The History of the Alpaca
Alpacas are native to South America and have been domesticated for over 5,000 years. Treasured by the ancient Inca civilisation, they were the providers of a luxurious fibre reserved for royalty. Whilst traditionally a lowlands grazer, the Spanish conquest saw much of the alpaca population slaughtered to make way for sheep and cattle. The remaining stock fell into the hands of peasant farmers living at four to five thousand metres above sea level, on the high Altiplano of the Andes.
The Spanish conquistadors failed to see the true value of Alpaca fibre, preferring the merino sheep of their native Spain. Two factors secured the survival of the alpaca, their importance to the Indian people and their incredible ability to live at high altitudes, under conditions, which would not sustain the life of other domesticated animals. The alpaca has adapted to sparse, low-value vegetation, extremes of temperature that fluctuate from burning sun during the day, to below freezing at night, with little or no shelter from the elements.
Alpacas and the amazing properties of their fibre, were rediscovered by Sir Titus Salt of London in the mid-1800s and regained their prominence as producers of luxurious fibre. Garments made from Alpaca were once again high-status fashion accessories, commanding premium prices.
The World Market
Worldwide, alpacas are a valuable and scarce commodity. Australia, the United States and Canada have the largest numbers outside of South America but small and expanding numbers are also found throughout Europe.
Peru is the world’s main alpaca fibre producer and exports most of its clip as either raw fibre or finished product.
Both North America and Australia have proven that through selective breeding, tremendous gains can be made in fibre quality in a relatively short space of time. They are now producing fibre equal to and in many cases better than that produced in Peru.
The Future of the Alpaca In New Zealand
Because of the nature of the land where alpacas are farmed in South America combined with a higher mortality rate of cria (baby alpaca), population growth there is limited. The lack of quality control of the largely peasant-based South American industry presents an opportunity for other countries including New Zealand to become major players in the supply of high-quality alpaca fibre on the world stage.
Due to the relatively small numbers of alpacas in New Zealand, currently 40,000, the industry is still in its infancy. Imports of alpacas from Peru and Australia since 1987 have raised the profile of the alpaca industry ensuring its place as a serious contender in the fibre market.
In recent times the New Zealand clip has been absorbed by a grateful craft market with fibre being purchased by hand spinners or spun and processed by breeders themselves. Having realised the potential for the superb fibre, the New Zealand textile industry is waking up to the potential offered by alpaca and demand for fibre is far exceeding the current supply.
New Zealand is fortunate in that it is able to acquire knowledge and expertise from research and development that has already taken place in established alpaca industries, particularly from across the Tasman. Whilst the NZ alpaca industry was originally a breeding-based one, today there is clear evidence of breeders turning their attention to the fibre. Local craftspeople and the tourism industry is benefiting from these changes.
Alpacas - description
Alpacas are members of the South American Camelid family. They are thought to descend from the wild vicuna, which produces one of the rarest and most beautiful natural fibres in the world. The ]lama and the guanaco also belong to the same family
- Life Span: 15 - 20 years
- Average Height: Around 3ft at the withers (1 metre at the shoulder)
- Average Weight: Adults usually weigh between 50-80 kg
- Average gestation: Between 11 and 12 months. Twins are extremely rare and births normally occur during daylight hours
- Colours: Alpacas come in 22 basic colours, with many variations and distinctive markings
There are two types of alpaca, the Huacaya and the Suri. Huacaya is by far the most plentiful, making up approximately 95% of the world’s alpaca population and tend to be hardier than the Suri. Huacaya has dense body wool that has a crimp or wave quality (giving it elasticity) similar to that found in sheep wool.
Suri has a highly lustrous, silky fibre lacking in crimp. Its fibre falls in long, pencil-fine locks. There are very few Suri in New Zealand.
Because of their more exposed backline, Suri does not seem to be as hardy as the Huacaya which may account for their scarcity. With sensible management, a milder climate and improved nutrition Suris should have a bright future in New Zealand.
Looking after alpacas
Alpacas are superb animals to farm as they are intelligent, easy to handle and very hardy. Compared with most other livestock species they need less routine maintenance and do not suffer from many of the scourges, such as footrot and flystrike commonly associated with sheep farming. There is no need for crutching, tail docking, or dipping. Hence the life of an alpaca farmer is both simple and rewarding.
With a sensible vaccination program, clostridial diseases are easily prevented. Cria receives their first vaccine at a few weeks of age and adults are usually injected every six months to ensure maximum coverage.
As they defecate in communal sites around their field, preferring not to graze around these ‘dung piles”; internal parasite levels are low. Regular worming every twelve months is usually sufficient. If running alpacas with other livestock such as sheep, the worming routine should reflect that of those other livestock.
Like other camelids, Alpacas have a soft padded hoof, which makes very little impact on the land. Their toenails are usually clipped as needed (approximately 2-3 times a year)
Teeth should be checked at shearing when the animal is restrained and trimmed as necessary.
Supplementary feeding may be necessary in the winter months and for lactating females or newly weaned cria. Grass, good quality hay and alpaca pellets constitute the diet of a typical New Zealand Alpaca.
Once caught, Alpacas are naturally submissive. Crooking an arm around the neck and placing the other hand on the animal's back holds them. For an animal that looks deceptively big, they are very gentle and actually weigh little more than a sheep.
For those prepared to don their “wellies” and get a little dirt under their nails, alpaca stock tasks are not hard to learn. Advice on alpaca farming can be obtained through the Alpaca Association NZ Incorporated.
Gestation is usually between 11 to 12 months and females are commonly mated around 14 days after giving birth. Alpacas are induced ovulators and do not have a regular breeding season, meaning they can be bred at any time of the year. Many breeders in New Zealand prefer to plan their births for early spring to ensure the mildest weather and the best start for the cria.
Females are usually mated for the first time according to weight and age. In New Zealand with good management females will start breeding at around one year of age.
Pen mating is the most common and successful method of mating alpacas. Mating may be observed for effectiveness and dates recorded. Paddock mating can also be used when mating small numbers, although observation of copulation is not so accurate. An open female will accept the male’s advances by sitting down in the kush position. When a female thinks she is pregnant she will then reject the male by refusing to sit, spitting or kicking him away.
Pregnancy may be determined in a number of ways. Ultrasound scanning is one of the most effective methods as the operator can see the foetus. Regular monitoring of the pregnancy throughout gestation enables the owner to re-mate any female who does not carry the cria to full term, without losing valuable time.
Alpacas usually give birth during daylight hours and seldom need assistance. Within an hour or so the cria will be up and walking, looking to mum for its first feed.
When buying alpacas for the first time, many ‘breeders choose to forgo the expense of purchasing a breeding male and focus on a few pregnant females to try and kick start their alpaca herd.
It is very important that new breeders develop a business plan and carefully think about the reasons they are entering the alpaca industry. Most experienced breeders will admit that their biggest mistake was not planning ahead. New breeders need to clearly identify just what it is they are expecting from their alpacas.
Is it for pets, fibre, export, stud or tourism?
Better quality alpacas can set the purchaser back from NZ$5,000 to $10,000 so it is important to get it right. Pet quality alpacas can be purchased for a few hundred dollars by comparison.
Silverstream Alpaca Stud based near Christchurch operates one of the largest herds in New Zealand, currently 230 animals. Silverstream has been operating for 20 years and is heavily involved in live animal exports, the production of elite-quality animals, showing at A & P shows, fibre production, bed and breakfast and farm tours.
Alpacas are generally shorn annually in springtime when the weather is warm. They may be shorn with conventional sheep shearing equipment. Shearing is either done on a shearing table or on the ground. The animals are shackled so that they cannot struggle resulting in very few injuries to both the animals and the shearer. Inoculations and toenail clipping are often done at the same time.
There are some good prices being paid for good quality fibre up to and over $25 per kg.
Clean, well-skirted fibre will always command the best prices.
Alpaca is a rare, speciality fibre, warm, lightweight and incredibly soft. Surprisingly tough and hardwearing it is ideal for processing. The structure of alpaca fibre gives products made from pure alpaca amazing thermal and water-resistant properties. Its superb handle, lustre and silky feel ensure it is much sought after in Europe, Asia and the USA for use in high-quality knitwear and textiles.
Occurring in a large range of natural colours, from pure white, through shades of fawn to dark brown, the most exquisite blends of rose and blue-grey and a pure jet black. It can be blended to produce more subtle shades and when desired can be dyed or mixed with sheep wool, mohair, silk or other fibres. Trend back to “natural” colours, means that little of the clip needs to be dyed, limiting the need for using harsh chemical dyes that may be hazardous to the environment.
Having little or no natural grease, alpaca is a hand spinners delight and may be spun with little preparation from the raw fleece.
Alpacas produce approximately 3-5kg of fleece per year. Selective breeding will see fleece weights increase. Baby Alpaca (the first clip from a young alpaca) is the finest fleece and commands a price premium. High Fashion garments are manufactured from this wonderfully soft fibre. The clip is sorted and graded according to fineness, vegetable contamination or staining. The prime quality fleece comes from the saddle of the animal. The Belly, the leg and the fibre from the front of the chest is of poorer quality and may contain coarser guard hairs that itch or prickle when worn next to the skin. This coarse fibre however retains its wonderful thermal qualities and makes superb filling for duvets and can be made into rugs, or garments that are lined with another material.
