Alpacas, the woolly, smaller cousins to the llama, are regarded worldwide, as the “finest livestock investment” by their rising popularity and marketability in Canada and the U.S.
History has indicated that the alpaca played a large part in the ancient Incan culture of its native South America. Domestic to the highest plateaus of the high-country mountains of the Andes, the alpaca has been domesticated for over 5000 years. The production of the luxurious, sought after and highly desirable fiber, was once reserved only for the Incan royalty of ancient days. The alpaca was subsequently almost annihilated during the invasion of the Spanish. The survival of these highly regarded animals is historically attributed to the indigenous peoples’ love and respect for the alpaca, increasing their numbers by the protection sought high in the mountains where the harshest of weather conditions and forage availability exist, where perhaps no other type of animal could survive. South America today is home to approximately 4 million Alpacas, and Canada is home to an imported 7000 to date.
Llamas are known in South America as the “ship of the Andes” because one of their primary uses remains to this day in being a beast of burden or pack animal. The smaller Alpaca is raised for wool alone in North America, and therefore remains an aristocrat of the livestock community, neither for being a work animal or raised for meat.
During the 1800’s, Alpaca wool was “rediscovered” as the ultimate choice in fiber, possessing qualities of superior warmth, durability, and especially strength which is not diminished by its fine and soft quality. Alpaca wool can often be compared to Cashmere in softness and has secured a profitable and long life in the fiber markets of the world. Successful Alpaca owners can attest to the financial viability in raising alpacas not only today but in the future.
Alpacas are one of the four members of the South American Camelid family, along with llamas, vicunas, and guanacos. Two breeds of alpacas exist: the Huacaya and Suri breeds, the type of fiber being the distinguishing factor of each. Huacaya Alpacas are much more common, with a more crimped and fluffed out appearance totaling 90% of the Alpaca population. The more rare Suri Alpaca possesses a silky, hair-like quality of wool that actually drapes down in tight, ringletted locks. Suris make up approximately 10% of the overall Alpaca populous.
Adult alpacas stand about 3 feet at shoulder height and adults can weigh in unshorn anywhere from 100-175 pounds. Shorn much like a sheep once per year, Alpacas will produce 5-10 lbs of lanolin-free fleece which can be handspun, unwashed directly off the animal. Although North America is still a “breeders’ market”, selectively breeding for the finest wool and conformation standards, the highly marketable fiber from the Alpaca will remain the end “farm product”.
Animals belonging to the Camelid family are regarded commonly as the easiest to manage livestock, and certainly, the Alpaca must top the list of those regarded as the “ultimate” to raise. Requirements suggest a one acre of pasture and room-to-roam for every 10 alpacas, with supplements of llama/alpaca formulated pellet feed (available commercially); good grass hay during winter that is low in protein—because of the evolution of the Alpaca on sparse Andean scrub grasses which are low in protein—as Alpacas require “low” protein content to produce a higher quality of healthy fleece. Alpacas, like llamas, will not overeat and should have access to free-choice hay and grass.
As well, their softly padded, 2-toed feet, unlike hoofed livestock, are easy on pasture. Alpacas are social herd animals, and as such should be purchased in multiples to ensure their own emotional well-being. Like llamas, they use a communal dung pile and are extremely clean, making them the perfect ambassador animal to take into rest homes and public schools.
Alpacas prefer the outdoors, but require only a 3-sided shelter as a sun-break, windbreak, and rain/snow shelter. Regular de-worming, vaccinations, and trimming of toenails are the only other regular maintenance required besides yearly shearing. Alpacas are not hard on fences, nor are they jumpers and escape artists like other livestock. Alpacas are induced ovulators, where their “heat” cycle is brought on BY breeding, and as such can be bred any time of the year. Crias (baby alpacas) weigh in at 12-20 pounds and gestation is 11 ½ months. Twins are extremely rare, and the single birth, daylight labor rarely requires human intervention. Alpacas have a lifespan of 15-20 years and can be raised for fun or profit, or both.
Alpacas are, will likely always be considered the easiest of all livestock to care for and manage. With their pet-like gentility, beauty, intelligence and earth-friendly profitability, Alpacas will continue to be the ultimate exotic livestock of choice.