History of Alpacas
were revered and treasured by the ancient Inca civilization. Today,
alpacas still live on the Andean plateau in the mountains of South
America. These beautiful animals were one of the key foundations to Inca
commerce. The camelid provided food, clothing, fuel and transportation
to the Incas who were accustomed to a very harsh and hostile existence.
The Alpaca and Llama have been domesticated for around 6000 years.
Today, approximately 99% of the world's about three million
alpacas are found in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. The center of the alpaca
textile industry is in Arequipa, Peru. Yarn and other products are made
from alpaca and sold primarily in either Japan or Europe.
Alpacas were first imported into the United States in 1984. Today, there
are about 100,000 in all of North America. When compared to the
North American Llama herd of about 500,000, the excitement and
unique business opportunity the alpaca affords the North American
breeder is easily appreciated.
recognized by their compact size, abundant, soft fiber, long necks and
ears that typically point slightly outward. Their short, wedge-shaped
heads are adorned with much wool and large, expressive eyes. The
alpaca's tail is naturally short and low set, often giving the alpaca
the appearance of having a rounded rear end. The rear legs of the alpaca
may be set very slightly under, but the hocks should never be sickled.
The alpaca's front legs should look straight or nearly straight when
viewed from the front. Their soft, padded feet have two toes from which
nails grow out and down. This foot design, together with their small
size allows them to tread very lightly over the terrain. Alpacas lack
upper front teeth and enamel is absent from the insides of their lower
incisors. They grasp forage with their agile split upper lip, nip it off
with the action of their lower incisors against their upper pallet then
grind their foodstuffs with their molars.
Adult alpacas usually weigh between 100 and 170 pounds and stand 2 to 3
feet at the withers. Their life span is 15-25 years. Alpacas come in
twenty-two natural colors. Besides basic white and black, there are many
beautiful shades of brown, gray, tan and fawn (cream). White markings
often decorate the face, necks, legs and feet of alpacas. The paint (or
piebald) pattern exists in the species but not appaloosa markings.
Alpacas come in two fiber types - huacaya and suri. The huacaya
(pronounced wa-ki-a) alpaca is characterized by a fiber that is dense,
crimped, and wooly in appearance. This abundant coverage gives the
huacaya a soft and huggable look and explains the overwhelming
popularity the huacaya enjoys worldwide. Ninety percent of the North
American alpaca herd consists of huacayas, and this plurality will
remain virtually unchanged in the decades that lie ahead.
The suri (sir-e) is distinguished from the huacaya alpaca by its unique fiber characteristics. Suri alpacas are extremely rare. They represent only a very small percentage of the world's alpaca population. The fiber grows parallel to the body while hanging in long, separate, non-crimped locks. Suri fiber locks are made up of high-luster fibers and drapes down the sides of the body in a twisted or flat form of various size. Suri fiber has excellent luster, a slick hand, and extreme softness. The suri alpaca is an excellent investment because of its rarity and inherent beauty.
Alpaca fiber is prized for its
softness (equivalent to mohair and surpassed only by vicuna), uniform
fineness and strength. It is three times stronger than sheep's wool. The
value and durability of alpaca fiber has been appreciated by world
textile experts for many years. The best fiber (softest, finest, most
uniform and dense) is found on the alpaca's sides and loin. The leg,
chest, face and neck wool often consists of thicker, less uniform
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Alpacas are very herd-oriented and
usually prefer the company of their own kind to that of other species.
Within the herd, there is a hierarchy of dominant and less assertive
animals. When frightened, alpacas tend to band together which simplifies
moving them as a group.
The gentle character of alpacas makes them easy to handle by persons who
understand their ways. While alpacas must become accustomed to human
touch, most can easily be trained to halter and accept people. Rarely
handled animals usually require some form of restraint for treatments
but this can usually be accomplished by one person holding the animal.
Adult male alpacas are typically less aggressive among themselves and
with humans than are their North American livestock equivalents. Most
male alpacas can be kept together in non-breeding situations and some in
breeding situations as well.
Alpacas are intelligent and clean. Alpacas have three stomachs, are
browsers and very economical to feed requiring only good grass hay and a
mineral supplement. They produce practically odorless pellets (much like
a rabbit) that are low in nitrogen and make excellent soil enhancers.
They "go" in only a few spots making cleaning corrals much easier. Areas
can be cleaned using either a shovel or a specially designed vacuum that
mulches the pellets. The mulch pellets then can be used as fertilizer in
flower and vegetable gardens.
Alpacas communicate with a variety of mostly quiet noises, body postures
and an occasional spit when confronted by extreme adversity. Their most
common sound is a soft, pleasant humming. They sound off an alarm call
to signal the approach of an intruder. Some mother alpacas actually
cluck to their new born babies. Alpacas also have readily understood
body language involving posturing with ears, tail, neck primarily to
establish pecking order in the herd. Young alpacas are especially
curious and often communicate by sniffing and touching other animals.
