Helpful Tips to Know About Raising Alpacas
For most people, keeping alpacas is easy if you provide for their basic needs. They used to be rare in the United States, but since importation in 1984, their numbers have greatly increased. When I made the investment to purchase alpacas in 2005, it was almost impossible to find a female for under $20,000. My first female cost even more than that. But over the years, as numbers have increased, alpaca value has gone down. This is a good thing for those who want to acquire alpacas without spending a fortune. Chances are you may even find free alpacas that are in a rescue-type situation. I have rescued eight alpacas the last few years from people asking if I would like to take them in.
Alpacas have soft hair called fiber that is warmer than wool. They are easy on the environment with pads instead of hooves, and they don't eat much in comparison to their body size. If you are interested in alpacas, you have come to the right place! Read on to learn more.
Breeds of Alpacas
There are two different types of alpacas: Huacaya alpacas and Suri alpacas. Huacaya alpacas have dense natural fibers, which gives them a teddy bear look. Suri alpacas, on the other hand, have long silky locks. Their hair does not have any crimp, unlike the Huacaya that has crimps in their fiber.
Colors of Alpacas
Although there are only two types of alpacas, alpacas can be one of twenty-two different colors. This is more than any other fiber producing animal. Their colors include white, beige, light fawn, medium fawn, dark fawn, light brown, medium brown, dark brown, bay black, true black, light silver grey, medium silver grey, dark silver grey, light rose grey, medium rose grey, and dark rose grey. You also can find pintos or paints that have a combination of those colors.
How to Feed Alpacas and What to Feed Them
Keeping alpacas is easy as far as feed for animals is concerned. They do well on fresh grass or grass hay. One alpaca animal will eat approximately two pounds per 125 pounds of body weight per day. You should feed about 1.5% of the animal's body weight daily with hay or fresh grass. In other words, a single, 60-pound bale of hay can generally feed a group of about twenty alpacas for one day. However, your alpacas may eat more or less. An alpaca's diet is somewhat similar to a goat's diet. However, one thing you don't want to do is feed your alpacas grain. Multi nuts, horse nuts, pig nuts, or bread should be avoided because it can cause ulcers and possible death.
The average lifespan of an alpaca is fifteen to twenty years of age. However, some alpacas may live longer while others may not live as long. As of today, the world record for the longest living alpaca is twenty-seven years of age. If you are properly caring for your alpacas, there is nothing stopping your alpacas from living a long and healthy life. With that being said, just like humans, tragedies and sickness happen. Once, I found a healthy male alpaca dead in the morning. The night before I had petted and hand fed him, and he appeared healthy, happy and energetic. The necropsy performed by my veterinarian the next day revealed a twisted intestine. These kinds of ailments can strike any animal at any time. Overall, though, sudden deaths are rare.
How to Shear an Alpaca
For shearing an alpaca herd, you have two options. The options are to hire a shearer or do it yourself. I will briefly discuss several things to consider for both options.
Hiring a Shearer
If you hire a professional shearer, plan on spending money per head of each animal. Costs will vary depending on what the shearer charges which often is dependent on how far the shearer must travel to your place. A shearer may bring a team with him or her. They will usually stretch each animal out with bands and shear them on a shearing table or on the ground with tarps placed underneath the animal to keep the fiber clean. At this time, they may clip their toenails and administer yearly shots if you have agreed ahead of time with the shearer. Plan on seeing your animals stretched out and in some distress as they go through this process. At this time, you should be available to collect, sort, and bag the fiber. Your shearer should go over the routine with you before shearing.
Hand Shearing Yourself
I'm a Do-It-Yourselfer and I know many people who read this site are also DIY-ers. The advantages are many for shearing your own animals. Let’s discuss some of those advantages. First, you don't have to hire a shearer so you'll save some money. Second, your animals will most likely be way less stressed if their own shepherd shears them. Third, you can work around the weather much easier than hiring a shearer ahead of time. I like to shear on a nice day and can easily cancel my plans if the animals are wet from the rain. You won't want to deal with wet fiber because it will require drying before bagging it. Always shear a dry animal. Fourth, you may enjoy the time with your animal. Shearing only occurs once a year, and when you get good at it, you may get the whole routine of shearing, shots, and nail trimming down to under thirty minutes per animal. For me, it's a time to assess the animal's health and do a body check.
When hand shearing, you can decide whether to shear your animals standing (I use a handmade shearing chute), buy a shearing table, or stretch them out on a tarp. You will also need to decide if you want to use electric shears or hand shears. I've tried both over the years and greatly prefer hand shears. My animals are less stressed by the quiet of using hand shears. I use Fiskars Shears (scissors) that you can buy at Walmart or other stores in the sewing section.
