The alpaca is a gentle, intelligent, and curious animal. In the U.S. they are raised for their intrinsic value as breeding stock and for their fiber and are shorn once a year. Other factors that make them ideal for new and small breeders are that they don’t require extraordinary care, feed, or housing and are easy to handle and train. In addition, national and regional organizations like GLAA exist to help members promote and market their alpacas and fiber co-ops exist to help breeders cost effectively process their fiber.
When the Spanish invaded South America in the 1500’s, they found what to them was a new type of animal–woolly with a long neck–called “pacos.” From “el paca” in Spanish, the word evolved to alpaca. Alpacas are members of the Camelid family, which also includes camels, llamas, guanacos, and vicuna. Unlike the llama and camel, which are used primarily as a pack animals, the alpaca is raised for its fine fiber. The two main breeds of alpacas are huacayas and suris. As of December 2002, the Alpaca Registry (ARI) showed registered currently over 40,000 alpacas in the U.S., about 33,000 of them huacayas and about 7,200 of them suris.
The alpaca itself is a small endearing animal, generally weighing between 120 and 180 pounds. Their diet consists mostly of pasture grass and/or hay and fresh water. Most breeders supplement with minerals and vitamins, and some feed, especially during the depths of a Great Lakes winter. In spite of the Alpaca’s delicate appearance and gentle disposition, they are hardy animals which adapt to nearly any climate and require very little special care. In addition, alpacas are easy to handle and raise.
Alpacas are gentle, intelligent, and easy to handle. They do not bite, charge, or stampede. Alpacas do spit at each other (generally when food is involved), but it’s rare for them to spit at people. They are safe around even the smallest of children. Alpacas are social animals who communicate using a combination of body position and a gentle humming.
Alpacas are also earth friendly. The alpaca’s feet are padded and leave even the most delicate terrain undamaged as it browses on native grasses. The alpaca is a ruminant with three stomachs. It converts grass and hay to energy very efficiently, eating less than other farm animals. (10 alpacas consume about as much as 1 cow.)
Its camelid ancestry allows the alpaca to thrive without consuming very much water. (Though you should always provide plenty of clean fresh water!) A herd of alpacas consolidates its feces in a few spots in the pasture, thereby controlling the spread of parasites and making it easy to collect and compost for fertilizer.
Though native to the high Andes plateaus of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, alpacas have been imported to the U.S. since 1984 and they have adapted easily to the North American climate and conditions. Some of the first imports to the U.S. came from Chile and Bolivia. Later imports also included Peruvian animals, which came from regions and farms with more controlled breeding programs (like Accoyo and Alianza).
Alpaca fiber compares favorably to the finest merinos and is generally classed with luxury fibers like cashmere, mohair, and angora, both because of its fineness and its relative scarcity. As a fiber animal, alpacas are additionally distiguished by the fact that they produce a wide array of rich natural colors from whites and fawns to browns, greys, maroons, and true blacks. The Alpaca Registry (ARI) color chart categorizes this range into 22 distinct colors, but in reality the specific colors of the animals have over 200 distinct shades (see The Kaliedscope and Fiber Evaluation by Hoffman). The color classes make it possible to group fleece colors for processing.