Alpacas love water and use it as a cooling device in warm weather. Most
enjoy ponds, pools and sprinklers and will come running when they
recognize a person with a hose. Lying in water for extended periods of
time, besides being immediately cooling to the animal, does cause fiber
loss on the alpaca's legs and underside. (They do not become bald but
appear shorn in these areas.)
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As rare and treasured as alpacas
are in North America, they are essentially domestic animals that have
been bred for thousands of years for fine fiber with consideration also
given to meat production and ease of handling. In North America, alpacas
are appreciated for their fiber, form, gentleness and amusing
personalities. While the emphasis of the infant industry is on the
production and perpetuation of the species in the U.S. and Canada,
alpacas are also purchased as fiber sources, show animals, pets and
living forms of art.
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Female alpacas are ready for
breeding when they have reached 75% of their adult weight which usually
occurs between 18 and 24 months of age. Since a few may become pregnant
as early as 6 months of age, it is important to separate young ladies
from intact males from this age until they are ready for breeding.
Sexually mature females are induced ovulators and do not exhibit estrus
cycles typical of most domesticated animals. If not pregnant a mature
female is almost constantly "open" or "receptive" to breeding.
Males mature more slowly than females and typically begin breeding at 2
1/2 to 3 years of age. Some, however, are precocious as youngsters and
should be separated at about 8 months of age from receptive females
since fertilization by a young male is possible any time after the penis
no longer adheres to the prepuce (sheath). Males "orgle" continuously
while breeding which lasts a minimum of 15 minutes.
Breeding is done in a prone position and takes at least 15 minutes since
the male dribbles, rather than ejaculates, semen into the uterus of the
female. While breeding, the male makes a continuous orgling noise and
moves his front legs occasionally along the sides of the female. The
mating process induces the female to ovulate so that she can become
Methods of determining pregnancy include: (1) observing a female's
receptivity to an intact male, (2) determining blood progesterone levels
after 21 days, (3) internal ultrasound and/or external ultrasound. The
first two procedures are indirect assessments and at times may be
misleading. Unfortunately, the anatomy of many female alpacas is too
small to allow rectal palpation or visualization of the pregnancy of
The gestation for alpacas is approximately between eleven to eleven and
a half months, and females almost invariably produce a single baby. A
young alpaca is called a cria and normally weigh from 10 to 18 pounds at
birth. A cria is usually ready for weaning at 5 - 6 months. An
alpaca birth usually
occurs in the morning with some birthing in the early afternoon. It is
rare that a dam will birth in the evening.
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While alpacas like to investigate
new areas, they do not tend to run away so keeping them home is seldom a
problem. However, adequate fencing is critical to their survival.
Exterior fencing must be high enough and tight enough to keep out all
potential predators including the neighbor's dog. Woven wire or any
solid material that rises from ground level to a height of five feet
usually suffices. For added protection, some owners add an electric wire
along the top. Internally, any combination of boards, woven wire, cables
and barbless wire that stand about four feet and does not allow the
smallest animals to escape under or through will do.
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Alpacas are hardy creatures that
adapt to all climates and have minimal requirements in the way of
shelter. Access to an open barn or simple overhang that offers
protection from storms and ample shade in the warmer seasons is all that
is needed and is preferred to strict confinement.
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Alpacas are extremely efficient
utilizers of feed, alpacas do well on pasture or clean, grass-type hays.
Overfeeding and dependence on the use of protein-rich hays, such as
alfalfa, are unhealthy and should be avoided. Females in their last
trimester of pregnancy, nursing mothers and growing youngsters require
higher levels of protein and may benefit from supplemental feeding.
Fresh water should always be available along with mineral salt. Alpacas
are sensitive to the deprivation of essential minerals including, but
not limited to, selenium and phosphorus. When green forage or hay from
areas of specific deficiencies is fed, animals must be directly
compensated for the mineral(s) that are lacking in their feed.
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Although generally hardy and
disease resistant animals, alpacas greatly benefit by preventative
medicine and ready access to veterinary services. A priority for new
alpaca owners should be to enlist the services of a veterinarian with
alpaca and/or llama experience or, if none is available, find a local
veterinarian who is interested in the species and very willing to
learn. Regular selenium supplements are required in many areas to
prevent white muscle disease, while Vitamin D may be required to prevent
rickets. An alpaca's nails should be trimmed regularly and not allowed
to grow long and curl. This can be done with or without a restraining chute. The
teeth should be inspected and incisors trimmed if they exhibit excessive
growth. Shearing alpacas once a year will further add to their
happiness and well-being.
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The Alpaca Registry
The Alpaca Registry documents the
pedigrees of registered animals and helps assure the perpetuation of the
alpaca as a unique species in North America. The registry requires blood
typing of all alpacas and has received widespread support from the
alpaca community as evidenced by the inclusion of at least 95% of the
North American alpaca population in the registry at the time it
officially closed (March 30, 1989). With the closing of the registry,
only animals which qualify by blood typing as the offspring of
registered alpacas are automatically eligible for registration. Visit
the ARI website at www.alpacaregistry.net
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