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Thinking About Alpacas? Some Basic Questions and Answers
Raising alpacas continues to gain popularity with all kinds of people. Some are attracted by the lifestyle of owning a small animal. Others see alpacas as an investment opportunity (although we would argue that it is a business, it’s not an investment!) Those with a particular fancy for spinning and knitting may be attracted by the idea of growing themselves a source of beautiful fiber. Whatever the reason, choosing to raise alpacas is not an easy decision. We have compiled a list of questions and answers that we hope are useful.
Q: What are the “breeds” and colors of alpacas?
AThere are two types of alpacas: huacaya we had suri. You can see pictures of each on our website (see toolbox below). Both varieties have very soft wool, although they look very different.
Huacayas are “fluffy” or “crimpy” and often “bouncy” to the touch. Suri Flece always has straight hair with a high luster, which stays down and stops making “dreadlocks”. Both types of fiber are popular in the textile industry, with cria fibers generally fetching the highest price. Almost all of the 130,000 or so alpacas in the United States are Huacaya. Only about 5% or more is Suri. You will find eight “basic colors” of wool in alpacas: white, light, fawn, brown, gray, black, multicolored, and “infinite”. What this means is that there are many different colors out there, and some patterns, too. White is very popular with the clothing industry, because it can be dyed to almost any color.
Q: Do alpacas spit?
A: Yes. But it’s not always as you might think, and rarely are people. Spitting is both a defense and a form of communication. Often, the conversation is about who is asking for food, or who wants to be “taken care of” today.
And … just so you know … spit in this case is NOT spit. It is real stomach juices, usually with digested grass. It was a lovely experience.
Q: What kind of space do alpacas need?
A: Alpacas have a 3-chambered stomach, so they are highly efficient grazers, more than almost any other farm animal. A pasturing density of 6 to 7 alpacas per acre is usually reasonable, although density varies greatly with soil conditions, climate, and forage quality. Don’t forget that if you plan to keep breeding stock, you will need lots of fenced grass to accommodate groups of different sexes, and to allow for grass rotation. You need practice. The good news is that alpacas generally respect exercise. 4′ or 5′ no-long horse wall is a cost-effective choice. If you don’t have space for alpacas, consider boarding them in a zoo. Many alpaca owners start out this way.
Q: Do alpacas make noise? Will my neighbors complain?
A: Although we cannot answer the second question (it depends on your neighbors!), the answer to the first is that alpacas are very quiet. They laugh quietly, even when a little worried. If they see something really distressing, they may sound a fight call that some describe as a cross between a squeaky toy and a cry.
Most of the time, such a call means that a domestic cat has been found in the field…
Q: We do not plan to breed alpacas. Do they make good pets?
A: In fact! Many people think that the best alpacas for grazing pets are males that are not wild, called “fiber boys”. Alpacas are herd animals, so you will need at least 2, preferably 3. Alpacas are not like dogs. They are alert, curious, calm, and can be around when you are working in the yard. However, they probably spend their time with the herd, not with their people.
Q: What do you do with alpaca wool?
A: Alpacas produce fibers that are, bar none, the best in the world for spinning and weaving. Are you united? Then you are probably already aware of the exceptional qualities of alpaca yarn. Many small mills will take wool, wash it, card it, and spin it, with many options. Knitting with cotton from your own animals is very rewarding! Are you spinning? You can ask the mill to give you clean wool or rovings. If fiber arts aren’t your thing, you can sell your wool to mills, spinners, or even fiber cooperatives.
Q: How big are alpacas, anyway?
A: Alpacas are camelids, but small ones. Babies, called crias, on average weigh between 12 and 22 pounds at birth. Adults weigh between 120 and 210 pounds. A good adult stands about 36″ at the shoulder, and can look you in the eye if you’re under 5’3″. This means they are much smaller and can be a little more annoying to some people than their larger cousins, llamas (which is great, too – don’t get me wrong!). Once you know how to handle them, alpacas are generally easy to work with, although they can weigh more than you do.
QHow long do alpacas live? How much of that time do they spend emotionally?
A: Alpacas generally live 17 to 22 years, and they are very healthy for almost the entire time. We currently have a 14-year-old female in our herd who is expecting a cria this summer, and often leads the herd in making the grass area! Females can be ready to start breeding by 18 months of age. Males grow a little more slowly, and are all ready to start breeding around 30 months.
Q: How long are women pregnant, and how long after they give birth before they give birth again?
A: Gestation periods in alpacas range from a minimum of around 325 to a maximum of around 360 days, with an average of 345 days. Only births are legal. Alpacas are normally re-born in about 3 weeks after birth.
Q: What do alpaca babies look like?
A: It’s good. Amazingly cute. In the end, crazy cute. They are all up on their feet within 30 minutes or so after birth, and keeping active within an hour. Although a little shaky on their feet for the first day, they were up and with the herd very quickly. Weight loss in the first two weeks can be about one pound per day. Apart from some basic post-natal care, and some vitamins and vaccinations, crias generally require little special care. Crias nurse for 6 months, though, so mom will need extra calories and protein for nursing.
QWhat kind of care do alpacas need?
A: A small herd of alpacas is easy to care for. Fresh water, good grass, a daily supplement, and some mineral salts should do the trick for feeding. As natural scavengers, alpacas will eat anything nutritious you provide, including (thankfully) black grapes. However, some plants are poisonous to camelids. The archives on our website are referenced to a good book on this topic, and you can find more information on line. For shelter, depending on your climate, alpacas need a simple 3-sided shelter or a barn. Alpacas are generally shorn once a year, usually in early May here in the Pacific Northwest. For some before and after pictures, see the news section of our website. Shearing is a job for a professional, but it is much easier to work with an established local groomer to enter their shearing ceremony. In hot weather, especially in southern climates, heat stress can become a concern. Special cooling systems may be required.
Like other livestock, alpacas are susceptible to many parasites, internal and external. Your vet will have a management plan that you can adopt. Alpaca hooves require regular trimming (every three to six months, your mileage may vary), but if you have taught your alpacas to know the “feet” order, trimming should not be a problem.
Q: How do I take the next step?
A: First, know your goals. Breeding? Farming? pasture cattle? Second, decide your timeline: how soon and in what order do you want to reach these goals? Third, decide on your budget, and decide whether you will have your own hay, or will agist (drive) your animals at a farm. Fourth, take your time in finding animals that will help you achieve your goals. Don’t be in a hurry. Take your time. Talk to people from many breeding farms.
Want to know more? You can get started by visiting our website. There you will find many resources to help you find the right direction for you. We also invite you to contact us through the site, and if you are not too far away, come and visit us! If we don’t have what you’re looking for, or we’re too far to be practical, we can suggest pet stores in your area.
Copyright (c) 2009, Inti Alpacas Gift
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