Alpacas are members of the the camel family and are one of nature's greatest gifts. With their gentle nature, variety of color and soft luxurious fiber, Alpacas have an irresistible appeal to humans.
Alpacas are closely related to the other "New World" camelids species; LLamas, Vicunas, and Guanacos and still have much in common with their distant "Old World" cousins, the Dromedary (one humped) and Bactrian (two humped) camels.
The ancestors of the camelids evolved in North America. Although the ancestors of the llamas and camels began to diverge, they weren't completely separated until the ancestors of the camel migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge to Asia. Llamas migrated to South America and all the remaining camelids in North America died out.
Alpacas produce one of the world's finest and most luxurious natural fibers. It is clipped from the animal without causing it injury. Soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter and stronger than wool, it comes in more colors than any other fiber producing animal (approximately 22 basic colors with many variations and blends) .This cashmere-like fleece, once reserved for Incan royalty and prized for its incredible ability to be both lightweight and warm when spun into clothing, is now enjoyed by spinners and weavers around the world. These natural colors are highly prized by many in the textile industry because the fiber does not have to be chemically dyed.
Much smaller than Llamas, weighing about 175 pounds full grown, the Alpacas appear to be very delicate. However, they are rugged, self-sufficient and adaptable to all sorts of conditions. Their natural habitat is the high plains of the Andes Mountains of South America, a place that dishes out some of the harshest extremes of any climate on earth. The summers are hot and dry, with very little forage and the winters are extremely cold with little or no shelter. These animals can take most anything nature dishes out.
There are 2 different breeds of Alpaca, the Suri and the Huacaya (pronounced wa-KI-ah). They are very similar in every way with the exception of how their fiber (hair) grows; Huacayas look like overgrown teddy bears with their long soft coat whereas the Suri has a more silken fiber that grows in long locks.
The Suri Alpaca has a very high luster fiber that grows in curly dread-lock forms.
The Huacaya fiber is very soft, fine, dense and colorful. This gives them a huggable and soft fluffy appearance.
Alpacas eat very little, about as much as a large dog and require minimal fencing (more to keep local animals out rather than keep the alpacas in). They like grass, hay and pelletized feed and rarely eat anything else. As a rule of thumb, you can keep about 5-10 alpacas on an acre of pasture. However, with additional feed you may be able to increase this number depending on conditions in your area.
Alpacas have a complex, 3-compartmented stomach. Although they are not considered ruminants, they do regurgitate and rechew their cud (ingested food). In fact, they are more efficient at feeding than are ruminants. They are able to extract protein and energy even from poor quality forages.
The lifespan of the alpaca is about 20 years and gestation is 11.5 months. Females reach breeding maturity after about 2 years and have one cria (baby) per year.
Alpacas are naturally herd animals and are best kept in groups of 2 or more animals. A lone alpaca can become nervous and jumpy. This herd instinct comes in very handy if one animal gets out of a pen. It is often easier to convince the animal to "rejoin its herd" by opening a gate, than to chase it down in the open area and halter it.