What is an Alpaca?

Alpacas are domesticated members of the South American camelid family which includes the llama, the guanaco ("wah-NAH-koh" or "gwah-NAH-koh), and the vicuña.  Other distant relatives of the camelid family include the more familiar Dromedary camel (one hump - of Southern Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa) and the Bactrian camel (two humps - of China and Tibet).

Quick Facts 

Baby alpaca is called: cria.

Breeding female is called:  dam

Breeding male is called:  herd sire

Average cria weight at birth:  10-19 lbs

Average adult weight:  100-190 lbs

Average adult height:  32"-39" at the top of the shoulder

Average lifespan:  15-20+ years

Average gestation period: 335 days (~11.5 months)

Alpacas give birth to a single cria, although twin births do rarely occur

First 10 alpacas brought into the U.S in 1980

Alpacas were first commercially imported to the U.S. in 1984

U.S. importation of alpacas stopped in 1998

There are over 3 million alpacas world-wide.

Today, there are over 202,000 ARI registered alpacas in the U.S.

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While alpacas are often confused with the larger llama (nearly twice the size of an alpaca), the alpaca was domesticated and bred for their fine, soft fiber.  Alpacas are shorn every 12-18 months yielding an average of 50-100 oz/animal.  Depending on the quality, the fiber can fetch approximately $2-$5/oz.  Alpaca fiber has an insulative quality and because the fiber has very little guard hair (compared to other fiber-bearing animals), it feels softer than wool.  There are approximately  22 different colors (with many variations and blends) of natural alpaca fiber - more than any other fiber producing animal.  These unique qualities of alpaca fiber make this fleeca a luxury within the textile trade.

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There are two breed-types of alpaca:  the huacaya ("wah-KI-ya") and the suri.  It is thought that 90% of alpacas world-wide are huacaya.  They have full, puffy fleaces with crimp found thoughout the fleece which gives them a woolly and round "teddy bear" appearance. 

The suri alpaca has an entirely different appearance with its lustrous, "penciled" locks which hangs gracefully along its body.

 

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Alpacas generally do not eat or destroy trees, preferring tender grasses.  The mouth of the alpaca is similar to that of a sheep or goat in that the teeth in the front of the mouth are only on the lower jaw (they have both upper and lower molars in the back).  This allows them to graze without pulling the plant up by the roots, thereby protecting grazing lands.  Each foot consists of two "toes" (also much like a sheep or goat) with nails protecting the tops and sides of each toe while padded soles underneath leave minimal damage to terrain.

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Alpacas are modified ruminants with a three compartment stomach. They convert grass, grains and hay to energy so efficiently that sometimes the diet needs to be monitored should the animal start getting too fat.  Eating less than other farm animals per body weight, the basic care of an alpaca can cost an average of $300-$500/year.  Although alpacas do consume smaller amounts of water due to their camelid ancestry, it is necessary to have a constant supply of clean, fresh water. 

One of the greatest contributions an alpaca makes to its own care (and which is a big help to the owner) is the community poo pile.  A herd of alpacas will use one or two communal dung piles in a pasture, thereby controlling the spread of parasites and making collection and composting manure easy.  Speaking of composting, alpaca manure is excellent fertilizer for gardens.  Because an alpaca’s digestive system breaks down the food so efficiently, their “beans” can be directly put on or in any garden area without the concern for plant burn.  We even have a neighbor who says that once they put alpaca beans in their garden, they stopped having problems with the deer eating their fruit and veggies.

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Alpacas are social herd animals and should always be kept with other alpacas.   They become stressed when by themselves and a stressed alpaca is not a healthy one.  As they are prey animals, they are cautious and nervous if they feel threatened.  They like having their own space and do not like an unfamiliar alpaca or human getting close.  However, once an animal has become familiar and comfortable with an individual, they will become more accepting of the human touch which is vital for total herd health and care.

Alpacas are a gentle, elegant, inquisitive, intelligent and observant animal.  Sitting amoung a heard of alpaca grazing contently or watching a group of animals stotting (pronging) around the pasture in the early evening is as peaceful a moment as one can imagine.  Alpacas are more than just a monetary investment, they are an investment in ones own growth, happiness and life.  They are a lifestyle.