Alpacas: Not just a pretty face
Photo and story by Renee Henry
Wondering why it seems like you are seeing more and more adorable alpacas inhabiting local farms and homesteads as you drive through the countryside lately? Pondering what the fascination is with these unusual creatures? Alpacas are growing in popularity as a welcome livestock addition to many small farms and homesteads as word spreads about their gentle manner and practical uses.
Alpacas, members of the Camelid family, are smaller than their Llama cousins, typically weighing in between 100-200 lbs. and standing at approximately 3-4 feet tall. Their smaller stature makes them easier to manage than some larger livestock, and they can be transported in vehicles as small as a minivan.
There are two types of alpaca: The Huacaya and Suri. Huacayas have a thick, crimpy, fluffy fleece, and Suri alpacas grow long, silky fleece that often looks like dreadlocks. They are a herd animal and therefore it is recommended that you should always keep two at a minimum, although once you get a couple it is easy to get hooked on acquiring more. A three-sided structure is recommended — at the basic level – to provide a windbreak and storm protection, and fencing is necessary to keep them safe from predators such as coyotes and dogs.
Alpacas are a low-impact variety of livestock, as they can subsist on smaller pasture areas and they have soft footpads rather than hooves which means they do less damage to their pasture. Generally, one acre of grassy pasture can support a herd of up to ten alpacas. In addition, their food is supplemented with grassy hay (approximately 1-2 lbs. of hay per day) and grain, especially in winter or times when grass is less plentiful.
Maintenance is fairly low-key and much of it can be managed by their owners once a few skills are learned. Most importantly, alpacas must be shorn once each year to remove the thick coat of fleece that they grow. This should be handled by a trained and skilled shearer in order to avoid any harm to the animal and to ensure that the fleece blanket is removed properly to maintain its value as a commodity to your homestead or hobby farm. Alpacas are sturdy animals evolved to withstand the cold temperatures of the Andes Mountains and in order to keep them comfortable and healthy they need to have their heavy fleece removed before the temperatures soar in Spring/Summer. In addition to shearing, alpacas require occasional trimming of their toenails and regular vaccinations against the Meninga Worm, which can be deadly to the animals. (you can use these trimmers)
The fiber produced by an alpaca is praised for its warmth, softness, strength and fire-resistance, and can be a great resource for your homestead business. Alpaca fiber has a hollow core, which boosts its thermal capacity, making it warmer than sheep wool and other fibers. Nothing beats the cozy warmth and water resistance of a knit alpaca hat or scarf on a bitterly cold day. Additionally, alpaca fiber is considered to be almost completely allergen free because it lacks the lanolin oil that naturally exists in sheep wool – meaning that it can be worn even by those with allergies to wool products.
After shearing, the fleece blanket can be sent out to a fiber mill for processing and is a real delight for hand spinners and fiber artists who enjoy more hands-on involvement in the processing of fleece. Fiber can be carded into roving for use in many needle felting and wet felting craft projects. It can be spun on the spinning wheel to create soft and luxurious yarn to knit and crochet into ultra-cozy apparel. Alpaca fiber comes in twenty-two natural shades! Colors range from white, grey, black, brown, fawn and a multitude of gorgeous shades in between. It is also very suitable for dyeing, making it possible to create a virtual rainbow of colors for use in handmade projects. If homespun yarn and fiber art is of interest to you, consider the ways in which having your own source of this fine fiber can help you boost production of handmade items to sell from a homestead shop, or perhaps offer classes in fiber processing (carding, spinning, dying, knitting) to create a source of income.
Many homesteaders focus on best practices to support production of their own food sources, and here, too, alpacas can provide added benefit. Alpaca dung, commonly referred to as beans because of its similar appearance to coffee beans, is a nutrient rich source of natural fertilizer for garden production. It is generally high in nitrogen and potassium and is not considered “hot,” meaning it can be spread directly onto garden plants without the risk of burning them. The herd uses communal dung piles, which makes it easy to quickly scoop up and remove manure from their pasture areas and use it directly in vegetable gardens or add it to composting heaps for later use. Many alpaca owners find a source of income through packaging and selling their surplus beans to local gardeners who are eager to get this power-packed fertilizer into their own garden beds.
Alpacas are quiet, gentle creatures. As they munch away on pasture grass, you will notice the subtle humming sound they make to indicate their contentment. Many owners will comment that they find themselves just hanging around the pastures to enjoy the peace and calm of the alpaca hum. While they are not overly friendly, alpacas are good-natured and rarely display aggressive behavior (males will sometimes spit and tussle to assert dominance in the herd). Alpaca babies, known as crias, often enjoy being petted and older animals can usually be hand fed grain as a treat, which is a real delight for visitors to your farm. No one can resist snapping a picture or two of these beautiful, doe-eyed creatures while visiting, and the lure of their “exoticness” can be an additional boon if you are working to create foot traffic to support a homesteading business.
Renee Henry is a fiber enthusiast residing in rural Western New York, where she and her husband and two children are learning about and practicing sustainable living while gardening, raising a flock of chickens, and lending a hand at her parents’ alpaca farm. A graduate of SUNY Geneseo, Renee works at a local community college and enjoys working with the many facets of processing and crafting with animal fibers.