Basic Alpaca 101
What is an alpaca?
Alpacas are fiber-producing members of the camelid family raised exclusively for their soft and luxurious wool. Their fleeces are normally sheared once a year. Each shearing produces approximately 3-6 pounds of fiber per alpaca, per year.
Fiber - Alpaca fiber is stronger and more resilient than even the finest sheep's wool. Unlike sheep's wool, however, alpaca contains no lanolin and is ready to spin right off the animal. It comes in 22 distinguishable colors with more than 300 shades from a true-blue black through browns-black, browns, fawns, white, silver-greys, and rose-greys. Alpaca fiber is considered hypoallergenic and will not irritate the skin. This is because the scales of fiber lie down against the shaft of each hair follicle.
Basic Alpaca Fiber Grades and Their Location
Alpacas are sheared once a year. When shearing an alpaca the fiber is sorted into three types.
Prime or Blanket: Comes from the area of an alpaca where a horse blanket would fit. Typically the finest, most uniform fleece from an adult alpaca. 3-7” in staple length with a minimum of coarser guard hair throughout fleece.
Secondary: Similar to Prime, with shorter staple length and slightly coarser handle. 1.5 to 5” staple length, slightly higher percentage of guard hair than Prime or Blanket.
Third-Grade: Coarsest of all alpaca fiber including the highest percentage of guard hair. 1.5 inch and up staple length.
Good quality alpaca fiber is approximately 18 to 25 micrometers in diameter. Finer fleeces, ones with a smaller diameter, are preferred, so are more expensive. As an alpaca gets older, the diameter of the fibers gets thicker. This is sometimes caused by overfeeding; as excess nutrients are converted to (thicker) fiber rather than to fat.
As with all fleece-producing animals, quality varies from animal to animal, and some alpacas produce fiber which is less than ideal. Fiber and conformation are the two most important factors in determining an alpaca's value.
Value of Alpaca Fiber
Each shearing produces approximately 5-10 pounds of fiber per alpaca, per year. An adult alpaca might produce 50 to 90 oz. of first-quality fiber (Prime area) as well as 50 to 100 oz. of second and third quality fiber.
This varies. In its raw state (fairly clean fiber right off the animal) varies from $2.00-$5.00 per ounce. Each stage of the process (cleaning, carding, spinning, knitting, finishing, etc) adds more valuable to the fiber. As a finished garment, it can sell for $10.00 per oz. Hand knit goods are more desirable and may sell for much more.
Two Breeds of Alpacas
There are two breeds of alpacas; the suri and the huacaya. The main difference between the two is in the fleece they produce. The huacaya fleece has waviness or “crimp”, which gives huacaya their fluffy, teddy-bear-like appearance. Suri fleece has little or no crimp, so that the individual fiber strands cling to themselves and hang down from the body in beautiful pencil locks.
The Alpaca's Physical Characteristics
Height - Alpacas stand approximately 36” at the withers (the point where the neck and spine meet). They are about 4.5 to 5 feet tall from their toes to the tips of their ears.
Weight - Female alpacas generally weigh approximately 110-150 pounds. Male alpacas generally weigh approximately 140-180 pounds. However, on occasion, some male and female alpacas can weigh over 200 pounds.
Toenails - Alpacas have a hard, protective upper toenail that must be trimmed every few months. The bottom of their feet is a soft pad with a leather-like consistency. Because of these soft pads and relatively low body weights (as opposed to other forms of livestock), there is little damage done to the ground in their pasture areas.
Teeth - Alpacas only have bottom teeth for eating. On the top is a hard gum pad against which they crush grain, grass, and hay in a back and forth grinding motion. Their upper lip is split to make this back and forth motion easier. Alpacas have a very short tongue that is attached to their jaw. Because of this, they cannot grab hold of plants and grass to pull them up by the roots as do goats, sheep, horses, etc. Alpacas nibble plants down to about ¼ inch, which enables their pastures to grow back quickly. Occasionally, teeth need to be trimmed. With males as they mature, “fighting teeth” develop and need to be blunted or sometimes removed.
Vaccinations - Depending on the presence of deer and other animals, most veterinarians recommend deworming. Climate and local conditions will determine the frequency and time period for deworming. Also, alpacas receive annual vaccinations against infectious diseases
Food - The primary food for alpacas is grass or hay. Alfalfa is discouraged because of its high protein and calcium content that can be unhealthy for alpacas. Alpacas do not eat much. Depending on the season and availability of grass, each alpaca will consume approximately one bale of hay per month. In addition, most alpaca breeders supplement the grass and hay feed with a grain mix containing additional vitamins and minerals. Alpacas are ruminants with a single stomach divided into three compartments, so they produce rumen and chew cud. The alpaca's digestive system is very efficient. One acre of pasture can handle five to ten alpacas.
Alpaca Poop - Alpaca's make use of a selected dung piles which facilitates pasture clean up. Their feces are one of the richest organic fertilizers available and do not have to be composted before spreading it in your garden.
How much space do alpacas need? - Depending on fencing, layout, rainfall, and other factors, one acre of grassland can support between 5 and 10 alpacas.
Reproduction - The courtship ritual of the alpaca is very unique. Female alpacas are induced ovulators, meaning that there are no heat cycles and that they can breed at any time of the year. The physical act of breeding is what causes ovulation to occur. For this reason, most alpaca breeders maintain separate male and female herds so that they can determine who breeds to whom and when.
Gestation Period & Offspring - The gestation period is 11-12 months. Females usually have single births. The newborn (called cria) weighs between 15-19 pounds, with delivery occurring usually during the daylight hours. The newborn cria is usually standing and nursing within 90 minutes of birth, and will continue to nurse until weaned at 6 months of age.
Life Span - In South America, it is believed alpacas live 5-10 years. However, without a major predator issue and with better nutrition and day-to-day care, we believe that the North American alpaca can live into the late teens or early 20's.
Alpacas have a very complex language of gestures that they use to communicate with each other. They use body posture, ear, tail, head and neck signals, several vocalizations, scent and smell, locomotion displays and herd response to communicate.
Spitting - Yes, occasionally alpacas do spit to signal their extreme displeasure, fear or dominance. There are variations of spit: air, grass, regurgitated stomach contents that are currently being re-chewed, and at times worse than that.
Supplies and cost of care
Fencing - While fencing is constructed to keep the alpacas in a designated area, breeders cannot ignore the reality of threats from predators. In Indiana we, fortunately, only have to worry about dogs and coyotes. You can use non-climb, is 4 ½ - 5 feet tall, and very sturdy. Two electrified wires run along the outer perimeter at 6 inches above the ground and on the top. These wires are there to prevent a predator from either digging under or climbing over. The small spacing between the fence wires, 2 inches by 4 inches, helps protect animals from getting their legs or necks caught. It also makes it more difficult to climb.
Shelter - Some type of shelter is required to protect alpacas from wind, rain, extreme cold and heat. The don’t like wind and heavy rain. Fans and baby pools are needed at times during hot summers.
Estimated cost of keeping an alpaca
This is only an estimated cost per year for one alpaca (it is recommended to have two since they are herding animals)
Hay 15 bales orchard grass @ $6.00 each $ 90
Vaccination/worming $ 5
Shearing $ 30
Teeth trimming $ 10
Plus vet costs (depend on need and treatment)
Supplies such as nail clippers, cria & alpaca coats, halter, etc.