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Kensington Prairie Farm

Alpaca Q&A

Alpaca Questions & Answers

ALPACAS 101

Where do alpacas come from?

Alpacas are a domesticated member of the camel family (Camelidae), which also includes guanacos, llamas and vicunas from South America, and the “Old World” dromedary (one hump) and Bactrian (two hump) camels from Asia and Africa.

guanaco.jpg llama.jpg alpaca.jpg vicuna.jpg

Guanaco
Lama guanicoe

Llama
Lama glama
Alpaca
Vicugna pacos
Vicuna
Vicugna Vicugna

aplaca-history.jpgThe ancestors of today’s camelids originated on the plains of North America approximately 10 million years ago.  Approximately 4 million years ago, southward migration patterns led to the evolution and development of two distinct ancestral forms of South American Camelid, namely the wild guanaco and the wild vicuña.  Descendents of these two genera still live in the Andes today.

Approximately 6,000 years ago, alpacas were created in South America through selective breeding heavily influenced by the vicuna.  There are similarities in size, fibre and teeth between the alpaca and the wild vicuna.

How many alpacas are there in North America?

According to the US-based Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association (AOBA), there are approximately 200,000 alpaca in the United States.  The Canadian Llama and Alpaca Association (CLAA) reports approximately 480 alpaca owners and 20,000 registered alpacas in Canada 

In Canada, most farms are located in Alberta and British Columbia, although Ontario and Quebec have seen a significant increase in alpaca ownership in the past several years.

What do you do with an alpaca?

Alpacas are an excellent investment opportunity and are a source of luxurious fibre.  Comparable to cashmere, the fleece is prized the world over for its fineness, lightweight, lustre and warmth.  Everyone should own a soft, warm alpaca sweater or dip their toes into a pair of fabulous alpaca socks!

wool-colour.jpgIn addition to their valuable fibre, alpacas make excellent companion and show animals.  Alpacas are loveable and endearing animals and a pleasure to be around and to work with.  Their docile nature and natural curiosity makes for easy handling and yet they are hardy and adapt well to our Canadian climate.  Alpacas are easily trained to lead and are gentle enough to be handled by children.  Their high aesthetic appeal makes them a popular event at shows or in a parade.

What do you call an alpaca?

A baby alpaca is known as a cria.  Weaned cria are known as weanlings or tuis.  In Spanish, the adult males are known as machos and the females as hembras.

Are there different kinds of alpacas?

There are two types or breeds of alpaca, the Huacaya and the Suri.  The Huacaya, the most common alpaca breed,has a crimped or wavy fleece, whereas the Suri has straight, lustrous, fine fibre.  In full fleece, the Huacaya has a full, fluffy appearance, while the Suri is elegantly draped in long wavy locks.

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Suri Fleece Huacaya Fleece

Alpacas are regal, gentle, graceful, intelligent animals and produce one of the finest and most luxurious fibres known to mankind.  Shorn annually, the fibre is prized for its fineness, luster, lightweight and insulating quality.

Alpacas - referred to as Peruvian, Chilean or Bolivian were imported from that country or have descended from such animals.  Concurrent with mechanization of the fibre industry in South America and the desire to dye alpaca a wider range of colours, specific breeding programs emphasizing white fleece were implemented in Peru and Bolivia.  Some breeders are interested in natural colours and value Chilean alpacas because they still display the full range of colour variability.  There are examples of excellent and poorer quality alpacas from all three countries, so it is important to judge each alpaca on its own merits and not on its country or origin.

The mills of Peru recognize 22 natural shades of alpaca fibre from seven basic colours.  These range from a true jet black through the browns and fawns into white.  In addition, there is a blue or charcoal grey and a rose grey.  Alpaca fibre readily lends itself to dyeing and can be blended with other fibres (e.g. silk, cashmere, etc.).

How big are alpacas and how long do they live?

The average weight of an adult alpaca is between 110 - 220 lbs., depending on the sex of the animal.  Height at the withers averages 24 – 36 inches.

baby-alpaca.jpgBaby alpacas or cria generally weigh between 14 – 20 lbs. at birth.

Alpacas have a lifespan of 20-25 years.

 

Can I have an alpaca as a pet?

Most alpacas make very good pets if they are treated well and the owners are realistic in their expectations.  Like any livestock, the more handling they receive as youngsters, the quieter they are as adults.  Given time, most alpacas will eat out of your hand and training them to lead by a halter is a straightforward process.

Alpacas generally don't like being held and are particularly sensitive to being touched on the head.  They are naturally curious and intelligent and if you let them approach you, rather than rush at them and expect an affectionate response, the interactions can be very rewarding.

