Raising Alpacas – Everything You Need to Know

Besides the cute factor, these gentle animals have lots of benefits when introduced to your homestead. These include compostable manure, a fleece sheared annually which is worth quite a lot, the chance to hire out your alpacas for photo shoots – it’s amazing how many couples want to pose with an alpaca on their wedding day, and letting kids take them for walks around your property at a fee is also a popular option.

They are sometimes used as therapy animals – if they are halter trained and gentle they visit hospitals and retirement homes with their owners bringing joy to elderly and ill people who enjoy a little cuddle with these sensitive creatures.

In addition they don’t smell as strongly as goats, they don’t ruin your pastures with their eating habits, and they have soft feet that don’t ruin your lawns… but more about all that later.

In this article, we’ll talk in-depth about how to raise alpacas from A to Z, from what to feed them, shearing, breeding, and much, much more.

Alpacas are a domesticated variant of the vicuna, which is under threat in its natural habitat of the Andes for its super soft fur. Domesticated by the Incas alpacas have have been kept for their fleece for thousands of years.

They belong to the camel family and are a relative of the llama, which is used in South America as a pack animal and herd protector, for its fleece and for meat. Alpacas are not usually killed for their meat – the sheared fleece over their lifespan is far more valuable.

A mature alpaca will weigh about 150 to 200 pounds and stand around 36 inches at the withers – the highest part of the back, so they are considerably smaller than llamas, which weigh around 400 pounds.

Types of Alpacas

There are two types of alpaca – the Suri and Huacaya.

This adorable fellow is a Suri alpaca:

suri alpaca

And these are Huacaya alpacas:

Huacaya alpacas

Around 90% of the animals you see will be Huacaya, with their tight curly fleece making them look like cuddly kids toys – especially the babies. The Suri on the other hand have long silky looking locks, which flow down their sides almost like ringlets – if not maintained they can look like dreadlocks!

Their fleece is superior in softness but needs to be blended with other fiber like silk, wool or huacaya fiber for durability when processing to make garments.

The AOA has invaluable advice and support

The Alpaca Owner’s Association located in Lincoln, Nebraska, maintains an official DNA validated genealogical registry and provide advice and information. From the AOA you can learn more about where to buy an alpaca, what to look for when buying, advice on showing your animals and a host of other useful information for people starting out with alpacas, and those who are seriously into showing and breeding alpacas. They are the world’s largest alpaca association with over five thousand members and more than 260, 000 alpacas on their registry database.

In addition the AOA is provides information for people who design, make and sell alpaca products and services. So if you are a spinner, weaver, knitter or designer they can help you with tips on designing, producing and marketing your product.

How long do alpacas live?

They have a life expectancy of around 20 years so you can look forward to many years of fun with them on your homestead.

When are they ready to breed?

Females are ready to breed from the age of 16 to 24 months and males from the age of 24 months usually, but sometimes they mature at a younger age and if you are not going to breed with them then it is better to wether them – have them castrated, otherwise they can make a nuisance of themselves within the herd.

If the female is ready to mate she will drop down into the ‘couch’ position with her forelegs folded. If not she will let the male know with a spitting display!

How long is the gestation period?

The females are pregnant from between 11 to 11 ½ months (315 to 370 days), before giving birth to a single baby called a cria that usually weighs between 15 and 19 pounds. It is very rare for twins to be born. Crias born in the autumn will have had a shorter gestation period than those born in the spring, which usually take a bit longer to appear in the world.

Registering and Breeding

When buying for breeding the pedigree of the animal is important. Do your best to register animals born on the homestead; as if you ever have to leave the homestead it is much easier to find homes for registered animals.

Uncastrated males are difficult to find homes for, so if you are not planning on breeding with them then wether the extra males. They are popular as pets but make sure they go to a place where there is a small herd. One alone will be very unhappy!

When you females need to be mated, assuming you do not have an alpaca male on the homestead they can be taken to an alpaca farm once you have selected a suitable male and she will stay there for a couple of days.

If you don’t want to leave the animal for so long you can drive her to the farm, hang around for a few hours to see the deed has been done and hopefully return home with a pregnant female.

Many of these farms guarantee a live cria for the stud fee – so if the female isn’t pregnant or if the cria is stillborn or dies within 30 days of birth, you can take her along again free of charge.

Each farm is different so establish what the conditions are when you pay your stud fees. Alpacas rarely have problems with birthing and they are quite considerate, usually dropping the crias during the day – usually between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm.

