About Alpacas

FEMALE – HEMBRA
MALE – MACHO
NEUTERED MALE – WETHER
BABY – CRIA

Alpacas are generally hardy animals, ideal for small farms and lifestyle blocks.

There are 2 kinds of alpaca in the world, the “HUACAYA” (Wa-cai-a) and the “SURI” (Soo-ree), with the Huacayas accounting for approx 90% of the population and Suris the remaining 10%. The Huacaya fleece stands out at a 90 degree angle to the body and is well known for its softness, crimp and density. A fully fleeced Huacaya looks quite spectacular! The Suri fleece has long pencil thin dreadlocks that hang from the body and sways beautifully as the animal moves. The fleece is silky and full of lustre.

ENVIRONMENT/SHELTER

Originally from the Alto Plano in South America, they can withstand very hot and very cold temperatures over a relatively short period of time. Although they dont have the luxury of shelters in their natural habitat, it is necasary for them to have shade in the summer, especially if carrying a full fleece, and shelter from the elements during winter, as they can get chilled in very wet and windy weather. Cria born during the wet winter months will need to be covered in a “cria coat” to prevent them from getting pneumonia. They grow quickly, so this needs to be checked every few days for fit. At 4 weeks, they should have enough fleece to keep themselves warm.

Alpacas also love to cool off in shallow streams or troughs during the hot months, which is wonderful to watch but does require a bit of extra cleaning on the trough side of things!

FLEECE

Alpacas come in 22 natural colours, ranging from white through to greys, fawns, browns and black. Their fleece (fibre) is luxuriously soft and amongst the best in the world. The Incas named it well when they called it the “Fibre of the Gods”

The fleece is also silky and extremely warm, much warmer than sheeps wool and without the stickiness of lanolin. Some people say you could spin a clean fleece as soon as its been shorn off the animals back!

You can blend alpaca fleece with merino or silk to name a couple of options, and commercially spun yarn is nearly always blended with merino wool, but many alpaca breeders prefer 100% alpaca to keep that truly silky feel.

You can of course blend different coloured alpaca fleeces together to produce some unique shades – blending white and black fleeces for example can produce some truly beautiful greys that can sometimes end up looking almost metallic.

It spins extremely well and is very popular with the cottage industry, often fetching up to $100 per kilo. Alpaca fleece can also be successfully dyed, but bare in mind it may lose some of its silkiness and lustre in the process.

There are many items being crafted from alpaca fleece these days, ranging from jumpers, hats, gloves, socks, scarves and blankets, as well as baby products for which it is ideal, having very little to no prickle factor.

Basically your imagination is the only limit when it comes to finding uses for this wonderful fibre!

SHEARING

Shearing is carried out once a year after the first shearing. It is a good idea to “tip” a crias coat at about 3 months of age, as the very fine fibre is like velcro and anything will stick to it, damaging the beautiful soft fleece. A crias fleece grows very fast and if not shorn at a young age, can reach up to 15cm in length at a year old.

Before shearing you should clean your animal as much as possible. Take out as many sticks, seeds etc as you can and put the animal onto your cleanest pasture. Its much easier to remove the rubbish while the fleece is still on the animal! The alpaca must also be dry for shearing, so its best to keep them under cover the day before if rain is forecast.

You can shear with either hand clippers or electric clippers. Most people opt for electric as its faster, leaves you with a cleaner looking animal and takes off more fibre. With handclippers you will end up with approx 2cm of fleece still on the animal, which isnt necasarily a bad thing as it does leave the animal with extra protection from the sun and elements. It will also, take approx twice as long depending on the experience of the shearer.

Alpacas are shorn in sections, as the fibre quality is not the same all over the body. The saddle (or blanket) is always the best quality and first off to avoid contamination. The shearer will then move onto the neck, upper legs, apron (chest), and then the lower legs and belly which will usually go into your scrap bin.

