What is an alpaca?
Alpacas are fiber-producing members of the camelid family raised exclusively for their soft and luxurious wool. Their fleeces are normally sheared once a year. Each shearing produces approximately 5-10 pounds of fiber per alpaca, per year, but can be more.
There are two types of “humped” camels. One is the single humped dromedary of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia. The other is the two-humped Bactrian of the Gobi Desert in China and Tibet. Then there are two “horse-like”, double fleeced members of the camel family. These are the wild guanaco and the domesticated llama. The last two members of the “fiber bearing” camel family are the wild vicuna and the domesticated alpaca.
Two Breeds of Alpacas
There are two breeds of alpacas: Huacaya ( pronounced “wah-KI-ah”) and Suri (pronounced “surrey”). The main difference between the two is in the fleece (or fiber) they produce.
Huacaya fiber is short, dense, crimpy, and has a fluffy or woolly appearance.
Suri fiber is silky and resembles pencil-like locks with little or no crimp.
The Suri is very rare, with the worldwide ratio of Huacaya to Suri at about 95% to 5%.
Alpaca Physical Characteristics
Height – Alpacas stand approximately 36” at the withers (the point where the neck and spine meet). They are about 4.5 to 5 feet tall from their toes to the tips of their ears.
Weight – Female alpacas generally weigh approximately 110-150 pounds. Male alpacas generally weigh approximately 140-180 pounds. However, some larger male and female alpacas can weigh over 200 pounds.
Toenails – Alpacas have a hard, protective upper toenail that must be trimmed every few months. The bottom of their feet is a soft pad with a leather-like consistency. Alpacas’ soft padded feet and relatively low body weights (as opposed to other forms of livestock) result in very little damage to the ground in their pasture areas.
Fiber – Alpaca fiber is stronger and more resilient than even the finest sheep's wool. Unlike sheep's wool, however, alpaca fiber contains no lanolin and is ready to spin right off the animal. It is scientifically proven to be a better insulator than sheep’s wool.
Alpaca fiber comes in 22 distinguishable colors.
Alpaca fiber is considered hypoallergenic, due to the way the scales of the fiber lie down against the shaft of each hair follicle, so it does not irritate the skin.
Alpacas can be sheared yearly, producing approximately 5-10 pounds of fiber per alpaca. The blanket (back and sides) and in some alpacas, the neck, is considered the best fleece as it contains very little guard hair. The legs, belly and neck fleece are considered seconds, but are still used for rugs, socks, etc.
Teeth – Alpacas only have bottom teeth for eating. On the top is a hard gum pad against which they crush grain, grass, and hay in a back and forth grinding motion. Their upper lip is split to make this back and forth motion easier. Alpacas have a very short tongue that is attached to their jaw, which prevents them from grabbing hold of plants and grass to pull them up by the roots (as do goats, sheep, horses, etc.). Alpacas nibble plants down to about ¼ inch, which enables their pastures to grow back quickly.
The primary food for alpacas is grass or hay. Orchard Grass hay is a very nutritious hay and the alpacas love it! Alfalfa is discouraged because of its high protein and calcium content that can be unhealthy for alpacas. Alpacas do not eat much. Depending on the season and availability of grass, each alpaca will consume approximately one bale of hay per month. In addition, most alpaca breeders supplement the grass and hay feed with a grain mix containing additional vitamins and minerals. Alpacas are ruminants with a single stomach divided into three compartments, so they produce rumen and chew cud. The alpaca's digestive system is very efficient.
Depending on the presence of deer and other animals, most veterinarians recommend de-worming on an as-needed basis. Generally, fecals are collected and tested every 30-60 days. Climate and local conditions will determine the frequency and time period for de-worming. Also, alpacas receive annual vaccinations against infectious diseases such as CD&T, West Nile, and Rabies. Shearing is done once a year and toenail trimming is done as needed. Occasionally, teeth need to be trimmed. With males as they mature, “fighting teeth” develop and need to be blunted or sometimes removed.
Alpaca's make use of a selected dung piles, generally 1 or 2 places in each pasture, which facilitates pasture clean up. The beans rake up easily and are not heavy to scoop. Their feces are one of the richest organic fertilizers available and do not have to be composted before spreading it in your garden. It is very high in nitrogen.
How much space do alpacas need?
Depending on fencing, layout, rainfall, and other factors, one acre of grassland can support between 5 and 10 alpacas. They are virtually odorless animals, so they don’t tend to attract as many flies in the summertime as other forms of livestock.
The courtship ritual of the alpaca is very unique. Female alpacas are induced ovulators, meaning that there are no heat cycles and that they can breed at anytime of the year. The physical act of breeding is what causes ovulation to occur. For this reason, most alpaca breeders maintain separate male and female herds so that they can determine who breeds to whom and when.
There are two basic breeding methods – pen breeding and pasture breeding.
