Breeding alpacas continues to gain popularity among all kinds of people. Some are drawn to the lifestyle of owning a small ranch. Others see alpacas as an investment opportunity (although we would say it’s a business, No an investment!) Those with a particular fondness for spinning and weaving may be drawn to the idea of growing their own source of beautiful fiber. Whatever the reason, choosing to breed alpacas is not an easy decision. We have put together a set of questions and answers that we hope you find useful.
what: What “breeds” and colors do alpacas come in?
HAS: There are two varieties of alpaca: huacaya Y suri. You can view images of each on our website (see resource box below). Both varieties have a very soft fleece, although they look very different.
Huacayas are “fluffy” or “curly” and often “bouncy” to the touch. The Suri fleece has a straight grain, often with increased sheen, that hangs down and tends to form “dreadlocks.” Both types of fibers are popular in the textile industry, with cria fleeces generally commanding the highest price. Almost all of the 130,000 or more alpacas in the United States are Huacaya. Only about 5% are Suri. You’ll find eight “basic colors” of fleece on alpacas: white, light, fawn, brown, gray, black, multicolored, and “undefined.” What this really means is that there is a wide variety of colors and some patterns as well. Pure white is very popular in the textile industry, as it can be dyed almost any color.
what: Do alpacas spit?
HAS: Oh yeah. But not as often as you might think, and rarely to people. Spitting is both a defense and a way of communicating. Often, that communication is about who claims the food or who wants to be “in charge” today.
And… just so you know… spit in this case is NOT saliva. They are genuine stomach juices, often including partially digested hay. It is a lovely experience.
what: What kind of space do alpacas require?
HAS: Alpacas have 3-chambered stomachs, making them very efficient grazers, more so than almost any other farm animal. Grazing densities of 6 to 7 alpacas per acre are usually reasonable, although densities vary greatly depending on soil conditions, climate, and forage quality. Keep in mind that if you plan to keep breeding animals, you will need several fenced pastures to accommodate groups of different sexes and to allow for pasture rotation. Fencing is required. The good news is that alpacas generally respect fences. A 4- or 5-foot no-climbing horse fence is a cost-effective option. If you don’t have room for alpacas, consider boarding them on a ranch. Many alpaca owners start out this way.
what: Are alpacas noisy? Will my neighbors complain?
HAS: Although we can’t answer the second question (it depends on your neighbors!), the answer to the first is that alpacas are generally very calm. They hum quietly, especially when they are a little anxious. If they see something really worrisome, they may emit a trill that some describe as a cross between a squeaky toy and a hawk’s cry.
Most of the time, that call means they’ve seen a house cat in the grass…
what: We do not plan to breed alpacas. Are they good grass pets?
HAS: Definitely! Many people feel that the best alpacas for pasture pets are neutered males, often called “fiber boys.” Alpacas are herd animals, so you will need at least 2, preferably 3. Alpacas are not like dogs. They are alert, curious, calm and may very well sniff around when you are working in the garden. However, they are most likely spending their time with the pack, not their humans.
what: What do you do with the alpaca fleece?
HAS: Alpacas produce fibers that are, without exception, the best in the world for spinning and weaving. Do you knit? Then you probably already know the exceptional qualities of alpaca yarn. Many small mills will take the fleece, wash it, card it, and spin it, with various folding options. Knitting with animal yarn that you have is very rewarding! Do you spin? You can ask the factory to provide you with clean fleece or wicks. If fiber arts aren’t your thing, you can sell your fleece to mills, spinners, or even fiber cooperatives.
what: How big are alpacas, anyway?
HAS: Alpacas are camelids, but small. The babies, called hatchlings, generally weigh between 12 and 22 pounds at birth. Adults generally weigh between 120 and 210 pounds. A good sized adult is about 36″ at the shoulder and you can probably look him in the eye if he’s under 5’3″. This means that they are much smaller and can feel less intimidating to some people than their larger cousins, the llamas (who are also very nice, don’t get me wrong!). When you know how to handle them, alpacas are usually easy to work with, even though they may outweigh you.
what: How long do alpacas live? How much of that time are they actively reproductive?
HAS: Alpacas generally live from 17 to 22 years and are usually very healthy for most of that time. We currently have a 14 year old girl on our ranch who is expecting a calf this summer and she often leads the herd for runs around the perimeter of the pasture! Females may be ready to start breeding at 18 months of age. Males mature a bit more slowly and are usually ready to start breeding at around 30 months.
what: How long are females pregnant and how long after giving birth before they reproduce again?
HAS: Gestation periods in alpacas range from a low of around 325 to a high of around 360 days, with an average of around 345 days. Single births are the rule. Alpacas normally breed again about 3 weeks after giving birth.
what: What are alpaca babies like?
HAS: So cute. Unbelievably cute Terminally unbelievably cute. They are usually on their feet within 30 minutes of birth and are actively nursing within an hour. Although a bit wobbly on their legs for the first day, they were up and with the pack very quickly. Weight gain during the first two weeks may be around one pound per day. Other than some basic postnatal precautions and a few vitamin injections and vaccinations, pups generally need little special care. However, Crias nurse for 6 months, so mom will need extra calories and protein to nurse.
what: What kind of care do alpacas require?
HAS: A small herd of alpacas is fairly easy to care for. Fresh water, good hay, a small daily grain supplement and a little mineral salt should suffice for feeding. As natural foragers, alpacas will eat just about anything their grass provides, including (thankfully) blackberries. However, some plants are poisonous to camelids. Our website bookshelf has a reference to a good book on this subject, and you can find more information online. For shelter, depending on their climate, alpacas need a simple 3-sided shelter or a barn. Alpacas are generally sheared once a year, often in early May here in the Pacific Northwest. To see 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 an established local ranch to get in on your shearing party. In hot weather, especially in southern climates, heat stress can become a concern. Special cooling arrangements may be required.
Like other animals, alpacas are susceptible to a variety of parasites, internal and external. Your vet will probably have a management plan that you can adopt. Alpaca hooves need regular trimming (every 3-6 months, your mileage may vary), but if your alpacas have been trained to know the “foot” command, trimming shouldn’t be a problem.
what: How do I take the next step?
HAS: First, determine your goals. Breeding? Fiber crop? Grass farts? Second, determine your timeline: how soon and in what order do you want to achieve these goals? Third, decide on your budget and decide if you will have your own pastures or if you will perform (accompany) your animals on a ranch. Fourth, take your time to find the animals that will help you achieve your goals. Don’t be in a hurry. Take your time. Talk to people from various breeding farms.
You want to know more? You can start by visiting our website. There you will find several resources to help you determine the direction that is right for you. We also invite you to contact us through the site and, if you are not far away, come visit our ranch! If we don’t have what you’re looking for, or we’re too far away to be practical, we can suggest ranches in your area.
Copyright (c) 2009, Gift Alpacas from Inti