Alpacas. Frequently asked questions
Alpacas are very closely related to llamas. They are both from a group of four species known as South American Camelids. The llama is approximately twice the size of an alpaca with banana shaped ears and is principally used as a pack animal. Alpacas are exclusively bred as fleece animals in Australia.
How many alpacas can I run on my property?
That will depend on what sort of pasture and how much pasture your land is capable of producing. Different climatic regions and different soil types vary widely in their carrying capacity.
A standard unit of carrying capacity is the Dry Sheep Equivalent per hectare (DSE). For example, in areas of good soil and high rainfall your property might sustain 10 DSE/ha, compared with dry land areas that might be 1.5 DSE/ha.
The DSE for your property can be determined by speaking to an agricultural consultant, or perhaps your neighbour if they are experienced farmers.
As a general rule, one alpaca wether is equivalent to one DSE. The nutritional requirements of pregnant alpaca are half as much again as those of a wether. The nutritional requirements of a lactating alpaca are twice as much as a wether. If you are prepared
to supplementary feed, you may be able to increase your stocking rate
What sort of fencing do alpacas need?
Any fencing that keeps sheep contained is satisfactory, preferably without barbed wire. Alpacas do not tend to jump fences but are quite capable of clearing a standard fence if sufficiently stressed.
Electric fencing is not very common but it may be used. Advice on the correct height settings of the hot wires is best sought from an alpaca breeder who has experience with alpacas and electric fencing.
If you live in an area known to have problem dogs it can be worthwhile to increase the height of perimeter fencing. Dog attacks are not common but when they occur they have disastrous consequences.
Apart from the boundary fences, the most important structure is a small yard or pen to catch the alpacas. Some alpacas will allow themselves to be caught in an open paddock, but even the friendliest ones tend to step just out of reach when you most need
to catch them (eg. shearing time).
The yard need not be elaborate, and often the easiest and cheapest one to construct is to place two 3 metre gates at right angles to each other inside the corner of the paddock. If the alpacas get used to being fed in this area it also makes it very
easy to catch them.
It is essential that shade trees are available in each paddock.
What do alpacas eat?
Alpacas are principally grazers but sometimes they enjoy casual browsing. They are fastidious food selectors that are highly adapted to eat small amounts of a variety of plants.
Although they can survive very harsh conditions, alpacas do best on good quality pasture and benefit from having access to plant material with long fibres: eg. hay.
There are a number of commercial alpaca mixes available but these are best thought of as supplying vitamins and minerals rather than the bulk feed which is obtained through grazing.
One important rule to remember is to introduce any changes to the diet gradually, over a period of a couple of weeks. This way, the microbes in the gut have time to adjust to any feed changes.
Some gardens contain a number of plants that are toxic to most livestock (oleander, rhododendron, laburnum etc). Care should be taken when fencing off gardens that such plants do not overhang into alpaca areas. Likewise, there is a long history of calamities
with other livestock that have inadvertently been fed prunings from such plants. Local nurseries can provide good advice on poisonous plants.
Although some people think alpacas don’t drink huge amounts, they do need to have ready access to good quality, fresh drinking water.
How often do you shear alpacas?
Alpacas are shorn once a year, usually in spring. Shearing is the biggest maintenance required and usually takes around five to ten minutes per animal for an experienced alpaca shearer.
If you are purchasing your first alpacas, ask the vendors for the name of a recommended shearer, or ask if you can bring the alpacas back to the property on their shearing day.
Most AAA regions hold regular workshops and demonstrations on shearing alpacas.
A very small percentage of alpacas are shorn standing up, but the preferred method of shearing is to lay the animals on their side and restrain their legs with a tether at each end. This protects both the shearer and the alpaca from being accidentally
cut. One side of the animal is shorn and it is then rolled over and shorn on the other side.
Depending on the density of the fleece, alpacas cut anywhere between 11/2 and 4 kg of fleece. Some of the high quality stud males will cut higher weights.
What do you do with the fleece?
Alpaca fibre is highly prized for its very soft feel (handle), its high thermal properties, its durability and its variety of natural colours.
It is processed into high quality fashion garments such as suits, jackets, skirts and coats. Jumpers knitted from alpaca fleece are soft, light and warm. Because of its natural warmth, it is also used as a continental quilt filling. Coarser fibre is
used to make luxury carpet and car seat covers.
The international market for alpaca product is enormous with demand always exceeding supply.
Locally, commercial options for raw alpaca fleece in Australia exist with the
Australian Alpaca Fleece Ltd(AAFL) and with local spinners.
A few alpaca owners prefer to home spin their fibre. Commercial prices depend on quality with a premium paid for finer micron fibre. Sales to home spinners can be considerably higher.
Do they stay the same colour that they are born?
Alpacas do stay the same colour they are born. However, some alpacas that are born black can develop dark brown tips as the fleece grows out. Also animals that are thought to be white at birth might prove to be light fawn later on.
These minor variations probably have more to do with the accuracy of the initial assessment rather than an actual change in colour with age.
What sort of diseases do alpacas get?
Compared with other livestock, alpacas are relatively disease free. Because of their dry fleece and naturally clean breech, fly strike is not an issue with alpacas. They do not require mulesing or crutching.
They are vaccinated twice yearly with the same ‘5 in 1’ vaccine used for sheep and goats to protect against tetanus, pulpy kidney, black leg, black disease and malignant oedema.
Some geographic locations also vaccinate against leptospirosis, so check with other experienced alpaca breeders in your area or with your local agricultural authority on its presence.
Likewise, alpaca owners need to be aware if they are in a ‘sporidesmin’ area. Sporidesmin is the toxin in a fungus that causes facial eczema and can be fatal.
However, it is confined to specific geographic locations and is easily managed by not allowing animals to graze on affected pastures during warm and humid weather.
. When buying alpacas for breeding purposes it is advisable to arrange a veterinary check to ensure you are buying a healthy animal.