PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
August 8, 2016

When it comes to our favorite types of nontraditional livestock, my brother and I are of two minds: Dan thinks emus are awesome (and he loves the look of those amazing green eggs), while I have a penchant for camels. Of course, camels aren’t exactly common here in North America, but if you’re searching for a nontraditional fiber source, a unique pack animal, a livestock guardian or even an unusual companion animal, two members of the camelid family — alpacas and llamas — might just fit the bill.

Alpacas and llamas are members of the Camelidae family, which also contains two-toed (nonhoofed) animals, such as classic one-hump desert camels and rarer two-humped Bactrian camels. Alpacas and llamas are native to South America and were domesticated by pre-Columbian cultures and raised there for thousands of years. In fact, they are still used there today. Llamas were introduced to the United States around 1900, but alpacas were not imported until 1984 due to importation restrictions.

Distinguishing The Two

If you’re new to camelids, you’re likely wondering what the differences between alpacas and llamas. They are indeed two distinct species, and there are quite a few variations between them.

  • Size: Llamas are significantly larger than alpacas, sometimes described as twice the size. An adult alpaca typically weighs between 100 and 200 pounds, while adult llamas can reach mature weights of 300 to 400 pounds, with some reaching more than 500 pounds. In terms of height, alpacas are about a foot shorter than llamas: Llamas measure 48 inches at the shoulder, while alpacas come in at 36 inches.
  • Ears: This is one of the hallmark differences: Llamas are noted for their distinctive banana-shaped ears, while alpacas have short, straight ears.
  • Body Shape: Alpacas have slightly sloping backs with tails that set on sloped hindquarters, while llamas have straight backs with high-set tails.
  • Facial Hair: Alpacas have furry faces, but llamas possess only a small amount of facial hair.
  • Coat Type: Llamas have a double coat with a coarse outer layer, while alpacas are noted for their soft fleece.

Similarities Between Alpacas And Llamas

Being camelids, alpacas and llamas do share some common traits.

  • Foodies: Both are herbivores, mainly preferring grass or hay.
  • Birth: The gestation period for both species is approximately 11½ months, and babies are known as crias. Llama crias typically weigh 20 to 30 pounds at birth while alpaca crias generally range from 15 to 18 pounds.
  • Spitting Habit: Both will “spit” at other camelids during a dispute, or to simply show disgust about something. “All members of the camel family use spitting as a means of negative communication,” says Bonnie Potter, president of the Alpaca Owners Association. “Alpacas may get possessive around food, and thus may spit at other alpacas that get too close during feeding. They do occasionally spit at people, but it is usually when we get caught in the crossfire between alpacas that are annoyed with each other.” While admittedly not a pleasant trait, spitting is usually not as problematic as some people anticipate.
  • Fiber: Both are fiber producers, but alpacas annually produce more usable fiber than llamas.
  • Lifespan: Both species live in the range of 15 to 25 years, though llamas may have a slightly longer lifespan, up to 30 years.

Coats of Many Colors

Luckily for fleece enthusiasts everywhere, llamas and alpacas are found in a multitude of colors, including solid, spotted and bicolored varieties. The Alpaca Owners Association recognizes 16 official colors within its registry, including white, beige, bay black, true black, three shades of fawn, three shades of brown, three shades of silver gray and three shades of rose gray.

The International Lama Registry is a nonprofit that maintains an official genealogical registry system and research services for owners of subspecies of the genus Lama, which includes the llama (Lama glama), guanaco (Lama guanicoe), vicuna (Lama vicugna) and cross-breds. It recognizes 15 colors of llamas: white, cream and black, as well as dilute, medium, and intense shades of brown, red, gray brown and gray. Additionally, the AOA recognizes four leg color patterns, 12 head and neck color patterns, and 20 body color patterns.

Common Camelid Uses

alpaca
iStock/Thinkstock

Far from being ornamental creatures, camelids are surprisingly versatile and useful in many different ways. In some countries, they are even used as a source of meat, but in the United States, they are mainly used for fiber or as pack animals, livestock guardians and companion animals.