Sorting the Fiber
If you will be using the fiber or selling it for a profit, make sure to divide the fiber into primary or firsts (blanket fiber which is found over the back, basically where a blanket would sit like on a horse), seconds, which is found on the neck and upper leg fiber, and thirds, which is found on the belly and lower leg fiber. If you guessed that the primary fiber is the softest fiber, you are correct. However, all of the fiber is valuable depending on what you use it for. I use the softest fibers for next to the skin finished products such as hats and gloves. Seconds and thirds can be made into items such as rugs, dryer balls, ropes, etc. It all has value if you plan on selling the fiber for a profit or using the alpaca wool as income. Make sure to bag the fiber separately and put the animal's name and year it was sheared. I also like to weigh it and record the weights as well.
Ideas for Using Their Fiber
Yarn can be made by sending your fiber to a mill to process it for you, or spinning it yourself on a spinning wheel or drop spindle.
Weaving is the process of taking yarn over and under itself and involves warping and weaving. Some processes of weaving suri fiber utilize warping and weaving at the same time.
This fiber art involves a single hook that threads through loops of yarn that forms material.
Knitting is the process of creating stitches by using two needles.
By using hot water, soap, and friction, you can manipulate fiber into all kinds of creations.
This is another form of felting. Dry felting involves using either a single felting needle or multiple felting needles with barbs on the ends that can be used to created shapes and patterns with fiber. And as the name suggests, it is a dry method with no water needed for the felting to occur.
Alpaca can be carded and stuffed into quilts, pillows, and even clothing to provide insulation for warmth.
How to Provide Protection for Your Herd
All animals, including alpacas, need some type of shelter. In this section, I will discuss how to provide shelter and other types of protection for your alpaca herd. Let's get started.
Alpacas will need shelter from the snow, rain, hail, and any other harsh weather. A shelter will also provide shade during the summer. A small barn will work well for alpacas. Make sure all of your alpacas will be able to fit into the barn. Also, make sure that water and food are available in the barn so that your alpacas can eat and drink even when there is a storm outside.
Besides building a shelter, you will also need to invest in and build a fence. A fence will ensure that your alpaca herd won't leave your property or get into places you don't want them to be. It is recommended to have one acre of land for every five to ten alpacas. However, if you will be feeding them hay and other feed as an addition to grass, you may not need an acre. It is important though, that your herd has enough room to run around. When building your fence, make sure it is strong and secure. It is recommended to have five-foot high fencing. If you plan on separating males from females, you will definitely need a secure fence. When your males want to breed with your females, a weak fence will not hold them.
When building a fence for your alpacas, you will once again want to use a five-foot high fence. However, if you are feeding your alpacas and giving them plenty of love and care, they shouldn't want to leave their yard. But it is always safe to have tall fencing so that predators cannot come in. Besides, alpacas often assume the grass is greener on the other side. If their yard has become a large patch of dirt, your alpacas will try to get to the grass on the other side of the fence. A strong fence will help keep them in. Make sure that the fence you build does not have large square openings, such as cattle panels. If the openings are too large, an alpaca may get its head stuck. If you do not check on your alpaca herd often, they may die of dehydration, starvation, or hurt themselves while trying to become free.
Although the alpaca is related to the llama, which is a guardian, alpacas will not defend themselves. Instead, they will scream when a predator tries to get them. Their scream is high-pitched, and can sound like an elk. To protect them from predators in your area, you will need to place a guardian with them. Livestock guardian dogs make great guardians. A donkey will also protect your herd. Or you could try putting the alpaca's cousin, the llama, with them. Whichever guardian you decide to use, make sure you properly care for them too. For example, if you buy a llama, make sure you have enough hay/feed to feed him or her.
Alpaca vs Llama: What's the Difference?
Alpacas and llamas are both camelids (related to the camel). However, people often confuse llamas with alpacas. Although alpacas and llamas can look the same, there are actually many differences. First, alpacas are bred for their fiber while llamas are usually bred for packing. Although llama fiber can be used to make items, alpacas are not used for packing. Llama hair isn't always as soft as alpaca fiber, because llama hair has guard hair on it. Secondly, llamas are much bigger than alpacas. Adult alpacas can weigh 120-180 pounds, while llamas can weigh up to 450 pounds. Besides their weight difference, llamas also look much bigger. Thirdly, llamas have long "banana-shaped" ears, while alpacas have shorter, spear-shaped ears. And lastly, alpacas need protection from predators, while llamas act like guardians. Although even a llama can be prey to a predator, usually they will guard themselves as well as other animals. In fact, it is common for alpaca farmers to put a llama with alpacas so that the llama will guard the alpacas.
Alpacas are not for everyone, but they are perfect animals for some people. If you enjoy the fiber arts you may be interested in the business investment and profit that comes from owning some of your own alpaca herd. You will need an acre or more to keep them on. Also, plan on getting a minimum of three, and ideally more since alpacas are a herd animal. If you can provide water, food, minerals, fencing, protection from predators, yearly shearing, shots, possible veterinary care, daily feeding, and other items pertaining to herd health, and can check on them at least twice a day, keeping alpacas may be the right fit for you. They are intelligent, sweet, and for the most part, quiet and docile livestock animals.
Image Source: Mariann Foster