What's an Alpaca?
The alpaca is a docile long-necked fur-bearing creature raised for its highly desirable and luxurious fleece. Sheared once a year like sheep, the alpacas produce fiber that is soft, lustrous and warm. Alpacas are relatively easy to care for, making them one of the best small-acreage livestock available. The alpaca is one of the oldest domesticated animals known to man. They are a herd animal, preferring to live together with other alpacas for their common defense and comfort. Often acting as a group, alpacas will feed together, play together, sleep together, and guard each other against predators. Alpacas are ruminants, chewing their cud as cows do, and making very efficient use of all the food they eat. Members of the camelid family, alpacas are biologically grouped with other South American camels, such as llamas, guanacos, and vicunas. As camelids, alpacas share similar skeletal construction, facial characteristics and unique two-toed padded feet with other camel types.
The Two Kinds of Alpacas
Alpacas come in two distinct flavors, distinguished primarily by the characteristics of their fleece.The Huacaya (pronounced "wha-KAI-uh") is the most common style of alpaca. Huacayas have dense, soft, curly fleece that gives them a somewhat fluffy teddy- bear-like appearance. The Suri (pronounced "SIR-ree") are rarer, comprising only 10% of the alpaca world population. Suri fleece hangs down in long, dangling, pencil-thin locks that give the Suri alpaca a sort of Rastafarian dreadlock look. Because of the differences in their fleece, alpaca shows judge huacayas and suris separately.
Fiber processing is also different for the two fiber types. Is one kind better than another? Not really. Each has it's own advantages, so it's mostly a matter of personal preference. There are alpaca farms that specialize in cute, cuddly, huacayas (so fuzzy-cute you want to hug them), alpaca farms that prefer the long lustrous locks of the suri (especially beautiful in motion with their graceful flowing rhythm) and alpaca farms that raise both.
Here is a link to a YouTube video showing HUGE herds of South American alpacas being raised
at high altitudes in the Andes Mountains in their native Peru. Notice the extremely large herds (in the thousands!), guided by men on horseback, with the alpacas running free on open grasslands.
Inspirational in their vast numbers, but far different from the way alpacas are raised here in the U.S. where the average farm raises 10 to 12 alpacas.
Alpacas were first imported into North America in large quantities just over twenty years ago, starting in 1984. The number of North American alpacas and alpaca farms grew slowly but steadily, and in 1998 it was decided that there were sufficient numbers of alpacas in the United States and thus further importation was closed at that time. Currently, all registered alpacas sold in the US are those that are born in the US. In the United States, alpacas are registered by Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI) which tracks their parentage and ancestry all the way back to the point of importation into the US. (See note on Links page for more about ARI.) There have been more than 140,000 alpacas registered in the United States since the Registry started. More than 2,000 of those alpacas currently reside in Tennessee.
What Do Alpacas Eat?
Alpacas are herbavores that primarily consume grass, hay and grain. They need clean pastures and/or sufficient hay (if raised in a drylot situation). Typical amount of hay is one-half to one flake per day per adult alpaca. (For reference, there are about eight flakes of hay per bale.)
The most desired hay types are Orchard Grass or Timothy. Second or third cut is preferred over first cut in order to lessen the amount of seed heads and stems that can get caught up in alpaca's fleece. Many farmers in the South will also feed Bluegrass or Coastal Bermuda if that is more available. Pure Alfalfa hay is generally too rich for alpacas' very efficient stomachs, but sometimes small amounts of Alfalfa can be mixed into Orchard or Timothy to make a "hi-pro" (high protein) hay to supplement during cold winter months or help very thin alpacas gain weight. (Though care must be taken to avoid making normal animals into fatties.) Fescue hay (the most common hay in North America) can be fed to males or non-breeding females, but Fescue should be avoided for pregnant females in their last tri-mester as it can lead to birthing problems including thickened placentas, higher incidents of distocia births, and poor milk production.
Many farmers supplement their alpacas with daily grain, usually in pellet form. These pellets are usually made from COB: That is, corn, oats, barley. Typical amounts are one-half to one cup per day per alpaca.
What Care Is Required to Raise Alpacas?
Alpacas are an excellent small-acreage livestock and are relatively easy to care for. The three main elements needed are feed, water and shelter. Feed means hay or grass, and optionally pellets, as discussed above. Plentiful water is essential. Shelter consists of barns, sheds or three-sided open shelters, intended to provide protection from wind, rain, snow and especially the sun.
