The first rule of alpaca husbandry is that these herd animals are best kept in pairs. Beyond that, however, these are marvellously adaptable animals, adjusting to a wide range of climates with the correct help from their keepers.
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And you’ll have someone to call when something comes up you didn’t anticipate or don’t know how to handle! Never underestimate the importance of being able to make that phone call. I think you’ll find that alpaca people tend to be a pretty clannish and close-knit bunch. You should have no trouble making new friends, and learning the industry from the inside.
Take the following husbandry information as a primer in the basics so you can go in armed with specific questions. I can’t stress strongly enough the need to conduct research and prepare your facilities fully BEFORE you purchase your first alpacas.
Although there are many criteria that can be applied to the purchase of an alpaca, you will want to consider some of the following general points:
- Choose animals that have a pleasing appearance to the eye, including straight legs and a body shape that is well balanced.
- Over the ”blanket” area, which is essentially the area that would be covered by a saddle blanket on a horse and down the sides toward the belly, the fleece should have an even texture.
- You should only be able to see guard hairs on the front ”bib” or chest and potentially some on the neck.
- If purchasing a male for breeding purposes, make certain the testicles are equal in size.
- Buy only from reputable breeders with a solid record in the show ring and see references from satisfied clients.
Upon purchase, you should receive some form of ”handover” report that includes information like date of birth, injections received, mating dates if applicable, and ultrasound dates if applicable.
All breeding stock should come with veterinary health certificates which will be necessary for insurance purposes. Pregnant females are generally sold with some form of a live birth guarantee and stud males with a fertility guarantee.
In the vast majority of cases, providing a three-sided shelter with one open side, usual on the east to south-east side works well for alpacas as it does for many kinds of livestock. Alpaca’s can also make great companions for other types of field animals and livestock, especially horses who can co-exist well.
The reasoning on the positioning of the open side is to shelter the animals from cold north winds and rain while giving them easy and unencumbered access. This arrangement can, of course, vary by region.
The construction of the shelter can follow any number of designs appropriate to region and circumstances. If the shelter is to be temporary, stacked straw bales covered by a tarp is an inexpensive approach.
In more permanent circumstances, barns are used, often with heated floors and automatic watering and misting systems, especially in breeding operations.
Space is the most important consideration. Allow 20-30 square feet / 1.86-2.8 m2 per alpaca.
Concrete floors, if possible, have a distinct advantage, especially when drains are incorporated into the design for washing out urine. Dirt and crushed stone or gravel has to be periodically removed.
Typically straw bedding is provided, especially in the cold months, which also must be ”mucked” out to keep it clean of accumulated urine.
Neither wood shavings nor sawdust is a good choice for flooring or bedding material for use with alpacas. Both cause debris in the fibre that lowers the quality of the fleece at shearing time.
Methods of Cooling
Alpacas need shade in the summer to escape the heat of the day, but even on the hottest days you’ll find these animals lying on their sides taking in the full sun. This can be disconcerting for first-time alpaca owners, but like cats, alpacas love a good sun bath and will stay there until their fleece is almost too hot to touch.
If you opt for a fan in the barn / shelter, be careful to buy one that is specifically designed for agricultural use. The housing must be capable of keeping high levels of dust out of the motor compartment or the unit will be highly susceptible to overheating, which is a significant fire hazard.
Don’t shop for a fan in your local department or discount store. Go to a farm store or agricultural catalogue. The cost will be greater, but the safety factor is an imperative.
In more arid regions, the use of misters for cooling is quite common, and also highly effective. Other cooling techniques include sprinklers, soaker hoses, and damp patches of sand.
Alpacas should not have access to ponds or deep water, however, as soaking will cause the fleece to rot and break. If the fibre becomes matted from being wet, heat cannot dissipate from the skin and the potential for overheating will increase. Bodies of water can also be a vector for the transmission of disease and parasites.
In the winter, any body of standing water in a pasture is a significant hazard to the alpacas. They can easily slip on the ice, fall through, and drown.
Fencing and Other Protective Measures
The number of fenced areas or pastures you will require for you alpacas depends on whether or not you will be breeding the animals. If so, you will need to plan for 3-4 fenced areas:
- one to house the females
- one to house the males
- one for young males to protect them from aggression
- one for animals just weaned
Under the best possible circumstances you will have enough land to rotate the animals through a series of pastures to prevent too much grazing and to allow the available forage to recuperate.
If you show alpacas, you may also want to have a quarantine pasture for the animals routinely moved on and off the land to guard against the spread of any infectious diseases.
The purpose of fencing with alpacas is primarily for containment and to keep predators out rather than to keep your alpacas in. They are very passive animals and unlike other types of livestock, will not challenge fences.
In choosing your fencing materials, remember that alpacas have long necks and exhibit a tendency to stick their heads through open spaces. Traditional cattle fencing with net wire on the bottom and 2-3 single strands on the top offers too many enticing gaps for alpaca.
Non-climb horse fencing (welded mesh) works well, as do cyclone (chain link) fences. Try to avoid ”New Zealand” or high tensile fences made of single strands of wire at spaced horizontal intervals. Never use barbed wire, and use plastic fencing as a temporary expediency only.
If you can afford to do so, consider having a perimeter fence for predator control that is at least 5 feet / 1.5 meters high. Six feet / 1.8 meters is even better.
For predators with a tendency to dig under fences, bury mesh wire to a depth of at least one foot / 0.3 meters. Electrified fencing is also an option on the perimeter.
Use alpaca safe materials for the interior fence at a height of 4-5 feet/ 1.2-1.5 meters.
(Note that the use of guard dogs with your alpacas can be an excellent security boost in areas with high predator activity.)