So you saw or touched a cute alpaca. You fell in love. You came home and pondered how wonderful life might be with alpacas in your backyard. You even started looking over the budget and planning your fencing layout. Stayed up all night, as a matter of fact. When you do sleep now, it’s alpaca dreams every night, after counting colorful, fluffy alpacas until you drift off. Your imaginary starter herd keeps growing and growing in your mind, until you’re two dozen deep and justifying the reason for each and every one. Yes, alpacas have this effect on people. I know, because it happened to me too. Alpaca puppy love.
I’ll start out by saying that I’m no expert on keeping alpacas. We just brought our first two boys home this spring. I do, however, know that sometimes good info can come from those who just learned themselves. So that’s what this is. Hopefully you’ll find it useful! These are the basics, but please also check out the additional resources I’ve listed for you at the bottom of this post.
Well, let’s get to it. Here are eight things to know before buying alpacas (in no particular order):
1) Space Requirements
You’re ready to sign on the dotted line, but how many alpacas can you safely bring home? Per acre, you can expect to be able to raise anywhere from two to eight alpacas. Pretty confusing answer, right? And to explain why: It just depends. Know your land. Observe the amount of growth you have currently, consider the normal amounts of rain/snowfall for your region and decide how often you’ll give your herd access to pasture. Then, since there isn’t a foolproof way to determine the ideal number of alpacas for your farm, consider starting small and growing your herd as you monitor how the space is handling your new additions. If you don’t have (or can’t set up) a pasture on your property, it’s still possible to keep alpacas on dry lot only, but you’ll need to be prepared to buy a much larger quantity of hay to supply the animals with enough to eat year round. Be sure you are allowing plenty of space in your dry lot setup for the alpacas to move around freely and comfortably. If you’re a city dweller or don’t have the space for even a dry lot, all hope is not lost! Look into purchasing and agisting your alpaca(s). This is an option where your alpaca(s) are boarded at a nearby farm.
As I mentioned, we decided to start out with just two boys. We set up a 1500 square foot dry lot, including stall space inside the barn, and two 1/4 acre pastures. The boys have constant access to the dry lot and one pasture. Even though they graze quite a bit, our grasses are getting a little tall, so at an average of 4 alpacas per acre, we’re still dealing with under-grazed areas. Another thing – It’s good to subdivide your larger pastures, so that you can rotate the alpacas on or off one space as needed. We used semi-permanent t-posts and panels for all our interior fencing so that as our herd grows, we can move things around. Consider your herd size and plans for expansion closely before setting permanent fencing. Also, the best setup advise I learned from Camelid Companion is that you can never have too many gates. We bought ten and I still think we were a couple short! Lastly, you’ll need to keep males & females separate under most circumstances, so plan different areas for each with sufficient fencing (two fence rows are ideal) between the groups.
2) Shelter & Protection
Alpacas are prey animals and not good at protecting themselves. Excellent fencing is extremely important. Most recommend 60″ non-climb fencing (this is a woven wire fencing with 2”x4” grid), however, depending on where you live and what types of predators you have around, 48″ non-climb could be sufficient. A good idea is to add a line of electric wire towards the bottom (outside) of the fencing, maybe about 8” to a foot off the ground. Sometimes animals will try to dig under a fence instead of leaping over it. Loose domestic dogs, especially in a pack, are one of the most common predators of alpacas and will often attack if they can find a way in. Also to watch out for are coyotes, bears, mountain lions and any other large predators you might have in your area. A trained livestock guardian dog or other guard animal is something to look into as well, especially if you’ve noticed any of these predators around your property in the past. Fencing can be hired out or completed on your own with a few basic tools. We successfully stretched our own fence with no previous experience, however, it was a big undertaking, so do your research and decide what’s best for your situation.
Gates are the weakest points in any fencing layout, so choose some that are well designed to keep animals out, such as these wire-filled Tarter gates from Tractor Supply Company. Purchase in larger quantities for a discount (at TSC, gates are 10% off if you buy ten or more). We started out with older corral gates and had a mind to try to wrap them with some 2”x4” welded wire we had, but once we saw what a challenge it was going to be to wrap (not to mention to eliminate all those sharp ends), we decided to make it official and get the proper gates we needed. Overall we’re really happen with these, as they mimic the non-climb fencing grid, however we do have plans to upgrade the latches at some point, since the chain latches they come with allow the gates to move too much for our liking. Since our boys will mostly be hanging out in the dry lot & barn this winter, we’ll be taking extra measures to secure those areas in the months when coyotes are likely to be hunting more.
