PHOTO: Lisa Munniksma
Lisa Munniksma
January 18, 2016

The alpaca industry is relatively young—alpacas were barely known in the U.S. in the 1980s—and it has already seen its ups and downs. Alpacas are natives of the mountain regions of South America, and most of the world’s alpacas still live in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. With fleece as soft as cashmere and ridiculously cute faces, alpacas hold a lot of appeal for small-scale and hobby farmers. Alpacas are relatively uncomplicated, low-impact livestock that provide fiber and charm for a farm. With careful business planning and marketing, an alpaca farm can provide income, too.

Alpacas Vs. Llamas

Alpacas and llamas are similar, so it’s easy to confuse the two—particularly for outsiders to the alpaca industry. There are some differences you should know:

  • Alpacas weigh in at just 100 to 200 pounds, while llamas have an average weight of 280 to 450 pounds.
  • Alpacas grow to about 3 feet tall at the withers, and llamas can be twice that height: 5½ to 6 feet tall.
  • Alpacas are most often kept for fleece production or as pets. In South America, alpacas are sometimes used for meat production. Llamas are primarily used as pack animals and as guardian animals for herds of sheep or flocks of chickens in the U.S. They can also be raised for pets, meat and fiber.
  • Llamas and alpacas—both members of the camelid family—can interbreed. Their offspring are called huarizo.

Selecting Alpacas

Alpacas live for 15 to 20 years (and older, in some cases). These animals are a big investment, so you want to get the right stock for your alpaca farm. If you were starting a dairy farm, you’d select a lineage of cows with the best dairy production. For a beef farm, you’d want cows with the best meat characteristics. On an alpaca farm, fiber is your product, so you need to select alpacas that are proven to have the best fleece production and fleece characteristics.

The most basic decision you need to make is what kind of alpaca you want on your alpaca farm. There are two types of alpacas:

  • Huacaya is the more common breed. Huacaya alpaca fiber is similar to sheep’s wool: It stands perpendicular to the animal’s body and is very dense.
  • Suri alpaca fleece is more like an Angora goat’s hair: It has longer locks of fleece that hang down against the body.

If you are new to alpaca farming, you might not want to jump into breeding alpacas right away; rather, keep a small herd for six months or a year to learn about how raising alpacas works. Learn about the animals’ pedigrees before you make an investment, and research which lines of alpacas cross well with the line you are purchasing. Alpaca registries and reputable breeders can help get you started in researching this information.

Preparing Your Farm For Alpacas

Like keeping any livestock, raising alpacas requires that your property have the right infrastructure and that you have the basic knowledge to keep your animals healthy and happy. Read some alpaca-care books, visit with other alpaca farmers, and consider taking a class so you know what to expect before you get involved with the alpaca industry.

Because alpacas are small in size and tend to be gentle, they don’t often need the electrified fencing of pigs or the reinforced shelters of horses. Alpaca breeders need just enough shelter and fencing so their alpacas can be safe and comfortable.

Shelter

A three-sided shelter offers enough protection from the elements in most climates. You also need a place to store their hay or feed that is protected from the elements and that the alpacas cannot access.

Fencing

The AOA recommends a minimum of 5-foot-tall, small-weave woven-mesh fencing. This will keep out most predators while not allowing curious alpacas to get their heads or legs caught through the fence openings. Multiple pastures allow for rotation, which is important for maintaining healthy pastures.

Poisonous Plants

Alpacas are sensitive to numerous types of plants, and these should be eliminated from the pasture area as much as possible. Plants that are toxic to alpacas include acorns, black walnut, daffodils, elderberry, foxglove, ginkgo tree, hemlock … and the list goes on.

Caring For Alpacas

Alpacas are relatively clean animals, and as a result, farmers might find them easier to care for than other species. They are herd animals, so an alpaca should never be kept alone—two or more of each gender is the way to go.

In The Field

Alpacas establish a communal manure pile in their fields. These are easy to clean up, as opposed to, say, cow piles, which appear wherever the cow pleases. These alpaca-dung piles concentrate the parasite load and fly population in a few small areas rather than all across a pasture.

Alpacas’ soft-padded feet make them less destructive to pastures than hoofed animals. Likewise, alpacas only nibble the tops of grasses and plants—unlike goats and sheep, which can rip plants out of the ground with their long tongues—so they’re gentle on the forage in an area when properly rotated through pastures.

