Alpacas originate from South America, where they were originally kept by the Incas as an important source of both food and clothing for the ancient Inca civilization. Their numbers were dramatically reduced during the Spanish invasion in the 16th Century, where they were slaughtered and replaced by sheep and cattle. The remaining alpaca herds fled to the inhospitable altiplano, the remote mountainous plateau regions of the Andes, where the cattle and sheep that were not suitably adapted to such a harsh environment and terrain, could not survive. Alpacas are able to survive the extremely harsh conditions of the altiplano due to their specially adapted hooves, which enable them to handle the rugged terrain, combined with a thick fleece that protects them from the adverse climatic conditions experienced at these high altitudes. Alpacas are still kept by nomadic herdsman, and farmers in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina today, and are exported to various countries across the world as a foundation of alpaca fleece industries in other countries.
Types of Alpacas
Alpacas are a member of the Camelid family, which has four species that are found in South America: the alpaca, llama, guanaco and the vicuna. There are two different breeds of alpaca, distinguished by a difference in fleece traits. The most common is the huacaya, whose dense fleece grows perpendicular to the body, giving them a fluffy rounded look, similar to sheep. The less common suri is distinguished by long, soft and silky fleece with a high luster that hangs parallel to the body, giving it a flat sided appearance. Both breeds come in a variety of colors and shades, ranging from white, fawn, brown, grey, rose-grey, to black. Alpacas may possess a solid color fleece or may come in a combination of any of these colors.
It is this thick, luxurious fleece that has been treasured for thousands of years, and which is still in demand all over the world today. The fleece is harvested by shearing the animals once a year, where the fleece is spun into alpaca yarn that is then used to make exclusive garments such as alpaca sweaters, coats, scarves and hats, and can even be used to make alpaca blankets or soft baby toys such as alpaca teddy-bears.
Alpacas also make excellent herd guards, and are becoming popular with farmers as livestock protectors to keep predators, such as jackals, away from their sheep and other livestock. Gelded males, or wethers, are usually sold to fulfill this role, while trained wethers may also be sold as pets. Besides being farmed for their exceptional quality fleece, and for use as herd guards, there is also a market for show animals and breeding stock, especially as this is still a relatively new and growing industry in countries outside of South America.
Alpacas are very easy to keep, as due to their hardy nature, they are resilient and require little maintenance. They are ruminants, and essentially grazers, but will occasionally browse vegetation as well. In their native habitat grasses and sedges are their preferred diet, however, they will readily graze on any pasture suitable for sheep, which can be supplemented with oat hay, lucerne hay or meadow hay when forage is in short supply.
The average lifespan of an alpaca is approximately 15-25 years, but with advances in farming techniques, improved herd management and animal husbandry methods, together with being exposed to milder climates in many countries they are exported to, many alpacas live into their late 20’s.
Alpacas and Llamas: Differences & Similarities
Alpacas and llamas belong to the same family, and as they have many similarities, they are often confused. However, it is very easy to differentiate the two. Firstly, llamas are much bigger than alpacas, which are generally half the size of a llama. Their large size makes llamas suitable as pack animals and for pulling carts, whereas an alpaca is too small, and lacks the strength required for either pulling a cart or carrying packs. Alpacas have finer fleece, and are farmed predominantly for their high quality fiber. Llamas on the other hand have a much coarser fiber that does not possess the fine quality of alpaca wool. Another visual distinction is that llamas have curved ears, whereas alpacas ears are straight. Llamas are more independent, and can be kept individually, whereas alpacas have a strong herd instinct and should not be kept in isolation.
Interesting Alpaca Facts
Temperament: Alpacas are docile, sweet natured animals with even temperaments. They are easily halter trained, and easy to handle and transport. When intimidated they will defend themselves, or their offspring, by spitting aggressively at an intruder.
Low maintenance: Alpacas are low maintenance animals to keep. They are hardy and readily adapt to a variety of climatic conditions. However, due to their dense fleece they do not do well in areas with a high humidity.
Ruminants: Alpacas are functional ruminants that have three stomach compartments rather than four traditionally found in other ruminants. They are not prone to bloat like other ruminants.
Environmentally Friendly: They are environmentally friendly animals to keep as their softly padded feet cause minimal damage to fragile soils, and they are not inclined to ringbark trees. They require very little chemical dipping or drenching, and the processing of the fleece requires less chemical additives than that required when processing other natural fibers.
Reproduction: Females reach puberty between 12-18 months of age, and males are sexually mature at 18-36 months. There is no fixed breeding season and females can be mated all year round. The gestation period averages 11.5 months, where the female usually gives birth to a single offspring (cria), although twins are produced on rare occasions.
Breeding alpacas is a long-term investment. Currently, the alpaca industry is still in its infancy and consequently there is a high demand for breeding animals. As alpacas give birth to a single offspring (cria) every year, it takes a while to grow a herd, unless you have the budget for the outlay required to purchase a large herd of breeding stock initially. However, high quality breeding animals are expensive due to the high demand and limited availability. Consequently, many new breeders start off by purchasing a small herd of breeding females, usually sold pregnant, who they use to gradually expand their herd. Prices of animals vary depending on characteristics such as age, sex, proven breeder, quality and density of fleece, conformation, etc., with the cheapest animals being gelded males (wethers), which are usually sold as pets, companion animals, livestock guards, or for fleece production. Young weanling females (not sold pregnant) usually cost slightly more due to their breeding potential, while low quality females and older females (sold pregnant) cost slightly more, with high quality super fine females (sold pregnant) being priced higher still, and herd sire quality males older than three years usually being the most expensive animals to purchase, with younger herd sire quality males under three years selling at lower prices. The biggest outlay for you alpaca breeding venture will be for the purchase of initial breeding animals, as well as setting up the necessary infrastructure such as barns and fencing to protect your valuable stock.
Example of Estimated Start-up Costs
- 1 pregnant female + 1 young female $30,000 – $40,000
- Barn/Shelter + Fencing $12,000 – $30,000
- Feed (1 years supply of feed/hay) $500
- Veterinary Reserve $1000
- Insurance $1000
- Miscellaneous Equipment $500
Estimated Total Start-up Costs $45,000 – $73,000
There are multiple markets for alpaca breeders, from supplying fleece to cottage industries, providing breeding stock to other alpaca breeders, supplying farmers with livestock guards, or the sale of animals for companion animals and pets. When purchasing alpacas for a breeding program, it is best to consider your long-term goal, and what you would like to achieve.
You need to consider the following points when choosing your alpaca market niche:
- Are you wanting to breed huacaya or suri alpacas, or both?
- What colors do you want to breed? Some breeders opt for only white alpacas as the fleece can be dyed to any color, while others prefer to specialize in a more unusual color, or raise a herd of mixed color alpacas for the variety this offers.
- Are you wanting to breed alpacas for pets, show stock, production females, or for fleece production? Prices and demand for each of these markets varies substantially, and your choice will impact your budget and potential market.
Featured Image By Emmanuel Huybrechts[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons