What are Alpacas?
Alpacas are one of the six* species of camelids (Camelidae) of which four are South American and two are Asian/African. The four South American camelids are the Llama , the Guanaco, the Alpaca and the Vicuna. The Asian/African camelids are the two humped Bactrian Camel and the single humped Dromedary Camel. All camelids originated in North America around 10 million years ago. Around 3 million years ago some moved south and others moved north and across the land bridge between Alaska and Russia. North American camelid species disappeared. All remaining camelids are capable of interbreeding even after some species have evolved independantly for millions of years, although the fertility of the crosses between New World and Old World camelids is limited. It shows that despite appearances, all camelids are still very closely related.
Alpacas and Llamas have been domesticated for at least 7,000 years, which makes them one of oldest domesticated farm animals. *Whilst Alpacas (Vicugna Pacos) and the Llama (Llama Glama) are often regarded as separate species, it is clear from the study of their DNA that the Alpaca's ancester is the wild Vicuna and that the Guanaco is the ancester of the Llama.
Are there different types of Alpaca?
There are two distinct breed types. The most common is the Huacaya. The huacaya alpaca is the fluffy long-necked teddy bear looking one. They have a fine dense fleece standing out from the skin that covers the body, legs, head and neck of the animal. The more rare breed is the Suri. The Suri is a very elegant animal with a fleece that hangs in twisted pencils, rather like dreadlocks. The fleece of a Suri has such flat scales to the hairs, and those scales are spaced far apart, that it can feel wet and cool to the touch. A good Suri will also have a wonderful lustre to it's fleece that can be a spectacular sight when the sun catches it. The Huacaya also has good lustre (often referred to as brightness in Huacayas) but, it is less obvious until you open the fleece. The Suri probably accounts for around 5% of the alpaca stock.
Where do Alpacas normally live?
The vast majority of alpacas are farmed in Peru and there are smaller numbers in Chile and Bolivia. Most are farmed by peasant farmers on the high plains of the Andes at 10,000 to 14,000 feet, or more, above sea level. The nights are cold and are a few degrees below freezing most nights of the year, however, the days can be quite hot. The weather is mainly dry but, are interspersed with sudden rain and snow squals.
How long do they live?
Alpacas will live for about fifteen to twenty five years. Twenty years would be an average life span but, some have reached thirty years. Most females will remain fertile to at least fifteen years, but it depends on the condition of the animal as to whether you stop her earlier or, later.
Why keep Alpacas?
Alpacas are principally farmed for their superb fleece. Alpaca wool is one of the finest and softest available. The comfort of alpaca wool is partly down to the fineness of the individual hairs and partly due to the fact that alpaca hair has very flat scales. It is the raised scales that sometimes give rise to itching with other wools (and fibres thicker than around 30 microns)- alpaca wool can often be worn by people who have an allergy to other natural fibres.
Many people keep them purely as pets and others are more interested in breeding better quality stock. Whatever course one takes - whether as a business or as a hobby, they are very enjoyable and rewarding animals to own. There are a wide variety of colours ranging from pure white through to brown and black. There are 22 recognized colour shades. One can also have multicoloured/fancy animals. The multicoloured fleeces are very attractive but, usually need the different colours separated before being sent to the mill, but are valued by hand spinners and knitters.
When choosing your alpacas, you need to buy from responsible owners, preferably those belonging to the British Alpaca Society or equivalent overseas societies.
How many Alpacas can I keep?
One cannot have just one Alpaca. They are herd animals and become very stressed unless there are at least two and preferably three. Depending on the quality of your grass, you can keep between four and six to an acre. If the grazing is very good, it might be possible to keep up to seven per acre, however, one should keep in mind that during the Winter months the grazing will deteriorate.
How much does an Alpaca cost?
There is a wide range in pricing, depending on what you want in terms of quality, age, sex and breeding (pedigree). Geldings (wethers) are the least expensive and range in price from £300 to £750. Geldings make excellent pets and often produce some of the best fibre. Next come the young males (potential studs) that are not thought to be outstanding (although, they could turn out to be so), but may still be good enough to produce good quality offspring. These might range in price from £750 to £8,000. Females in middle age, could be £1,000 to £6,000 depending on their breeding, whether they are pregnant, or not, and who they are pregnant to. Some older females may cost more than this if they are particularly good. Younger females, with a good pedigree, will range in price from £5,000 to £15,000. Good quality proven stud males will cost anything from £8,000 to £100,000 plus. A number of breeders will offer half or quarter shares in top stud males and this can be a very good option to take up even if you have a large number of females but, is particularly useful if you don't (you, also, get a share of the stud fees). Remember, most breeders are VAT registered and so tax has to be added.
