Alpaca FAQ

Alpaca FAQ

What are alpacas?

Alpacas are members of the family that includes the guanaco (‘hwan-ark-oh’), llama (‘ya-mah’ or ‘lar-mah’) and vicuna (‘vy-koon-yah’). Collectively they are known as South American Camelids. Alpacas are thought to be a variation from original vicunas that lived more than 7,000 years ago. 

Alpacas originate from South America and were highly valued animals during the Incan civilisation from the 13th until the 16th century. They were an essential component in the provision of food and clothing (fleece and leather), and their manure was burnt as a source of fuel for heating and cooking. During this time, alpacas were found in various regions of South America and alpaca numbers approached 50 million. 

During the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, the majority of alpacas were slaughtered and almost extinguished. The remaining alpaca farmers retreated to the high mountain regions where the newly introduced cattle and sheep could not survive. It was only their resilience and tolerance of harsh climates that saw their continued existence in the Andes. Their value was rediscovered and again utilised during the 1800s. In the mid 1800s the entrepreneur Charles Ledger imported the first alpacas to Australia. The venture was not a success and the herd was dispersed and eventually died out. Alpacas were first imported into the United States of America and Canada in 1984, and then to Australia (for the second time) and New Zealand in 1989. These countries offer milder climates and, most importantly, the opportunity to apply more advanced farming techniques and better management which have seen herd numbers prosper in a relatively short space of time. 

Are there different breeds?

There are two distinct types of alpaca – huacaya and suri. The key difference between them is observed in their fleece characteristics. 

Huacaya, pronounced wua’ki’ya, is the most common alpaca type in both South America and AustraliaThe Huacaya has a soft bonnet of fibre on its forehead and boasts ‘mutton chops’ on its cheeks, while its dense body fibre grows directly outwards, not unlike Merino fleece. Ideally, fleece coverage is even and extends down the legs. Coverage should extend down the legs and up the neck to a full bonnet on the head with a clean muzzle and ears. 

The less common type is the Suri, soo’ree, and in Australia only a small percentage of alpacas are suris. The animal is covered with lustrous, silky, locking fibre, prized both in the show ring and by processors. The fleece hangs from a centre part – neck through to tail – with the locks lying close to the skin in a draped, free-swinging curtain. The fleece has lustre and its feel is more slippery and silky than that of the huacaya. The predominant suri colours are white or light fawn.

Are alpacas the same as llamas?

Alpacas are 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. In Australia, alpacas are bred for fleece, as stud animals, for meat, as pets and as herd guardians against foxes. 

What should I think about before buying my first alpacas?

When you’re thinking about joining the alpaca community, there is a lot to consider. As it’s a long-term commitment, it’s important to be prepared and informed. Visit farms and speak to experienced breeders and owners. They’re a wealth of information about pitfalls to avoid and for tips on successful alpaca farming and breeding. 

First you should consider why you want alpacas – is it for fleece, breeding, showing, meat or as herd protectors? The purchase should reflect the purpose of the investment.  

Next think about your what’s before you buy – what age, colour and registration status suits your needs. Are the animals already registered with the AAA? Is the vendor a AAA member? Double-check the animals on eAlpaca, make sure you obtain health records including vaccination status and breeding history. 

Lastly, make sure you know how and who is paying the registration fees. This needs to be completed within 30 days of sale. Do some research on the best practice care and on-farm biosecurity for alpacas and join the AAA for a supportive network!

What makes alpaca fibre so good?

It combines softness with strength. Alpaca product feels great next to the skin yet has the durability of a coarser garment – all the benefits of wool and less of the itch! It is warm, yet amazingly light. Alpaca fibre comes in a beautiful range of natural colours – white, silver, all shades of grey and fawn, chocolate brown and true jet black; it also dyes beautifully. 

What can you do with alpaca fleece?

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. 

Some alpaca owners also process their own fibre and add value by processing it into yarns and garments. Commercial prices depend on quality, with a premium paid for finer micron fibre. Sales to home spinners vary and prices may be higher. There are fleece buyers around Australia willing to purchase alpaca fleece.

Do you need to 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. The preferred method of shearing is to lay the animals on their side, either on a shearing table or the ground, and restrain their legs with a tether at each end. This restraint allows the alpaca to be shorn safely and efficiently.

Electric sheep-shearing equipment is normally used, but because alpaca fibre is non-greasy, care needs to be taken that shears do not over-heat. 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. The AAA also advertises local shearers and can provide advice to new owners.
 

Depending on the density of the fleece, alpacas cut anywhere between 1½  and 4 kg of fleece.

Can I run alpacas with other livestock?

Alpacas can bond well with other types of animals. Naturally, alpacas and aggressive dogs are not a good combination, but there are many cases of quiet dogs mixing well with alpacas. Individual alpacas have been successfully run with sheep and goats to act as fox guards. The alpacas tend to bond with the foster herd and are naturally aggressive towards foxes. 

If running alpacas with other livestock, particularly ruminants, alpacas may pick up the internal parasites from the other livestock. In this case, alpacas should be treated with suitable anti-parasitic products specific to the situation and type of parasite encountered. As all parasite management procedures are ‘off label’ for alpacas, veterinary advice should be sought. Also, because of the risk of the alpacas being kicked, caution should be used if running them with cattle or horses. 

How many can I have on my property?

That will depend on what sort of pasture and how much pasture your land can produce. 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 dryland 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 neighbours 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. 

