About Alpacas

General Alpaca Facts

The alpaca is a domesticated member of the camelid family—the others being llamas, guanacos, vicuñas and of course the dromedary and bactrian camels. Alpacas are native to South America—from the high altitudes of the Andes of Chile, Peru and Bolivia—where they have been kept for their luxurious fleece for thousands of years.

Alpacas are about 1m high at the shoulder and an adult weights between 50–80 kg. The young, called cria, should be 6–8 kilos at birth. Castrated males are commonly known as wethers. Alpacas live for 15–20 years and females can breed for about 12 of these. The gestation period is 11–12 months and they nearly always give birth in daylight hours and usually with no assistance needed. Alpacas rarely have twins.

Alpaca Types

There are two types of alpaca: huacaya (pronounced wakaya) and suri (pronounced soo-ree). Officially they are one species. The suri alpaca is the rarest type, and has a fleece with long “dreadlocks” which hang loose and long. Huacaya alpacas have fibre which is shorter and denser and that is perpendicular to the body, like a sheep’s. Ninety five percent of alpacas worldwide are huacaya.

How Much Land is Needed to Keep Alpacas?

This question can’t be answered simply and really depends on the quality of your soil and pasture, the location of your land and the carrying capacity of it. Carrying capacity is often measured as Dry Sheep Equivalent per hectare (DSE/ha), and can vary from 1 to 10 DSE/ha. Talk to your local agronomist or neighbours as to the DSE of your land. One rule of thumb is to count one wether as equivalent to one Dry Sheep Equivalent, a pregnant alpaca as 1.5 DSE, and a lactating female as 2 DSE. Alpacas can do well on small acreages, so long as the land is not overstocked and you are prepared to supplementary feed when necessary.

Do Alpacas Need Special Fencing?

If it holds sheep it will generally keep alpacas. Barbed wire is neither recommended nor necessary. Alpacas do not challenge fences as a rule, though may clear standard height fences if overly stressed.

Do I Have to Feed Alpacas Anything Special?

Alpacas are very hardy grazers and do well on a variety of plants. The bulk of their diet should come from grazing where possible, or by feeding fibrous hay, with commercial alpaca mixes and licks provided for supplementary vitamin and mineral intake. Like other livestock, alpacas are susceptible to poisonous plants, and care should be taken that they do not come into contact with such plants that overhang fences. Alpacas do not require much water, but access to fresh, clean drinking water must be provided at all times.

What Impact do Alpacas Have on the Land?

Alpacas have soft pads, not hooves, and have less impact on the ground than a kangaroo. They do not rip grasses out by the roots, allowing faster regrowth. They defecate in communal piles, thus minimising the spread of worms.

How Easy are Alpacas to Manage?

Alpacas are very hardy, and are relatively disease-free when compared to other livestock. They do not require crutching or mulesing as fly strike is not a problem, owing to their dry fleece and naturally clean breech. Vaccination twice a year with the “5 in 1” vaccine used for sheep and goats is recommended to protect against tetanus, pulpy kidney, black leg, black disease and malignant oedema. Alpacas are susceptible to sporidesmin, a fungal toxin found in warm and humid regions that causes facial excema and staggers, and which can be fatal. Alpacas are easy to herd without the need for dogs, and require occasional teeth and toenail trimming. They do not suffer from footrot.

Do Alpacas Kick and Spit?

Yes, though these are primarily defence, not attack, mechanisms, and humans aren’t deliberately targeted. The spat material comprises regurgitated or recently chewed grass. Alpacas will spit if frightened, at each other to establish a pecking order, or at a male whose advances are not appreciated. This latter behaviour is actually very useful in determining if a female is pregnant. Alpacas will kick if they feel threatened from the rear. The kick is powerful but because the foot is a soft pad you'll often feel nothing more than a very sharp sting.

When Does Breeding Begin?

Females are mated when they are 12–18 months of age and about 45–50kg. Males begin working from 18 months to 3 years of age. Females are induced ovulators, meaning it’s the act of mating that causes ovulation. Alpacas mate in the “cush” position (sitting with their legs folded beneath them, as a camel). A female who is already pregnant will refuse to cush and will spit at the male to ward him off. Gestation is 11½ months on average, but healthy births can occur at 11 months, and pregnancies lasting over a year aren’t uncommon.

Can I Have Just One?

No. Alpacas have a very strong herd instinct and have been known to pine and die if alone. Two is the recommended minimum. If you have one pregnant female, you will find a companion wether invaluable.

Do Alpacas Make Good Pets?

If you understand that alpacas are livestock and not dogs or cats, and be allowed to keep their distance and not become overly familiar, you will find interaction with alpacas very rewarding, and in that sense they make wonderful pets. Don’t rush at them expecting them to reciprocate—stand quietly by and allow the alpacas to approach you. They are very intelligent animals and highly inquisitive—they won’t be able to resist checking you out and the start of a beautiful relationship will soon begin. If handled—not fondled—often as youngsters they will grow to be very quiet, and some may even eat out of your hand. They can be halter-trained easily with care and patience. Male cria especially should not be fondled or treated like the family dog as they can develop “berserck male syndrome” as adults, whereby they attempt to assert dominance and can become quite aggressive and even very dangerous to people.

How Many Colours are There?

The Australian Alpaca Association recognises twelve groups of colours: white, light fawn, medium fawn, dark fawn, light brown, medium brown, dark brown, black, dark grey, medium grey, light grey, and rose grey/roan. The Australasian Alpaca Breeders Association further recognises cream (between white and light fawn), rose grey and roan as two distinct colours, and black and true (blue) black. Alpacas with two or more large blocks of colour on the body are called multis or fancies.

How do You Shear Alpacas?

Alpacas are shorn once a year, usually in Spring when the weather is warm and before seedset. Alpacas are shorn stretched out on the floor or a shearing table, restrained by the legs. This protects both the alpaca and shearer from sudden movements causing cuts. One side is shorn first; the alpaca is then rolled over and the other side shorn. An alpaca will cut anywhere from 17–5kg depending on the age and quality of the animal.