What exactly ARE alpacas, and for what are they used?
Alpacas are members of the camelid family, which includes llamas, wild guanacos (pronounced "wa-nah'-co"), and vicunas from South America; the single-humped dromedary and the two-humped bactrian camels from Asia and Africa. This family of animals originated on the plains of North America about 10 million years ago. About 2.5 million years ago, a common ancestor to the North American camelids migrated to South America and two wild species, vicunas and guanacos, emerged. Today, they still live in the Andes.
About 6,000 years ago alpacas were created through selective breeding which was heavily influenced by the vicuna. There are similarities in size, fiber, and dentition between the alpaca and the wild vicuna. Today there are about 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands, most of which can be found in Peru. Since the major first importation into the United States in 1984, the North American herd has increased from a few alpacas in zoos and private collections to about 90,000 (70,000 in the USA). Alpacas are popular internationally for their luxury fiber and as livestock business ventures in Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, France, and Israel, as well as the United States. Their luxurious fleece is comparable to cashmere, but alpaca is lighter, softer and warmer. Alpaca is used to create variety of products from garments to felt, and even teddy bears. Because of alpacas unique fiber structure and lack of lanolin (unlike wool), alpaca garments are not itchy and can be worn right next to the skin, even by people who have never been able to tolerate wool. Alpaca breeders rely on the production of goods and the sale of their animals for all, or a good portion of their income.
What do alpacas look like and how do they behave?
Alpacas stand about 36 inches tall at the withers (the highest point at the base of the neck) and about 4 1/2 or 5 feet to the tip of their ears. There are two types of alpacas: the suri (pronounced "surrey") and the huacaya (pronounced "wah-Ki-ah"). The huacaya has wavy fleece, or "crimp," which gives them a fluffy, teddybear look. The suri fleece has little or no crimp and the individual fiber strands hang down from the body in pencil locks. The suri is quite rare, comprising only about 2% of the world's alpaca population. Alpacas come in 22 different colors. That is more natural color than any other fiber producing animal.
An adult female alpaca weighs between 140 and 150 pounds and an adult male weighs in at between 140 and 180 pounds. Alpacas are safe and gentle. They do not bite and do not have teeth, horns or hooves with which to do serious injury. Many people ask if alpacas spit. The answer is "sometimes." All members of the camelid family use spitting as a means of communication, usually in fear or when expressing dominance over a herdmate. It is considered assertive (though harmless) behavior, and it is rarely directed at humans, and most often at other alpacas. This behavior is far outweighed by their verbal expression of humming, which sounds exactly as you would expect. Alpacas are elegant, athletic and intelligent, and possess an excellent sense of humor. They never fail to amaze, amuse and delight their keepers!
In their native South America, alpacas live for approximately 15-20 years. In the US, the average lifespan of an alpaca is 20-25 years under the conditions found here. Many are still reproducing at 20 years of age.
How does one care for alpacas?
Alpacas are gentle animals, and cared for easily. They are very efficient and consume only minimal amounts of food.They are environmentally friendly animals that can be raised in herds of approximately five to ten per acre. Alpacas are also gentle grazers, and do not strip the roots of forage from the ground when grazing, as do larger livestock. Because of their low body weight and soft, padded feet, there is little compaction or damage to the terrain. Alpaca management is comprised of occasional deworming, an annual booster shot and occasional trimming of their toenails (two, on each foot). Alpacas require basic shelter to protect them from weather extremes, and there are many types of fencing used. Alpacas are content animals, and do not challenge fencing. Thus, fencing is as much to keep predators, such as coyotes and feral dogs OUT, as is is to keep alpacas contained within.
How do you transport alpacas?
There are many ways alpaca owners transport their animals. For short distances, they can be transported inside something as small as a mini-van or SUV. The animals usually will cush (lie down) and rarely relieve themselves inside the vehicle. For longer distances, many alpaca owners utilize horse or stock trailers.
If you would like to learn more about alpacas and their business potential, please contact us. We would be delighted to answer any questions you may have.