Alpacas have very strong herding instincts and need the companionship of other alpacas to thrive. While gender-appropriate (or neutered) llamas will sometimes successfully bond with an alpaca, it’s usually best to keep two or more alpacas of the same gender together for a happy and healthy herd. Even though our two intact boys have their quarrels, it’s obvious they still enjoy one another’s company. If Tribute grazes, so does Iroquois and when Iroquois heads back to the barn, Boo does too. I know I wouldn’t want to be left out in a field alone. Having a pal nearby is always more fun, right? That said, you wouldn’t want to bring home just one male & one female, even if you intend to breed them. In general, males over 6 months & females should be kept separate. They should only be introduced into the same pasture or pen once breeding is attempted and otherwise shouldn’t be left together. This could cause unnecessary fights to erupt, not to mention that it’s best to have control over who breeds who and when. Trying to register a new cria whose father is unidentified would be quite a problem. Don’t you agree?
Also recommended by most, is keeping alpacas separate from other livestock. While this isn’t a necessity and is an opinion which varies by farm, it’s generally easier to keep your alpacas healthy when they only share space with other alpacas. The main reason for this is due to the alpacas grazing near manure of other less tidy animals, from whom they could contract a number of parasites or illnesses. If you choose to keep your alpacas with other livestock, it’s a good idea to do fecal checks often so that any problems can be addressed right away. It is dangerous for alpacas to live with larger hoofed animals such as horses, as they could easily be injured, even by accident. Keeping alpacas with other livestock can also be more challenging because they have different nutritional needs and should only have access to their own specific hay, feed & minerals.
4) Diet & Nutrition
You’ll find that alpacas consume only modest amounts of food. Approximately 1.5 – 2% of their body weight in good quality hay or pasture per day, an abundant source of clean, fresh water and access to free choice mineral supplement blend (one specific to alpacas, such as Dr. Evans Alpaca E Blend) is all they really require. Depending on the individual needs of your animals, it may also be a good idea to feed grain (such as Mazuri’s Alpaca Chews) on a regular schedule. Having fresh water available in clean buckets at all times is very important. Plan to switch it out often (a minimum of daily) and in the wintertime, have a system in place to prevent the water from freezing (heated water buckets are great). In addition to keeping a healthy herd, nutrition is also very important to quality fiber production. Making it a priority is good for the animals and good for your business.
So, how do you determine the quality of hay or pasture grasses? The best way is to contact a local agricultural testing lab and follow their instructions for taking a sample of your hay or pasture soil. Then, send it off to them for all the details on what you’re serving your precious herd. Ask for a test specific to alpaca pasture, if that’s an option. A good test will tell you all the soil’s contents, recommend a fertilization schedule and tell you if should add lime and in what quantities. We haven’t had our hay tested yet, but know that it’s a high quality orchard grass from a good source. Another great (free) resource is the National Resources Conservation Service. In the fall, we had our local rep out and he walked the pastures with me, letting me know pretty much everything we had growing out there. This is vital information, especially if there is something harmful to the alpacas that you’ll want to eliminate before they first graze. They can also give you some general information about what’s in your hay.
5) Herd Health
Once a month around the same day, you’ll want to set aside some time to gather your herd for any necessary shots and to trim their toenails as needed (and in our case, bangs too – Iroquois). Herd health tasks vary by location, but you will most definitely be taking care of those two things. For instance, here in Ohio, we give monthly ivermectin shots to treat meningeal worm since this deadly parasite is carried and spread by the whitetail deer in our area. Check with the sellers (if they are local) and/or a camelid veterinarian to confirm what shots and vaccinations you should be giving. You will also likely run into other occasional health issues that you’ll need to deal with. As an example, we had to treat Tribute for some type of fungal infection on his feet. The ointment given to us by the sellers called a “witch’s brew” healed things right up after multiple applications. Applying the ointment to his feet and giving his monthly shot has been quite a task with me being pregnant and both of us being new to handling our fiery boy.
The ease of handling alpacas can differ greatly based on each animals demeanor. Some alpacas, like our Iroquois, are always on their best behavior, while others will want to push back a little. In general, it will take two adults to accomplish most herd health tasks (unless you have a chute), so have a plan going in as to who is doing what. If it doesn’t seem to be working well one way, try switching roles the next time around. You may or may not have difficulties giving shots and trimming toenails, but if you do, here are a couple things to try: use a bracelet hold to restrain during shots and stroke down the leg from top to bottom slowly before grabbing the foot as a heads-up to the alpaca. One of the most helpful things you can do is visit a farm several times to observe or help during herd health, so that you can feel more confident in handling your own alpacas. A must-read is Camelid Companion by Marty McGee Bennett, who also developed the bracelet hold I just mentioned.
Alpacas should be shorn once a year. This is usually done for the harvest of their fiber, but in the case that you don’t have an interest in using their fleece (please send it to me, by the way), it’s still necessary to maintain annual shearing as the animals can more easily become overheated when their fleece gets too long. It may also be more difficult to check body score, give shots, etc with more fiber in the way. When you decide to purchase alpacas, locate a local shearer right away and let them know you’re planning to use their services that year. There is a shortage of shearers in some areas, so it’s a really good idea to plan ahead. A lot of shearers offer other services such as trimming toenails and fighting teeth as well. Shearing classes are also available, but if you go that route, it will take time to learn with practice (I hope to learn at some point!).
