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Basic Alpaca Facts
Alpacas are members of the camel family, which originated in the Great Plains of
North America. The earliest fossils date back 40 million years ago, when the
"camels" were cat sized with four toes. About 5 million years ago, some of them
migrated west into Asia where they evolved into Dromedary and Bactrian camels.
Others traveled south into South America. The varieties that stayed in North
America died out 10-15,000 years ago.
Alpacas were domesticated from vicunas, about 6000 years ago in South America.
There are no wild alpacas; they are entirely a human created species. They were
raised in many areas, from the coast to the high altitudes of the Andes and were
used primarily for their fleece. (Their larger cousins, the llamas, were used mainly as
pack animals and to provide fiber for the non-nobles.)
When the Spaniards invaded in 1532, they slaughtered the Incas' herds and
replaced them with sheep and cattle. A few alpacas remained in the mountains
where the Spanish animals could not survive. In the 1800's the European textile
market recognized the value of alpaca fleece, and the modern alpaca industry came
In 1984, the first alpacas were imported into the U.S. North Americans also consider
them a fiber animal, but fleece, much as we love it, has been a secondary business
for many of us; the main emphasis was on breeding stock. However, most breeders
are now thinking seriously about our transition to and growth as a fiber industry.
We realize that the alpaca industry is centuries old, well established in the world
market, and can add substantial income to the farm.
They're lovable. They're not affectionate, unlike my sheep who enjoy being petted;
only three or four of my alpacas are like that, though others will tolerate my petting
them if they're relaxed. But they're friendly on their own terms, they're curious and
will be interested in whatever you're doing, and they're beautiful out in the pastures.
Pregnancy lasts a little over 11 months, although one of my females went 366 days
and another 371. But these first-time mothers delivered healthy babies (crias), and
their next pregnancies were of normal length.
Females can be bred at 18 months of age if they've reached 110 pounds. Males
usually begin breeding by age three. We think they can easily reproduce for 10
years or more.
Alpacas are easy to train, from basic halter training (learning to accept a halter and
follow a lead line) to running an obstacle course.
They're small enough not to be intimidating. Young children can handle them, and I
can walk up to a breeding male (while he's breeding), put my arm around his neck,
and lead him away.
They eat less than sheep: good grass hay supplemented with a
grain/vitamin/mineral pellet. Alfalfa hay is generally too rich for them; it's
occasionally used to put weight on an alpaca recovering from an illness or stress,
such as a nursing mother with a fast-growing cria.
Pastures can be kept clean because alpacas use a common dung pile instead of
scattering it all over the field. This helps lower the risk of their picking up internal
parasites - because they're not grazing amid the manure.
Routine care is minimal and can be done by the owner: yearly vaccinations and
deworming if fecal testing shows a problem. We use either horse paste dewormers
(by mouth) or injections. It's not hard to learn this; other alpaca owners or your vet
will teach you. Or you can schedule a regular "herd health day" with your vet and
let him/her handle it.
Alpacas have padded feet instead of hooves, so they don't tear your pastures into
mud pits. The toenails need to be trimmed once or twice a year (individual animals
grow their nails at different rates.)
They're easy to transport. We often use the station wagon rather than the horse
trailer. Friends use their van.
If you spin or have contacts with spinners, raw fleece sells for $2-$4/oz for the prime
blanket fiber. That's 2-5 pounds per animal; the neck fleece provides another 1-2
pounds of usable fiber. You can join the Alpaca Fiber Co-op of North America, send
your fleece to a mill to be spun into yarn (some businesses will also sell it for you),
or process it yourself.
There's a good market for less expensive "pet" alpacas.
The downside? The initial expense of buying them; the cost of vet work for
pregnancy confirmations and registrations; the fact that it's not a liquid investment -
you can't always sell them immediately if you suddenly need money.
If you think alpacas are for you, or that they might be:
Visit the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association website (alpacainfo.com) and
request an information packet.
Use the AOBA website to locate farms in your area and arrange a visit. Go to small
farms as well as the large well-publicized ranches. Listen to different points of view
on "the ideal alpaca."
See if the AOBA website lists upcoming shows, seminars, or other events near you.
Join AOBA. It's somewhat expensive, but a small amount in relation to the amount
you'd spend on an alpaca. You'll receive a subscription to Alpacas Magazine and be
able to attend the National Conference (at the end of May). During the alpaca
show, the judge will explain the reasoning behind each animal's placing.
If you're still not sure, consider purchasing three or more young animals (halter
trained "pet quality" males). Test the waters: can you handle them, can you give
them the care they need, does hay make you sneeze, do you feel tied down, do you
actually like them?
More questions? Give us a call or send an email - we love to talk alpaca!
Basics about alpacas
Order: Artiodactyla (even
number of toes)
We call alpacas "modified
ruminants" because they have
three "stomachs;" other
ruminants (like deer, cattle, and
sheep) have four.
However, three is likely the
ancestral version, and four is
likely the modification.
from Eric Hoffman