Alpacas might look a bit like pantomime horses to some people, but alpaca farming is a serious business in New Zealand, and more and more lifestyle farmers are getting involved. Quite often alpacas are farmed as part of the farming business, but sometimes it’s simply because they’re nice to have around.
Alpaca make great pets and are very much at ease with people. They can be halter-trained and are usually gentle enough to be handled by children.
They are social animals and they need the company of other alpacas for their own well-being.
Alpacas are mammals and they are South American camelids, closely related to llamas and guanacos. In their native Andes, alpacas have adapted to sparse, low-value vegetation, and extreme temperatures that fluctuate from burning sun to below freezing at night, with little or no shelter. The New Zealand climate suits them well, although they will appreciate shade on very hot sunny days.
In this first of a five-part series on alpacas, we describe some basic facts about this fascinating animal, and how to tell if your alpacas are in good body condition. The second and third articles will deal with health and disease, and the last two reproduction.
Some basic facts
Alpaca terminology is unique, and to the uninitiated, it takes a bit of explaining:
- Mature male - macho
- Mature female - hembra
- Young alpaca - tui
- Newborn alpaca - cria
How big are they?
- The machos may weigh 70 to 90 kg and the hembras 55 to 75 kg.
- At birth, crias weigh 6 to 8 kg, and although they may lose a little weight soon after birth, they soon start gaining weight. They can gain about 250 gm/day so that by 6 months of age tuis weigh 30 to 40 kg.
- They are generally smaller than the llama, standing at just under a metre at the shoulder.
- Alpacas produce a wonderful, heavy luxurious fleece that comes in a variety of colours ranging from white to greys, browns and black.
- Alpaca fibre is renowned the world over for its strength, soft handle and lustre. It is often compared to fine merino and cashmere.
- It is warm, lightweight and incredibly soft, so it is suited to fashion garments such as jumpers, scarves and hats.
- A single alpaca can produce between 3 and 5 kg of fibre, with some producing up to 7 kg.
- Having little or no natural grease, alpaca fibre is a delight for hand spinners.
Body temperature and pregnancy length
The body temperature of alpacas is similar to that of other ruminants, but the duration of pregnancy is longer:
- Body temperature 37.5 to 39º C.
- Gestation period 335 to 372 days.
- Like other ruminants, alpacas have incisors only in the lower jaw, and it’s quite common for them to be angled in front of the upper dental pad.
- This means their incisors can grow too long and stick out between the lips, so they may require trimming preferably by someone with experience in the job.
- It’s best to use an angle grinder, taking care just to touch lightly and not overheat the teeth.
- The males can grow sharp canine teeth on the upper and lower jaws and these can cause nasty injuries if there is fighting between males.
- Sharp canines can be trimmed flat as above.
- Like other camelids, alpacas have two toes and have a padded sole on each foot, quite different from other farmed species in this country.
- The toenails may require trimming using standard sheep hoof trimmers, taking care not to draw blood.
- Although they are not true ruminants, alpacas have a complicated stomach arrangement like other ruminant species, and they regurgitate and chew their cud.
- Their main stomach is divided into three compartments instead of the complicated fore-stomachs and abomasum of other common ruminant species.
- One distinctive feature about alpacas is that they can spit!
- Generally, however, an alpaca will only spit when threatened and almost always, the act is directed towards another alpaca - usually over food disputes or to protect their cria.
- They do not spit at people unless sorely provoked.
- The female will also spit at the male who is intent on mating if she is already pregnant.
What do they eat?
- Alpacas do very well on rough, low protein grass, provided it has a balanced mineral content.
- They should also have access to hay (for roughage).
- Supplementary feeding is usually not necessary or desirable, except perhaps in small quantities for females in the later stages of pregnancy and while lactating.
How long do alpacas live?
The lifespan of an alpaca is approximately 20 years with the female remaining productive for most of her life.
What sort of fences do they need?
- Normal 7 or 8-wire sheep fences are sufficient to keep alpacas in their paddock.
- They do not challenge fences although if the wire strands are too loose the young may try to climb through.
- Alpacas require shearing once a year.
- They are generally shorn mid to late spring - preferably by someone with experience in shearing alpacas, and before the grasses go to seed (grass seeds can contaminate the fleece).
- If they are not to be used for breeding, alpaca males may be castrated.
- Castration is best carried out after 2 years of age, because earlier castration can mean that the long bones continue to grow, and the animals become very tall and gangly.
- The operation must be carried out by a veterinarian.
- Alpacas have a very good habit of using discrete toilet areas around the paddock, so dung piles develop
- This makes the poo easy to collect, and it is prized as a fertilizer.
In New Zealand, the body condition of alpacas is assessed on a scale of 1 (very thin) to 5 (very fat). It can be useful to check on body condition regularly to make sure no alpaca is losing condition and to signal the need to take action if any of them is losing weight. The alpaca’s generous fleece can effectively mask its body condition, so ‘hands-on’ assessment is important.
- Feel carefully along the spine from the withers to the rump and note how bulky the body is beneath your hand.
- In fat animals (4 to 5) there will be a full layer of fat over full muscle masses.
- In alpacas in ideal condition (3) the muscles will be full and there will be a thin layer of fat over them.
- In lean animals (2), the spinal column will be prominent as there is little or no fat.
- In emaciated animals (1), there is no fat, the muscles will be reduced in size and the spinal column will be very prominent.
“Chukkering” is a useful and stress-free way of restraining alpacas. A chukkered alpaca will usually sit calmly on its brisket for some time.
- To chukker an alpaca, tie a long soft rope around the belly just in front of the hips.
- Tie it so that there is just room to place a clenched fist under the rope.
- Use a quick-release knot.
- Then reach over the animal’s back, lift the hind leg on the opposite side and hook it through the rope.
- Repeat the procedure on the side near you so that the alpaca is sitting on its brisket with its legs bent forward and under the rope.
- The knot should be firm across the spine but not uncomfortably tight.
“Alpacas: A Basic Veterinary Reference”, Peter Aitken, VetLearn Massey University, 2006.