homesteading, homestead.

I love fiber.  Whenever my mom ropes me into going to the craft store with her, I can be found in the yarn aisle, running my fingers along all the pretty colors and marveling at the variety of textures.  When my family made the decision to be more self-sufficient and moved to our little homestead, I knew I wanted to not only produce our own food, but a way to produce my own yarn as well.  My research led me to an animal that’s only been in the United States for the past thirty years or so: the alpaca.

Young suri alpaca.

A lesser-known, smaller cousin to the camel and llama, alpacas are a unique and fun addition to any homestead.  With their gentle nature and the average adult alpaca weighing in at 100-175 pounds, they are an animal the entire family can enjoy.  In fact, my 10- and 13-year-old sons are usually the best “alpaca wranglers” in the family.  My initial research on alpacas had me worried they’d be hard to care for, but the reality has turned out to be that they’re as easy to keep as goats, without many of the headache-inducing antics.  Alpacas are curious animals that are quite friendly once they get to know you.  (Although, I wouldn’t expect one to ever come up to get its neck scratched as a goat will.)

There are two kinds of alpacas: huacaya and suri.  When in full fleece, huacayas look like walking cotton balls.  Their fiber is known for its “crimp,” which gives it the ability to hold its shape as yarn.  So, I have my huacayas for making things like sweaters, socks, and gloves.

Suris have fiber that lays flat against their bodies.  Some show-suris have ropey locks of fiber that look a little like dreadlocks.  This might be a good trait for showing, but for animals used in fiber production, I prefer the flat locks.  (Those pencil locks are a pain to spin!)  Suris are known for their “luster,” or the way the light shimmers on the fiber.  A good suri that’s just gotten her annual haircut will shimmer in the sunlight while grazing in your field—a very pretty sight.  Yarn made from suri fibers might not hold its shape as well, so it’s a good candidate for blankets, scarves, or shawls.

Shearing a suri.

The trait all alpacas are known for is their incredibly soft and silky fiber.  Many people who have a negative reaction to the lanolin in wool find that alpaca garments don’t make them itch the way wool does.  Alpaca fiber has microscopic air pockets in it that creates an insulating effect.  This means the clothes are lighter weight while still being warmer than wool.  Alpaca socks are not only soft, lightweight, and warm, they do all of this while wicking away moisture, so your feet stay drier.  The fiber is also unusually strong and resilient, so garments made with it last a long time.

For those who want to be able to produce their own yarn on the farm but don’t know how to spin, many alpaca owners send their fleece off to be converted into yarn.  Others have it turned into roving, which is one step away from yarn so they have the joy of spinning without the time-consuming task of preparing the fleece.

When I first began my research, most people buying and selling alpacas were doing so for the purpose of buying and selling more alpacas.  This meant the animals themselves were worth thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars, which wasn’t exactly cost-effective for yarn.  Most people who wanted alpacas for spinning bought “fiber boys,” or animals who’d been culled from the breeding programs but were perfectly acceptable for fiber production.

Alpaca roving and yarn.

The declining economy over the last few years has changed the dynamic of the alpaca market, and it’s now possible to build a breeding herd of alpacas for a price that’s much more cost-effective.  My family currently has a herd of six females: two huacaya and four suris.

Most of the articles I’ve seen say you can support between six and eight alpacas on as little as an acre.  My six mowed an acre to the ground in no time.  I’d say at least a couple of acres is doable, but it’s better to give them a pasture with room to run.  My ladies are happy to share their pasture with the goats—I’m pretty sure they think the goats are just small alpacas—but the personalities of both the goats and alpacas will impact how well that works.  Like most herd animals, it’s best to have more than one alpaca.  I’ve found that my little group of six is enough for them to feel comfortable in their herd while still being a manageable number for our small homestead.