What do Alpacas eat?
During the Summer, supplementary feeding might not be necessary except for pregnant females, females with cria (baby alpacas) and working males. However, some owners feed hay, alfalfa and vitamin enriched supplements year round. Certainly, extra feed should be provided during the Winter months. There are a number of proprietry feeds formulated specifically for Camelids and can be obtained from most feed merchants. Camelid's require a high intake of minerals such as; copper, selenium, magnesium and other mineral salts (remember to keep sheep away from camelid feeds as the copper content is is dangerously high for sheep). Some animals have a tendancy to be greedy and, consequently get too fat. Try not to allow animals to get over-weight as it can lead to health problems and birthing difficulties.
How much attention do they need?
Alpacas are not nearly as time consuming as many other animals but, should be inspected at least twice a day for signs of injury or, being generally unwell. If unwell, they will often be away from the herd or, showing other signs such as behaviour that is not normal for that particular animal.
Apart from inspecting and feeding them and, very importantly, making sure they have plenty of fresh water, the main husbandry requirements are as follows:-
Their feet need trimming two to four times a year. For some reason light coloured toenails grow much faster than dark ones!
Huacaya alpacas need to be sheared once a year, usually in May, June or July (depending on whether they are still being entered into shows, weather conditions, when your shearer can fit you in etc). Suri alpacas are usually sheared every other year, but can be shorn yearly. Some owners don't shear for three years, but a maximum of two years fleece is allowed for showing. There are a number of UK based shearers as well as several who come over from Australia and New Zealand during the season.
Occaisionally, their teeth might need filing. Alpacas only have a bottom set of incisors that close on a hard top gum. The other teeth, that might need looking at, are the fighting teeth in males. These teeth usually erupt when the animal is about three years old, but can be earlier or later. The fighting teeth should have the sharp tips removed as, otherwise, males can damage each other (remember to do both top and bottom jaw fighting teeth). Some females will develop small fighting teeth from around four to five years old, these rarely get to a size where they require attention, but it is worth remembering when you put your fingers their mouth!
All of the herd should be given a chlostridial vaccine (Lambivac or Heptovac +P or Covexin 8 or 10) at least once a year, preferably twice. All should be wormed at least once a year (have faeces checked for worm egg counts, coccidia, e-mac and liver fluke at least twice a year by your vet and then, treat as advised). We routinely give chlostridial vaccines twice a year. Cria can be vaccinated against chlostridial infection from a few days after birth and again four weeks later. There are different schools of thought on how soon a cria should be vaccinated - some do it the day they are born, however, our Veterinarian does not recommend this and prefers it to be done at four to six weeks. Late born cria, late August on, should be given A, D & E vitamin injections every four to eight weeks (due to the lack of sun not enabling them to create/absorb enough vitamin D).We generally give all of our alpacas vitamin injections throughout the winter months. The other vaccination, that can be required, is for Bluetongue. Bluetongue has only recently been an issue in the UK but, Bluetongue variant 8 is a potential hazard to Camelids and other livestock. BTV8 vaccine should be given in two doses four weeks apart in the first year and then annually thereafter. Do not vaccinate within two weeks of giving any other vaccine, such as heptovac. The UK is currently (2011)Bluetongue free - so vaccination is no longer required and was not allowed to be administered after 5th June 2011 (other than 2nd doses if primary dose given prior to that date).
