Caring for Alpacas
Upkeep and Breeding
Alpacas are hardy and generally disease resistant. However, performing basic practices such as yearly vaccinations, monthly worming, and regular toe and occasional dental care are recommended to insure good health. Keeping a watchful eye on your alpacas can help maintain their good health.
Alpacas are intelligent, alert, non-aggressive, and extremely inquisitive creatures. They communicate by expressive humming, a tonal language quickly understood by their owners. Body language, such as neck posturing, ear and tail positioning, and head tilt also have meaning. They have excellent eyesight and hearing, and will alert the herd and their human keepers with a chilling alarm call of apparent danger. Alpacas rarely spit at people unless frightened or abused, but will use this form of communication with each other to register a complaint.
Alpacas spend much of the day grazing or sitting (cushing) beneath whichever tree offers the most shade. Regardless of the chosen activity, from bathroom time to birthing time, to alpacas it is a group venture. Like most herd animals, “safety in numbers” is the fundamental method of survival for alpacas. Thus, they are much more comfortable and in better health when surrounded by the rest of their “herd”.
Working with alpacas is relatively unproblematic. Although each farm may have a distinct training and handling philosophy, alpacas respond favorably to a variety of methods. Their gregarious personalities, along with an established trust, allow owners to teach lessons such as halter and lead in very few sessions. Alpacas’ gentle quiet demeanor allows even children to handle them in safety and with ease.
Forage and Grain
Alpacas are modified ruminants with three-chambered stomachs. This allows them to very efficiently convert food into energy and so they require much less food than most livestock. They need only 1 ½ % to 2% of their body weight in good quality hay daily and a constant availability to fresh cool water. Supplemental feeds, vitamins, and minerals are also provided to maintain good health. Even with these additions, alpacas cost far less to feed than most traditional domestic animals.
Daily nutritional care includes:
- Fresh water in all buckets 2X daily
- On extremely hot and cold days, electrolytes are added as an option. Fresh water is always available.
- 1-2 cups of crumble to all 2X daily
- Late term pregnant girls get 20% cracked corn or crimped oats plus a bit more crumble mixture.
- Hay should be tested to determine its nutrients. Remember, an alpaca’s health is influenced by it environment and nutrition.
- Good forage promotes good health. Check your pastures regularly. Your local Extension Office can help you in this area.
Weigh each alpaca periodically. The use a livestock scale is recommended, but you can also “body score” your alpaca by placing your hand on its back. This is a quick and easy method to determine your alpaca’s body mass.
You will need to give worming medications every 30 days. You can buy the worming medicines through numerous mail order catalogues or your local farm supply stores. Ivomec, Panacur, Dectomax and Safeguard are some of the most widely used. Dosage is determined by the weight of the animal.
Watch for signs of worms and do regular fecal sampling. Catching infestations early prevents the alpaca from weakening or incurring any further complications. An important factor in a farm’s worming program is their geographic location. Certain worms are more problematic in some areas and for different periods of time. Consult with a knowledgeable vet and develop a system of prevention.
Breeding, Gestation & Reproduction
The female alpaca has only one cria per year. Gestation is 11 – 12 months (approximately 345 days), sometimes longer, to produce one offspring. The alpaca neonate is called a cria. Dams deliver their crias usually in a standing position during early daylight hours. Alpacas are “induced ovulators.” This means that owners can breed at anytime of the year and do not have to wait for an animal to go into “season” or monitor the estrus cycle to successfully breed. If you expose a mature female to a male and she is not already pregnant, she will usually ovulate within days. If she is already pregnant, she will refuse to breed with the male and “spit him off.”
Male alpacas reach sexual maturity at about 2 1/2 years of age. Females can be bred at 18 – 24 months of age.
Crias (Baby Alpacas)
Oh, the crias! There may be nothing so cute in the animal world! With their long, skinny, little legs that look as though they will never hold up (they will!) and their ears that may send thoughts of Dumbo’s ability to fly through a new owner’s worried mind (they grow into them!), and fiber, softer than anything you’ve ever felt…. they are simply irresistible! A new cria is a reason for celebration. If you are prepared, it will be a glorious time!
As with any birth, crias can cause both joy and serious trepidation (especially to new owners)! Feeling as though you are ready for delivery not only really helps with the butterflies; it will help tremendously to have what you need ready for action! A “Cria Care Kit” in a large tub should have all your necessary needs. The following contents have been recommended by some of the top veterinarians in the country.
“Cria Care Kit”:
Have a phone handy for any emergency!
To determine successful passive transfer of dam’s colostrum, an IgG test is performed on the cria, 24 hours after birth. This is a blood test to make sure the cria has the ability to ward off infectious disease.
While a livestock scale is preferable, home scales can be used. Weigh yourself and then hold the cria and measure the difference. The cria must be weighed daily to make sure all is well. Crias will generally loose some weight within the first 24 hours but should gain at least .25 – .50 lbs per day. Average newborn crias weigh anywhere from 12 to 22 pounds. At 30 days of age, the cria should have doubled its birth weight or be close to it.
The field of choice is orchard grass. There are approximately 50 varieties in the United States. It is a palatable grass for alpacas and nicely balanced in nutrients. Other grasses such as Brome, Bermuda Bluegrass, and Alfalfa work well with alpacas however, quantities must be observed and monitored! Always, always have your hay and pastures tested. Protein levels will vary with in the seasons. What might work for a farm in the east USA will not be suitable for the west. If you have established pastures, it is best to have your grass tested to determine the nutrients. If you are starting from scratch, then research the best grass for your area. Irrigation systems can relieve you of drought worries if practical in cost.
Ideas on this subject can be as varied as the structures themselves. Protection needs from the elements is determined by your location and climate. Alpacas are hardy animals that can withstand extreme cold temperatures however, a barn or run in shed can offer that ailing alpaca some true relief. Stoic animals that they are, alpacas do not tell you they need protection. Common sense is the key here. Heat and humidity can cause heat stress with multitude of effects so why risk the chance? Create the structure best suited for your area and alpaca needs. Alpacas prefer to stay out of doors but heavy rains, heat and driving winds will make even the original alpaca import take refuge. Insulating your structure is another option. A simple “run in shed” might be all that is necessary. Consult other livestock farmers in your area to evaluate your thoughts and directions.
Alpacas do not challenge fencing so for those of you who have livestock / equine experience, this will come as a blessing. The product desired by most is called “no climb fencing.” This product comes in either woven or welded material. Woven does tend to withstand an occasional alpaca’s rubbing motion better but either fence material works fine. Some alpaca breeders use a tensile style of fencing and “hot wire” a section. You have to ask yourself, what do I need to keep out of my pastures? The alpacas will stay within the confines of a fence, the beasts of prey will try to get in. Dogs are considered the most common predator of alpacas, however, you may live in an area that has wolves, coyotes, or bears. Check with Game and Wildlife Office to determine you needs. Packs of dogs are perhaps the most dangerous. The kill instinct becomes a game of sport. Livestock guard dogs are certainly an option.
Alpacas are fully insurable against theft and mortality. Insurance can be purchased for your stock as soon as they are two weeks of age. Average insurance rates are 3.25% of the value of the animal, or $325 for every $10,000 of insurance.