Labor will take around 7 hours and you may notice that the female is restless and uncomfortable as she gets close to her time to give birth. You may have the very odd occasion when a birth happens at night.

cria alpaca nursing
Photo: cria alpaca nursing

Keep your vet’s details handy in case there is a breech birth but usually the cria will appear forelegs and headfirst and be ready to stand within an hour or so and will soon be nursing. The mothers gradually wean the crias between 7 and 9 months giving the mom a little break before the next cria is due.

Around 12 weeks after giving birth she will be ready to mate again. If you feel there is a real need to wean a cria early then realize this is not as gradual a process as the way the mother does it.

Separating the two will result in both being stressed – only do it if you have a solid reason – like the mother is ill or too weak to care for her young. Your vet will recommend the type of formula to feed to the young one.

Shearing an Alpaca

The shearing process for an alpaca is different to that of a sheep – we have all seen sheep shearers at work in real life, or on videos, where they plonk the sheep onto its rump, legs sticking up and get to work holding the animals from behind as they work their way around the fleece.

For alpacas you need two people to place the roughly 150 pound animal on its side for shearing. The reason is that they have a rigid backbone and cannot be placed in the position a sheep is placed for shearing. Once the one side is done the alpaca is turned over and shearing continues on the other side.

They are sheared annually in spring so they can be comfortable in the summer months and will have grown enough fleece to protect them from the winter cold. The summer temperatures will determine when you shear in the spring – if you live in a place that gets very hot then shear earlier while places further north may have to shear a bit later in the season.

Alpacas don’t shed their fleece so it is necessary to shear them to maintain them. On average you will get around 7 to 10 pounds of fleece from an alpaca and it will be 5 to 6 inches long.

Prices will vary but you can expect anywhere between $3 to $5 per ounce, which certainly helps in going towards paying for the maintenance of the herd.

Styles of shearing vary – often the Alpaca will be left with a topknot on its head giving it a somewhat punk appearance, sometimes the whole face is left unsheared, while other styles include leaving the legs unshorn so they look like they have really thick legs and there is even a style that make them look like a French poodle!

Before the first shearing takes place ensure your little alpaca is used to being hand-groomed with you picking twigs and burrs out of their fleece and that they are used to a halter otherwise the shearing experience can be quite traumatic. Kids can easily help with the grooming process.

Benefits of Alpaca Wool

The wool of both the Suri and Huacaya alpacas is soft and light to the touch while also durable. European fashion houses buy this luxury wool in order to create quality up-market garments. It is in demand as it is stronger than mohair that can be quite scratchy, is smooth as silk, softer than cotton as well as being as fine as cashmere.

Alpaca fleece does not have lanolin like sheep’s wool, which makes it a lot easier to prepare the fleece without the intense washing and chemicals used to get rid of the lanolin, and it is hypoallergenic.

alpacas in various colors
Photo: Various colors of alpaca grazing

The fleece comes in 22 natural colors which range from white to black with fawn, light brown, a rose grey and darker tones in that range, with other shades in between those tones meaning with such a range of natural color and tone it is not necessary to use dyes as the whole spectrum of natural shades that are so popular are present – unless a person particularly wants a bright pink or blue garment!

The fiber is flame resistant – meeting US standards, and is to an extent water resistant with the ability to wick away moisture from the body making it warmer than cotton and a bit lighter than traditional wool – a bonus in cold and damp climates.

What do alpacas eat?

Alpacas eat grass or hay, and for their body weight they don’t eat a lot – only 1.57% of their body weight per day so a 150-pound animal will need 2.25 pounds of fresh pasture or hay daily.

They are 100% herbivores but if you really want to give them a treat then they will enjoy chopped up apple – remove the seeds first, carrots, celery, or some lettuce.

They may even accept a few chunks of fresh pineapple. Be careful of overfeeding with treats or too much hay as fat alpacas can have problems in reproduction and birthing. Don’t treat them with bread, biscuits, nuts or grain based food as this could give them ulcers if fed on a regular basis and they could die.

close-up of alpaca head
Close up of alpaca head. Photo by J. Beales.

What will an alpaca cost?

The cost can vary from $100 to $1000 or more depending on the age, gender and how the animal has ranked at alpaca shows. Breeding stock will be more expensive, but a wether (a castrated male) will cost less as these are usually sold as pets rather than breeding stock.

If keeping alpacas as pets expect to pay around $500 for a healthy young animal. You may be lucky and find someone giving away an animal, but always get a vet to check their health before accepting them onto your homestead – you’ll see why when you read the diseases section.

How many should I buy?

a couple of alpacas
A couple of alpacas. Photo by J. Beales.

Never, ever keep just one alpaca – they are herd animals and love company, so one on it’s own may be very unhappy and die! Always have at least three animals. If you are not planning on breeding it may be easier to have wethers and maybe one breeding female who can be taken to another hobby farmer or breeder for mating if you decide you would like a cria.

