We have tried here to give you here a a real “brass tacks” insight into keeping alpacas. Clearly we can only give a very brief summary on these pages but hope you find it useful!
If you are new to alpacas and have the opportunity, try and attend a familiarisation session (these seem to be becoming more readily available, being offered by most reasonable size breeders). It’s a good idea to do one of these early on to help you decide whether you really do want to keep alpacas!
AcreageYou can keep alpacas at 5 or 6 to the acre, but this doesn’t mean you should fill your fields to capacity as you need to allow for grazing to be rotated. Alpaca paddocks are traditionally rectangular and smaller than the norm to aid herding. A minimum size of about 3/4 of an acre to allow them room to roam/run.
Fencing and Field SheltersNormal stock fencing with 2 strands of plain wire (not barbed) above is perfectly adequate. Alpacas do not try the fencing as many other types of livestock do, but they do like to stick their head through to munch on whatever happens to be on the other side. Field shelters need to be as light as possible to encourage the alpacas inside. 3 sided horse shelters are fine or you can try and make something up yourselves. It doesn’t need to be fancy, a lean-to on the side of a building, I’ve even seen something made out of straw bales. Just something to offer them shelter from the worst of the elements (typically wind and rain).
Choosing Your First AlpacasTake your time and choose wisely. You may have specific criteria re: colour, fleece quality, etc. but it helps to choose a breeder you like/can trust as these animals are a little different from other livestock and you will be grateful for much help/advice from them in the early days/months/years. Consider carefully whether they are going to have time for this support. When it comes to the animals, as well as the normal checks on bite, legs, genitals etc. do ask for a vet certificate if it is a breeding animal (you will need this for insurance anyway - a good idea for the first year or two). Don’t forget temperament - make sure you see the animals being handled even if you are unable to handle them yourself (it is easy for a new owner to be put off by a flighty/difficult animal). Consider also, the make-up of your herd. These animals are herd animals - the more alpacas you have, the happier they are. Alpacas are a lot happier in groups of three, rather than in pairs. If funds are short, consider buying a non-breeding female to make up numbers - a placid companion animal is worth their weight in gold (e.g for keeping a new Mum and baby company if they need to be kept indoors for any reason, to look after cria when they are being weaned, to travel with a female being taken for a drive-by mating, etc.). Also, you could consider buying at least one older female. This makes good sense for several reasons - they are cheaper (so you can afford a higher quality female), they are an experienced birther and mother (remember you’re new to this), they will naturally fall in as head of herd and offer stability.
Daily CareDaily care involves checking on your animals (at least once a day, but preferably twice), feeding them and topping up hay and water. Also, unless you have bags of land and can leave fields idle for considerable lengths of time, you will need to poo-pick daily just as horse owners do. Alpacas will not graze “middens” (poo areas) if left and it is good for the health of your herd, keeping the worm burden down and helping to prevent nasty things like coccidia which can be fatal to cria. It is quite feasible to poo-pick by hand for a small number of animals in a single field but once your herd grows or you start splitting them between fields you may wish to invest in a machine.
FeedingAlpacas main food is grass and hay (which they should have access to all year round as they use this even in summer to balance out the lush grass). They require high levels of vitamins and nutrients so also require a small daily feed of specialist alpaca pellets. These can be ordered online or many country stores now stock alpaca pellets. Readigrass, alphalpha, soaked sugarbeet, etc. can be used in winter to supplement feeding Mums.
If you are planning to breed, I would also strongly urge you to get your soil analyzed so that you are aware of any deficiencies. These may not jump up and bite you immediately but they will cause you problems in the long run. Most country stores offer this service and often free advice from a consultant as to the best fertiliser mix to put on your ground as a result.
It s not easy to see an alpacas body condition because of the thickness of the fleece so it is advisable to check their weight by body scoring them monthly (this involves feeling the shape of the back over the backbone - your breeder should show you how to do this).