It is possible to have a single alpaca, but it is not a pleasant existence for the animal. Alpacas are herd animals and are instinctively gregarious, as are other domestic livestock.  They obtain security and contentment from having at least one other alpaca for company.

For this reason, it is usually recommended that two alpacas is the desirable minimum. 

How much do alpacas cost?

The cost of an alpaca depends on a number of factors including, quality of the fleece, conformation, reproductive abilities, age, sex and whether or not the animal is registered.  The range of value for breeding females is currently in the $2,000 to $12,000 range, with some females selling for more than $15,000.  Males have a wider price differential, with young potential studs routinely selling between $2,000 and $20,000.  Herdsire quality males have sold for as high as $75,000.  Non-breeding males can be purchased for $500 – $1,000.

BEHAVIOUR

Are alpacas dangerous?

alpaca-and-child.jpgAbsolutely not!  They are safe and pleasant to be around.  They do not bite or butt and they do not have the teeth, horns, hooves or claws to do serious injury.

Are alpacas smart?

Yes, they are amazingly alert animals who quickly learn to halter and lead.  They constantly communicate with each other through body posturing, ear, tail, head and neck signals, vocalizations, scent and smell, locomotion displays and herd response.  The sound heard most often is a soft humming.

Alpacas spit, don’t they?

Spitting is perhaps the least endearing feature of alpacas.  It is one of the few defense mechanisms an alpaca has and is quite an effective deterrent.  Spit material is basically regurgitated or recently chewed grass and it brushes off when dry.  It does have a distinctive and somewhat offensive odor and it is best to avoid being a target. 

Alpacas rarely spit at people.  It is normally used as a pecking order mechanism with other alpacas.  If a human hit occurs, it is usually because the person has not read the signs properly when stepping between two squabbling alpacas.

Do alpacas kick and bite?

When interacting with humans, kicking and biting is a highly individualistic behavior.  Alpacas are usually sensitive around their hind legs and will instinctively kick backwards if they sense a threat from the rear.

Most alpacas do not kick at humans, but there are individuals who can be quickly identified as being prone to kicking.  Kicking behavior is most evident in a pregnant female who wants to deter the advances of an amorous male. 

Fortunately, because the foot is a soft pad, injuries to humans are minimal.  Most alpacas respond very well to desensitization of the hind legs if they receive good handling as youngsters.

Alpacas that bite people are extremely rare and, as such, is not a general problem.  If biting does occur, it tends to be an attention-seeking behavior by spoilt pets rather than an attack.

Can alpacas run with other livestock?

Alpacas can bond well with other types of animals.  Naturally, alpacas and large aggressive dogs are not a good combination, but there are many cases of quiet dogs mixing well with alpacas.

Individual alpacas have been very successfully run with sheep and goats to act as fox guards.  The alpacas tend to bond with the foster herd and they are naturally aggressive toward foxes.

If running with different livestock, alpacas will pick up the internal parasites associated with the other animals and should be put on the same worming regime.

Because of the risk of the alpacas being kicked, caution should be used if running them with cattle or horses.

How do alpacas communicate?

Alpaca vocalizations can be divided into five categories, including humming, ‘orgling’, screaming, clucking and alarm call.  The most common sound is a humming noise.  A female will hum to her cria and, in turn, the cria will respond with a softer hum.  Alpacas also hum in uncertain circumstances or if they are worried or stressed. 

Males make a very strange sound, called an ‘orgle’ while they are breeding.  Sometimes they make this sound if there is an ‘open’ female on the other side of the fence.  A breeding typically lasts 20-minutes or longer, with the male ‘orgling’ continuously.  Upon hearing an orgle, other females will gather by the fence with ‘open’ females laying down (cushing) so as to be ready for breeding.  This ‘orgling’ sound also gets the attention of other males, often resulting in fights or squirmishes in the nearby fields.  When males are close at hand, it is appropriate to breed a female away from the rest of the herd if at all possible.

A male alpaca will occasionally snort at another male.  Snorting is often the prelude to a fight.  Once engaged in a fight, the males may begin screaming at each other.  This screaming behavior is usually accompanied by chasing, neck wrestling, spitting, and biting each other’s neck and legs.  Eventually, the two will tire and the fight will end.  Screaming may also occur when an alpaca perceives him/herself to be in an unpleasant situation (e.g. toenail trimming, shearing, etc.). 

Females will sometimes make a “clucking” sound at a male over the fence.  With head held high, ears back and tail up, such behavior seems to indicate distain.  If the male alpaca fails to ‘back-off’, he may be the sad recipient of a giant split.  For added emphasis, a female alpaca may vocalize a cluck followed by a snort.

