Alpacas -- Beautiful, Friendly, Playful, Rewarding -- But Is That All?
What Is An Alpaca Anyway?
The alpaca is one of four members of the camelid species of South America. The other three are the llama, which is also domesticated, the vicuna and the guanaco, which exist only in the wild. The alpaca is thought to have descended from the vicuna.
Alpacas were a cherished treasure of the ancient Incan civilization and played a central role in the Incan culture that was located on the high Andean Plateau and mountains of South America. With the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, other domestic animals from Europe slowly replaced the alpaca. The number of alpaca dropped until the 1920's when a new appreciation for alpaca fiber began. By the 1980's the production of alpaca fiber had become a strategic economic resource in Peru. Alpacas were first imported to the United States in 1984 and are now being successfully raised and enjoyed throughout North America and abroad. Alpacas are still quite rare, with between 100,000 and 120,000 residing in North America today. There are also approximately 5,700 alpaca farms in the United States alone.
Alpacas produce one of the world's finest and most luxurious natural fibers. During the reign of the Incas, alpaca fiber was reserved for only the Incan nobility and high-ranking officials. It is clipped once a year from the animal without causing it injury. Soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter and stronger than wool, it comes in 22 basic colors, more colors than any other fiber producing animal. Spinners and weavers around the world prize this cashmere-like fleece. There are two types of alpacas - the Huacaya and the Suri. Huacayas are fluffy with fine, crimpy fiber. The Suri's fiber curls in a spiral to form lustrous locks.
Alpacas are gentle, easy to handle, and environmentally friendly. The lifespan of the alpaca is estimated to be 15 to 25 years. Female alpacas can start breeding between 12 and 24 months of age (on our farm we wait until the 18th month or later) while the males typically mature at 2 1/2 to 3 years of age. The average gestation period is usually 11 to 11 1/2 months. A baby is called a cria and normally weighs from 12 to 23 pounds. Adult alpacas are not large only about 36" tall at the withers and weigh from 130 to 190 pounds. Alpacas have padded feet with 2 toenails, which leaves the terrain undamaged as they browse for grass. Instead of upper incisor teeth, alpacas have a hard pallet. Alpacas eat grasses and chew a cud. Clean up is easy since alpacas deposit droppings in only a few places in the paddock. They require minimal fencing and can be pastured at 5 to 7 per acre. Alpacas are very herd-oriented and do better if they have the company of other alpacas. Alpacas communicate in a variety of ways, mostly with quiet noises such as humming, body postures and occasional spitting when challenged or frightened.
Alpaca owners enjoy a strong and active national organization, Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA). The Alpaca Registry (ARI) has been established to help ensure accurate records and has a state-of the-art system to document bloodlines. Alpacas must be DNA tested in order to be registered. Most alpacas in the U.S. are registered. These organizations are aimed towards educating their members and the public and enhancing the alpaca industry as a whole.
With their ease of care, income potential, and tax advantages, alpacas have become popular with families who are searching for a business opportunity that will involve the entire family. The lifestyle and opportunity of working with these animals can be a great source of joy and satisfaction.