Alpaca: the animals of ancient royalty, the fiber choice of kings and queens! Rare, exotic animals with luxurious fiber that transforms into elegant, high end clothing 7 times warmer than wool and softer than angora. Alpacas are energy efficient livestock that provide a renewal resource of lightweight, natural fiber. What’s not to love about these gentle animals that hum?
Alpaca are cousins to the much larger camels and llamas and are known as the aristocrats of the livestock world. Native to the Andes Mountains of Peru, alpaca have been around for roughly 6,000 years and are still revered today throughout Peru, Bolivia and Chile. In Peru there are statues of alpaca, which are still a staple of the rural economy.
There are 2 distinctive types of alpaca: huacaya and suri. Huacaya resemble teddy bears with crimped fiber that stands straight out making them appear huge and fluffy. Silky and lustrous suri fiber hangs straight down in individual pencil locks giving them a very distinctive, elegant and regal appearance. In fact, in ancient times suri alpaca were available only to South American royalty who wore clothing made from suri fiber. Suri are much more rare than huacaya and comprise 10% to 20% of the total alpaca population.
Suris were first imported from South America in 1991 and registered with Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI). By the mid-1990’s imports were closed to ARI registration in order to grow and develop the herds in the United States. The South American alpaca herds were white because the rancher could dye the fiber any color desired. Colors had been bred out of their alpaca over many generations to achieve this effect. The white/beige animals did not much appeal to the original visitors from the U.S. who were looking for color, so the South Americans bred color back into the alpaca by crossing them with llamas. (Very creative on their part!) Lo and behold, the next time U.S. entrepreneurs came to South America to look at the animals, there were a variety of colors from which to choose! Alpaca colors now cover the gamut from white through fawn, brown, black and gray with a variety of solids, dapples and multi-colors. White and beige are the most common colors seen in suri; black and gray are the most rare.
Alpaca give birth to a single cria (baby) after 11.5 months of gestation. Normal cria weights at birth range from 15-20 pounds, give or take a few pounds. The males are ready to breed around the age 3 years; females around 2 years of age. Females typically produce at least a dozen cria in their breeding lifetime. Overall lifespan for these camelids is approximately 25 years.
In the show ring, suri alpaca are judged on their density of fleece, luster, independence of lock, suri-phenotype head and overall conformation. High luster is extremely desirable. Some suri seem to glow from within when their fiber is parted due to the high luster. When a suri seems to shimmer with luster just walking into the show ring, it most certainly catches the judge’s eye!
Alpaca adults average between 150-200 pounds and eat 1-2% of their total body weight in hay and grain. These descendents of herd animals raised in mountain conditions are overall hardy and healthy. Their foot pads and toes do not tear up pastures like hooved animals and, since they have only a few teeth on their bottom jaw used to pull grass, they don’t need as much space as other livestock. One acre can hold 8 to 10 alpaca making alpaca an ideal animal to breed, raise and show for a living.