Alpacas were a cherished treasure of the ancient Inca civilization. They played a central part in the Incan culture that was located on the high Andean plateau and mountains of South America. Alpacas and their cousins, the llama, have been domesticated for some 6,000 years. Alpacas produce a fine cashmere-like fleece, once reserved for Incan royalty. This amazing animal provided the food, fuel, clothing, and transportation for a civilization that thrived in an otherwise hostile environment.
With the Spanish conquest of the Incas came the almost total annihilation of the alpaca. This wonderful animal survived only because of its importance to the Indian people and its incredible ability to live at altitudes and conditions which cannot sustain the life of other domestic animals.
The fabulous qualities of alpaca fiber was discover in the mid 1800’s by Sir Titus Salt of London. Following his discovery, the alpaca regained its prominence. Today there is worldwide commerce in the alpaca and its products.
Alpacas in North America
Alpacas were first imported into the United States in 1984. However, the presence of Alpacas in the North America has been known for some time. Years ago, ancestors to the modern day alpacas and llamas roamed freely on the plains of central and south central United States.
Over the years, some of these animals wandered northwest and across the land bridge between North America and Asia, evolving into the modern day camels of Asia and Africa. Other ancient camelids headed south through Mexico and Central America settling in the countries we know today as Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. These animals evolved into the South American camelids; alpaca, llama, guanaco, and vicuna.
The Alpaca is a rare and precious resource. In North America, there are almost 100,000 alpacas today.
In Michigan, there are an estimated 3,600 Alpacas, and 340 individual Alpaca Owners and Breeders.
Alpaca fiber has a cellular structure similar to hair. It is more resilient and much stronger than sheep wool. It has a unique silky feel, and it is highly sought after by the textile makers of Britain, Europe and Japan.
Alpaca fiber comes in an extraordinary variety of natural colors: from pure white to a range of browns, and a true jet black. Colors then shade out in grays from steel blue to pale silver and vibrant rose. The world- wide fiber market recognizes approximately 22 natural colors of alpaca. The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) has charts available specifying these recognized colors.
Alpacas should be shorn every year. Annual fiber yield varies, however, a single female averages about five pounds and and a larger male averages more than eight pounds. Cria, or baby fiber (the first clip from a young alpaca), commands a premium for its extra-fineness and lustrous feel.
Alpaca fiber can be made into garments of beautiful natural colors and shades. These luxurious garments have the look and feel of cashmere. The fiber can be dyed and is sometimes mixed with sheep wool, mohair or silk. The result is a superb handling, lighweight fabric that is exceptional in its shape, wearability and thermal properties. Most people wear pure alpaca sweaters next to their skin.
- Lifespan: 15 to 20 years
- Average Height: 36” at the withers
- Average Weight: 100 to 175 pounds or about one-half to one-third the size of a llama.
- Average Gestation: on average, 335 days
- Birth: Birth weight is usually around 15 – 19 pounds. Babies can often stand and nurse within 30 minutes to one hour. Infant mortality is very low, and twin births are extremely rare.
- Color: alpacas usually come in solid colors. There are approximately 22 basic colors with many variations and blends.
- What do you do with an alpaca? They provide an excellent investment opportunity, and are the source of luxurious fiber. The fleece, comparable to cashmere, is known for its fineness, light weight and luster. Alpaca textile products are recognized worldwide. Everyone should own a soft, warm alpaca sweater.
- What do alpacas do besides produce a wonderful product as their fiber? They make excellent companion animals and are also show animals with high aesthetic appeal. They have lovable dispositions. Alpacas are easily trained to lead and are gentle enough to be handled by children. They are always a hit in a parade! What do alpacas eat? They are ruminants, which means they chew cud like a cow or deer. They survive well on different kinds of low protein hay or pasture grass, providing it has a balanced mineral content. Because alpacas evolved in harsh conditions, they utilize their food more efficiently than other ruminants. They cost about as much per month to feed as a dog.
- Are alpacas smart? Yes, they are amazingly alert animals who quickly learn to halter and lead. They constantly communicate with each other through body posture, tail and ear movements, and a variety of sounds. The sound heard most often is a soft humming, a mild expression befitting a gentle animal.
- Are alpacas easy to care for? They are small and easy livestock to maintain. They should have basic shelter for protection from heat and foul weather. They do not challenge fences. Being livestock, they do require certain annual vaccinations.
- Are alpacas dangerous? Absolutely not! They are safe and pleasant to be around. They do not bite or butt, and they do not have the teeth, horns, hooves, or claws to do serious injury.
To Learn more about Alpacas, the investment opportunity Alpaca Ownership provides, or to locate an Alpaca Breeder near you, please visit the Alpaca Owners and Breeder's Association web site or the Great Lakes Alpaca Association.