Perceived danger (e.g. a strange dog or coyote) will elicit an alarm call.  This high pitched ‘guttural whistle’ warns the rest of the herd of impending danger.  Within moments of the original call, each member of the herd will be alarm calling.  Females will occasionally make an alarm call, although their calls are not usually as loud as that of the male alpaca.

FIBRE AND SHEARING

How often do you shear alpacas?

alpaca-shearing.jpgAlpacas are shorn once a year, usually in the spring. Shearing is the biggest maintenance requirement and usually takes approximately 10 minutes per animal for an experienced alpaca shearer. 

If you are purchasing your first alpacas, ask the vendors for the name of a recommended shearer, or ask if you can bring the alpacas back to the property on their shearing day.

A very small percentage of alpacas are shorn standing up, but the preferred method of shearing is to lay the animals on their side and restrain their legs with a tether at each end.  This protects the shearer and the alpaca from being accidentally cut.  One side of the animal is shorn and it is then rolled over and shorn on the other side.  Depending on the density of the fleece, alpacas cut anywhere between 3 to 10 pounds of fleece.  Some of the high quality stud males will cut higher weights.

What do you do with the fleece? 

Alpaca fibre is highly prized for its very soft feel (handle), high thermal properties (allegedly 8 times that of wool), durability, and wide variety of colours (22 natural shades). 

wool-dress.jpgInternationally and nationally, alpaca is processed into high quality fashion garments such as suits, jackets, skirts and coats.  A variety of knitted and woven products are also produced.  Because of its natural warmth, the fibre can also be used as quilt filling. Coarser fibre can be used to make carpets, saddle blankets and landscape fabric. 

Various worsted and woolen mills in Western and Eastern Canada offer custom processing of alpaca fibre – carding, blending, dyeing and processing into yarn, fabric and felt.  Some mills also produce specialized or custom products (e.g. fabric, socks, blankets/throws, scarves, etc.).  There is also a large ‘hand-spinners’ market.

To view and purchase a variety of raw and processed alpaca products (e.g. washed fleece, roving, yarn, blankets/throws, shawls, hats, scarves, mitts, socks, duvets, etc.), please, visit us at www.kpfarm.com/onlineshopping

What characteristics make alpaca fleece so desirable?

Alpaca fibre is more akin to hair due to its cellular composition; however, it is generally described as a specialty fibre or wool.  It has a medullated or hollow core made up of air-filled cells, which contributes to both its insulating properties and strength. Alpaca fibre is second only to silk for strength.  The number of scales on individual fibress is considerably reduced compared to sheep’s wool and this helps to explain why wool-allergic people do not have the same reaction to Alpaca.

Alpacas have few guard hairs or secondary coat within the prime fleece area, called the blanket.  Overall, the fibre has a soft and silky feel and exhibits a varying degree of crimp (waves of character in the fibre), density (the number of fibres found in a given area), alignment (aligned fibres grow straight out from the follicle in unison), staple length (length of the fibre), luster (brightness and shine of the fibre), handle (feel of the fibre) and uniformity/consistency (crimp, density, luster and handle are uniform and consistent in the blanket area, shoulders, neck, rump and down the legs). 

Its fineness is measured in microns and, on average, falls within the range 16-30 microns.  As one would expect, the first clip yields the finest fibre with the lowest micron count.  Micron count increases with age, however, good breeding programs help maintain low micron counts in adult animals.

CARE AND FEEDING OF ALPACAS

Are alpacas easy to care for?

Alpacas are small, easy to maintain animals that rarely overeat and require no extraordinary care.  They should be provided with basic shelter for protection against heat and inclement weather.  They do not challenge fences.  Basic care requirements of alpacas including shearing, worming and vaccinations.

What do alpacas eat?

Alpacas are highly adaptable feeders.  They graze the natural grasses in the summer and eat hay in the winter.  An alpaca will eat in the order of 1.5% to 2% of their body weight per day.  Calculated at 2%, a 150 lb. alpaca will eat approximately 1.4 kg or 3.15 lbs. of food per day (1 - 100-lb. bale of hay per month per animal).  Pellets, vitamins and minerals supplement their diet.

Do alpacas get diseases?

Compared to other livestock, alpacas are relatively disease free.  Because of their dry fleece and naturally clean breech, fly strike is not an issue with alpacas.  Vaccination programs vary by geography on veterinarian’s advice.

When buying alpacas for breeding purposes it is advisable to arrange a veterinary check to ensure you are buying a healthy animal. 