The AOA says two to eight alpacas can be raised on 1 acre, depending on the condition of the land and the availability of forage.

Alpaca Foot Care

Alpacas have two toes with hard toenails. The toenails need to be trimmed occasionally.

Shearing Alpacas

Alpacas are shorn once a year—usually in the spring to keep them cool in summer.

Feeding Alpacas

Alpaca farmers will find alpacas’ nutritional needs are different than those of other types of livestock. They are pseudo-ruminants, meaning they have one stomach with three compartments. They chew cud like cows and can efficiently digest forages. Alpacas need approximately 2 pounds of forage per 125 pounds of body weight per day, according to the AOA. This is equivalent to about 1½ percent of the animal’s body weight daily in hay or fresh pasture. Grass hay is best, as alfalfa contains more protein than alpacas need.

Commercial feeds and mineral supplements are available for alpacas that are hard to keep weight on, lactating alpacas and alpacas in late pregnancy.

A clean source of water, of course, is necessary at all times.

Creating An Alpaca Business Plan

Getting started in the alpaca industry is more complicated than simply starting an alpaca farm, unfortunately. Raising alpacas is the fun part; becoming an alpaca breeder and marketing alpaca fleece is the less-fun, business part.

If you’ve ever written a business plan, you know what you’re in for here. If you have not written a business plan, you can find a lot of information about business plans online.

Specific to creating an alpaca business plan, you need to know:

  • What, exactly, is the purpose of your alpaca farm? Do you want to breed alpacas and sell the offspring, sell fleece, create your own alpaca-fiber products, or just keep a few alpacas for your own enjoyment? Do you have other plans for your alpacas?
  • What is your budget?
  • What is the market for your alpacas? Where will you sell your alpaca fleece, your finished alpaca products and your alpaca offspring? How will you advertise each aspect of your business?
  • What permits do you need from your state, county and town to operate an alpaca business?
  • What is your breeding plan?

Who Buys Alpacas?

According to the Northwest Alpaca Network, to understand how to market alpacas, you must know:

  1. who buys alpacas
  2. where buyers learn about and purchase alpacs
  3. what sales strategies work in today’s marketplace

If you’re breeding alpacas, you can find buyers among other hobby farmers, people wanting to start their own alpaca herds, and other breeders who are looking to expand their herds or bring in diversity to their lineages. Alpaca organizations, websites dedicated to buying and selling alpacas, and the classifieds section of farm and alpaca magazines are also good outlets for selling alpacas. No marketing beats word-of-mouth marketing in the alpaca industry, though. Making connections is key.

Marketing Alpaca Fleece

Fiber artists of all kinds are your market for alpaca fleece. You can sell your raw fiber, washed and carded fiber, and yarns to hand spinners, weavers, knitters and others.

If you’re the crafty kind, you can sell your own finished products, too. Browse through Etsy or visit a high-end craft or gift show to get an idea of the prices you can ask for one-of-a-kind, handmade alpaca-fiber products. These do not sell for small prices, but making the sale depends on finding the right buyer.

What To Think About Before Raising Alpacas

In the 1990s, alpaca farms were all the rage. It seemed everyone with property wanted to raise alpacas, and the alpaca industry put a lot of money into promoting these animals. The price of breeding stock skyrocketed—hundreds of thousands of dollars for the best of the best—but in the early 2010s, the alpaca bubble burst. It was a perfect storm, as farmers of all kinds found the cost of hay climbing, weather woes challenged livestock keeping, and an underdeveloped fiber market was saturated by the amount of alpaca fleece flooding in. A lot of alpaca farmers lost a lot of money, farm rescues became overwhelmed with the number of alpacas that were being turned in to them, and the value of alpacas in the U.S. fell.

The lesson here is that before you get started in the alpaca industry, be sure you know your market and have a business plan you can follow. Talk with alpaca farmers who are still in business, and temper your expectations about how much you can expect to make with an alpaca business versus having a hobby farm that includes alpacas. Make the right connections with fiber artists, and hone your own fiber-arts skills so you have multiple income outlets.

Like any other livestock, raising alpacas is an investment that involves large amounts of time, money, knowledge and infrastructure. An alpaca farm also has the potential to return rewards in personal satisfaction, land stewardship and income.


Next Up