One of the reasons alpacas do well on less land is their clean “bathroom” habits.  My ladies often wait in line for their one preferred spot, making pasture clean-up a breeze.  Their droppings, which are known as “beans”, are great for the garden.  The beans are low-odor and contain a wealth of nutrients your plants need, but in amounts small enough you don’t have to worry about the fertilizer burning up your garden.  I’ve even seen some farms sell their excess alpaca beans as an additional source of income.  Our gardens and pastures need all the help they can get, so we’ve yet to try selling ours.

As for housing needs, alpacas are content with a wide variety of homes.  It can be simple and inexpensive, or you can spend a lot of money on a large barn.  Several of my alpacas came from a big, pretty barn.  It took them a week to figure out what their south-facing shed made of spare and scavenged wood was.  Now that they have, they love it.

A six-foot woven wire fence is best, but since we have Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) to keep coyotes and neighbor dogs at bay, our four-foot fence has worked just fine.  The most important thing to remember on fencing is that it must be woven wire.  My girls respect even the flimsy fence that keeps them out of the garden, but anything that isn’t woven wire, they slip through with ease.  Barbed wire is a definite no-no because it can easily get entangled in the alpacas’ fiber with disastrous results.

In addition to fencing, most alpaca owners have some form of LGD to protect their herd.  Anatolian Shepherds and Great Pyrenees are two breeds that are popular in my area; there are many others to choose from.  I’ve always been a fan of mutts, so my pack of guard dogs consists of a Newfoundland mix, an Anatolian mix, and two Great Pyrenees/Welsh Corgi crosses.  It’s an eclectic and unlikely group, but they know their job and excel at it.  I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

When it comes to alpaca health, the routine varies based on region.  Because I live in an area with a large white-tail deer population and white-tail share parasites with alpacas, I give my girls a monthly injection as a worm preventative.  Many owners, who live in areas with lower instances of parasites, de-worm only if they see signs of an infestation.  I have to admit, the idea of giving monthly vaccinations almost talked me out of getting alpacas.  Once I did it a few times, though, it became simply part of the routine.

While I’ve got my girls caught for vaccinations, I check to be sure they don’t need a pedicure.  Their split toe reminds me of a goat’s hoof, and trimming them is much the same.  It’s a fairly simple procedure that doesn’t take long once you get the hang of it, especially if your alpacas have been trained to help you out.  This was another aspect of alpaca ownership I found much more intimidating before I did it.  Depending on the terrain the alpacas live on, they might only need their nails trimmed once a year.  Most alpacas need their nails trimmed about once a quarter.

There are different theories on the best feed for alpacas.  Our girls can clear a field better than any goat, often reaching the leaves that are too high for my little Nigerian dwarf goats to manage.  They also enjoy orchard-grass hay and come running when they hear the scoop of feed.  An alpaca-specific feed is more important when breeding.  If your local feed store doesn’t carry alpaca food—and they probably won’t—most are happy to order it if you give them a couple weeks’ notice.  Since alpacas come from the rugged Andean Mountains, they utilize their food pretty efficiently.  The main purpose of the alpaca feed is to provide mineral supplements—the bulk of their diet comes from grass or hay.  For the most part, they are inexpensive, easy keepers.

When it comes to getting that beautiful fiber off the alpacas, most farms schedule a shearing day and then invite all of their friends, family and maybe even random strangers over to pitch in.  Shearing day on an alpaca farm is an adventure unto itself, and I highly encourage anyone interested in alpacas to help out on a shearing day.  It’s a great way to be close to the animals and learn more.  While shearing day can be grueling, it’s a fun way to take care of, what can be, a daunting task.

For alpaca owners with only a few animals, bringing in a professional shearing team isn’t an option.  Some take their alpacas to a nearby larger farm to be shorn.  Others, like me, choose to hand shear.  While the process of hand shearing takes longer, it’s much lower-key.  This year was my first attempt at hand shearing.  The whole family pitched in; the alpacas even did their part, lying patiently munching on their grass while I sat beside them, carefully cutting the fiber away.  By the end of the morning, my back was killing me and my scissors were in desperate need of sharpening, but all in all, it was a rather easy going experience.

