so they are highly efficient grazers, more so than almost any other domestic animal. Grazing density of 6 to 7 alpacas per per hectare is often reasonable, although the density varies greatly with the condition of the soil, the climate and the quality of the forage. Don’t forget that if you plan to keep breeding animals, you will need several fenced pastures to accommodate groups of different sexes and to allow for grass rotation. Fence is required. The good news is that alpacas generally respect fences. 4′ or 5′ no-climb horse fencing is a cost-effective choice. If you don’t have room for alpacas, consider boarding them at a ranch. Many alpaca owners begin this way.
Q: Are alpacas loud? Will my neighbors complain?
ONE: While we can’t answer the second question (it depends on your neighbors!), the answer to the first is that alpacas are generally very quiet. They hum quietly, especially when they are a little anxious. If they see something really troubling, they may emit a raucous call that some describe as a cross between a squeaky toy and a hawk’s screech.
Most of the time, a call like that means they’ve seen a house cat out in the pasture…
Q: We do not plan to breed alpacas. Are they good grazing pets?
ONE: Definitely! Many people feel that the best alpacas for grazing pets are neutered males, often called “fiber boys.” Alpacas are a herd animal, so you need at least 2, preferably 3. Alpacas are not like dogs. They are attentive, curious, calm and may very well come sniffing around when you are working in the yard. However, they will most likely spend their time with the pack, not with their humans.
Q: What do you do with alpaca fleece?
ONE: Alpacas produce fibers that are, without being, the finest in the world for spinning and weaving. do you knit? Then you are probably already aware of the exceptional qualities of alpaca yarn. Many small mills will take fleece, wash it, card it and spin it, with several options for laying. Knitting with yarn from animals you own is very rewarding! Are you spinning? You can ask the mill to give you pure fleece or rovings. If fiber art isn’t your thing, you can sell your fleece to mills, spinners or even fiber cooperatives.
Q: How big are alpacas anyway?
ONE: Alpacas are camelids, but small. Babies, called crias, generally weigh between 12 and 22 pounds at birth. Adults generally weigh between 120 and 210 pounds. A good-sized adult stands about 36″ at the shoulder and can probably look you in the eye if you’re under 5’3″. This means they are much smaller and may feel less intimidating to some people than their larger cousins, llamas (who are also very cute – don’t get me wrong!). Once you know how to handle them, alpacas are generally easy to work with, even though they may weigh more than you.
Q: How long do alpacas live? How much of that time are they actively reproductive?
ONE: Alpacas generally live 17 to 22 years and are usually very healthy for most of that time. We currently have a 14-year-old girl on our ranch who is expecting a cria this summer and often leads the herd on runs around the perimeter of the pasture! Females may be ready to start breeding when they are 18 months old. Males mature slightly more slowly and are generally ready to start breeding at about 30 months.
Q: How long are the females pregnant and how long does it take after they give birth before they breed again?
ONEGestation periods in alpacas range from a low of about 325 to a high of about 360 days, with the average being about 345 days. Single births are the rule. Alpacas are usually bred about 3 weeks after delivery.
Q: What are alpaca babies like?
ONE: Very sweet. Incredibly sweet. Terminally, insanely sweet. They are generally on their feet within 30 minutes or so of birth and actively nursing within an hour. Although they are a little shaky on their feet the first day, they are up and with the herd very quickly. Weight gain during the first two weeks can be about a pound each day. Aside from some basic postnatal precautions and some vitamin and vaccine shots, crias generally need little special care. However, Crias nurse for 6 months, so mother will need extra calories and protein to breastfeed.
Q: What kind of care do alpacas require?
ONE: A small herd of alpacas is quite easy to look after. Fresh water, good hay, a small daily grain supplement and some mineral salt should do the trick for feeding. As natural foragers, alpacas will eat almost anything your pasture provides, including (thankfully) blackberry vines. However, some plants are poisonous to camelids. The bookshelf on our website has a link to a good book on this subject, and you can find more information online. For shelter, depending on your climate, alpacas need a simple 3-sided covered shelter or barn. Alpacas are generally sheared once a year, often in early May here in the Pacific Northwest. For some before and after photos, take a look at the news section of our website. Shearing is a job for a professional, but it’s relatively easy to work with an established local ranch to join their shearing party. In hot weather, especially in southern climates, heat stress can become a concern. Special cooling arrangements may be required.
Like other livestock, alpacas are susceptible to a variety of parasites, internal and external. Your vet will likely have a treatment plan that you can adopt. Alpaca hooves need regular trimming (every 3 to 6 months, your mileage may vary), but if your alpacas have been trained to know the “foot” command, trimming shouldn’t be a problem.
Q: How do I take the next step?
ONE: First, figure out your goals. Breeding? Fiber cultivation? Grass animals? Second, determine your timeline: how quickly and in what order do you want to achieve these goals? Third, decide on your budget and decide whether you want your own pastures or whether you want to agist (board) your animals on a ranch. Fourth, take the time to find the animals that will help you achieve your goals. Don’t be in a hurry. Take your time. Talk to people from several breeding farms.
Do you want to know more? You can start by visiting our website. There you will find more resources to help you figure out the direction that is right for you. We also invite you to contact us through the site, and if you are not too far away, come and visit our ranch! If we don’t have what you’re looking for or we’re too far away to be convenient, we may be able to suggest ranches in your area.
Copyright (c) 2009, Inti’s Gift Alpacas
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