Since ancient times, the South American Andes Mountains have been the ancestral home to the prized alpaca. Their fleece was cherished by members of the Incan civilization (referred to as “The Fiber of the Gods”), and their graceful herds of alpaca roamed the lush foothills and mountainous pastures. In the 17th century, Spanish conquistadors killed a large part of both the Incan and alpaca populations, forcing the retreating survivors to seek refuge in the high mountain plains known as the Altiplano. The high altitude and harsh landscape ens ured only the hardiest of these creatures survived, and these ancestors of today’s best bloodlines have provided a gene pool producing hardy, agile animals with dense, high quality fiber. In 1984, a small group of importers brought the first of a carefully selected herd of highest quality alpacas into the United States and Canada, and they immediately became a beloved part of the North American landscape.
Peru, Bolivia, and Chile are still home to the largest percentage of alpacas in the world, and alpaca breeders in the United States have learned much from their southern neighbors. Alpacas are a member of the camelid family, which also includes dromedary and Bactrian camels, llamas, vicunas, and guanacos. They are a modified ruminant and chew their cud similar to a cow, although they have three stomachs rather than the true ruminant, which has four. Alpacas selectively graze, eating pasture grasses and hay, a fact that makes feeding alpacas relatively inexpensive. A daily mineral supplement rounds out their diet.
There are two different alpacas types, the suri and the huacaya. The suri has fiber that grows quite long and forms silky, pencil-like locks. The huacaya has a shorter, dense, crimpy fleece, giving it a very woolly appearance.
Alpacas have soft padded feet, making them gentle on their pastures, and they have no top teeth in the front. The average height of an alpaca is 36″ at the withers, and they weigh from 100 to 175 pounds. Alpacas are small and gentle enough to travel short distances in the family minivan and are easily handled by most people.
Alpacas have a life span of 15 to 20 years, so you can enjoy your alpaca for a long time. Not only do they have a long reproductive life, they will provide fleece for a lifetime, making your investment long-lived.
An alpaca’s gestation period is 11 to 12 months, and they have single births (twins are extremely rare). A baby alpaca, called a cria, usually weighs between 15 and 20 pounds.
Alpaca fiber comes in 22 colors that are recognized by the textile industry, and there are many blends in addition to that. Alpacas are shorn for their wonderful fleece each year, which will produce 5 to 10 pounds of soft, warm fiber that is turned into the most luxurious garments in the world. When it comes to raising alpacas, there is something for everyone.
Alpacas are alert, intelligent, curious and predictable creatures. They’re social animals that seek companionship and because they’re herd animals you need at least two or three for them to feel safe. They communicate by softly humming or with neck posturing, ear and tail positioning and head tilt. They use a communal pile to deposit their bean-like pellets, making them very easy to clean up after.
They are sheared without harm every each spring with their fleeces harvested to produce yarn and rovings and various products. They require adequate perimeter fencing, i.e., 5 foot high, 2×4″ no climb is ideal to keep predators out and you can have between five and seven animals per acre. They are given locally appropriate vaccines and annual vaccinations with tetanus. Fecal exams determine if parasite treatment is warranted. Breeders are discouraged from doing “routine” worming, which can lead to parasite resistance. They need occasional toenail and teeth trimming.
Their main end product is their fiber. It’s soft as cashmere, generally lighter and warmer than wool and it contains no lanolin. It comes in 22 natural colors and it also can be dyed.