What are alpacas?
Alpacas are members of the camelid family, which includes alpacas, llamas, guanacos, vicunas, and the bactrian and dromedary camels. Fossil records show that more than 20 different species of camelids once existed, but present day finds the earth with just the six listed above. Camelids once existed in North America prior to their migration to South America, after which any remaining N. American camelids became extinct. Alpacas were domesticated by cultures in the Andean mountains over 6,000 years ago, utilizing the animals for both food and fiber. The Incas worshiped alpacas, and also developed breeding programs. Alpaca fleece was once reserved only for Incan Royalty, and cloth produced from alpaca fiber was once used as a form of currency. The vast majority of alpacas were killed during Spanish invasions of South America, not realizing the value of the animals. A small number of animals were saved by the local tribes as they retreated into the remote mountain areas of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, and these are the ancestors of today’s North American alpacas.
There are two breeds of alpaca, Huacaya (‘wah-KI-yah’), and Suri (‘SUR-ree’). Huacayas are more common of the two breeds, and their fleece is characterized by crimpy fiber which tends to stand at right angles to the skin, giving the animal a puffy look, similar to that of a teddy bear. Suris are very rare, making up only 2 - 3% of the world alpaca population, and their fleece is characterized by a high degree of natural luster and individual locks with wave or twist that tend to drape off the animal, similar to dread locks. The first alpacas imported into the United States were Huacayas that arrived in 1984. The first Suris arrived in 1991, and all U.S. importation was closed in 1998. The Alpaca Registry was formed in 1988 to validate the parentage of registered animals via DNA blood typing, which helps protect the value and gene pool of the U.S. herd.
Alpacas are an eco-friendly livestock ("green" if you will). They are hardy, gentle, and “easy keepers” when compared to other types of livestock. Adults average 125 – 200 pounds and have a life expectancy of 20 – 25 years. They can be trained to lead on a halter, especially if started at a young age. They can be stocked at 5 – 10 adults per acre, and require relatively basic care in terms of shelter, food, water and maintenance. Being social animals that prefer to be in herds, they must be kept in groups of at least two to avoid potential death from stress created by being alone. Alpacas have a 3-compartment stomach, which makes them very efficient at utilizing feed and forage, translating to lower costs as an owner, when compared to other types of livestock. They are an environmentally-friendly choice, as their two-toed feet have soft pads on the bottoms, meaning they tread lightly on the ground. Also, they utilize community dung piles, which simplifies cleanup, and the manure makes excellent fertilizer that can be placed directly on plants without danger of burn.
Alpaca fleece has become known as “the fiber of the Gods.” It is a premium, luxury fiber that today is prized by the fashion industry for high-end garments, and in a cottage industry for everything from socks and scarves to skirts and jackets. Alpaca fiber comes in 22 natural colors, and in addition to being soft and lightweight, it is warmer and stronger than wool, insulates when wet, and contains no lanolin. Animals are generally shorn once per year, and those alpacas with the finest and densest fleeces tend to generate the highest profit margins for the owner.
With that said, alpacas make an excellent livestock choice, whether being raised as a business or a hobby.