Alpacas do fine in the cold of winter as they have built-in warm coats, but extra care must be taken in the summer to guard them against heat-stress. Shelter from the sun is an absolute requirement year around, but especially in the heat of summer. So is water, which in the summer can include additional buckets of "gatorade water" (horse electrolytes) to help them deal with the heat. Alpaca farmers will run fans in the barns twenty-four hours a day during the hottest parts of the year, and the alpacas will often park themselves right in front of them to enjoy the breeze. Belly-baths are also used to keep the alpacas cool during the hot months. These consist of spraying the undersides of the alpacas to soak them where their sweat glands are. (However we try not to wet their backs, as that can trap the humidity inside their dense fleece and make them even hotter.) The alpacas love the water, and will come running when they see the hose in order to get in on the action.
Health requirements for alpacas are relatively simple. These include toe-nail trimming, parasite prevention or treatment, and regular vaccinations against the very dangerous Meningeal Worm (M-worm), an absolute necessity if one lives in areas congregated by white tail deer.
Finding a good vet that has knowledge of camelids is important for alpaca breeders. Finding an alpaca vet in your area that is willing to come to you and make farm visits is even better.
What Fencing Do Alpacas Need?
The best fence for alpacas is 2" x 4" woven-wire "no-climb" horse fence. ("No-climb" means that horses can't get their feet in the holes and walk the fence down.) Woven-wire, though costly, is highly preferred over welded wire as it is far stronger, will last much longer, is easier to hang/stretch without breaking and, most importantly, there is no worry of broken wires protruding and creating a very dangerous health hazard. Four foot high fence is generally adequate for alpacas, though many farms will use five foot fence around their breeding males, who are larger and stronger and might be more rambunctious. Alpacas do not usually challenge fences, so the fences are mostly to keep predators out.
What predators do alpacas need to be protected from and how do you protect alpacas?
While there have been a few instances of alpacas being attacked by bears or mountain lions, by far the biggest danger is from packs of dogs or coyotes. Dog attacks are the most common, often reported as groups of neighborhood dogs running unattended and looking for trouble. The best defense against them is good perimeter fencing and dogs of one's own. Many alpaca owners have LGD's: Livestock Guardian Dogs. These are large dogs bred and trained to watch over flocks of animals, whether it's alpacas, llamas, sheep or goats. They don't herd the animals, just guard over them. LGDs are wonderful. Big, strong and tough towards threats to their herd, but gentle, watchful and fully aware of the needs of the alpacas in their care. Alpaca owners learn to "read" the barking or whining of their LGDs to guage the level of threat to the herd. Breeds raised as LGDs include Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, Maremma, Kuvasz, Akbash and others. Click here for More LGD Info.
How can one see alpacas up close and in person?
There are alpaca farms all over Tennessee that would just love to have you visit their alpacas. Click this link to find a list of Tennessee alpaca farms. Choose one (or two, or three!) near you to call and make an appointment for a visit.
What can one expect on an alpaca farm visit?
Expect to have a delightful experience.
Expect to get your questions answered.
Expect to feel luxurious fleece.
Expect to have fun.
Expect to get your questions answered. Alpaca owners love sharing information about their animals. Never be afraid to ask anything. There are no dumb questions.
Expect the alpacas to come greet you. Alpacas are very alert, curious and inquisitive. They will notice the cars coming down the driveway (watch the alpaca heads pop up in the pastures). Once you're there they might come up to the fence to have a look at the funny two-leggers on the other side. (And you thought they were the funny looking things.) About feeding: Some folks will allow the alpacas to be hand fed by you. Some may not. So please don't feed anything to the alpacas without asking first.
Expect to feel luxurious fiber. You'll be impressed at the softness and warmth. Fleece is at it's longest in April, just prior to each year's shearing in late April or early May. Alpaca farmers will also be glad to show you fleece samples and/or demonstrate how fleece is prepared. Many farms will have alpaca fiber products for sale, such as raw fleece, roving, yarn or finished alpaca clothing.
Expect to dress casually. You'll be visiting a farm and you'll be walking in grassy pastures or dirt or gravel walkways. So dress for fun.
Expect to spend some time. You can stay for as short or as long a time as you like. Alpaca owners enjoy talking about their alpacas and will be glad to answer your questions.
Expect to enjoy yourself. The delightful personality of these animals will win you over. They're just fun to watch. Sometimes they make you laugh. They can even make you feel better about the world, about life. At the very least, you'll be leaving with a smile.