Alpacas are raised primarily for their luxurious fibre, which comes in over 22 natural colours with over 300 different shades. Alpaca fiber is much like sheep’s wool, but warmer and not itchy. It is lacking in lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic and also allows it to be processed without the need for high temperatures or harsh chemicals in washing. Each year the fibre is shorn, skirted (the big dirt, hay and straw pieces pulled out), sorted, and sent to various mills and co-ops for further processing. Fibre testing is done on a handful of alpacas each year, after shearing to find out various quality control information such as how fine the fibre is, the comfort factor, and how much variation is coming out through the individual fibres. This helps batch the fleeces to make the best products. The fibre can then be made into all sorts of finished product. From socks, insoles, and yarns to full length sweaters, hats, mitts, and more. The fibre is flame-resistant (meeting the standards of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s rigid testing specifications as a Class 1 fiber for use in clothing and furnishings ), and water resistant and can wick away moisture as well.
The alpaca comes in two breed-types: huacaya (pronounced wah‑KI‑ah) and suri (SOO‑ree). Huacayas, the more common type, account for about 90% of all alpacas, and have fluffy, crimpy fleece that gives the animals a teddy bear-like appearance. Suris, on the other hand, grow silky, lustrous fleece that drapes gracefully in beautiful pencil-locks. At Husky Alpaca Ranch, we currently only have the huacaya breed of alpacas.
Alpacas carry their young, called crias, for approximately 11.5 months. Crias are born on sunny, warm days, often when no person is around or looking. Alpaca moms love having other moms and crias around, and can often be found grazing in the pasture while there is one or two ‘babysitters’ watch the crias play.
Alpacas do not bite or butt and do not have sharp teeth, horns, hooves, or claws as other types of livestock do. They move gracefully and adroitly about the field and are therefore unlikely to run into or over anyone, even small children. Occasionally, an alpaca will reflexively kick with its hind legs, especially if touched from the rear, but the soft padded feet usually do little more than just “get your attention.”
Alpacas mainly eat grass or hay, and not much—approximately two pounds per 125 pounds of body weight per day. The general rule of thumb is 1.5% of the animal’s body weight daily in hay or fresh pasture. A single, 60 pound bale of hay can generally feed a group of about 20 alpacas for one day. Grass hay is recommended, while alfalfa should be fed sparingly, due to its overly rich protein content. Alpacas are pseudo-ruminants, with a single stomach divided into three compartments. They produce rumen and chew cud, thus they are able to process this modest amount of food very efficiently. Many alpacas (especially pregnant and lactating females) will benefit from nutritional and mineral supplements, depending on local conditions. There are several manufactured alpaca and llama feeds and mineral mixes readily available; consult with your local veterinarian to ensure you are feeding the appropriate diet for your area. Alpacas also require access to plenty of fresh water to drink.
Alpacas have two sets of teeth for processing food. They have molars in the back of the jaw for chewing cud. But in the front, the alpaca has teeth only on the bottom and a hard gum (known as a dental pad) on the top for crushing grain, grass, or hay. Unlike goats and sheep that have long tongues which they sometimes use to rip plants out of the ground, alpacas have short tongues and nibble only the tops of grasses and other plants, resulting in less disturbance of the vegetation. However, alpacas are also browsers and will often eat shrubs or the leaves from trees if given the opportunity. This requires monitoring to ensure they do not consume harmful products.