Alpaca fiber can be processed by hand or at a mill. For either, skirting the fleece is necessary, so you’ll want to buy or build a decent sized skirting table. This is a mesh table (mine has a 1” grid, but a lot of people prefer 1/2”) that is used to sort out too-short lengths of fiber, as well as vegetable material. I just received the handmade table I purchased about a week ago and can’t wait to try it out as I learn to skirt our boys’ fiber from this year’s shearing!
There are many qualities of alpaca fiber that make it one of the most desirable fibers available. For starters, it’s stronger, lighter, warmer, more resilient and less prickly than sheep wool. It’s also hypoallergenic, flame-resistant, water-resistant, soft, durable, luxurious and silky. That’s a lot of adjectives! There are sixteen official colors of alpacas (white, beige, and shades of fawn, brown, black, and grey) with many other subtle shades and hues in-between. Huacaya and suri are the only two breeds of alpacas, with huacaya being the most common. Huacaya have fluffy, crimpy fleece that gives the animals a teddy bear-like appearance. Suris grow silky, lustrous fleece that drapes gracefully in beautiful pencil-like locks.
7) Manure Management
The majority of alpaca owners I know choose to simply compost their manure by way of a traditional compost pile. This should be located somewhere that is easy to access, yet far enough away from the animals that they won’t get any run off into their dry lot or pasture. If you plan to keep a large herd, having a way to turn the compost pile is something that you’ll want to consider. Many use a front-end loader. We haven’t acquired any farm equipment yet and only have two animals, so will be using a good old-fashioned shovel for now. For cleaning up the piles daily, we use this scoop from Lightweight Livestock and a Flexrake. They seem to be working great for us. We empty from the scoop directly onto the compost pile, but for larger herds you’ll want to use large buckets and a farm cart to transport the manure to the pile. While raking up the dry lot, try to remove as little of the sand or screenings as possible so that you’ll give yourself some time before needing to replenish the area with more ground cover.
Alpaca manure consists of small, oval droppings resembling beans and are known as “green beans” within the alpaca industry. Some decide to sell their alpaca’s “green beans” to other farmers. To ensure parasite eggs do not survive, it’s recommended that alpaca manure be cured for a minimum of two years before being spread onto pastures and vegetable gardens. It can be used fresh in flower beds and around trees. Alpaca manure is lower in organic matter than manure from cows or horses, so it’s less likely to burn plants. Once aged, it is light, dry and odor-free. Farms can benefit greatly from these magic “green beans”, because they are a rich soil conditioner. Alpaca fertilizer improves soil quality and it’s ability to retain water.
Some get into the alpaca business with plans to breed and sell offspring. While this isn’t our goal, we do plan to use breeding as a means to grow our herd in the future. Breeding is best when arranged between a male and female of high quality fleece and conformation. After copulation, the easiest way to determine if an alpaca is pregnant is to continue to place her in the breeding pen with the breeding male every two weeks. A pregnant female will “spit off” the male. Gestation in alpacas is 11-12 months and they almost always have one baby, called a cria. Multiples are rare. The care of pregnant females and their crias requires more time and supplies that a non-breeding herd, so it’s important to do your research and be prepared for such a responsibility. If you have a mentor, you should be able to get most of the important breeding and maternity care information you need from them and if not, books, online groups and forums are a great place to turn.
Most mama alpacas will wean their own babies at 7-9 months of age. We plan to let weaning occur naturally unless the mother is sickly. The crias benefit from the nutrients in their mother’s milk and the bonding time is important. Most farms won’t separate a mother & cria earlier than 6 months, but in the case that it’s offered, be careful to inquire on the situation. A good idea might be to see if the mother is available for purchase as well, so that weaning can occur naturally. If so, you’ll also be adding a breeding female to your herd, which is always a positive. Crias should be registered with the Alpaca Owner Association (any alpacas you have purchased should be transferred to your farm as well). The registration certificate will show the alpaca’s birth date, color, owner’s name and an extensive lineage.
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That’s all the info I have for you right now! I’m sure I missed some things, but this should at least give you a good start. I wish you the best of luck as you begin your journey to alpaca ownership! No doubt you’ll enjoy having these fuzzy creatures around the farm!
Looking for more great info on everything alpaca? Here are a few other online resources to check out as you prepare to purchase your first alpacas:
A great place to start as you consider alpaca ownership.
Straightforward information to consider prior to buying your first alpacas. There is also a huge list of archive blog posts to reference on more specific subjects.
A great list of the different reasons why people consider owning alpacas. Have your goals in mind before pulling out your wallet!
Really a great source of information for those considering to start an alpaca business. Lots of questions to answer and other aspects of ownership to evaluate prior to purchasing.
This 11 page pdf is chock full of helpful info to use while planning the setup of your farm.
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Experienced alpaca owners, I need your help! Please add to or expand on the information in this post. The main purpose of this blog is for all of us newbies to grow & learn and we feed off of your experience. Please share your knowledge with us in the Comments section!