Fiber Source

Llamas and alpacas are both used for fiber production, but the alpaca is the true champ in this area. It’s actually their primary use, and it’s easy to see why. Alpacas sport an incredibly soft fleece that is highly prized for being very strong, yet is surprisingly lightweight. It’s also long-lasting and very warm, and many people claim that it’s warmer than sheep’s wool.

Alpaca fiber is hypoallergenic because it contains no lanolin, but this also means that it’s not water-repellent. Alpaca fleeces were used to clothe the royalty of pre-Columbian societies, and it’s no surprise that the fiber is still valued today. Plus, unlike some of the other fiber-producing animals, alpaca fiber is found in an amazing selection of colors. It can also be dyed if desired.

“Alpaca fiber is fairly easy to market because of its unique qualities,” Potter says. “It is soft, lightweight, warmer than wool, wrinkle and odor resistant, and it wicks moisture. Unlike wool, alpaca is lanolin free and can be cleaned and processed without harsh chemicals, and the lack of lanolin minimizes the likelihood of allergic reactions to those who are sensitive to wool.”

There are two types of alpacas: the popular Huacaya and the less-common Suri. Huacayas have very fine fiber similar in appearance to sheep, while the Suri has an interesting long coat that forms long twisting cords.

Despite their double coat, llamas produce far less fiber than alpacas, and it’s generally of lesser quality. This is because alpacas were bred specifically for fiber production while llamas were bred for other purposes. However, fiber production is still another viable use for the llama. In either case, fleeces are shorn once a year.

“I believe that the fiber market is the future of the llama industry,” says Debi Garvin, who serves on the board of directors for the International Lama Registry. “We now have a nationwide llama fiber cooperative that markets 100-percent llama products. Although alpaca is readily available, quality llama fiber is a hard find.”

Garvin suggests that small-scale farmers have their products processed or market them locally at fiber shows. “The key is developing a niche market,” she adds.

The fiber of alpacas and llamas is considered to be luxury fiber, in the league of cashmere and angora. Fleece shows are often held in conjunction with llama or alpaca shows, and the fleeces are judged against a wide range of criteria that varies depending on the specific species and breed of fleece. Generally speaking, some of the primary criteria include density, luster, fineness, uniformity and cleanliness.

Pack Animal

While they’ve never achieved the popularity of oxen or horses, llamas have been bred and raised as pack animals for thousands of years, helping their owners transport loads through the Andes Mountains in South America. Today, many weekend adventurers, backpackers and campers have discovered the fun of a pack llama.

A good pack llama is easy to train, calm and relaxed on the trail, and happy to trek at a leisurely pace. An adult llama in good condition that has been properly trained for packing can carry approximately 25 to 30 percent of his body weight, or around 100 pounds. The smaller alpaca isn’t really suited for heavy loads.

Livestock Guardian

Alpacas are herd animals that enjoy and require companionship of multiple alpacas, and this companionship is important to their health and happiness. Llamas, however, are more independent, so a farmer looking to own just one or two animals might do better with a llama. One benefit of this independent personality is that llamas can make excellent guardians for other smaller livestock.

Many livestock species are accepting of a llama guard, and they sometimes adapt to a llama more quickly than, say, a guard dog. Likewise, many guard llamas become socially attached to their herd, particularly if it’s a single llama, so this presents a desirable, mutually beneficial relationship.

Llamas excel at deterring canines from bothering livestock. Depending on the llama’s personality, it may attempt to threaten the intruder by approaching it, or it may lead the animals it’s protecting away from the area. While llamas are capable of kicking, they can’t really be viewed as an attack animal, but more of a vigil or warning system that reliably sounds the alarm at the sign of potential danger. The alarm sound is loud and hornlike, but wary llamas can also hum or click.

You can use a gelded male or an adult female llama as a guard animal. Gelded males were more common in the past but either option is viable. While you probably could use a single alpaca as a guardian animal, it’s not as common as using llamas.