Alpacas are not keen on being manhandled and so need to be laid down on their side with legs stretched out and tethered. Once in this position they will usually settle as they realise there is no escape, this method is also the safest way for both animal and human.  Shearing can be done on the ground or on a special shearing table. Its usually easier to get them on the ground but the table does save the shearers back and knees, especially if theres a large number of animals to be done.

This is also a great time to trim toenails, check teeth and carry out any drenching or vaccinating that needs doing.  Ideally you will need 3 to 4 people to help out on the day, the shearer, another strong person to help hold and turn the animal, someone to sort and bag fleece as it comes off the animal and if possible another to catch the next animal and have it ready for the shearer. The quicker the process the less stress on both animal and humans!

FENCING

Alpacas dont require special fencing, with sheep fencing being perfectly adequet to keep them safely contained. Barbed wire is not recommended and hot wire tape a definite no-no! They can become tangled in these and some have actually strangled themselves, hot or not. Some people use deer fencing which is great if you can afford it, but is more to keep other animals such as dogs out, than being a necasary item to keep the alpacas in.

Races between paddocks are highly recommended for ease of stock movement, and it pays to think carefully about the layout of fences, gateways and yards. Alpacas will happily be herded by those they trust along a set course such as a race. A small yard or set of yards is essential for calmly containing the animals for vaccinations, halter training and matings, and when left open with feed inside, the animals soon learn not to fear it.

TOES & TEETH

Alpacas are easy on pasture causing no damage with their soft padded, 2-toed feet. They dont suffer from foot rot but do need their toenails trimmed on a regular basis. Different animals nails grow at different rates, so some may need attention only a couple of times a year while others may need seeing to more frequently.

Alpacas teeth grow throughout their whole life and will need grinding down occasionly. This usually applies to older animals, but teeth also grow at different rates, so its best to check all animals yearly at least, with shearing being the ideal time. An alpaca will have trouble eating if its teeth have grown well past its palette, so if you have an animal losing weight and off its food, this is the first thing to check.

VACCINATIONS

Adult alpacas need vaccinating every 6-12 months, depending on the risk rate of the area. Pregnant females should be vaccinated 1 month prior to giving birth, and their cria then vaccinated at 6-8 weeks and then again 1 month later.

ADE Injections need to be done yearly and are best done during the winter months when most needed. Cria should have their first ADE at the time of their second vaccination and then another 1 month later.

Drenching is very much up to the individual but the general rule is every 6 months. Many breeders will do regular faecal egg counts and only drench when the results deem it necasary. This is time consuming but helps aid against the problem of animals becoming drench resistant. Cria should be drenched when weaned from their mothers.

FEED

Feed requirements are similar to those of sheep, although they do need at least 30% roughage in their diets. They also need supplements in the way of multi-feed pellets, hay and lick blocks. Feeding pellets by hand is a good way to earn an alpacas trust, which is essential for ease of handling.

Pasture is of course important, with kikuyu being ideal along with plantain, clover, chicory, cocksfoot, timothy and tall fescue. Alpacas on rye grass dominant pasture need to carefully monitored for Staggers, a condition affecting the brain and nervous system. The symptoms are caused by an endophyte originally introduced to combat the Argentine Stem Weevil which destroys pasture. Its first noticeable by a slight head/neck tremor, and if left on the pasture develops into the animal staggering about as if drunk and eventually being unable to get up. Death could follow if the alpaca is left on that pasture but there is plenty of time to get the animal off and into a safe area while it recovers.

During the summer months, zinc is added to the pellets by the suppliers to help prevent facial excema. This is the only serious health hazard to alpacas living in warm, humid regions, and affects the animals very quickly. Prevention via feed and pasture management is extremely important.

Alpacas should have standard paddock hay available at all times, the long strands of hay are important to the digestive process. Pregnant females often need extra feed during late pregnancy and the first few months after birthing, especially if still feeding last years cria. You need to keep a close eye on her body condition and feed extra as necasary.

