What is an Alpaca?
Alpaca are South American Camelids closely related to the llama, and more distantly related to the camels of Asia and Africa. They are roughly half the size of a llama and have a docile temperament. Grasses and other forage make up their natural diet as they mostly free range in South America. Due to the relatively low quality of the natural food source these animals have developed an extremely efficient digestive system. Alpacas were first imported into the US in the early 1980’s. Since then the US herd has been growing slowly but steadily with significant genetic improvement over the original imported animals.
What Good is an Alpaca?
Alpaca are valued for the exceptional fiber they produce. Generally speaking it is in the same class as cashmere but shares many of the properties found in sheep’s wool but Alpaca fiber is truly in a class by itself. Alpaca fiber is the strongest natural fiber known to man and has an insulating value from three to five times higher than sheep’s wool. These properties, when combined with exceptional softness and luster, make alpaca one of the most valuable textile fibers in the world today.
Do they make good pets?
Not really. Although they are so cute and soft that you just want to hug them, they are prey animals and are generally wary of humans. If handled properly they will get used to you but will generally not come running to be stroked like a dog or cat.
How much does an alpaca cost?
The initial cost of an alpaca can range from a few hundred to several tens of thousands dollars. Your reason for owning alpacas will determine the cost of the animal. Non- breeding fiber stock will be at the lower end while high quality breeding stock will be at the higher end. Remember that these animals are investments, not pets, so the initial cost needs to be weighed against the potential profit the animal can produce.
What does an Alpaca eat?
Alpacas graze on grasses and whatever else they can find. They do not pull up the grass roots so pastures renew if you can rotate your animals around. The alpaca’s digestive system is very efficient so low protein grasses are best. High protein forage such as alfalfa or clover is detrimental to animal health and quality fiber production.
How much medical attention does an alpaca need?
Alpacas natural environment is the unforgiving habitat in the Andes mountains. They are very hardy animals with few medical needs. Vaccinations for rabies and monthly worming is generally all that is required. Depending on where you live, other vaccinations might be recommended by your veterinarian. Pregnant females get a little more attention to ensure pregnancy and that they are ready to be re-bred. Newborns also require some additional blood work to ensure health.
What kind of shelter do they need?
How you shelter your animals will depend on where you are located and your own preferences. In the northeast where winters can see temperatures below zero and several feet of snow, a three sided shelter provides adequate protection from the elements. Summer heat and humidity requires some method to keep the animals cool. Many farms use sprinklers. The same three sided shelter provides shade on those hot summer days. A good perimeter fence is needed to protect your investment from predators. The type of predators common in your area will dictate the extent of your fencing. You should talk with local farmers and county organizations to determine what is required.
How can I invest in alpacas?
There are a number of ways you can become involved with the alpaca industry. Some are listed here but the only restriction is your imagination.
Quit your job, sell your house and move to the country. Well you don’t have to go to this extreme but many people make this lifestyle change when they retire. Fully committed alpaca farming is the most consuming and potentially the most rewarding alpaca venture. If you already have land or currently have other livestock the transition or inclusion of alpacas may be minimal. This is for people who want daily hands on interaction with all aspects of animal care and breeding as well as the numerous business aspects.
Agistment is an arrangement with an established alpaca farm where you purchase one or more animals and they reside at the agisting farm. You pay a boarding fee to the agisting farm for the care and feeding of your animals. You, as the owner, make all decisions regarding your animals and are responsible for any marketing, breeding, or sales. This is attractive for people who don’t have the space or time to be full time alpaca farmers but want to be fully involved with the business aspects of their herd.
Partial interest in an animal can be purchased with a wide range of participation options from hands on to totally hands off. Many farms, both large and small, welcome investors who want to benefit from the explosive growth of the alpaca industry without the day to day herd or business management responsibility. Investing in this way is highly speculative as success is dependent on the animals and mother nature.
There are a number of supporting activities on which a business can be built but the one most directly tied to the alpacas is fiber processing. Once the fiber is from the animal it must be sorted, and washed before it can be felted, spun, woven or otherwise turned into salable items. This can be done on an industrial scale, as in Peru, by hand or anywhere in between. As the American herd continues to grow the ability to process fiber will become more and more important.
How much room do they need?
Again, this depends on your specific conditions. An acre of good pasture can support approximately 8 to 8 alpacas.
How long do they live?
In the US the lifespan is expected to be between 15 to 20 years. Some of the original imports are in this age range now.
How many babies do they have?
Alpacas almost always deliver one baby called a cria. Twins are extremely rare and many times don’t survive.
What is the gestation period?
Gestation is approximately 11-1/2 months. This can vary by a month or more. Since alpaca are induced ovulators the breedings are timed for delivery to occur when the weather is most favorable.
How big do they get?
Cria are usually between 10 and 22 pounds. Full grown animals can range from 130 to 170 pounds with large males at the high end.
Are they difficult to handle?
Alpaca are generally easy to handle. It is not unusual to see a small child putting a full grown male through the paces of an obstacle course. Pregnant females are a little more difficult to handle but can be easily managed by adults. There are those animals that just don’t like to be handled which require an experienced handler.
Do they spit?
Alpaca do spit, but unlike there llama cousins they will rarely spit at you. You can get caught in the crossfire if two animals have their eye on the same feed bucket but you really need to aggravate an animal to draw direct fire. There are always exceptions.
Are all alpacas white?
No, alpaca come in over 130 distinct colors ranging from black to white, dark brown to cream, and several shades of silver. The ability to produce an almost limitless color pallet with no dye is a primary advantage of alpaca fiber. Still, the ability to dye the fiber is important and is why white is the predominant color in both South and North America.
Do they bite?
Alpaca only have teeth in the bottom jaw with a hard pallet on the top so they can’t really bite you and probably would not try.
Are there tax advantages to owning alpacas?
There are numerous potential tax advantages to owning alpacas depending on how you choose to be involved and your specific situation. You should consult a tax accountant who is knowledgeable in the farm tax code to determine how you would be affected.