Alpacas can contract foot and mouth and although they do seem to be more resistant than most other livestock (and there have been very few known cases), this isn't of much help if you have a confirmed case, as it would still lead to a compulsory slaughter order - so bio security is very important during an FMD outbreak. Bovine TB is another growing threat to camelids. Again, Camelids seemed to be less likely than cattle to contract this disease, but recent events suggest that this may not be true. It can be devastating if members of your herd do get it (movement restrictions, slaughter of infected animals and not much compensation). There has been a small number of camelids that have contracted Avian TB and a few that have died from Rodent TB (Microti). See our Archive page for more on Bovine TB. Please, also,consult the BAS website for further information on this disease and how to limit your exposure (also, try http//:www.alpacatb.org). There is some evidence to suggest that keeping your alpacas in good body condition makes them less prone to get b TB, but is not a guarantee as most of those affected had good body condition. The best defense is good bio-security and badger proof fencing.Coccidia is a disease organism that mainly affects young animals and those that have suffered from stress (travel, poor condition etc). Common signs are straining at the dung pile and/or loose faeces. Cria will stop putting on weight and will look a bit down. This parasite is easily controlled with Vecoxan drench and it should be administered carefully in the proportions advised for the weight of the animal. Don't delay, but do get a feaces check as there could be other causes such as, E-mac. E-mac is another parasite and has probably come into the UK via imported animals from Australasia. Symptoms are similar to coccidiosis but, can be less obvious. A severe infection can be fatal, so early treatment is essential. This parasite does not always respond to Vecoxan and a stronger drench might need to be used such as BAYCOX. This product needs to be administered in the exact amounts instructed as it is easy to overdose, possibly resulting in the death of the alpaca (if in doubt, consult your vet). Liver Fluke is normally only a problem in wet areas and/or farms with ponds/streams as the larval stage of this parasite requires the use of a water snail in its lifecycle (however, it can sometimes be found on surprisingly dry pastures). There are various treatments available. Chlostridial disease can be fatal (this family of bacteria includes c-difficile). It is not usually the bacteria themselves that kill, but the toxins that they excrete. As soon as the toxins enter the blood stream death follows within minutes - hence the need for vaccination. Very rarely, an alpaca will not develop antibodies even if vaccinated but, this is always a possibility in all animals and can't be avoided (even so, the animal might never get infected). Lung Worm has not been much of a problem in alpacas, but has been diagnosed in a few individuals following very wet summers. It is easily treated with Panomec or similer drugs containing Ivomectin. The Symptoms are similar to pneumonia. Barbers Pole Worm is yet another parasite that has recently affected a few alpacas and requires early treatment with anti-parasite drugs if deaths are to be avoided but, to date, seems to be a fairly rare parasite in alpacas. Nematode Worms can be a problem. This family of worms is very large with varying life cycles (relatively few of the genus are parasitic). However, as it is a large family of worms, that still leaves quite a few that are parasites and these can have a severely debilitating impact on alpaca health. Most can be treated with Panacur drench, but for other parasites other drugs need to be used as many are now immune to Panacur. Mites are a common problem. There are a number of different types. One of the most difficult to deal with are sarcoptic mites that burrow into the skin and can cause mange. Drugs containing Ivermectin will deal with most mites but, some resistance is developing , so other drugs may need to be used. Some alpacas are particularly sensitive to mites and will suffer much more than other members of the herd and will develop areas of hard and thickened skin. Always treat all members of the group at the same time, even if only a few appear to have a problem (because, despite appearances, the others will have them)..paras
Halter Training. From about six months (or earlier in some cases) one can start to train your cria to lead on a halter. This is essential if you are going to show them and is useful even if you have no intention of showing.. It makes handling them a lot easier and makes them easier to sell, should you wish to sell any.
Unless you have your own selection of stud males, you will need to choose a stud for your girls. These can be brought to you (a mobile mating), you take your girl to the stud (a drive-by mating) or, you leave the girl at the stud for at least ten weeks (an on farm mating), The latter method is the surest way of getting a confirmed pregnancy but, it can be a little annoying to send your girl away for so long, especially if she has a cria at foot. On the other hand, mobile and drive-by matings can be unreliable and might entail a number of visits. Once pregnant, the female should not be transported for at least sixty days. From a Biosecurity point of view, drive-by matings are less of a risk, followed by mobile matings. Agisted matings (on farm), whilst being more likely to be assured of a successful pregnancy, are a much higher health risk for your alpaca. Not only from an infection point of view but, can lead to conditions brought about by stress.
Neutering males, that don't meet the required traits for being selected for stud duties, is an option. It is often said that it can make them more docile and easier to handle, although, we haven't noticed a significant change in temperament. The main benefit is that it allows one to keep males and females together without having unplanned mating problems - this might be particularly helpful in situations where there is limited space/number of paddocks (but do keep an eye on them as some castrates will still mount females and, whilst it wont result in pregnancy, the constant penetration can cause damage). It is not advisable to castrate males before they are 18 months old, preferably not until they are two years old. There are two main reasons for this. One reason is that males castrated early can grow too leggy (their legs sometimes grow a couple of inches longer than they should) and the other reason is that they can turn out to be much better animals in their second year than you thought they were in their first year. It is better to wait awhile rather than do something irreversible!
Do they need shelter?