HandlingIt is important that you handle your alpacas to keep them accustomed to it and reduce fear (and you’re going to need to give them occasional injections, etc ). The easiest way when starting out with small numbers is just to make up some catch pens from sheep (or the taller alpaca) hurdles. Alpacas are by nature quite greedy animals and it is quite easy to get them used to being called into catch pens for feeding - it may take you a few days of herding them in but they’ll soon get the idea and it is absolutely invaluable. And it is actually quite lovely to see them running down the field, shaking their heads and kicking their feet in excitement over being fed - and the cria just copy their Mums and rush in too.
Don’t make the pens too big - I have them 6 foot x 6 foot for 2 or 3 animals. You will be amazed how much easier it is to catch an animal in one of these pens. You can just reach out and put your hand on the back of their necks and everything is much calmer than if you’d chased them round a 20 foot shelter for several minutes first!
Ensure you get good handling advice/instruction from your chosen breeder.
HusbandryAlpacas are generally very hardy animals and they don’t tend to suffer with strike, laminitis, foot rot, etc. The majority of our vet bills have been related to breeding or selenium deficiency (heed the advice to get your soil analysed if you’re breeding).
◦ Vit D through the winter (typically by paste squirted in their mouth or injection in Nov, Jan and Mar)
◦ Clostridial vaccinations (either Lambivac every 6 months or Covexin 10 every 12 months)
◦ Toenails will need trimming every 2 to 3 months (pink ones grow faster than black ones)
◦ Worming every 6 months or as required if you perform FECs on a regular basis. If worming routinely, it is advisable to alternate wormers to avoid building parasite resistance (e.g Panacur and Dectomax).
Shop around for your veterinary care. Find out if any of the local vets have experience of alpacas. There are not many camelid vets about so don’t worry if you can’t find one with experience - an enthusiasm and willingness to research these fascinating animals will go a long way. Try and encourage your vet to join the British Camelid Veterinary Association - it only costs about £20 a year and they provide an on-line knowledge base/community as well as putting on an annual conference. If you’re breeding, it is also a really good idea to have your vet help you draw up a health plan for your farm.
BreedingAlpacas are induced ovulators and don’t have a season/cycle as such so they can be mated at anytime. However, pregnancy is dependent on the stage of egg development. In order to catch the egg at the right stage when it is mature enough, matings are normally done weekly. One of the neat features is that females will reject a male (spit off) if they have ovulated or are pregnant. A typical course of events might be week 1 - mating, week 2 - spit off, week 3 - mating, week 4 - spit off, week 5 - spit off. You can assume they're pregnant after 2 consecutive spinoffs but scan to be sure at 45-60 days. Breeding is not always straightforward - approximately 20% of pregnancies are re-absorbed in the first 60 days, but the good news is that this rate drops to around only 5% after 60 days.
It is probably best to pay for stud fees rather than keep a stud male yourself in the early days (even if you have a stud male, you won’t be able to use him on the next generation as they will be his own offspring). This gives you access to some fantastic stud males and a wider genetic pool to choose from. Expect to pay £500 - £1000 for a really top quality stud male but do consider local alternatives (there are some very good animals around - prices are often very reasonable and there’s less travel involved). Payment is normally due once a pregnancy is confirmed by a scan at 60 days and most farms offer a live cria guarantee (or a free remate). You can opt for a drive by mating (where you drive the female there, she is mated and you return home with her) or mobile mating (where the stud male comes to you - this is normally more expensive and there is often a mileage charge). Be aware that several matings may be required and you will need to get the timings right.
Gestation is approx 11.5 months (quite variable) and as females are ready to remate 2 - 3 weeks after birth, they spend most of their lives pregnant. This is not noticeable until a few weeks before the birth. You typically start “baby watch” from 10.5 months - this involves checking on the females hourly between 8am and 2pm (cria are normally born in the morning). But be warned, cria do arrive later in the day sometimes. Birthing is normally straightforward and requires very little involvement from us but have your vets number and a good birthing book to hand, just in case. And don’t forget to include a camera and suntan cream in your birthing kit! If everything goes well, little is required of you except to spray the umbilical with iodine and put on a cria coat. It is normal practice to put a little coat on newly born cria to protect it from the elements, especially rain (make sure the cria is dry first and don’t leave it on for more than a few days as they will be deprived of Vitamin D). Purpose made cria coats are available or good quality breathable/waterproof dog coats work well.