WHAT IS AN ALPACA?
Alpacas are members of the camelid family. The camels that most people are familiar with have humps and hail from Northern Africa, the Middle East, Southern Asia, China and Tibet. However, there are four other camelids (without humps) indigenous to South America: two of them, llamas and alpacas, have been domesticated for thousands of years. The other two varieties, guanacos and vicunas, roam in wild herds.
The alpaca comes in two breed-types: huacaya (pronounced wah‑KI‑ah) and suri (SOO‑ree). About 90% of all alpacas are huacaya, with fluffy, crimpy fleece. Suris, on the other hand, grow silky, lustrous fleece that drapes gracefully in beautiful strands.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN ALPACA AND A LLAMA?
People often confuse alpacas with llamas. While closely related, llamas and alpacas are distinctly different animals. First, llamas are much larger, about twice the size of an alpaca, with an average weight of about 250 to 450 pounds, compared to an alpaca whose weight averages 100 to 200 pounds. Llamas are primarily used for packing or for guarding herds of sheep or alpacas, whereas alpacas are primarily raised for their soft and luxurious fleece.
WHAT ARE THE PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ALPACAS?
Full grown alpacas stand about 36′ high at the withers (where the neck and spine come together); weigh between 100 to 200 pounds. Baby alpacas, called “crias” normally weigh about 17 pounds can stand to nurse within hours of birth.
Alpaca’s are shorn once a year to keep them cool in summer. Additionally, their toenails need to be trimmed on an as-needed basis to ensure proper foot alignment and comfort. Interestingly, alpacas do not have hooves — instead, they have two toes, with hard toenails on top and a soft pad on the bottom of their feet, which minimizes their effect on pastures.
HOW LONG DO ALPACAS LIVE?
Alpacas generally live to around 15 to 20 years.
WHAT DO ALPACAS EAT?
Alpacas mainly eat about two pounds of grass or hay per 125 pounds of weight. A 60 pound bale of hay can generally feed a group of 20 alpacas for one day. Alpacas are pseudo-ruminants, with a single stomach divided into three compartments. They produce rumen and chew cud, processing their food very efficiently. Alpacas require access to plenty of fresh drinking water.
Alpacas have two sets of teeth. They have molars in the back of the jaw for chewing cud. But in the front, the alpaca has teeth only on the bottom and a hard gum (known as a dental pad) on the top for crushing grain, grass, or hay. Unlike goats and sheep who sometimes use their long tongues to rip plants out of the ground, alpacas have short tongues and nibble only the tops of grasses and other plants, resulting in less disturbance of the vegetation.
ARE ALPACAS EASY TO TRAIN?
Alpacas are smart and fairly easy to train. It is best to start halter training when they are young so that they learn to follow on a lead. Many owners compete with their alpacas at shows where they walk over, through, and around objects and also jump over small hurdles. Alpacas also need to learn to ride in a trailer or van. Alpacas are easy to transport, as they normally cush (lay down with their legs folded under them) when traveling. Chuck shows his alpacas many times throughout the year and often wins awards.
ARE ALPACAS GOOD FARM ANIMALS?
Although a relatively new (30 years or so) import to the United States, in South America alpacas have been raised as domestic livestock for thousands of years. Like sheep, alpacas are raised for their fleece, and as such, are considered livestock by the United States government. Of course, Chuck considers his alpacas members of their extended family.
DO ALPACAS SPIT?
All members of the camel family use spitting as a means of negative communication. They do get possessive around food, and thus may express annoyance by spitting at other alpacas that they perceive are encroaching on “their” food. Also, they often spit at one another during squabbles within the herd (usually involving two or more males). From time to time alpacas do spit at people on purpose, but it is more common that humans get caught in the cross-fire between alpacas, so it’s best to study their behavior and learn to avoid the most vulnerable situations.
WHAT SORTS OF NOISES DO ALPACAS MAKE?
Alpacas are very quiet, docile animals that generally make a minimal amount of sound. They sometimes can be heard humming as a means of communication or to express concern or stress. Occasionally you will hear a shrill “alarm call,” which usually means they are frightened or angry with another alpaca. Male alpacas also serenade females during breeding with a guttural, throaty sound called “orgling.”
ARE ALPACAS DANGEROUS?
Alpacas are considered docile herding animals. They like to be around other alpacas (generally you should keep them in groups of at least two), and they don’t bite or butt. Thankfully, there are no sharp teeth, horns, hooves, or claws to contend with. Of course, it is best to respect all animals and get to know their ways prior to interacting closely with them.