Alpacas are not difficult animals to manage and are, in many ways, a good choice for those who are new to ownership of livestock. Like all livestock however they need to be managed competently to ensure their wellbeing and your peace of mind, not to mention to protect your investment.
How many alpacas can I keep?
You will hear different figures everywhere: some say as few as 3 per acre (7 per hectare) some as many as 12 (30 per hectare). The truth will inevitably depend on…
- the quality of your grass and the length of the growing season,
- the amount of supplementary feeding you are prepared to do,
- the alpacas' demand (heavily pregnant and lactating females will require around 50% more pasture),
- the sort of regimes you are prepared to undertake to minimise parasitic infection,
- availability of shelter,
- and, to a lesser extent, the layout of your farm and access to yards, handling pens, etc..
In the UK pasture is generally better in the south where it is also warmer for longer (longer grazing season). However, in recent years there have been problems with shortage of rain and hence slow growing grass. In the north the water shortage may be less of a problem but, particularly in the hills, the ground is probably poorer, the season shorter and the winters colder (higher likelihood of needing more shelter). Poorer grazing can be improved by fertilisation but this must be built into your costs.
Technically, grass is not absolutely necessary. In the USA for example there are some ‘ranches’ where healthy alpacas are farmed on almost non-existent grazing with an almost entirely artificial diet, but this involves a great deal of work and should only be considered by those with prior experience of managing livestock under these conditions. In any case such a situation is most unlikely in Britain where a typical farm will have good grazing from mid spring until the first frosts of mid to late autumn after which some form of supplementary feeding will be required until the grass returns. Thus it is the level of supplementary feeding and its costs (see Ownership Costs) that will determine the marginal stocking rate for you.
Ideally, you should manage your land to rotate livestock regularly in order to control the build-up of parasite populations, a 5-6 week rotation seems to work well (but discuss this with your vet who knows your local conditions). It may be possible to rotate different stock with alpacas if the species have opposing parasitic susceptibilities. If, however, you need to use most of your land most of the time then you will have a greater need of artificial disease management and this will inevitably mean more prophylactic intervention and no doubt more frequent visits from the vet and an increase in the associated costs.
As a general rule, in Britain, 5-6 alpacas per acre (13-14 per hectare) should be readily achievable, increasing numbers above this will most-likely be acceptable but will increase your workload and the costs involved. New entrants to the industry would be well advised to ‘test the water’ for a few years before departing from what is readily and comfortably achievable.
If you will keep both males and females you’ll need separate paddocks for each (even if the males are castrated). If you intend to breed then you’ll need a paddock out-of-sight of the females for weaning cria. Having a ‘birthing paddock’ in-sight of the house is an advantage but not essential.
Farm layout and a work shed
Alpacas are easy to herd in a group but sooner or later you will need to deal with them individually. For this some form of catch-pen is called for. Ideally this will be attached to one or more sheds centrally located on your land - necessary for regular husbandry, vet inspection when needed, and shearing. Good sheds have a dry and washable floor, adequate lighting day and night, and a reliable power supply. A water supply saves carrying buckets but is not absolutely necessary. You will need dry storage for keeping feed, and remember the more feed you can store at once the less it will cost you. You will find having half a dozen cattle ‘hurdles’ available an invaluable assistance (sheep hurdles are OK but are easily jumped).
It will ease your workload if you avoid having to run alpacas past a paddock occupied by the opposite sex on the way to your handling area – they do get distracted easily!
Water and Shelter
All paddocks must have free access to a clean water supply (at least two litres per alpaca per day, more if on dry feed). Alpacas will dehydrate rather than drink brackish or polluted water.
Shelter is essential both for the harshest conditions of winter (when some of the less hardy may seek it) and for hot days - particularly when full-fleeced. This is particularly important if you will keep Suris as the nature of their fleece leaves them less protected - especially along the backbone. If you have woodland - even in small amounts - this may suffice, otherwise field shelters can be bought fairly economically (see Resources).
You will need some provision for dispensing winter feed and keeping it dry (wheeled hay racks work well).
Alpacas are very good jumpers but rarely do so (generally only if highly stressed). Normal 1m (3ft) sheep netting with a plain top wire is quite sufficient and will not be challenged. On the rare occasion that an alpaca does jump a fence it will tend to stay close to the fence waiting to be reunited with the rest of the herd. The more expensive option of railing fencing is fine for mature alpacas but inquisitive crias may escape if the rails are not sufficiently close. Alpacas enjoy a change of diet when it’s tasty so fence off any trees and garden areas if you don’t want to lose them!