Companionship

Don’t forget about the simple enjoyment value of these animals! Alpacas and llamas are interesting, often affectionate, and sometimes amusing animals that give their owners plenty of pleasure on a daily basis.

Fertilizer

Llama fertilizer is one of the best out there for your gardens. “It won’t burn the plants and can be used directly in flower beds,” Garvin says.

Camelid Care

cria
iStock/Thinkstock

Space & Shelter

Alpacas and llamas do not necessarily require much land. An acre or so—with proper shelter—can support about four llamas and approximately eight alpacas. While cold temperatures are generally not an issue, camelids don’t do particularly well in overly windy or wet conditions, so it’s critical to have a place for them to stay dry when the weather is inclement.

Camelids also need a shady place for hot summer days. Shelter doesn’t have to be elaborate, though it does have to exist. Many farmers use three-sided shelters for their animals, though a larger barn with stalls and a hallway to work in will certainly be helpful.

“Keep in mind the native environment of these animals,” Garvin says. “Although [llamas] are perhaps one of the easiest species of livestock to raise, they need room to be llamas and plenty of room to graze to keep parasite infestations down. Llamas do not like to be confined and only will go to a shelter if the weather is really bad or hot. Obviously, in most parts of the United States, shelter from the heat is probably more crucial than from the cold and these animals can heat-stress very easily. Plenty of shade is essential and if you have a ‘wading pond’ area where they can get in and get wet, that also helps.”

Feed

As herbivores, the diet of an alpaca or llama is comprised primarily of grass or hay, though concentrated feeds are often used in conjunction with a grass-based diet. High-quality grass hay is preferable to alfalfa, which is too rich to be fed to alpacas and llamas in anything but small amounts.

Mineral supplements are also important, especially for lactating females. As with all livestock, a steady supply of fresh, clean water is absolutely essential. Your camelid’s exact diet may vary depending on individual circumstances, including your location, and should be tailored to your region.

Vaccinations

Immunizing a camelid is important, but, unfortunately, camelid-specific vaccinations have not been developed due to the relatively small populations of these animals. Instead, vaccines designed for other large livestock are used as a best option, and while seemingly effective, have not been fully studied in alpacas or llamas. Work with your local vet to choose the proper vaccines; some vaccine possibilities include tetanus, Clostridium perfringens types C and D, and rabies.

Internal Parasite Control

There isn’t a universally ideal plan for controlling internal parasites in llamas and alpacas, but most farmers use a combination of multiple deworming products along with fecal testing and general pasture hygiene. Alpacas are helpful here, as they naturally gravitate toward using communal manure piles, keeping parasites low.

As with vaccinations, it’s best to seek advice from a veterinarian to help you develop a parasite control program specific to your farm and situation, which prevent you from causing more harm than good with a less-than-ideal deworming program.

Toenail Trimming

Alpacas and llamas need to have the pair of toenails on each of their feet trimmed several times a year. The appropriate frequency of trimming varies greatly and depends on how much exercise the animal gets and the surfaces they walk on; harder surfaces tend to naturally wear down the toenails faster and allow more time between trims, and vice versa. Pruning shears are popular tools for trimming, and for hard toenails, a hoof nipper is a good choice.

While you’re in the mood to trim things, be sure to check with your veterinarian to determine if your camelid’s teeth need trimming. While this is a procedure that you can likely handle on your own once you have experience, you’ll want to obtain a vet’s advice and recommendations first.

Could there be a camelid in your future? Potter loves raising alpacas because they are environmentally friendly, inquisitive, safe and pleasant to be around, and they produce soft, luxurious fleece which can be turned into yarn, apparel, blankets, rugs and other products.

“Llamas are a wonderful exotic livestock breed [and] are affordable in today’s economy,” Garvin says. “Due to their majestic nature and regal personality, they bring a sense of calmness to anyone around them. There is probably not a better, more versatile animal to have on a small acreage.”

And what’s not to like about that?

Samantha Johnson co-wrote this article with her brother, Daniel Johnson. They have collaborated on several books, including How to Build Chicken Coops (2015).

This article originally ran in the July/August 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.


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