Pasture Breeding – females are free to roam with the males.
Pen Breeding – allows you to keep better track of when mating occurs and more easily approximate the most-likely due date. In this method, the female is introduced to the male, bred and re-introduced 2 days later. This way there will be an egg present during breeding. They are introduced once a week for 3 more weeks. If the female continues to reject the male, then a progesterone (blood test) or an ultrasound is performed to further confirm pregnancy. If the female goes down (cushes), she is not pregnant. When she is pregnant, she will generally reject the male advances by “spitting him off” and running away.
The gestation period is 11- 11.5 months. Females usually have single births and human intervention is rarely needed. The newborn (called cria) typically weighs between 15-19 pounds, with delivery occurring usually during the daylight hours. The newborn cria is usually standing and nursing within 90 minutes of birth, and will continue to nurse until weaned at approximately 6 months of age. Twins occur rarely, about one in 10,000 births. The time between breeding and rebreeding can be as little as 3 weeks.
In South America, alpacas are believed to live 5-10 years. However, without a major predator issue and with better nutrition and day-to-day care, we believe that the North American alpaca can live into the late teens or early 20's.
Alpacas have a very complex language of gestures that they use to communicate with each other. They use body posture, ear, tail, head and neck signals, several vocalizations, scent and smell, locomotion displays and herd response to communicate.
Broadside Pose – Males strike a pose broadside to signal aggression from far off. They stand sideways, rigidly holding their tail high, neck arched, ears pinned back and nose tilted skyward. It can signal to an intruding male a mile off that it is approaching the gesturing male's territory. A male in the company of females is likely to strike this pose.
Alert Stance – When a dog or cat walks nearby, all alpacas will stand with their bodies rigidly erect and rotate their ears forward in the direction they are staring. The tail is usually slightly elevated. This posture signals curiosity about a change occurring in the immediate environment. This posture will come before an “alarm call” or rapid flight, if the herd interprets the change as danger. It also will cause the entire herd to bunch together and move forward in unison to investigate or chase off the intruding animal.
Standoff – Two animals will stand rigidly within a few feet or even inches of each other, ears pressed back, neck held high, head tilted upward and tail elevated. The standoff is a middle grade show of aggression, often between alpacas of similar rank. It happens when neither alpaca immediately yields to another's show of dominance. If one of the animals does not eventually walk away or turn its head, spitting, pushing and aggressive noise may erupt. Females often resort to this behavior near food or in defense of a cria.
Submissive Crouch – While slouching slightly, the animal lowers its head, curves its neck toward the ground and flips its tail onto its back. This is a posture seen in adolescent and young adult animals and signals to a dominant animal that its higher status is recognized and that no challenge will be forthcoming.
Yes, occasionally alpacas do spit to signal their extreme displeasure, fear or dominance. Male alpacas horse around, stand each other off and spit. Both males and females spit in dominance wars over food. Moms will spit at other mom's babies who try to suckle or mount her or get too close to her newborn. There are variations of spit: air, grass, or regurgitated stomach contents that are currently being re-chewed. Mostly if people are spit on, it is only because they were in between the alpacas having issues….being in the wrong place at the wrong time!
Alpacas use complex sets of sounds to communicate with each other. They use a variety of vocalizations to communicate to one another, beginning at birth.
Humming – Humming is the predominant sound you will hear when you come to an alpaca ranch. Alpacas hum for many reasons. From birth until at least six months, mother's and their crias hum to each other constantly. As a sign of distress at separation from each other, alpacas will hum mournfully. Weaning is a particularly stressful time for both mom and babe and humming is constant and heart wrenching. Alpacas hum when they are curious, content, worried, bored, fearful, distressed or cautious.
Snorting – Alpacas give a very subtle snort to another alpaca if he or she is coming too close, or being too familiar.
Grumbling – Alpacas signal their food trough territory to each other by grumbling at equal ranking animals. Feeding time often sounds like a bunch of complaining kids bickering at each other.
Clucking – Mothers generally cluck around their crias, particularly when starting to nurse. To politely warn you, sometimes, alpacas cluck when you are getting too close.
Screaming – Some alpacas can be very high-strung and extremely fearful. When you handle them, or their babies, they will put their face next to your ear and let loose a deafening scream. If they are so frightened as to scream, a spit is probably not too far away!
Screeching – When fighting over food, some alpacas get frustrated and let out screeches and accompanying spits at each other. Males will screech and scream when their wrestling gets too serious and someone gets mad.
Alarm Call – When something unusual or resembling a predator appears in the vicinity, one alpaca will sound a high-pitched, rhythmic braying sound, which causes the herd to bunch up for protection.
Orgling – Male alpacas have a unique throaty vocalization they make when mating. Each male has his own style and intensity of orgling that may involve throats, lips and breathing apparatuses.