Do I need a Property Identification Code (PIC)?

PIC’s are a legislative requirement and are not optional. Regardless if you have one or multiple animals. Contact your relevant state department of agriculture to obtain a PIC registration.  

Do alpacas make good pets?

Like any livestock, the more handling they receive as youngsters, the quieter they are as adults. Although alpacas look cuddly, they generally don’t like being held, and are particularly sensitive to being touched on the head. When alpacas mature into adults, they can engage in herd seniority behaviour.

If they have been treated as pets, they may treat humans as competitors and behave in a rough manner to establish their seniority. The best thing to remember is that they are alpacas, and not dogs or cats, and should be allowed to be alpacas. 

What diseases do I need to watch out for?

Compared with other livestock, alpacas are relatively disease free. Because of their dry fleece and naturally clean breech, fly strike is not an issue, nor do they 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 with ‘7 in 1’, so check with other experienced alpaca breeders in your area or with your local agricultural authority. Likewise, alpaca owners need to know if they are in a ‘sporidesmin’ area. Sporidesmin is the toxin in a fungus that causes facial excema 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. Restrictions of animal movements may apply, particularly between some states. 

Breeders can participate in either or both animal health/bio-security programs currently being conducted to provide assurance of their animals’ health status. Animal Health Australia administers the Australian Johne’s Disease Market Assurance Program for Alpaca (JD MAP) which deals with Johne’s Disease only. The Australian Alpaca Association also administers the Q-Alpaca Program which covers general biosecurity and a broad range of diseases. 

When buying alpacas for breeding purposes it is advisable to arrange a veterinary check to ensure you are buying a healthy animal. 

How do alpacas affect the land?

Alpacas do less damage than most other farm animals as they have pads, not hooves, so cause little degradation. Alpacas tend to graze gently, allowing faster pasture regrowth. Their dung makes excellent fertiliser and it is conveniently dropped in areas where they avoid grazing. 

When can I start breeding alpacas?

Females become sexually mature at around 12 to 18 months of age and once they reach 45-50kg in weight. Males can display sexual interest from a few weeks of age but are not sexually active or fertile until 18 months to 3 years of age. (Some individuals will fall outside this age range.) Libido in males is not a criterion of stud quality in alpacas. 

Alpacas do not have a breeding season and, providing they are receptive, females can be mated at any time of the year. Like rabbits and cats, female alpacas are ‘induced ovulators’ which means it is the act of mating that causes them to ovulate. It is preferable, though not essential, to avoid mid-late summer mating’s. Given the 11 to 12-month gestation, this reduces the incidence of heavily pregnant females and new cria in very hot weather. 

Are alpacas used for meat?

Alpacas have long represented a major food source for South America peoples; they have been called the sheep of the Andes. Though mostly farmed for their fleece in Australia, the industry here is recognising the benefits of alpaca meat. 

Some Australian farms have blazed the trail for large scale farming uses well-established breeding and husbandry principles to produce high-quality lean meat and fleece from their alpacas, as well as quality pelts. Selective breeding and advances in reproductive technology are being put to effective use. Australia is now well-positioned to lead the international market of high-quality alpaca meat, alongside our excellent alpaca fleece industry. 

Alpaca meat is highly nutritious, lean and flavoursome. It is an excellent source of protein with little saturated fat or cholesterol and is environmentally sustainable to produce. Able to withstand dry conditions for longer than most livestock, Alpacas are a great green fit for Australia’s farming climate. Their soft feet cause minimal soil disruption and ecosystem damage, far less than Australia’s traditional livestock. As most parts of the alpaca can be used for meat, alpacas offer a high yield with little wastage. 

Should I consider agistment?

Agistment is a steppingstone for new owners, in which you house your alpacas on another person’s land. It can allow you to take unexpected investment opportunities while not yet prepared to support alpacas on your own land. It is also an option for those who don’t plan to own property but wish to invest in alpacas for fleece and breeding purposes. The agreement between the agistor and agistee protects the owner’s investment, making sure their alpacas are properly cared for. 

An agistor always agrees to provide grazing land and water supply for their fostered alpacas, and other feed as needed. They guarantee proper care for the agistee’s alpacas, keeping them safely fenced and healthy. This includes drenching and vaccinations, as well as compiling data for the owner. They agree to keep the owners immediately up-to-date about illness, injury, theft or death, and to organise veterinary attention if necessary when the owners cannot be contacted. The agistors also agree to bar other animals from their property that may negatively affect the health or well-being of the alpacas. The agistors are not held responsible for circumstances including death, theft or illness of the alpacas that were beyond their control, and not due to negligence. 

Are there any plants toxic to alpacas?

Acute poisoning of alpacas due to ingestion of toxic plants is relatively rare.  However, there have been some fatal cases, most commonly involving oleander.  As alpacas have relatively small livers they do not process toxins easily and can suffer chronic liver damage if exposed to toxic plants over a period of time.  Many ornamental plants are poisonous and for this reason alpacas should never be allowed to graze in garden areas where such species are likely to be found.

Toxins can occur in a wide variety of plants, from exotic trees and shrubs to certain pasture species. Fortunately, the majority contain alkaloids that are bitter, and therefore less palatable. Mouldy feed and water supporting algal blooms can also cause poisoning.

Good management is the key to avoid poisoning. Always check for toxic plants before introducing alpacas into an area for the first time. State Departments of Primary Industry carry a list of plants considered toxic to your locality