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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 farm. Others see alpacas as an investment opportunity (although we’d call it a business, not an investment!) Those with a special penchant for spinning and knitting may be drawn to the idea of increasing their source of beautiful fibers. Whatever the reason, choosing to raise alpacas is not an easy decision. We’ve put together a series of questions and answers that we hope you’ll find useful.
P: What “breeds” and colors do alpacas come in?
or: There are two types of alpaca: huacaya AND suri. You can see photos of each on our website (see resource box below). Both varieties have very soft fur, although they look very different.
Huacayas are “fluffy” or “pale” and often “bounce” to the touch. Suri fleece has straight fibers often with a higher sheen, which hangs down and tends to form dreadlocks. Both types of fiber are popular in the textile industry, with cria fleeces generally commanding 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 wool in alpaca: white, light, red, brown, gray, black, multicolored, and “indeterminate.” What this really means is that there are a wide variety of colors out there, and some patterns as well. Pure white is very popular in the textile industry, as it can be dyed almost any color.
P: Do alpacas spit?
or: Oh yes. But not as often as you might think, and rarely in humans. Spitting is both protection and a way of communication. Often, that communication is about who claims the food, or who wants to be “on top” today.
And…just so you know…saliva in this case is NOT saliva. They are true gastric juices, often including partially digested hay. It is a beautiful experience.
P: What kind of space do alpacas require?
or: Alpacas have 3-chambered stomachs, so they are very efficient grazers, more so than almost any other farm animal. Grazing densities of 6 to 7 alpacas per acre are often reasonable, although densities vary greatly with soil conditions, climate and forage quality. Remember that if you plan to keep breeding stock, you will need several fenced pastures to accommodate groups of different sexes and allow pasture rotation. Fence required. The good news is that alpacas generally respect the fence. 4′ or 5′ non-climbing horse fencing is a cost-effective choice. If you don’t have space for alpacas, consider boarding them on a farm. Many alpaca owners start out this way.
P: Are alpacas loud? Will my neighbors complain?
or: Although 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 slightly disturbed. If they see something really disturbing, they may sound an oscillating call that some describe as a cross between a squeaky toy and a hawk’s screech.
Most of the time, such a call means they have seen a house cat out in the pasture…
P: We do not plan to breed alpacas. Do they make good pasture pets?
or: Of course! Many people think that the best alpacas for pasture pets are neutered males, often called “fiber boys.” Alpacas are a herd animal, so you will need at least 2, preferably 3. Alpacas are not like dogs. They are alert, 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 herd, not with their humans.
P: What do you do with alpaca fleece?
or: Alpacas produce fibers that are, second to none, the best in the world for spinning and weaving. Do you knit them? Then you are probably already aware of the extraordinary qualities of alpaca yarn. Many small mills will take the fleece, wash it, braid it and spin it, with some options for stretching. Knitting with yarn from your own animals is very rewarding! Do you spin? You can ask the miller to give you clean wool or wheels. If fiber arts aren’t your thing, you can sell your fleece to mills, spinners, or even fiber cooperatives.
P: How big are alpacas anyway?
or: Alpacas are camels, but small. The 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 will likely look you in the eye if you’re under 5’3″. This means that they are much smaller and can feel less intimidating to some people than their larger cousins, the llamas (which are also very cute – don’t get me wrong!). When you know how to handle them, alpacas are generally easy to work with, even though they can weigh more than you.
P: How long do alpacas live? How much of that time is actively reproductive?
or: Alpacas typically live 17 to 22 years and are usually very healthy for most of that time. We currently have a 14-year-old female on our farm who is expecting a calf this summer and often leads the herd on the perimeter of the pasture! Females may be ready to start breeding by 18 months of age. Males mature a bit more slowly and are generally ready to start breeding around 30 months.
P: How long are females pregnant and how long after birth before they reproduce?
or: Gestation periods in alpacas range from a minimum of about 325 to a maximum of about 360 days, with the average being about 345 days. Single births are the rule. Alpacas are usually retrained about 3 weeks after birth.
P: How are baby alpacas?
or: Very cute. Very cute. Ultimately, extremely cool. They are usually on their feet within 30 minutes or so after birth and are actively nursing within an hour. Although they are a little wobbly 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. Apart from some basic precautions after birth and some vitamin injections and vaccines, seizures generally need little special care. However, Crias nurse for 6 months, so mom will need extra calories and protein for breastfeeding.
P: What kind of care do alpacas require?
or: Caring for a small herd of alpacas is quite easy. 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 has to offer, including (thankfully) blackberry vines. However, some plants are poisonous to camels. The bookshelf on our website has a reference to a good book on the subject, and you can find more information online. For housing, depending on your climate, alpacas need a simple 3-sided covered shelter or a 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 a local farm set up to participate in their shearing party. In warm 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, both internal and external. Your vet will probably have a management plan that you can approve. Alpacas’ hooves need regular trimming (every 3 to 6 months, your mileage may vary), but if your alpacas have been trained to recognize the “foot” command, trimming shouldn’t be a problem.
P: How do I take the next step?
or: First, understand your objectives. Breeding? Fiber farming? Pets on pasture? 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 will have your own pastures or feed your animals on a farm. Fourth, take your time to find the animals that will help you achieve your goals. Don’t rush. Take your time. Talk to people from several breeding farms.
Want to know more? You can start by visiting our website. There you will find some resources to help you figure out which major is right for you. We also invite you to contact us through the site, and if you are not too far away, come visit our farm! If we don’t have what you’re looking for, or are too far away to be practical, we may be able to suggest farms in your area.
Copyright (c) 2009, Inti’s Gift Alpacas
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