Entire males should not, if possible, be kept within sight of females as this will excite them and jumping will be more likely. If distancing them is not possible raising the fencing to at least 1.5m (5ft) may be necessary.
Existing barbed wire should be removed (it’s not necessary and will spoil your fleece) and replaced with plain wire.
Electric fencing is ineffective due to the alpaca’s thick fleece.
Predators rarely present a problem in Britain. Foxes and crows are the greatest threat to young cria but are easily seen off by the rest of the herd.
There is no evidence that security is a problem in Britain. Some thefts have been reported overseas however, and common sense dictates that all alpacas should be microchipped and gates onto roads should either be avoided or securely locked.
Paddock preparation and management
Check your paddocks thoroughly in plenty of time before your alpacas arrive. Remove any dangerous objects (bits of farm equipment, loose wire, mole and rabbit traps, etc.). Ragwort must be removed, and all toxic plants (e.g. Laurel, Laburnum, Yew) should either be removed or fenced off.
Alpacas defecate at fixed piles (perhaps two or three per acre, say six per hectare) and will not graze around these areas. This has the beneficial effect of reducing parasite spread, but does mean that – particularly if you do not have a large amount of land – you will need to clean these areas when they become large. Many breeders earn extra income by selling this excellent natural fertiliser at the farm gate or to garden centres.
Alpacas generally get on fine with other livestock though like all species ensuring everyone has enough space is important. At best, alpacas have been trained to bond with flocks of sheep after which the alpaca becomes a highly effective guardian against predators, but generally, after an initial inquisitive period, alpacas will just keep their distance from other stock.
Mixing alpacas with sheep or goats is rarely problematic. A quiet and non-aggressive dog will be accepted once it’s become known, but remember: alpacas will normally look at a dog as a threat and an unknown dog which approaches a herd may be attacked and if it doesn’t ‘take the hint’ may be killed.
Be wary of keeping horses with alpacas as they can be boisterous and may make the alpaca’s life a misery.
Remember that mixing species will almost certainly increase the need for parasite management and may thus be counter-productive.
Taking care of alpacas is not onerous and is easy and rewarding to learn. They are very hardy creatures with good disease resistance but they should be checked regularly (at least once a day) as they are stoic animals and tend only to show distress when already very sick. You will, as a minimum, be involved with the following…
- Daily check
- Ensuring all the herd are looking well, grazing, and moving around.
- Weekly check
- Condition scoring (or weighing) and a closer look. It is important to ensure your alpacas are thriving by either weighing or, more commonly, by manual 'condition scoring'. This process is easy and quick and will be covered on any Husbandry Course. This is also a good opportunity to get your alpacas used to being handled and you should examine each from head to toe: this is not difficult and takes only about a minute, again all is covered on your Husbandry Course.
- Alpacas are susceptible to worms like most other livestock and will lose condition quickly when effected.
- Chlostridial vaccination
- Like sheep, alpacas can contract chlostridial diseases (see Needs ) and need regular vaccinations.
Your vet will advise you on a suitable regimes (typically 2 or 3 times annually for worming, and biannually for vaccinations) and products for worming and vaccinations. It is very important to involve your vet in this process as only your local vet knows the local conditions. Application methods vary but you will quickly learn to do these yourself.
- Toenail trimming
- Alpacas have two toenails on each pad. Trimming is easy to learn and (once you have the knack!) easy to do. Growing rates vary a lot between alpacas and between seasons. Some may need attention only once or twice a year but some may have to be done every six weeks.
- Teeth trimming
- Teeth trimming is a specialist job but as it rarely needs to be done more frequently than annually the job is usually left to your specialist alpaca shearer who will have the necessary equipment and expertise. Alternatively, many horse dentists (or indeed your vet) will undertake the task for you. Additionally, males have to be monitored for the eruption of ‘fighting teeth’. These are used to attempt to emasculate other males when competing for females, this can cause very expensive damage so these teeth should be removed.
Alpaca teeth and toenails grow continually and have no nerves within them. In their natural environment both are worn down gradually by grazing on stony ground. On pasture however all alpacas will need some toenail trimming and most will need some teeth trimming to ensure easy mobility and an effective and pain-free bight.
- Generally carried out annually, June is the most common time for shearing in Britain as the last of the frosts should be safely over and this gives the alpaca sufficient time to grow a healthy fleece before the next winter (see Fibre for more on shearing).
- Other regimen as prescribed by your vet. Common examples include fluke management and vitamin supplementation.
Having said all the above, there are many alpaca owners who have no land at all. We offer agistment services to alpaca owners who either have no land, or who wish to ease into alpaca ownership with the hands-on help of experienced breeders (see Our Services).