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Thinking About Alpacas? Some Basic Questions and Answers
The breeding of alpacas continues to gain popularity with all kinds of people. Some are attracted by the lifestyle of owning a small ranch. Others see alpacas as an investment opportunity (although we would claim it a business, no investment!) Those with a particular fancy for spinning and knitting may be attracted to the idea of growing their own source of beautiful fiber. Whatever the reason, the choice to raise alpacas is not an easy decision. We’ve put together a set of questions and answers that we hope you’ll find useful.
Q: What “breeds” and colors do alpacas come in?
A: There are two varieties of alpaca: huacaya and ride. You can see pictures of each on our website (see the resource box below). Both varieties have very soft wool, although they look very different.
Huacayas are “fluffy” or “crimpy” and often “jumpy” to the touch. Suri wool has a straight fiber often with a higher sheen, which hangs down and tends to form “dreadlocks”. Both fiber types are popular in the textile industry, with worsted downs generally fetching the highest price. Almost all of the approximately 130,000 alpacas in the United States are Huacaya. Only about 5% or so are Suri. You’ll find eight “basic colors” of wool in alpacas: white, light, fawn, brown, gray, black, multicolored and “undefined.” What this really means is that there is a wide variety of colors out there, as well as some patterns. Pure white is very popular with the textile industry because it can be dyed to almost any color.
Q: Do alpacas spit?
A: Oh yes. But not as often as you might think, and rarely in humans. Spitting is both a defense and a way to communicate. Often, that communication is about who demands the food, or who wants to be “in charge” today.
And… just so you know… spitting in this case is NOT saliva. It is genuine gastric juices, often including partially digested hay. It’s a nice experience.
Q: What kind of space do alpacas require?
A: Alpacas have 3-chambered stomachs, so they are very efficient herders, more so than almost any other farm animal. A grazing density of 6 to 7 alpacas per acre is often acceptable, although density varies greatly with soil conditions, climate, and forage quality. Do not forget that if you plan to keep breeding stock, you will need several fenced pastures to accommodate groups of different sexes, and to allow pasture rotation. Fencing is required. The good news is that alpacas generally respect fencing. A 4′ or 5′ no-climb horse fence is a cost-effective choice. If you don’t have the space for alpacas, consider boarding them at a ranch. Many alpaca owners start out this way.
Q: Are alpacas loud? Will my neighbors complain?
A: Although we cannot answer the second question (it depends on your neighbors!), the answer to the first is that alpacas are generally very quiet. They hum quietly, especially when a bit anxious. If they see something really disturbing, they may sound a screeching call that some describe as a cross between a squeaky toy and a hawk’s cry.
Most of the time, that kind of call means they’ve seen a housecat out in the pasture…
Q: We do not plan to breed alpacas. Do they make good pasture pets?
A: No doubt! Many people feel that the best alpacas for pasture pets are neutered males, often called “fiber boys.” Alpacas are a herd animal, so you will need at least 2, preferably 3. Alpacas are not like dogs. They are lively, curious, quiet, and can very well come sniffing when you are working in the yard. However, they are most likely to spend their time with the herd, not with their humans.
Q: What do you do with alpaca fur?
A: Alpacas produce a fiber that is, hands down, the best in the world for spinning and weaving. do you knit Then you are probably already aware of the exceptional qualities of alpaca yarn. Many small mills will take wool, wash it, card it and spin it, with several options to choose from. Knitting with yarn from animals you own is very rewarding! do you spin You can ask the mill to give you pure wool or wool. If fiber art isn’t your thing, you can sell your wool to mills, spinners, or even fiber cooperatives.
Q: How big are alpacas, anyway?
A: Alpacas are camelids, but small. Babies, called crias, generally weigh between 12 and 22 pounds at birth. Adults generally weigh between 120 and 210 pounds. A good-sized adult stands about 36″ at the shoulder, and can probably look you in the eye if you’re under 5’3″. This means they are much smaller and can feel less intimidating to some people than their larger cousins, llamas (who are also very nice – don’t get me wrong!). Once you know how to handle them, alpacas are generally easy to work with, even though they can weigh more than you.
Q: How long do alpacas live? How long are they actively breeding?
A: Alpacas generally live 17 to 22 years, and are usually very healthy for most of that time. We currently have a 14-year-old girl at our ranch who is expecting a cry this summer, and often leads the herd in running the perimeter of the pasture! Females may be ready to begin breeding by 18 months of age. Males mature a bit more slowly, and are generally ready to start breeding around 30 months.
Q: How long are females pregnant, and how long after they give birth before they reproduce?
A: Gestation periods in alpacas range from a low of about 325 to a high of about 360 days, with the average being about 345 days. Single births are the rule. Alpacas are normally re-bred at about 3 weeks after delivery.
Q: What are alpaca babies like?
A: Very pretty. Unbelievably beautiful. Finally, insanely beautiful. They are generally on their feet within 30 minutes or so of birth, and actively nursing within an hour. Although a little shaky on their legs during the first day, they are very fast and with the herd. Weight gain during the first two weeks may be about one pound per day. Apart from some basic postpartum precautions, and some vitamins and vaccination injections, puppies generally need little special care. Crias nurses for 6 months, however, mom will need extra calories and protein for breastfeeding.
Q: What care do alpacas require?
A: A small herd of alpacas is quite easy to care for. Fresh water, good hay, a small daily grain supplement and some mineral salt should do the trick for feeding. As natural foragers, alpacas will eat almost anything your pasture provides, including (thankfully) blackberry vines. However, some plants are poisonous to camelids. The bookshelf on our website has a reference to a good book on this topic, and you can find more information online. For shelter, depending on your climate, alpacas need a simple 3-sided covered shelter or barn. Alpacas are generally sheared once each year, often in early May here in the Pacific Northwest. For some before and after pictures, check out the news section of our website. Shearing is a job for a professional, but it is relatively easy to work with an established local ranch to enter their shearing party. In hot weather, especially in southern climates, heat stress can become a concern. Special cooling arrangements may be required.
Like other livestock, alpacas are susceptible to various parasites, internal and external. Your vet will likely have a management plan that you can adopt. Alpaca hooves need regular trimming (every 3 to 6 months, your mileage may vary), but if your alpacas have been trained to know the “walk” command, trimming shouldn’t be a problem.
Q: How do I take the next step?
A: First, figure out your goals. Reproduction? Farming fiber? Grazing pets? Second, determine your timeline: how soon and in what order do you want to achieve these goals? Third, decide on your budget, and decide whether you will have your own pastures, or agitate (board) your animals at a ranch. Fourth, take your time to find the animals that will help you achieve your goals. Don’t rush. Take your time. Talk to people from several breeding farms.
Want to know more? You might start by visiting our website. There you will find several resources to help you find the direction that is right for you. We also invite you to contact us through the website, and if you’re not too far away, come visit our ranch! If we don’t have what you’re looking for, or if we’re too far away to be convenient, we may be able to suggest ranches in your area.
Copyright (c) 2009, Inti’s Gift Alpacas
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