High in the mountains and Andean Plateau of South America, the ancient Incan civilization nurtured alpaca herds for thousands of years. These unique, gentle creatures played a central role in the Incan culture where their fiber was treated as currency and reserved for royalty. Almost five thousand years later, alpacas were first imported to the United States in 1984, and are now being successfully raised and enjoyed throughout North America and abroad.
Alpacas produce one of the world's finest and most luxurious natural fibers. Sheared annually, alpacas produce fleece as soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter and stronger than wool. Alpacas appear in more colors than any other fiber producing animal -- approximately 22 basic colors with many variations and blends. While the most prominent fashion houses of New York, Milan, Paris and Tokyo weave alpaca into their stunning designs, today we can all enjoy garments make of fiber once reserved only for Incan royalty.
There are two types of alpacas. The Huacaya (pronounced wa ki’ ah) is recognized by its full, crimpy fiber, giving it a teddy bear look. The Suri is known for it’s silky long pencil locks. Alpacas are members of the Camelid family, which also includes the llama, vicuna, and guanaco. They are small, about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of a llama and easy and safe to handle, even for children. Averaging about 140 lbs. at maturity, they stand approximately 3 feet tall at the withers. Alpacas are intelligent, gentle animals, adapting readily to simple training and handling methods.
Alpacas enjoy a life span of 20-25 years and have very hardy constitutions. Most alpacas will be quite content with a 3-sided shelter where they can get out of the sun, wind or rain. They prefer not to be in a closed-in structure. Pastures can accommodate 5 to 10 animals per acre if you are consistent about hygiene, and provide plenty of quality grass hay and fresh water.
Good fencing is very important because, even though alpacas will not challenge a fence, they are essentially defenseless against predators such as coyotes or neighborhood dogs. Some breeders will employ livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) or llamas for further predator protection. Good grass pasture or hay, a balanced pelleted feed, seasonally appropriate vaccinations and worming, and occasional herd health duties are really all that alpacas generally require. The most vital task of the alpaca owner is to learn to observe. As you get to really know your animals and what is normal for them, you will save yourself a lot of time, money, and anxiety.
Alpacas are induced ovulators and generally easy to breed. This means they can be bred year round, and depending on the climate, the breeder makes this decision. Introducing the male and female in a breeding pen environment provides the most control, and information about the date and specifics of breeding is recorded. Pregnancy is confirmed by ultrasound. Females can begin breeding at around 18-24 months of age, and males can generally start at 2-3 years old. Females produce a single cria per year, after a gestation period of 11-11 1/2 months. Birthing is generally fast and trouble free, but birth watch is taken seriously. Cria are almost always born in the morning hours, and need very little postnatal care from humans. After the baby is born, the other alpacas respectfully greet it, one by one, nuzzling it and welcoming it to the herd, a beautiful and treasured ritual to be privileged to observe.
The cria stays close to mom most of the time for the next 6 months, gradually venturing away more and more, to play with other cria and to learn about the world. Often, around dusk, the youngsters will pronk around the pastures in exuberant cria play. It’s observing this dusk delight that adds joyfully to our enviable alpaca lifestyle.
The Earth-Friendly Alpaca
Alpacas are eco-friendly in many respects: Their feet are padded, leaving even the most delicate terrain undamaged. Alpacas nibble the tops of grasses, rather than pulling up by the roots. The alpaca is a modified ruminant with a three-compartment stomach, efficiently converting grass and hay to energy, consuming less than other farm animals. Its camelid ancestry allows the alpaca to thrive without consuming very much water, although a ready supply of fresh water is necessary. Alpacas consolidate their feces in one or two spots in the pasture, thereby controlling the spread of parasites. The alpaca's rich fertilizer is perfect for supplementing garden soils. Alpacas contribute to “energy conservation” by producing super-warm fleece for garments that allows turning back the thermostat.
The Alpaca Lifestyle
Most alpaca owners confess, “I wish I’d started this years ago!”
The joy, ease of care, and potential profitability of raising alpacas has attracted people from many walks of life. Retirees raise alpacas to supplement their income. Working couples seeking a change from the fast-paced corporate life begin the adventure one spouse at a time. Multi-generational farms benefit from the rewarding family experience while saving for college. Whether part time or full time, new farm or established acreage, people from all walks of life agree that raising alpacas can provide both income and pleasure in a thoroughly enjoyable, less-stress lifestyle.
Alpacas may be raised on relatively small acreage. They are clean, safe, quiet, intelligent and disease resistant. Alpacas are gentle on the land and easily transported.
Alpaca people are a big part of the joy of this growing industry. They tend to be more cooperative than competitive, mentoring new comers in all aspects of caring for their alpacas and enjoying the alpaca lifestyle.
There are many family-oriented alpaca events around the country, including local and state fairs, alpaca open farm days and auctions. Regional and national alpaca shows provide additional support and opportunities for involvement. FFA and 4H groups are eagerly embracing alpacas as profitable livestock.
Alpacas have brought impressive financial returns to families all across America, but it's the fun, hands-on nature of this lifestyle that has really captivated people searching for a simpler and more rewarding way of life. Even if you don't yet have land and are committed to a full-time career, you can still begin your alpaca adventure by purchasing and boarding at a nearby alpaca farm or ranch. Most alpaca owners confess, “I wish I’d started this years ago!”