Introduction to Alpacas

The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is camelid indigenous to South America that has been domesticated for the cultivation of its fibre. Camelids are members of the Camelidae family, which includes llamas, vicunas, guanacos, dromedaries, and Bactrian camels.

Camelids

In physical form, camelids are large mammals. Many are big enough to serve as beasts of burden, but the alpaca is not among that group. These animals are herbivores and quasi ruminants with three-chambered stomachs.

Four of these creatures look very much alike: alpacas, llamas, vicunas, and guanacos.

Llama – Although very similar to the alpaca, llamas are larger, with longer heads and curving ears. Like the alpaca, however, llamas are only known in their domestic state. Be temperament, they are more aggressive, and are often used as guard animals.

Vicuna – Vicunas have long coats that are woolly in texture. They are brown on the back and white on the throat and chest. They live exclusively in South America and have not been domesticated. At the shoulder they stand about 3 feet (75-85) cm tall.

Guanaco – Also a wild animal, the guanaco is similar in size to the vicuna, but just slightly larger. They have grey faces, with a body colour that ranges from dark cinnamon to light brown. The underside of the body is white. With less than 600,000 guanacos left in the mountainous ranges of South America, they are considered to be vulnerable from a conservation status.

Dromedaries are Arabian and Indian camels, with the traditional ” camel” physical appearance and a single hump. The Bactrian camel, which is indigenous to Central Asia, is a shaggy, short, domesticated pack animal with two humps.

Quasi-Ruminants

Their three-phase digestion distinguishes camelids from true ruminants. When camelids eat, the plant matter is first passed to the rumen, where a process of microbial fermentation occurs.

From the rumen, the partially digested food moves to the reticulum, which is filled with a fluid that serves to separate solid and liquid materials from the ingested feed matter.

The solids are clumped together to form a bolus, commonly referred to as a ”cud,” which is then regurgitated and chewed again before being passed to the real stomach, the abomasum.

Even-Toed Ungulates

Camelids are also even-toed ungulates. Many large mammals are ungulates. They use the tips of their toes or hooves to sustain the bulk of their body weight when they are in motion. This diverse group includes:

  • pigs
  • peccaries
  • hippopotamuses
  • camels
  • llamas
  • alpacas
  • deer
  • giraffes
  • pronghorn antelope
  • sheep
  • coats
  • cattle

Camelids are relatively long-legged animals, standing on two central toes with nails. Some species have surviving third and fourth toes as dew claws.

Alpaca Characteristics

Alpacas are unique in the fibre industry in that their hair naturally grows in 52 natural colours (as classed in Peru), with 12 recognized by the Australian alpaca industry, and 16 by farmers in the United States.

Adult alpacas measure 32-39 inches / 81-99 cm at the withers or shoulder, and about 5 feet/ 1.5 meters from the ground at the head. Adults weigh 106-185 lbs. / 48-84 kg.

Unique Behaviours

Alpacas are social animals living in family groups dominated by an alpha male. The lifespan is approximately 20 years. They have a number of interesting and unique behaviours.

Communal Muck Piles

A group of alpacas will choose a spot away from their grazing grounds to create a communal dung pile. Female alpacas tend to all go to the dung pile at once, while males maintain smaller, more individual piles.

This behaviour has an added health benefit in that it limits the spread of internal parasites among group members. It also makes pasture maintenance much easer!

Tolerance of Handling

Alpacas have a reputation for being friendly with their human keepers if they receive early socialization and are worked with on a regular basis.

They do, however, have an aversion to being grabbed suddenly, which is in keeping with their role in nature as prey animals. They also don’t like to be touched on their feet, lower legs, and abdomens.

Spitting

Camels have a reputation for ”spitting,” which is also a potential behaviour among alpacas. My father nursed a lifelong hatred of camels after having been spat upon by one in North Africa during World War II.

With alpacas, the ”spit” is actually an acidic blob of partially digested grass brought up from the stomach and hurled at other alpacas. For instance, females refusing a male during mating will spit to signify their displeasure.

The good news is that alpacas rarely if ever spit at humans!

