What is an Alpaca?
Alpacas are members of the camelid family originally from South America. Other members of the South American camelid family Llamas, Guanacos, and Vicunas. Alpaca's are smaller than Llamas & Guanacos, but larger than Vicunas. Alpacas are members of the genus Camelus, and are distant cousins to African and Asian camels.
There are two types of alpaca; Huacaya (pronounced Wuh-kai-ya) and Suri.
Huacaya are the dominate type found on fibre bearing farms because of its ease of processing. Although identical in body, these animals grow different fleece types. The huacaya, which comprises over 90% of the world alpaca population, has a teddy bear like appearance. Huacaya fleece grows perpendicular to the body and is crimped or ridged. The suri's fleece hangs down from the body in a variety of ringlet-type lock structures.
Alpacas are found natively in Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia throughout the Andes Mountains. They have been domesticated for thousands of years, but the species is believed to be millions of years old. Alpacas are treasured by the Moche people of Northern Peru, and have been traced back in recorded history to the Inca civilization. After the Spanish conquest of the Inca, alpacas were close to annihilation, but survived because of their ability to tolerate the harsh climatic conditions within the Andes Mountains of South America. Currently, alpacas can be found all over the world including Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia and New Zealand. Most of the world's population of alpaca still resides in South America and exports from those countries is no longer easily permitted by their governments.
How old will Alpaca's get?
Alpacas generally live for up to 20 years and occasionally longer.
Pregnancies last 11.5 months +/- 2 weeks, and usually result in a single offspring or 'cria'; twins are very rare (~1/1000 times rarer than twins in humans), and are not desired as they often result in death to one or both of the cria as well as the mother. Almost all births occur during daylight hours, and cria will have a birth weight of around 13-16lbs, and are able to walk almost immediately. Mothers are ready to rebreed just two weeks after giving birth.
How big will they grow to?
Full grown alpaca will average around 150lbs (110-170lbs) and grow to ~36" tall at their withers (shoulders), or ~60" to the top of their head.
What are they used for?
Alpaca's are primarily raised for their fibre. Alpaca are not raised specifically for their meat, but some people do eat alpaca. Eating alpaca in North America is socially compared to eating horse, but it is culturally accepted in South America and other parts of the world.
What is alpaca fibre like?
Alpaca fibre is one of the warmest natural fibres in the world, warmer than sheep's wool and is very fine, soft and silky. It is comparable in texture to cashmere, and merino sheep's wool. It is also a great alternative for people who are otherwise allergic or sensitive to wool. This is due to the fact that alpaca fibre does not have lanolin and each individual fibre strand is smooth (unlike sheep's wool which is barbed). Alpaca fiber is unusually strong and resilient. The strength does not diminish as it becomes finer as many other natural fibres do. Alpaca fiber can be hand spun, custom milled or commercially milled into a wide variety of yarn styles. The yarn is then hand or machine knitted, crocheted or woven into luxurious end products such as hats, scarves, gloves, mittens, socks, capes, shawls, tops, sweaters, jackets and blankets.
How many colours are there?
There are 22 recognized colours or hues of alpaca fibre in Canada, 16 of which are distinct solid colours including white and pure black. Alpaca is the only fibre bearing animal to have a 'true' black colour. In addition to the 16 solid colours there are several multi coloured classes including:
Pinto: An alpaca that exhibits two distinct colors in the blanket one of which is white.
Fancy: blanket fiber that exhibits three or more distinct (easily identified by the naked eye) colors of which the primary color is not grey.
Appaloosa: blanket fiber that exhibits six or more spots of distinct (easily identified by the naked eye) secondary color of which the primary color is not grey.
In addition, alpaca fibre will readily accept natural and chemical dyes and hold the colour very well. This means you are only limited by your imagination!
What do they eat?
Alpacas graze and do well on pasture grass and good quality grassy hay. Supplemental grains and minerals are also given to ensure a balanced diet throughout the year. Typically, an alpaca eats the equivalent of about 1 small square bale of hay every two weeks. Alpacas eat 2 to 3 pounds of hay per day and 0.75 of a pound (around a cup) of a supplement per day. Alpacas are modified ruminants with a three chambered stomach and will often be seen chewing their cud.
What sounds do they make?
The most common sound heard is a gentle humming sound which they use to communicate with each other and us. In addition to humming they also cluck, snort, grumble and make a squealing scream when in duress. Males during mating will make a deep throated sound called 'orgling' which will induce ovulation in the female.
Do they spit?
Yes, alpacas do spit to signal their extreme displeasure, out of fear or to assert dominance. Male alpacas will horse around, stand each other off and spit. Both males and females will spit at each other in dominance wars over food. Moms will spit at other mom's babies who try to suckle or mount her or get too close to her newborn. There are varying qualities of spit: air, grass, regurgitated stomach contents that are currently being re-chewed. Unlike llamas, an alpaca spitting at humans is uncommon unless they feel threatened or are agitated; if you get hit, you are usually in the wrong place at the wrong time!
Some other alpaca facts...
They have a smaller bio-footprint than sheep or any other fibre bearing animal making them great options for smaller parcels of land.
Their waste is very popular with gardeners and is being used as a natural fertilizer on organic farms.
They have lovable dispositions, are easily trained to halter-lead and are gentle enough to be handled by children.