Helpful Tips to Know About Raising Alpacas

Alpacas are easy keepers 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 got into alpacas in 2005, it was almost impossible to find a female for under $20,000.  My first female cost more than that in fact.  But over the years, as numbers increased, alpaca value has gone down. This is a good thing for those wanting to acquire alpacas without spending a fortune.  Chances are you may even find free alpacas now days as a rescue situation.  I've rescued 8 the last few years from people asking if I'd 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.

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Breeds of Alpacas

There are two breeds of alpacas:  Huacaya and Suri.  Huacaya alpacas have dense fiber, 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 does have crimps in their fiber.

Colors Alpacas Come In

Although there are only two breeds of alpacas, alpacas come in 22 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. 

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How to Feed Alpacas and What to Feed Them

Alpacas are easy keepers as far as feed is concerned.  They do well on fresh grass or grass hay.  One alpaca 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 20 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 could cause ulcers and possible death.

Alpaca Lifespan

The average lifespan of an alpaca is 15 to 20 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 27 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 ailments happen.  Once, I found a healthy male alpaca dead in the morning.  The night before I had pet and hand fed him, as 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.  Those options are to hire a shearer or do it yourself.  I'll briefly go over some things to consider for both options.

Hiring a Shearer

If you hire a professional shearer, plan on spending money per head of 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 often will stretch each animal out with bands and shear on a shearing table or on the ground with tarps placed down to keep the fiber clean.   At this time, they may clip their toe nails and administer yearly shots if you worked this out ahead of time with the shearer.  Plan on seeing your animals stretched out and in some stress as they go through this process.  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.  I'll go over 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 under way less stress if their own shepherd shears them.  Third, you can work around the weather much better than hiring a shearer ahead of time.  I like to shear on a nice day, and can easily just cancel my plans if the animals are wet from the rain.  You won't want to deal with already wet fiber, as it will require drying before bagging it.  Always shear a dry animal.  Fourth,  you may enjoy that time with your animal. It's only once a year, and when you get good at it, you may get a whole routine of shearing, shots, and nail trimming down to under 30 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 to either shear  your animals standing (I use a hand made shearing chute), buy a shearing table or stretch them out on 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 quietness of hand shears.  I use Fiscar Shears (Scissors) that you can buy at Walmart in the sewing section.

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Sorting the Fiber

If you will be using this fiber or selling it, make sure to divide it into Primary or Firsts (blanket fiber which is over the back, basically where a blanket would sit like on a horse),  Seconds which will be the neck and upper leg fiber, and thirds which is 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 are using it for.  I use the softest fibers for next to the skin finished products such as hats and gloves.  Seconds and thirds can be items such as rugs, dryer balls, ropes, etc.  It all has value.  Make sure to bag it up separately and put the animal's name and year you sheared it.  I also like to weigh it all up and record those weights too.

Ideas for Using Their Fiber

Spinning

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.

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Weaving

Weaving is the process of taking yarn over and under itself.  It involves warping and weaving but in some ways of weaving you can warp and weave at the same time.

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Crocheting

This fiber art involves a single hook that threads through yarn and loops of yarn into material.

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Knitting

Knitting is the process of creating stitches by using two needles.

Wet Felting

By using hot water, soap and friction you can manipulate fiber into all kinds of creations.

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Dry Felting

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.

Stuffing Things

Alpaca can be carded and stuffed into quilts, pillows and even clothing to make it insulated.

How to Provide Protection for Your Herd

All animals, including alpacas, need some type of shelter.  In this section I'll go over how to provide shelter and other types of protection for your alpaca herd.  Let's get started.

Shelter

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 is available in the barn so that your alpacas can eat and drink even when there is a storm outside.

Fencing

Besides building a shelter, you will also need to build a fence.  That way your alpacas 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 5 foot fencing.  If you will be separating males from the females, you will definitely need a secure fence.  When your males want to breed with your females, a weak fence will not hold them.

As for fencing out a yard for your alpacas, you will once again want to use 5 foot fencing.  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 his head stuck.  If you do not check on your alpacas often, he may die of dehydration, starvation, or hurt himself while trying to become free.

Guardians

Although the alpaca is related to the llama, which is a guardian, alpacas will not defend for 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.

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Alpaca Vs Llama:  What's the Difference?

Alpacas and llamas are both camelids (related to the camel).  However, people often confuse llamas with alpacas.  But 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 their 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 a guardian.  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 people to put a llama with alpacas so that the llama will guard the alpacas.

Final Thoughts

Alpacas are not for everyone, but they are a perfect animal for some people.  If you enjoy the fiber arts you may be interested in owning some of your own alpacas. You will need some land to keep them on.  Also, plan on getting a minimum of 3, 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 and daily feeding and checking in on them at least twice a day, alpacas may be for you.  They are intelligent, sweet and for the most part quiet and docile animals.

Image Source:  Mariann Foster

Mariann Foster

I am one of our content writers for Everything Backyard. I am a mother and business owner of Big Horn Mountain Alpacas in Wyoming. I love farm life, cutting my own firewood in the mountains, and participating in local trail run races.

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