Some farm and gardens contain plants considered toxic to most livestock.  Care should be taken when fencing off pasture areas and gardens to ensure that such plants do not intrude or overhang into alpaca areas.  For further information concerning poisonous plants, please consult Michael Murphy, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ABVT.  A Field Guide to Common Animal Poisons, Iowa State University Press, 1996.  For a less academic review of poisonous plants, please refer to Brian Pinkerton’s (Mount Lehmann Llamas) excellent publication available at: http://mountlehmanllamas.com/poisonplants.html

How much acreage does it take to raise alpacas?

Alpacas are the ideal small acreage animals.  You can comfortably stock between five and ten animals per acre.  This makes the alpaca ideal for people who have only a few acres and who want the pleasure of a small herd and potential investment return.

How do you transport alpacas?

Alpacas are relatively stress resistant.  They load and travel calmly and can be transported in a family minivan, utility vehicle or horse trailer.

What shelters or barns do alpacas require?

Alpacas are native to the Altiplano (highlands) of Peru and are use used to a harsh environment found at 12,000 to 17,5000 feet above sea level.  The snow, freezing wind and bone-chilling cold are familiar to these hardy animals.

In North America, most alpaca breeders construct open shelters as opposed to closed barns for their animals.  Alpacas simply need to get out of the wind and have a dry place to eat or lay down during a storm. 

These shelters allow the alpacas to come and go at will.  Gravel as opposed to cement is the best flooring material.  The feed troughs should allow about 18” per alpaca to eat.  This means that 12 alpacas need about 18 feet of feed troughs.  Shelters should be large enough to allow your herd to lie down comfortably.

What type of fence is most suitable for alpacas?

The most important thing about fencing for alpacas is safety against predators.  Virtually any fence will confine alpacas (alpacas do not challenge fences) but the important thing is to keep dogs, foxes and coyotes out of the pasture.

Standard 2” X 4” farm fence, four feet high is adequate.  You may want to add a barbed or hot wire at the top.  “New Zealand” deer fence is good fencing for alpacas.  It can be purchased in heights of 5 or 6 feet and is woven wire with smaller squares at the bottom.  Nine to eleven wire electric fencing also works well.

The terrain is a consideration when choosing fencing.  The woven wire fences work best on flat ground and the electric wire does better on steep or uneven terrain.  One tip that works well for all fences - lay a strand of barbed wire on the ground and attach it to the posts on the outside perimeter of the fence.  This keeps predators from digging their way under the fence.

BREEDING AND BIRTHING

At what age do alpacas start breeding?

Females become sexually mature at around 12 to 18 months of age and once they reach 100 pounds in weight.  Males can display sexual interest from a few weeks of age but are not sexually active or fertile until 18 months to 3 years of age (some animals may fall outside this age range).

alpaca-birth.jpg young-alpaca.jpg

Alpacas are induced ovulators (the mating act causes them to ovulate) and, providing they are receptive, females can be mated at any time of the year.

Alpacas mate in the ‘cush’ or prone position and if a female is not receptive due to pregnancy she will refuse to sit down and will likely spit at the male.  The rejection response is known as the ‘spit-off’, and is regularly used in the management of the female to monitor the progress of her pregnancy.

How long is gestation?

The average gestation period is 11.5 months, but pregnancies can last over a year.

Births are generally trouble-free and most occur by mid-day.  Very few births take place at night.  Cria should weigh between 12 – 20 pounds at birth and most will be up on their feet and nursing within 2 to 3 hours.  Alpaca mothers are very protective of their offspring, and the cria will remain by her side until it is weaned (usually at around 5 to 6 months of age).

How do I get started if I want to breed alpacas?

Before launching into alpaca breeding, there are a number of things to consider.  Firstly, it is best to talk to as many experienced breeders as possible.  You will garner a lot of useful information from people who have already done the legwork.  If you are serious about alpacas, it is advisable to develop a business plan.

To be able to register your offspring, you will need to become a member of the Canadian Llama & Alpaca Association (www.claacanada.com).  If your offspring are double-registered (i.e. registered in both Canada and the United States), you will also need to join the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (www.alpacaregistry.com).

Some folks buy a couple of geldings to begin with and, once they feel confident that alpacas really are extremely easy to manage, they take the next step to start a breeding herd.  Others prefer to simply jump right in and enjoy the experience as they learn along the way. 

CLOSING & CONTACT INFORMATION

Whether you are interested in purchasing alpacas or simply want to learn more about these beautiful animals, we hope the above information has been helpful!

For further information concerning raising or purchasing alpacas, please feel free to contact Kensington Prairie Farm via telephone (604.626.4395) or email: info@kpfarm.com.