Vocalizations

Alpaca groups communicate with a fairly complex vocabulary of sounds, emitting high-pitched shrieks to indicate danger and a ”wark” when excited.

Clicking or clucking indicates a friendly or even submissive reaction, while humming is a comforting and contented sound. Fighting males scream at one another with a cry that is oddly bird like.

Indigenous Range

Alpacas are native to the high Andes Mountains of the southern part of Peru, northern Bolivia, northern Chile, and Ecuador.

They live year round at altitudes of 11,500-16,000 feet / 3,500-5,000 meters above sea level. There are two species, the Suri and the Huacaya.

This region, called the Altiplano, Andean Plateau, or Bolivian Plateau is a semi-arid to arid region with a cool and humid climate.

The annual temperature varies from 37-53 F / 3-12 C and the average annual rainfall is 7.8-31.5 inches / 200-800 mm.

Some parts of the area can see seasonal lows of -4F / -20 C, and snowfall typically occurs in the north between April and September.

Interestingly, however, alpacas are amazingly adaptable to different climates with appropriate help from their keepers. Depending on location, your animals will require shelter for warmth and shade and potentially cooling measures like fans and cool spray misters, but they will thrive under a wide variety of conditions.

This adaptability has allowed the alpaca to be carried well out of its native range in South America, and the animals are now raised successfully around in the world.

There are thriving alpaca farms throughout North America, in the UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand among other locales.

Huacaya and Suri

There are two types of alpacas Huacaya and Suri. Approximately 9500 of the alpacas you will encounter are Huacayas.

They have crimped fibre that grows perpendicular to their skin creating the appearance of a fluffy teddy bear. Even in its raw condition, the fibre is pleasing to the touch, soft, and very warm.

Suri Alpacas look like the reggae singers of the animal world. Their long, shiny hair hangs in ”dreadlocks” that are extremely soft and slightly curly.

The lustre of the Suri fibre is so high it seems to glisten in the sun and feels like fine silk to the touch.

Although both types of alpaca fleece are considered to be luxury textile fibres, of the two, the Suri are the rarest alpacas cultivated. Their fibre commands much higher prices on the international market.

History of Alpacas

The domestication of both alpacas and llamas dates from the period 4000-5000 BC in South America, but it was the Inca who were particularly focused on the production of fine textiles as a symbol of wealth.

During the height of their culture’s dominance from 1438 to 1532, they kept meticulous record of flock sizes and engaged in an active breeding program to ensure pure colours in the animals.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores at the border of the Incan empire in 1528, the quality of the fibre produced was far superior to that seen today. Mummified animals were discovered in 1991 that affirm this fact.

The Spanish conquest, however, completely wiped out the results of centuries of selective breeding with the

destruction of more than 9000 of the existing alpacas and llamas in the region.

In their place, the Spanish introduced their own livestock, forcing the surviving alpacas and llamas into habitats only marginally suited to their survival.

Alpaca fibre was not rediscovered until the 1860s by an English entrepreneur, Sir Titus Salt. The political instability of Central and South America complicated the preservation and cultivation of the remaining animals, however. Radical land reforms in the region brought extant numbers of alpacas down to 2.5 million by 1992.

In the 19805, large numbers of alpacas began to be exported to the United States, Australia, and Europe. Breeders in these countries and in other parts of the developed world have worked to establish registries with accurate DNA information for the express purpose of improving bloodlines.

On a global basis, the alpaca population is now believed to be around 3 million. The majority of those animals are still found in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, but alpaca farms can also be found throughout North America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Europe.

The presence of these farms does not necessarily mean that a viable alpaca-based fibre industry is present in those countries, however.

Types of Alpaca Markets

The current state of the alpaca industry in any country where the animals are present can either be termed a breeders’ market or a fibre market.

The former is a developmental phase focused on accumulating the necessary genetics to make the fibre produced competitive in the world market and a sufficient number of animals to ensure a volume of fibre.

In order for a market to transition from a breeders’ climate to a full fibre stage, the national herd size must be large enough to support the activity of the mills. Additionally, there should be fewer people entering the business in relation to the number of animals present in the country.