There are numerous feeds available, and we’ve found a lucerne chaff and pellet mix, with Fibrepro added for extra energy during the winter months being our personal preference. We also add garlic flakes and powdered ginger on a daily basis to help with parasite control.

REPRODUCTION

Females are reproductive for most of their lives, and can be mated from 1 year of age if well grown. The gestation period is 11.5 months or 335 days, with one baby being the norm. Multiple births are rare and often result in both babies dying due to being too small to survive.

Matings can be done any time of the year as the females are induced ovulators. The “orgling” sound made by the male during a mating sends a message to the females brain which in turn gives the signal to release the egg.

A female will sit for a male when she is ready, with the mating taking from 20-40 mins, but if she is already pregnant she will spit at the male and run away. This is called a “Spit-off”  and is the first and easiest way to test for pregnancy.

Once a female is spitting-off consistantly, a vet can be brought in to confirm the result via an ultrasound.

Alpacas usually give birth (unpack!) during the daytime to ensure the cria has plenty of time to dry off and get mobile before dark. They also have the ability to “postpone” the birth 2-3 weeks if the weather conditions are bad.

With a normal birth the cria will be up and feeding within 2 hours and once the dam has expelled the placenta, she will allow the cria to feed. The first milk is extremely important, as the colostrum contains antibodies to protect against illness and disease.

Most females tolerate human intervention when its needed, but its best to keep this to a minimum and let them bond quietly on their own if all is well. It also helps if you can keep the rest of the herd at a distance for the first couple of hours (pop mother and baby in a pen) as they are very inquisitive animals, and others may get in the way of them bonding. It usually isnt long before the cria is up, stable and ready to meet the rest of the gang!

BEHAVIOUR

Alpacas are very curious and intelligent animals. Theyre quiet but do have a distinct personality and a mind of their own. They make great pets, can be halter trained easily and travel well in a van or covered stock trailer.

They are herd animals and must not be kept on their own, they need the company of their own kind.

Spending time amongst your alpacas is the best way to gain their trust and importantly to get to know them enough to notice if one of them is not well. Over time they learn that youre safe to be around and will happily carry on with whatever theyre doing, giving you a chance to check body condition, inspect fleece etc.

Alpacas are head shy and see hands in their faces as a possible attack, so if visiting someone elses animals, go slow and let them come to you.

They can produce a number of sounds, from a soft humming when grazing and communicating with each other, to a whiney sound if unhappy and a high pitched alarm that sounds like a bird screeching very rapidly. Mothers also make a clicking sound to their cria. Stud males will make a very loud and aggresive screaming noise when fighting, and will do this as well as wrapping their necks round each other and biting at each others legs to sort out who’s the head honcho. It generally looks and sounds much worse than it is but occasionly there is some injury. They will normally settle and peacefully live together once the pecking order is all sorted.

Alpacas tend to choose a spot in a paddock as their toilet area, and wont graze that patch for a very long time. These spots are called ‘middens’ and help to control the spread of parasites. If these toilet areas arent cleared regularly, they will grow in size taking over more and more pasture, so its best and easiest to clear small amounts reasonably often. The dung can be put straight onto gardens for fertilizer and makes great compost!

Alpacas interact well with other species in general, and have been successfully grazed with cattle and goats, and dont mind cats or chickens etc paying a visit. They dont however as a rule like dogs, but can learn to accept their presence on a property if not so much in their actual paddock. An unknown dog will be met with alarm calls, and if entering  a paddock is likely to be attacked, especially if there are cria to protect. We keep a mature wether with our girls as a guard and when anyone brings a dog on the property, the girls all round up with their babies in a tight circle out in the middle of the paddock, while our wether is at the fence being all stern and scary! Alpacas have a very strong breastbone and can crush a dog to the ground of against a fence if attacked.

Its nice to know that these lovely quiet and placid animals have some self defense sorted out, as you cant watch them 24/7, as nice as that would be!