Alpacas are very hardy animals, however, unlike sheep, they have no lanolin in their wool. This means that their fleeces get wet through in heavy driving rain, which can lead to them getting hypothermia and/or pneumonia, especially when young, old or recently sheared. Some people keep alpacas very successfully with just good natural shelter, such as thick hedges. However, some form of man made shelter is recommended. This might be a purpose built alpaca barn or, just a mobile field shelter. Any shelter should ideally provide sufficient room to allow each animal some personal space. They can squable if they are on top of each other. One, also, needs to keep entire males separated from open females. If there are no trees in the paddock, it is advisable to have some form of shelter to provide shade on hot summer days to avoid hyperthermia (over heating - a definite risk if still in full fleece).
What fencing is needed?
Ordinary stock fencing is adequate, although, depending on the size of mesh, one should be careful that they don't get their heads stuck. We use post and rail fencing with stock fencing on the outer fence of the farm. To keep young Cria from getting out, we use four rails (instead of three) for the nursary paddocks. Barbed wire must not be used at all. Alpacas don't react well to electric fencing but, we do know of breeders using electric tape quite successfully. On the whole, Alpacas will very rarely jump fences, so four feet, or so, is fine. The only times we've seen animals leap fences is when a mother was accidentally separated from her Cria and a male that wanted to get at an open female subsequent to a previously planned mating.
Ideally, for best biosecurity, you should consider double fencing your paddocks. For best biosecurity, the fences should be at least 10 feet apart. These gaps can make useful walkways for moving your alpacas from one paddock to another or, for making handling areas etc. We have recently double fenced every paddock. If you choose not to go to these lengths, it is still advisable to have at least one paddock arranged in this way, so as to provide a quarantine area for ill or newly introduced alpacas.
We had a four strand (mains powered) electric badger fence put around the entire perimeter of the farm at the end of 2009.The external gates are covered in badger proof mesh and the bottom of the gates are made flush with a buried wooden or concrete beam. Given the increasing risk of exposure to TB infected Badgers, this is a worthwhile expense. If you are starting from scratch, it may well be worth spending a little more and installing full Badger proof mesh fencing, that is below as well as above ground, to provide your perimeter fence. Wellground Alpacas can advise you with regard to the cost and practicalities of installing mesh fencing. We have found the electric fence to be 100% successful and we know of other farms that have found that even a single electric wire has worked (it is important to have a high power pulse to deter badgers).
What is the gestation period?
It is normally about eleven months and one week but, can be as little as ten months or over twelve months. Alpacas appear to have the ability to alter, to some extent, the gestation period depending on weather/feed conditions. Very rarely will they have twins, if they do then one, or both, will not usually survive (there appear to be a few more twins surviving and thriving. This could be due to better nutrition and a general improvement in knowing how to maintain premature cria).
Do they give birth easily?
Mostly, the answer is yes! They normally give birth mid morning. This is so that the cria can dry before the frosts of the Andean nights. Sometimes there are problems and if the birth seems unduly prolonged or, happens late in the day/at night, it is probably best to call in the Vet unless you know exactly what you are doing. Because of the long legs and neck, it can be very tricky to deliver a cria that is not correctly presented.
When a cria is born, one should make sure that the airway is clear and dry the fleece with a towel (not so much that all scent is removed). The umbilical area should be sprayed with gentian violet(or a similar antiseptic such as iodine) to avoid infection. If the weather is cold, the cria should be fitted with a coat and if really cold, both mother and cria might need to be kept in a shelter (preferably, where both can see others of the herd).
If the Cria doesn't suckle within the first five hours (they will usually suckle within three hours) it is important to bottle feed (or tube them) with colostrum. The colostrum is the first milk produced by the mother and provides essential immunization. After around eight to twelve hours, it may not be possible for the cria to absorbe colostrum. It is possible to purchase powdered colostrum and this should be obtained prior to birth - just in case! An alternative to colostrum is plasma (ideally obtained from geldings in your herd). A number of Alpaca breeders have some plasma available should you not have any. Unless one is experienced, a Vet should be called to administer plasma and colostrum if the cria needs to be tubed (one doesn't want liquid entering the lungs instead of the digestive system). If the cria seems a bit weak and is flagging after trying to suckle, a quick squirt of "kick-start" (or similar products produced for lambs) works wonders.
It is very important that the mother delivers the afterbirth. This should happen within one to two hours after the cria is born. If there is no sign of the afterbirth at three hours, call your Vet. The Vet will give the mother an injection that should release the afterbirth within half an hour. The mother may not produce colostrum, or milk, until the afterbirth is delivered. These problems are quite rare and, hopefully, you will not encounter them.