LEARNING ABOUT ALPACAS
Are you looking for a new animal for your homestead? Maybe you’re just looking for a new revenue stream or you just saw a picture of an alpaca and thought they were just so cute and you wanted to know more. Well you have come to the right place because this post is all about raising alpacas.
On our recent vacation out to Colorado, flanked by the majestic views of the La Plata Mountains, we came across Pleasant Journey Alpaca Farm. Susan, the owner and “wrangler” of these beautiful creatures, gave us an amazing tour of her ranch. By the time I left I was in love with alpacas. But alas, my suburban neighborhood is no place for an alpaca ranch. (drat!) So for now, I will have to admire from afar. But for those of you that may have the space and desire and want to learn more… Here goes.
What Is An Alpaca?
An alpaca is in the same family as camels and llamas. They are native to South America where they have been domesticated for a very long time. But for some reason they have only been imported to the US within the last 50 years.
How Big Are They?
Alpacas are too small to be used as a pack animal like llamas or camels are. Adults weigh 100 to 200 pounds and stand about 3 feet tall at the shoulder.
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What Do They Eat?
Alpacas are grazers. They eat grass or hay. Occasionally they will eat other plants (leaves). It is a good idea to rotate grazing areas to help prevent intestinal worms. Alpacas have a three-chambered stomach and chew their cud. This three-chambered system allows the animal to extract all the nutrients from low-quality forage. They eat 1-2% of their body weight each day. They may need an additional vitamin and mineral supplement depending on the nutritional value of your grass or hay. Similar to cows and sheep, alpacas have only lower teeth at the front of their mouths. They have a hard upper pallet. This prevents them from pulling up the grass by the roots. Alpacas are a very hardy animal.
However, many plants, even some you would never guess, are poisonous to the alpaca, so a careful inspection of their pasture is important.
Alpacas are social herd animals that live in family groups consisting of a territorial male, females and their young. They are smart and easy to train. They can learn to be very friendly to humans. They are safe and pleasant to be around. Though they can spit, they seldom spit at humans. It’s usually reserved for fellow alpacas who are taking their food, or to show dominance. They are not known to kick, butt or bite, and in fact have small feet and no horns. They are however, very curious as was the little one who came up behind me and tried “tasting” my hair, of which I did loose a little chunk of in the deal. They are generally very quiet, making clicking or humming sounds. But they can let out a high pitched cry to warn of predators or perceived predators, such as the cows in the field next to theirs, as the ones we were watching did. They also like to “poing”, or bounce straight upwards when they are excited or just having fun. It is so fun to watch!
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Alpacas use a communal dung pile, where they do not graze. This helps limit the spread of parasites and makes it very easy to clean up their manure. Because of this trait, some alpacas have been successfully house-trained. Though, I think they are a bit large to keep in the house. Because they so completely digest their food there will be very few weed seeds in their manure. That’s good for the compost pile. They also do not have a strong odor.
Females are induced ovulators. The act of mating and the presence of semen causes them to ovulate. The gestation period is 11.5 months and usually results in a single offspring or cria. Twins are rare. The cria is usually between 15 and 19 pounds. They grow quickly and can reach 60 lbs in six months time. The female can be bred again in as little as 2 weeks after giving birth. Alpacas reach sexual maturity at 12-18 months for females and about 18 months for males.
How Long Do Alpacas Live?
An alpaca can live for 15 to 25 years. The oldest was 27.
How Much Land Do They Need?
Alpacas can be a great addition to a small acreage farm as you can keep 5 to 10 per acre. Of course that depends on how good your grass is. During a drought or in the winter they can be fed a good quality hay. They should be given a shelter to escape winter storms or the blazing heat. If you live in a very hot environment you might set up a mister so the alpacas can get wet and cool off as needed.
Alpacas will need nail and teeth trimming every 6 to 12 months and they need shearing once a year by an experienced shearer. They also may need deworming and some areas may require vaccinations
How Do You Make Money From An Alpaca?
Although you can make money off from the wonderful fiber the alpaca produces. The main source of income at this time is in breeding and selling the young. There also is a market for boarding them. Alpacas are often entered into shows to increase the value of the animals. (award winners are more valuable) Even the fleece can be entered for judging which can increase the value of the animal that produced it.
2 Types Of Alpacas
There are two types of alpacas: Huacayas and Suris. Huacayas have a more compact body style and their fiber is more similar in looks to a sheep. (but much softer and not oily) While the suris have longer necks and legs. Their fiber hangs in soft dreadlocks and is more similar to hair. Suri fiber is known for its luster. Huacayas are the most common type.
An alpacas fiber is a very high quality, lustrous and silky fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is not prickly and has no lanolin, making alpaca fiber hypoallergenic. But without the lanolin it does not repel water. Alpaca fiber is, however, flame-resistant. The fiber is hollow giving it an insulating characteristic. This also makes it a very light fiber. But it’s best characteristic is how soft it is. There are no coarse guard hairs so the entire blanket fleece is usable in making fine garments. It is similar to that of an angora rabbit or cashmere goat. Alpacas are typically sheared once per year in the spring. Each Shearing produces anywhere from three to eleven pounds of fiber per adult alpaca. Approximately half of it is fine quality ( the ‘blanket that goes around the torso of the animal.) The legs will produce second and third quality fiber.
Can You Eat Alpaca Meat?
Yes, it is quite prized for being very low in fat and low in cholesterol. If you have an alpaca which is not able, or not desirable to reproduce, and they do not have good quality fiber, they can be used as meat. But, because of the value of the offspring and the fiber, few are.
Can You Drink Alpaca Milk?
The short answer is yes. An alpaca is a mammal. However, they are very hard to milk as they have very small teats. Those who have milked them to feed rejected crias, have had to use the syringe method. It is also reported that the milk doesn’t taste very good. I can’t speak first hand on that one though.
How Much Does An Alpaca Cost?
This varies greatly. The pedigree and the physical characteristics, especially of the fiber, are the greatest factors. Also the gender of the animal plays an important role. They can be as low as $500 and as high as $200,000 for a well pedigreed stud. But generally a breeding female will run between $8,000 and $35,000.
Pros And Cons Of Raising Alpacas
Cons – Alpacas are expensive to purchase and need protection from predators. They need shelter from extreme cold and heat. They need to be shorn once a year by an experienced shearer. If you loose an animal for whatever reason a large chunk of money is going down the drain.
Pros – On the other hand, They don’t eat much and are thus very cheep to keep. They cost about as much as a large dog to feed. Since they have no upper teeth, they are very careful grazers and generally do not destroy the grass. They do not need as much land per animal as a lot of other large animals need. They tend to be very healthy and breed and birth very easily, seldom with any need for intervention. The demand for alpaca fiber products continues to go up. And there are many tax deductions associated with owning alpacas.
I wish I had gotten some photos of some of the alpaca fiber products Susan had. Besides the yarn to make your own garments and many other things, she had some gorgeous scarfs, that if I didn’t live in Florida, I would definitely have purchased!
If you still are interested in learning more and maybe raising alpacas yourself, or if you are ready to buy some or are interested in some of the wonderful products that are made from the alpaca fiber, contact; Susan & Glenn Kacsh at Pleasant Journey Alpacas. She was very pleasant and more than helpful to us.
Want to learn more? Here is a recommended reading list.
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And have a Ducky Day!