Alpacas can be insured against mortality and theft. Premiums differ from company to company but do not usually exceed 4% pa of the animal's value. All alpacas registered with the International Alpaca Registry are easily identified, and the need for registration documents to pass on at the point of sale acts as a disincentive to would-be thieves.
The Alpaca Association New Zealand Inc.
AANZ was formed to give support to alpaca breeders including education, research, fibre marketing and the establishment of a herd register. Promotion of high standards of welfare, sound husbandry practices, continual improvement of the national herd and the marketing of the breed are the major aims of the AANZ We believe that the potential for a successful, long-term industry that will see alpacas as an integral part of New Zealand farming lies in:
- Their valuable end product
- Their undeniable appeal and range of colours
- The export market to Europe and Asia
- The support network of a committed breeder organisation
The introduction of AANZ-run alpaca shows allows members to share information and experiences, as well as provides benchmarks of alpaca excellence to which we can all aspire.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Where do Alpacas come from? Alpacas are native to South America where they are farmed in Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
- Are Alpacas related to Llamas? Yes, alpacas, llamas, guanaco and vicuna are all members of the South American Camelid family.
- What is the difference between an Alpaca & a Llama? Alpacas are primarily bred for their beautifully soft fibre. Llamas, which is known as the ‘Ship of the Andes’ are much bigger than the Alpaca and are used as pack animals. The Llama has a double coat; short softer fibres and long coarse guard hair. They are also quite different in appearance.
- What do you do with an Alpaca? Alpacas are shorn once a year for their fleece. They also make excellent companion animals and can be taught to lead on a halter.
- How many Alpacas can be kept per acre? The stocking rate is equivalent to sheep equating to around 4-5 to the acre.
- What do Alpacas eat? Alpacas are ruminants and chew their cud like cows. They are grazers and browsers and do well on most qualities of pasture. During winter supplementary feeding with hay and concentrates may be necessary. It is important to ensure they have access to sufficient quantities of trace elements, vitamins and minerals. Having evolved in incredibly harsh conditions, Alpacas utilise their food far more efficiently than other domesticated stock. Unlike goats, they are not in the habit of ring-barking trees but do a lovely job of gently pruning hedges!
- Do I have to house my Alpacas during winter? Alpacas are very hardy and will live out during winter. A simple field shelter for shade in summer and cover in winter is adequate for most situations.
- Do Alpacas require special fencing? No, Alpacas rarely jump and generally do not challenge fences. 4ft high sheep fencing is entirely adequate. Barbed wire should be avoided, and electric ‘hot wires’ are not needed.
- Are Alpacas easy to care for? In relation to most livestock alpacas need very little maintenance. Basic care involves vaccinating every 6 months, shearing once a year, feet trimmed 3-5 times a year, checking each day and feeding when needed. They do not suffer from footrot, do not require tail docking or crutching. They are not susceptible to bloat but are susceptible to facial eczema and ryegrass staggers. Normal preventative measures against facial eczema as for other classes of livestock minimise the risk. They are good-natured. Easy to handle and adapt to routine with case.
- How do you transport Alpacas? Alpacas travel with little fuss either in a horsebox or chukkered in a van or ute. They usually sit down and enjoy the ride.
- Are Alpacas intelligent? We think so! They learn routine extremely quickly, find gates with case and adapt readily to change. Alpacas are also extremely curious by nature.
- What sound does an Alpaca make? The sound most often heard is a soft ‘humming, a mild expression befitting a gentle animal. They also have a distinctive alarm call, quite often heard when they have spotted an unfamiliar cat or dog approaching the field.
- Are alpacas dangerous? Alpacas have loveable dispositions and are gentle and docile by nature. They do not bite or butt and do not have the teeth, horns, hooves or claws to cause serious injury. They are gentle enough to be handled by children.
- How many alpacas do I need? Alpacas need the company of other alpacas so one should not be kept on its own. Therefore the smallest herd possible would consist of two alpacas.
- What use is a gelding Alpaca? Gelded males make excellent low-cost companions for female alpacas, sheep, goats or horses. They still produce a valuable fibre clip each year and make extremely rewarding pets. A high percentage of young males are castrated each year because they are not of sufficient quality to become a breeding male or fall below the standard of existing stud males. Having been castrated they can safely be kept with females without the possibility of them fathering substandard offspring.
This article was originally produced by Chris Leach of Kaihere Alpacas. The article has been updated by Kit Johnson of Silverstream Alpaca Stud.
Alpaca Association New Zealand
P O Box 6348
Fax: 03 348 6453