What is an Alpaca?
Did you know that alpacas are one of the earliest domesticated livestock animals in the world? Alpacas have been bred and raised for their fine fleece for over 6000 years. Ancient people created alpacas more than 1000 years before the pyramids of Egypt were built!
Alpacas, llamas, vicuñas, guanacos, and camels are all related through common ancestors. The whole group are known as camelids. Thousands of years ago Indians in South America created alpacas by the careful selective breeding of the wild ancestors of alpacas; the vicuña. There is some speculation that alpacas were developed by breeding vicuñas with some unknown extinct camelid.
The term ‘wool’ in the U.S. pertains to sheep only, so the alpaca industry calls the alpaca production ‘fleece’ or ‘fiber’. What makes the alpaca fleece special is that it is very fine and soft, hypoallergenic, water resistant, and flame resistant. All of this plus they come in colors of white, black, gray, brown, and every shade in between.
All of these qualities have made alpacas not only very special animals, but also a vitally important part of several South American economies for over 6000 years.
What do alpacas eat?
Alpacas are vegetarians. They are ruminants and have three stomachs, or more accurately, a three compartment stomach. Alpacas are also known as a modified ruminants due to having three compartments, not the usual four.
Ruminants like the alpaca can digest the cellulose in plants. Most other animals cannot digest cellulose. The stomachs of ruminants are fermenters containing special microorganisms. These microorganisms do the work of breaking down the plant material. Ruminants chew their food over and over and mechanically break down the food so the microorganisms can do their job better. For most of us it’s grass in– grass out…
Alpacas thrive on grasses like orchard grass, timothy, teff, bermuda grass, and many others. In the high Andes mountains, where alpacas come from, there is a native rangeland grass called ichu. Ichu is not very high in nutritional qualities. Alpacas have adapted to this grass by developing a very efficient digestive system. Alpacas are said to be 30% more efficient than sheep in digesting grass.
Another question might be “what should an alpaca eat?” because they’ll eat pretty darn near anything green. That’s not always a good thing. Don’t let them loose in your garden!
Most alpacas think alfalfa is the best stuff ever. However most people think that alfalfa is too high in protein and will make an alpaca fat and the fleece coarser. This is true, sort of. Sometimes an alpaca has a problem with digestion because of illness or age. Alfalfa is perfect for this. If the grass they are being fed is of poor quality, adding alfalfa is great.
Another thing; lawn grass like fescue and rye should not be fed to alpacas. The reason is that fescues contain what is called ‘endophytes‘ inside the plant. Endophytes are an internal fungus that helps the grass fight off plant diseases. Great for the grass; bad for your alpacas!
Rye grass can be attacked by a fungus called ‘ergot‘. This fungus contains the basic ingredient to make LSD. Nothing good is going to come from that!
Strains of fescue and rye have been created to minimize the fungus problem. So if you must feed these grasses, make sure to use improved and resistant varieties.
All animals need salt. Most livestock can use a salt block, but alpacas don’t do well with them. They prefer loose salt. We get ours from Stillwater Minerals. Stillwater makes a mineral/ salt mix that is supplemented with vitamins. You should keep in mind that most soils that grass hay is grown on gradually get depleted of fertility, so you must make up for what is missing.
What we do is feed a variety of grass hays from different places and also supplement when and where needed.
How long do alpacas live?
The most common answer is 15 to 20 years. A lot depends on where the alpacas live, and under what conditions. For instance, in South America the half of the alpaca babies die before their 1st year. Alpacas who’s fleece isn’t good enough tend to get eaten.
Here in the U.S. the alpacas stand a good chance of living a long life. We have good food, excellent veterinary care, and (usually) fairly mild conditions.
Ian Nelson imported the first alpacas into New Zealand. His alpacas were from a London zoo. Among this first group was a female that was born in the zoo and nicknamed “Vomiting Violet” for her habit of spitting. Vomiting Violet lived to the age of 28, making her the longest lived alpaca I can find with a known birth date.
We have had quite a few alpacas live into their early 20’s here at AMC. Actually we have a couple of them here right now (2017).