If your homestead has one acre of pasture then it can support 5 animals without much supplementary feed. If you keep more per acre you’ll have to rotate pasture and give supplementary food.

It is a common mistake of hobby farmers to keep too many animals – the problem comes in when you can’t afford the extra food due to some unforeseen natural disaster or economic crunch. It’s best to have sufficient natural grazing so you are not reliant on income for feeding.

Do they get along with other animals?

Generally alpacas like to hang out with their own kind but will happily graze alongside horses, goats and sheep and may make friends with the family dogs if they don’t startle them.

Cats and alpacas can also be good friends. It all depends on how you raise them. They are herd animals relying on one alpha male to sound alarms. Although they are gentle animals they can be quite nervous – remember they are a prey animal like deer and horses and will tend to act cautiously if they feel threatened.

Once you get your alpacas, train them to a halter and they will be friendlier if they know that having a halter slipped on them means an outing to a new pasture, or some other pleasant experience like apple treats and neck scratches.

What sounds do alpacas make?

They hum for various reasons – when they have enjoyed their meal, when they feel contented, maybe if they are a little worried, even when they are curious about some new visitor to the homestead.

When they are startled by what they think is a predator one will make a braying sound and turn to face the direction of the perceived threat while the rest of the herd follow suit. When alpacas mate the males make a sound known as orgling.

If males are fighting they make a kind of screeching whistling noise with the intention of frightening the other male with the sound, without having to do anything physical.

Sheltering Your Alpacas

Remember these are not wild animals, they have been domesticated for thousands of years and are used to living near people. Although they have a thick fleece and are used to living at altitudes of between 11,000 and 16,000 feet in the Andean regions, they adapt easily to lower altitudes.

They will need a shelter from rain. They are herd animals so do not try to separate them into pens – give them one large roofed shelter where the herd can all huddle together. This way they feel more relaxed. The shelter may be open on two sides with protection from the worst of rain and wind.

Fencing for Alpacas

As long as they are with their herd these animals won’t challenge fences so a 3.5 foot fence is quite adequate to keep them in.

alpaca showing its teeth

Why do they have such funny teeth?

An alpaca doesn’t have an underbite – they just have teeth on the bottom jaw and a hard palate at the top, giving them rather an odd appearance when their lips are drawn back, as the bottom teeth seems to angle forward, making them look like candidates for serious dental work.

This enables them to nibble the grass rather than pulling up big chunks of it, which is much kinder to your pastures.

Do alpacas have hooves?

No – they have two soft leathery pads under their feet and two stubby claws at the front. This means that they don’t create holes in your lawn with hard hooves like goats will.

Caring for your Alpacas

Unlike other livestock that will drop their feces anywhere in a field the alpacas use a communal dung pile, which makes cleaning up and collecting dung for composting so much easier.

The dung is all grass and plant content and easily compostable. It is possible to ‘house-train’ alpacas if they have free access to get in and out of the house, and a spot for their dung pile outside has been established.

To clean themselves they enjoy taking a dust bath, but you may need to check eyes and ears to ensure there are no parasites, and may have to remove seeds and other matter from their fleeces.

Their toenails will need to be clipped around every six months if they are on soft pasture where the toenails are not getting worn down. There are special harnesses available to hold the alpaca without frightening it while this work is done – you’ll find these and various other services on the AOA website.

Diseases and Vaccinations

Disclaimer: the advice in this article is for information purposes. The author is not doctor

Tetanus

Let your vet administer a routine tetanus toxoid vaccination – this will prevent what is commonly called ‘lockjaw’ caused by Clostridium tetani. Animals can pick up these bacterial spores which may be in the soil, dust or feces and will get into their bloodstream via a wound – like a nick from shearing, a snag on a wire fence or a bite from another animal.

Rabies

A bite from an infected animal, be it a rat, skunk, coyote or any other creature that may carry the rabies virus will be disastrous, so get your vet to give your alpacas their rabies shots and annual boosters. Crias can get their first rabies vaccination at 3 months and the two-dose regimen is repeated after 30 days to ensure they are safe.

C&D Toxoid

This vaccination stops clostridium perfringens multiplying in the digestive tract producing deadly toxins. This proliferation can be brought on by sudden changes in diet – as with sheep, alpacas have 3 stomachs and the rumen fluid needs time to adjust to dietary changes.

If you are changing to a different feed do so gradually – like changing from pasture to hay or even different types of hay. This vaccination is usually given along with the anti-tetanus shot by the vet.