At that point, alpacas are bought and sold at a price point that actually supports their production. In a breeders’ maker, the prices commanded are astronomical, as befits elite stock intended primarily to create a superior genetic foundation.

The United States, for instance, is currently a breeders’ market. It is estimated that there would have to be 1 million alpacas in the US. before a fibre market could be established. Currently in the Unites States there are 53,000 alpacas.

Alpacas as a Business

There are so many ”models” for alpaca ownership that it’s impossible to suggest there is any one ”right” way to have these creatures in your life. For people who own a few acres and want engaging pets, alpacas are an excellent choice.

Some fibre artists want to own a few animals in order to harvest the fleece for their own projects. More ambitious owners hope to cultivate premier breeding stock commanding high sales and stud fees.

Each of these categories of alpaca ownership comes with unique risks and benefits.

In the United States, for instance, alpacas held as breeding stock for more than a year qualify as a long-term capital gain. when sold and are thus considered valuable assets that are 100% insurable.

For a period of five years, the animals are depreciable, giving their owners tax savings while building their herd. Additionally, all expenses related to the alpacas’ care are deductible:

  • feed
  • veterinarian care
  • husbandry supplies
  • farm equipment
  • computers used in flock management
  • travel costs for alpaca shows
  • show fees
  • advertising costs

Depending on the state/regional tax code, alpaca owners may also see a reduction in their real estate taxes. Obviously all tax provisions vary by country, but these kinds of savings can be a major benefit of ownership.

Veterinary Care

Most vets in the UK will not have any experience treating alpacas. You should register with a vet in advance in case of emergency. If you need assistance locating one, contact The British Alpaca Society. Alpacas will typically cost around the same as a horse or pony when requiring treatment.

If you have problems paying for treatment, many vets will offer a payment plan. If that is not available, try and put the bill on a low interest credit card. A last option in an emergency would be to take out a same day loan. There are many loan options with no credit checks if you are stuck. You should always compare the rates available on these payday loans as some may be expensive.

Prices for Alpaca Fleece

Alpaca fibre is a high demand / limited supply textile. As such, owners have little trouble selling fleece to hand spinners or to fibre co-ops or similar sources.

Many purchase spinning equipment and produce their own textile products, which they sell in stores on their alpaca farms. As I said, there is no one ”right” way to be in the alpaca business.

As a gauge of fibre prices, a clean, good-quality fleece sells for £1.8-£3 an ounce (28.34 grams). Therefore, an

alpaca fleece weighing 3.18 kg would generate around £298 in income!

Typically that price is more than adequate to cover the annual cost of feed, veterinary care, and maintenance for one alpaca. Unlike most livestock, alpacas can earn their keep quite nicely!

Stud Fees

If you own a fine male ”herdsire,” you can make an even better income on stud fees, which start in the range of $1,500 / £893 and go up depending on the quality of the animal in question.

Most farms offer three forms of stud service:

  • drive-by breeding
  • farm breeding
  • mobile mating

In ”drive by breeding’ ’ females are transported to the farm where the stud is resident and remain there for a brief period (two-days is standard).

For ”on farm breeding” the female generally remains at the stud farm for 60-90 days, where she receives routine care and ultrasound to confirm the success of the mating.

With ”mobile mating” the stud male is transported to the farm where the female is resident. These arrangements are generally limited by distance, and the stay will also be brief.

Obviously given the degree of associated services, each level of stud service is priced differently.

Alpaca Pedigrees

Bloodlines are extremely important in the alpaca industry, with stud males having the greatest influence on programs to improve fibre quality.

The largest alpaca pedigree registry in the world, Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI) is located in Lincoln, Nebraska. It is a non-profit entity created by the Alpaca Owners Association, Inc. (AOA) in 1988 for the benefit of US. breeders, which has since expanded to include registration of alpacas in Canada and throughout the world.

The ARI database includes the genealogy of approximately 250,000 alpacas and is based on advanced DNA technology to protect the existing gene pool. Every registered animal must be validated as the offspring of two ARI registered parents.

The Certificates of Registration issued display up to five generations, which is a tremendous asset for breeders to verify the integrity of their investment in breeding stock.