Shearing a huacaya.

As much as I’d like to credit my amazing shearing skills for our laidback shearing day, the reality is my alpacas’ relaxed personalities had more to do with our success than anything.  When shopping for alpacas, it’s a good idea to spend time with the animals you’re considering to be sure you get along.  Most alpaca farmers are happy to schedule a farm visit and welcome visitors.  When I was shopping for my alpacas, I became friends with one farmer in particular.  She was and still is an invaluable resource.  My family was able to participate in her shearing days and even herd-health days so we could learn the ropes before bringing home our first girls.

Some of the ladies in our herd were hand-chosen after careful consideration and multiple in-person visits.  Others were picked via photographs while relying on the advice of trusted alpaca farmers with the experience and knowledge to help us find animals that suited our farm’s needs.  Luckily for us, both paths led us to the right alpacas for us.

Sunshine waits patiently to be shorn.

Most people tend to have an instinctive preference for the looks of either huacaya or suri.  For me, there are things about each that I love.  My huacayas are adorable poof balls with big, beautiful eyes.  My suris are graceful and deer-like.  To choose your herd, it helps to keep in mind what your end goal is for the fiber.  I’ll admit, for my family, I should probably have my ratio going the other way: I really should have more huacayas than suris.  But there is just something about that suri fiber I can’t get enough of.

For a homestead looking to create yarn from an animal grazing in their field, the alpaca’s personality and the quality of its fiber are probably the two most important characteristics.  When it comes to determining the quality of the fiber, you can ask to see micron reports on any alpaca you’re considering, keeping in mind that all alpacas have their best fleece at a young age and that fleece tends to degrade over the years.  These reports measure a number of variables so you can be sure of the quality of the fleece.

I do have micron reports on a couple of my girls, but I tend to forget what the numbers mean and have to refresh my memory from time to time.  Choosing an animal for its fiber became easier once I’d actually worked fiber, so it’s a good idea to buy raw fiber from another alpaca owner to spend some time playing with it before you add animals to your homestead.  When I was helping my friend on shearing day, she’d often thank me with a bag of fiber.  This was a way for me to try out several different types, so by the time I brought alpacas home, I could sink my fingers into their fleece while they were still wearing it and know if I would enjoy working with it or not.

When looking at an animal you’re considering purchasing, be sure to also check its bite.  The bottom teeth should line up with the upper gum.  Poor bites are fairly obvious and can lead to health problems in your animal.  The animal’s conformation, or the way it’s put together, matters less in fiber animals that won’t be breeding.  If you plan to breed your herd, then it’s best to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the ideal conformation so any breeding result in healthy cria, or baby alpacas.

An alpaca has its best fleece young, so an animal with a mediocre fleece at two years old will have an awful fleece by twelve.  Alpacas have an average lifespan of about 20 years.  However, there are countless uses for even the lesser fleece from an alpaca, so nothing is wasted.

For a homestead striving to be truly self-sufficient, some sort of fiber animal is a natural progression.  As someone who loves working with yarn, it’s fun being a part of the entire process: watching the fiber grow, taking it off the animal myself, and then taking it through the steps to yarn that I can turn into my family’s necessities.

The herd rolling in the sun.

I researched alpacas for years before bringing my herd home.  All the research in the world couldn’t have prepared me for how delightful they are in reality.  There’s a grace to their movement and a charm to their personalities that can’t be captured on paper and can only be glimpsed on farm visits.  Once they truly get to know you, alpacas will let you into the world of their songs: the series of hums they use to communicate.  They’ll roll in the field almost playfully.  They’ll stand in line to be sprayed by the garden hose on a hot summer day.  As much as I love the glorious fiber my girls give me, what I love most about them is their curious, sweet nature.  It didn’t take them long to go from being an interesting addition to the heart of the farm.

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