Meningeal Worm

This is the scariest thing for alpaca owners. The animal will lie down and be reluctant to get up, or struggle to get up, and it may appear unfocused and confused. Even the crias can get it.

It is a disease that is a white tail deer parasite, and minute little snails and slugs are its secondary host. Now the alpacas can get it if they come into contact where white tail deer have been and the infected snails get into the alpaca pasture where they are inadvertently eaten along with some grass.

Check with your vet and other alpaca owners in your area if meningeal worm is a problem so you can take preventative measure from the day you bring in your alpacas to the homestead. Symptoms appear around a month and a half after infection.

This is the gross cycle of the meningeal worm:

Adult worms live in the meninges (the lining of the brain) as well as the spinal columns of white tailed deer. When the worm lays eggs they are transferred into the bloodstream and find their way to the lungs of the animal where the larvae hatch.

The animal then coughs up these nasty parasites and swallows – so now they have found their way into the gastrointestinal tract where they eventually get excreted to start their cycle – slugs and snails of minute size crawl across the area where the feces are and become hosts eventually crawling onto grass which the animal will eat, not realizing these minute snails are being swallowed along with its mouthful of grass.

The meningeal worm is now back in the digestive tract and ready to move into the bloodstream and begin the whole nasty process of reproducing in the meninges and spinal cord. Not all worms get to the brain – some just stay in the spinal cord. If they go to the brain the animal may behave strangely appearing to be blind, or having seizures.

Now, while the worm doesn’t seem to cause a problem for the white tail deer it certainly causes problems for the alpacas and they will lie down or crouch as their nervous system is affected.

If meningeal worm is a problem in your area you will probably be advised to administer monthly injections or oral doses of Ivermectin usually 1mm per 100 pound of weight, to prevent the problem throughout the year – some people stop in the winter months but you need to keep it up all year to be safe. The Ivermectin will also get rid of other intestinal parasites.

Some animals show only mild symptoms, while others may become ill and die within days, so it is imperative to call the vet if your alpaca is off color. The animal won’t usually have a fever and will still eat, so don’t let this cause you to delay calling the vet.

If an animal has not had preventative treatment and seems ill the vet will usually give a five day course of Ivermectin, Banamine as an anti-inflammatory and Dexamethasone – an anti-inflammatory steroid or other similar medication, as well as an oral dewormer.

Unfortunately the vet can only treat symptomatically and will not be able to tell you with 100% certainty whether the animal has meningeal worm or not, as this can only be determined by examining sections of the spinal cord and brain under a microscope after the animal has died. The symptoms could be the result of much rarer problems like a brain abscess, mineral deficiency or bacterial meningitis, but meningeal worm is a more common problem.

An animal recovering from meningeal worm infection will need some supplements like selenium, thiamin, Vitamin E, and the B complex vitamins to aid recovery, as well as some physical therapy to help it regain full use of its limbs once more. Unfortunately nervous tissue doesn’t regenerate so if the animal is badly affected and cannot walk at all then the vet may suggest euthanasia as a kinder alternative than letting the animal struggle.

Do alpacas spit?

Like other members of the camelid family alpacas do spit – but mainly at each other for various reasons. It may be to establish a pecking order in the herd, in spit-offs over food, or to discipline another animal and show their displeasure.

If you want to know if your female is pregnant she will spit at the approach of a male who wants to mate. Fortunately alpacas do not routinely spit at humans. They will only do so if they are really scared, so rest assured you can lead your alpaca around by the halter, give it cuddles and groom it without being spat at as long as it feels secure in your presence.

decorated alpaca

Decorating Alpacas

Movies and photos show alpacas with pretty colored tassels in their ears – these are not just for show. In traditional societies where alpacas are kept the owners allow their animals to move around freely, and since they are herd animals they will come together during the day to graze and hang out.

The piercing of the ears and threading with tassels of various bright colors are a form of identification so everyone knows which animal belongs to which family. Of course decoration is taken further by making elaborate halters with tassels and little blankets to put on the alpacas, similar to the way Arabian horses are ‘dressed’ for special occasions. You may want to do this for photo shoots.

Hiring for Photo Shoots

Usually you need a wether or a cria. They should be halter trained and friendly as well as well groomed. Fortunately alpacas do not butt like goats and will not bite.

Often you will be asked to decorate them in specific colors to match a bridal theme, perhaps with a wreath or head decoration – just ensure they can’t reach to eat parts of their decoration that may be poisonous!

Wrap-Up

So, are you raising or thinking of raising alpacas? Share your experiences below, and don’t forget to pin this article on your favorite Pinterest board for later.

raising alpacas pin
Spread the love
  • 1.7K
    Shares

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *