Golden Spirit Alpaca Ranch: Our view of Alpaca and Llama care
Our views are based on experiences and facts that we have compiled into brief informative statements. We consider alpaca ownership a privilege and want to share thoughts with the public, potential customers and clients so that they can have a baseline for their research. To this day, we are constantly learning and stay amazed at how much we don’t know. We hope that the information provided will jumpstart your research so you can enjoy a long and happy time with your alpaca. No matter the purpose for owning alpaca, during our years of ownership we have realized that in spite of our research and multiple farm visits, there are many things we wish we knew before our purchase.
Alpaca and llama are calming, enjoyable and stress reducing. When you can take the time to sit with them or watch across the pasture they give great pleasure. Your purpose for owning might be for pleasure or to be involved in activities including shows (i.e., halter, performance and/or fiber), agritourism, fiber sales and so many other options. Llama can pack or do cart driving.
Alpaca and llama are relatively easy to care for if you are prepared, but they do require continual monitoring. Their unique nature makes them one of the more challenging livestock animals to raise. Raising alpaca in the southeast climate (specifically humidity) provides challenges to consider when planning. For this reason it is helpful to visit owners living in comparable weather conditions to learn about alpaca.
The history of “alpaca in the United States” gives insight into the evolution of ownership. The alpaca brought to the US were promoted as a ‘cute, huggable investment.’ The industry consisted of many ‘flippers who bred and sold alpaca with little regard for the alpaca or the industry future, therefore there have been numerous perplexing and complex issues owners face following their purchase. As owners have been forced to maintain their herds rather than ship them off of the farm at young ages, they experience the issues more frequently, but resources are limited when trying to problem solve. Many potential or current alpaca owners do not have experience with livestock and are saddened to realize that preventative measures are necessary, but that there are limited veterinarians or that they just didn’t believe it would happen to them.
Our mentorship includes education so that the decision you make about your purchase will consider the alpaca health and well-being as a priority. You can’t research what you don’t know so we hope that our insight will offer you a baseline for your investigation.
Common misunderstanding about alpaca purchase
“I want to have alpaca for a pet.”
“I want to buy one alpaca.”
“I want to buy young alpaca so we can raise them so that they like us.”
“I want to buy alpaca to guard my sheep.”
“We live on property that used to be for horses and want alpaca.”
“We want a male and female so we can have babies.”
Social media is a blessing and a curse because alpaca have become very popular. The information promotes them as cute and huggable, either through the videos of the alpaca living in the house, one boy leading an alpaca through town or information that is applicable in a region other than where a person lives. They are cute – they aren’t huggable and their qualities make it worth research before you purchase. They are livestock and they are herd animals. They are domesticated but their inherent nature is not that of a companion animal. Their nature is that of livestock, being an animal that was originally providing clothing and a food source for their shepherds and families.
Herd animals depend on each other and learn from each other; they don’t always do well when separated. Their unique personalities are no different than some other types of animals (i.e., they are smart and sensitive) so it is worth your time to learn about their unique alpaca and individual qualities.
People seem to have the sense that the baby of any species is the one to own. Puppy mills prove that it is profitable to sell babies because they tug at heartstrings. A closer comparison is other livestock such as cattle. There are studies about mothers reactions to their calves being loaded for slaughter– of course we don’t know about the young calves because slaughter is the purpose for raising, but I would expect that they are as sensitive. Since alpaca aren’t raised for slaughter you can expect with good care that alpaca will live many years – and they can… with the right care and management.
After being born, alpaca should stay with their mothers for 9-10 months unless there is a reason to wean early. Weaning is a process that requires insight so that the alpaca makes a healthy transition, but for the purpose of talking about purchase, young alpaca learn from their mother and herdmates. They will not be more sensitive or friendly to you because they are purchased young. Selling babies to raise with humans is an act of animal cruelty. To be blunt, they will most likely live a short life. Owners and auction houses who/that sell young alpaca are unethical! There are very few reasons why a baby (or even if in a group) should be separated from the mothers. Other than the fact that the young alpaca will stress when taken from the mother and herd, they will not be able to learn acceptable alpaca behaviors. Alpaca ‘mills’ will make the profit. The purchaser will have the heartache.
The time when a baby might need to be rehomed is if the mother dies and there isn’t any option for the owner to integrate that baby with other mothers or alpaca. Those are situations that require considerable management.
At what age is best to purchase an alpaca? I suggest that age is not the determining factor but the health and emotional behavior of the alpaca. People fall in love with an alpaca that seems friendly – but that friendliness can change overnight for what we consider no reason. I guarantee there is a reason. I’ve heard of a standoffish alpaca becoming the most adored alpaca and vice versa. The alpaca that seems the least friendly might be distinct and engaging in the right situation.
Alpaca stress easier than our industry realized in years past. They are a stoic animal and a high percentage of alpaca necropsied (at death) show ulcers. We’ve found that there are times our alpaca were experiencing an ‘event’ and several months later start to show symptoms of pain. As a stoic animal, they will tolerate people hugging and touching them or reaching to pet their head, but you must realize that this might be stressful and long term cause a health problem. For this reason it is paramount that you purchase from a person who considers the specific alpaca, has a sense of what they will tolerate and plans their transition. It is also important that the purchaser recognize that not only is the move stressful, but acclimating to a new environment, herdmates, expectations and other factors might be stressful too. Males and females cannot be together (see housing).
Alpaca have protective instincts for themselves and herdmates but they are not useful to guard and protect other animals from dogs, coyotes or other predators. Their fencing is important to prevent predators from entering their pastures and horse fencing doesn’t offer that protection. It can be used as an attractive outer fence but there needs to be a minimum of a five foot fence with something to prevent burying animals for the alpaca pasture.
“I see Alpaca that might be $100 or thousands of dollars or even free. How much does an alpaca cost?”
People who look at alpaca as an “item” often misunderstand pricing. Pricing alpaca has many variables. I remind people – many times, you get what you pay for and when you find a free or inexpensive alpaca, that animal might really need a home badly, but you might not have resources (i.e., mentor) to learn or know history about that alpaca when you need to know. When you purchase healthy and managed alpaca from a reputable person you will pay for more than just the item. If you find that “rescue alpaca” and you feel that it must have a home with you, remember to commit to learning, learning, learning because that poor animal might need you more than you need them. There are people retiring from the business or downsizing who will sell alpaca for less money and that will be a wonderful option if you go into ownership as an informed buyer.
Buy from a reputable, knowledgeable and involved breeder who you can relate to. This should be an experience that requires trust and communication. Visit the farms and ranches in your region to not only look at the animals but to listen to the information to continue your research and decide where you might purchase.
“We have a feed store near us where I can get what they need.”
“The people around us have horses so I know there are veterinarians in the area.”
Alpaca are not horses and goats so it is not always easy to meet their needs in the local feed stores. Their nutritional needs require that you research where you will be able to access hay and feed to meet those needs. It is important to consider the cost of raising alpaca, but also the convenience and availability. There isn’t a simple answer to help people plan nutritional and vet care but it is well worth exploring before, rather than after your purchase.
Don’t rush an alpaca purchase. Every question, every visit, every alpaca encounter will serve to help your alpaca. Over the years you will realize how much more there is to know.
The Alpaca Lifestyle
Owning animals is a commitment, but if you haven’t considered what it means to own livestock this will be your reminder. They are not dogs and cats that can be taken to a kennel or the neighbor can stop by and check when you can’t. When you plan that long (or even short) weekend or vacation you will need to find someone who knows how to care for alpaca, be available to watch them, but more so who will recognize their behaviors. They aren’t like many other livestock as they do require daily, monthy and annual responsibilities that will continue throughout their lifetime. That could be 20 + years.
Alpaca are grazers. They need space. Pasture space, space around their hay feeder, between their feeders and around their fans. Pastures will be quickly depleted from overgrazing or from lack of space so it is important that these grazers have plenty of space to roam as well as area to rotate off of the pasture for replenishment. Pastures will need to be reseeded on occasion to prevent weeds. Animals will need to be off pasture after mowing to prevent ingestion of mowed grass. Space around the hay feeder, grain feeder and fans is important to give all equal access and prevent emotional and health issues in less dominant alpaca.
Alpaca do not prefer to live inside of a barn but can become accustomed. They are much more comfortable in an enclosed space if there is enough space for their friends. Their comfort zone is increased when they can visualize their surroundings. Being a prey animal, they like to see their surroundings and when they can’t they can become stressed. They need each other so that they can sleep in a rotational pattern for safety. If living in the southeast, their housing needs to have enough shelter and space for their hay and fans due to the heat and rains. Space allows equal access.
Males and females can NOT be housed together. There are people who believe that gelded males can be housed with females and in a few circumstances that COULD be possible. I would be very hesitant to do that unless I know that male is not breeding the females. Even a gelded male can damage a female to the point of infections and infertility, aside from the fact that the female can become stressed by this behavior. Age groups of males should be separated until it is determined that younger males can handle aggression from the older ones. Females, males and geldings have individual personalities, so when deciding who to house where, consider the dominant and subservient. Alpaca are like people – sometimes they don’t like each other.
Alpacas should not be combined in pastures with other animals, except possibly guard animals. Yes, people will say that they do that without a problem, but experienced owners (breeders, hobbyists) all know that the problems will come and then they won’t say a thing. There are too many reasons to keep them separate from goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens, miniature or full size horses and heavens – not cattle. The following article describes harmful issues that can occur when mixing species. Don’t take the risk – it won’t have a happy ending.
Feed and Hay, Supplements and other
Anything that you provide for nutrition should be balanced for a healthy alpaca. Again, alpaca are like people – some are overweight, some are thin, some have tooth loss that impairs chewing, some are timid and pushed away from the hay or grain feeders. Their dietary needs might change throughout their lifetime. Their digestion is dependent on the rumen which can usually be monitored by observing the alpaca chewing cud.
Their diet should consist mainly of grass (grazing) and hay to meet their nutritional needs. It can’t be any grass or hay. Your pasture quality and hay quality will make a difference in the health (and fiber) of your animal. Consider alpaca like people. If people are fed poor diets over a long term it takes a toll on their body and health condition. The same is true of alpaca and should be considered when you are managing your pasture space or purchasing hay. Grazing and hay should be free choice – available at all times so that the alpaca rumen remains stable.
Aside from the alpacas health, the protein levels in hay and grain are important to maintain the fiber quality. Fiber might not be a focus in your ownership, but I also consider it a reflection of the alpaca’s health. When an alpaca isn’t healthy it shows in their fiber.
Orchard grass hay is a cool season grass consistent with their native country. It provides an adequate amount of protein (less than 15%) and if from the 2nd or 3rd cutting is usually soft and grassy. Since it is grown in cool climates, bringing Orchard grass to the SE is expensive. It is often challenging to find available hay that is ideal so it is important to know your resources and research. When I find a nice grass hay the alpaca will eat every morsel; during the summer they eat considerable amounts because they spend more time by the fans. They do eat 24/7 and that is ideal for them to maintain a healthy rumen. Timothy hay is in the same family as orchard, but has seed heads that will get caught in the fiber and topknots. It can be fed if Orchard hay is not available.
A pasture management program is critical for the production of good nutrients. Soil samples can be submitted and the pasture managed based on those results. Hay samples can also be submitted to determine adequate nutrient value.
Grain is formulated for alpaca. Alpaca are not horses or goats and their grain formula is not the same. There are occasions when it might be helpful to feed something other than alpaca grain – such as when an alpaca is underweight, pregnant, juvenile, elderly, post illness etc. Those situations hopefully are not long term and it is decided with thought about the specific nutritional needs of alpaca. Is grain necessary? After all, in their native county they probably didn’t have grain. We use grain as a supplement and also to have the benefit of watching behavior. During certain seasons, the ‘cut’ of hay might have less nutrients than other times, so grain offers the additional sources. But additionally, a sick alpaca probably will not eat, so that is our time to watch the alpaca eating and behaviors. Because they are stoic, if we’ve missed behavior changes, not eating offers an indication of illness, but it is usually time to respond very fast as they will try as hard as possible to not show illness and are very ill.
Store non hay supplements in a location and manner that ensures they cannot obtain access. Alpaca are curious and will find a way to open feed can lids or get into grain bags. It’s best to not store their grain where it is accessible to them, but if you do be sure that it is secure. Where there is a will there is a way so it is wise to protect them. Overeating can cause death.
Alpaca have long necks so when they eat the food passes a long passage. Grain specifically can get ‘stuck’ in that passageway. This usually occurs when an animal is a food monger and eats fast. One way to help them is to place grain feeders low to the ground so that when they eat they are in a normal position (i.e., lowering and raising their head).
Amounts to feed depend on the alpaca so it is important to realize there might be times when the group size or configuration will need to be changed. Too fat or too thin are not healthy. The grain bags will have recommended amounts to feed on the label but there might be times when the hay you are providing or lush grass available during certain times of the year makes them gain weight and feed amounts can be decreased. Other times you might need to separate (with a friend or two of course) to feed more grain and other types of hay.
Other feed supplements that might be beneficial to add weight but not an ideal regular supplement:
Beet pulp (shredded, moistened)
Alfalfa (not processed like cubes)
Equine senior feed
If an animal is emaciated it is important that supplements are added slowly – trying to recover weight loss rapidly can actually harm or even kill the alpaca due to the resulting organ damage that might occur.
There are mineral supplements formulated to meet alpaca needs. They do not use a salt lick so the supplements are loose form that can be sprinkled over the grain or in a separate container. You may or may not need mineral supplements but they are available if you feel your pasture, hay or grain is not providing adequate nutrition.
Unless your background is strong in pasture management this is a difficult area to learn. There is the option of ‘dry lot’ where the animal’s paddock is dirt. This requires additional hay but does have advantages, particularly in the southeast. Alpaca are relatively easy on the land since they don’t have bottom teeth and nibble the grass rather than pull out the roots, but over time the pasture will need to be fertilized and possibly seeded. Alpaca need to be off of the pasture after fertilization and of course if seeding, the period of time to keep them off pasture is longer. Chemicals can be harmful to the animals because of their porous hooves and the possibility of ingestion.
Stickers and sand burs will need to be physically removed to control the problem. They are not fun to find when you are measuring weights or shearing. Research poisonous plants and remove if necessary.
Invest in solid fencing that will withstand years of alpaca ownership. Alpaca are not kind when they rub fencing so it is important to have secure fence that is at least five feet high. The fencing is not as important to keep them in as it is to keep predators out. Safe and secure fencing can be board or PVC, combined with field fence or 2×2 or 2×4 field fence or chain link. 4×4 field fence does not provide the safety for the animals as they can get their heads or feet stuck causing a disaster. Barbed wire is not appropriate as fencing but can be used on the bottom outside to discourage dogs, coyotes from digging. An electric hotwire can be placed on the outside (away from the alpaca) as well.
If your property will have males and females life will be easier if they can be separated by distance and possibly a double row of fencing if that distance is not long.
Heat and humidity
Raising alpaca in the southeast is challenging because of the heat and humidity. You can never have enough fans! Fans don’t eliminate the humidity but it does help the alpaca to manage. Heat can equate to stress which in turn can be a health issue to be managed. The combined temperature and humidity level is the heat index to monitor. When it climbs above 120 you will see alpaca showing symptoms of being too hot and as it creeps up you will reach a point where the alpaca cannot handle the heat. Each alpaca manages heat and humidity differently so it is important to monitor closely to know if they are handling the temperatures.
Fans are useless if they aren’t positioned in places where the alpaca will lay. They need to be large enough to blow good amounts of air. Remember that they are carrying that blanket of fiber and the moisture near their skin is trapped. Fans should be sitting on the ground because alpaca cool and heat from their belly. Just because a fan is present doesn’t mean the alpaca will use it. They want to be with their herd so it is important to give them space as well as ensure they are in close enough proximity so they will be laying together. Secure the fans so that the alpaca can’t lay next to them or rub on them and knock them over.
When the heat index is increasing, watch your alpaca for signs of overheating which might include flaring nostrils, puffing cheeks or laying on their side. You can provide sprinklers that spray low so the alpaca can lay on or around them as well as hose bellies and armpits to cool them. Don’t hose the alpacas body as this will create a thermal barrier like wearing a wet wool blanket in hot temperatures. Misters are useless in humid climates as they cannot saturate an already humid environment. Kiddie pools look fun but unfortunately alpaca like to drink the water they’ve walked through so there is a strong possibility of high parasite counts.
Electrolytes in water buckets and fresh, clean, cool water also help the alpaca to manage their heat stress. We use a combination of Gatorade (Orange is our ranch favorite) with a vitamin/electrolyte supplement mixed. There are other options for electrolytes that might work for you. Automatic waterers help to keep water cool so you don’t have to worry about cooling it. You want to encourage the alpaca to drink just as people should.
Sunbathing is pleasurable for them and it gives them the Vitamin D that they need. It is scary when you look across the pasture at several sunbathing alpaca because it seems they are dead. The neighbors will think so too.
First – before you consider purchasing alpaca find a veterinarian that you can work with and hopefully knows something about alpaca. They should be someone who can be available, communicates so you can understand and is willing to listen without being defensive about their knowledge base. If they haven’t worked with alpaca they need to be humble enough to willingly reach out to knowledgeable veterinarians. You will learn a considerable amount about medical care when owning alpaca, but you can’t obtain medications and understand their condition unless you are working with a veterinarian. If you wait to find a veterinarian after you purchase you have compromised your animal because when they are sick enough to need a vet, they need one NOW.
Second – purchase a scale! And use it often, not just when you are concerned. Your scale is a barometer for you alpaca’s condition. Alpaca will have the same conditions that people experience – some are injuries and others are medical conditions that are difficult to diagnose. They will handle their pain or problems without displaying symptoms which is very frustrating because when they show symptoms it is often difficult to cure. Monitoring your alpaca to know their behaviors will help, and if they seem the slightest bit ‘off’ continue monitoring and/or call a vet. Social media is not the place to diagnose and treat your alpaca because alpaca are all different and you will be in contact with persons in different regions of the country.
Requirements you will need to learn to care for your alpaca include:
- Assessment and how to communicate with your vet
- How to administer medications
This is a very limited list – alpacas experience eye, ear, leg, and other trauma, choke, bloat, mites, mycoplasma haemolomae, and of course parasites. Because we live in a hot, humid climate the parasites (gut and skin) are always in our environment so management is critical. Our humidity makes us need to be constantly vigilant about skin conditions, which can surface and spread rapidly without recognizing unless you monitor continually. In addition, when an alpaca is injured or sick it might be necessary to keep them with a friend but away from others, or in a small pen to monitor closely or decrease activity.
You will invest in medications to have ‘on hand’ so that you can begin treatments until a veterinarian can be available. Our class “If I only knew then what I know now,” explains medical needs and care in more detail.
For the most part Alpacas tend to use a common alpaca manure pile. Males tend to be much better than females at maintaining a compact manure pile (sometimes but not guaranteed). Non-pregnant females have deep seeded instinct to spread their urine out over a larger area. This is so that a male would be able to smell the pheromones in their urine and know that they need to be bred. This instinct still kicks in even if there is no male for 100 miles. I’d like to tell you that you can change their pooping instincts but that won’t happen!
Have a plan for what to do with your scooped poop piles. Keeping the pile away from growing grass is a smart choice. Your poop pile will grow so you need to consider how you manage it until you can decide how to use their manure.
Poop Tools can be of many varieties. No matter how few alpaca you have, they continually produce poop so think about what you can use that won’t hurt your back and arms when scooping poop. You will need some type of rake, scoop and a way to transport to the poop pile.
Parasites and flies are the greatest annoyance when you have poop. Be aware that bio security between parasite infected pens is transmitted through shoes and tools. Use separate equipment for each pen. Some people have, and we have in the past, used food grade diatomaceous earth around poop piles to keep parasites under control. There are varying opinions about this practice. While some allow guinea hens to help control insects, they have a relatively small effect on microscopic gut worms.
Scoop at least daily. Scooping twice a day requires that you are around the animals so it is a good time to watch behaviors. If it is wet season it is important to remember that parasites, flies and mosquitoes will proliferate unless you take measures to try to diminish. Poop scooping isn’t a chore for aesthetics – it is for the health of the alpaca.
Pooping in the shed is inevitable. It’s another annoying behavior, but since alpaca manure is relatively odorless you will find that the urine is the worst offender. You can utilize pin bedding pellets that are available at your farm supply store—Tractor Supply Co to help absorb the urine so you don’t have a goopy pile of muck.
While we don’t see a lot of flies around our poop piles or dump piles, they can be a nuisance in the shelter. There are many ways to control them. Live fly parasites, baited catch traps, disposable and otherwise, sticky bars, and sprays. If you use sprays be sure to spray away from water buckets.
If you have problems with flies on the alpaca we use SWAT or other fly sprays. You can use the same products on alpaca you would use on yourself.
Observing poop is part of your job monitoring. The shape of alpaca manure is rarely an indicator of parasite issues. It is a better indication that the animal’s hydration, feed and rumen are either perfectly in balance, or may need some attention. For example, elongated beans may be an indication of low hydration. Another possibility might be too much sand in the digestive system—if you live on sandy soil as we do. The other is mucous in the poop which could indicate parasites.
Depending upon your area you might begin to notice piles of dirt around your Alpaca manure piles. The longer you leave it alone (not recommended) the more dirt will appear. That is because of the industrious Dung Beetle. It’s a handsome little creature with bright metalic-colored green wings and a copper color top. It’s about the size of a quarter and it does a great job of helping to eliminate your poop.
Alpaca are usually easy to transport – you need a method that will hold at least two because they do not like to be alone. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but remember that if you transport during our hot months they need to be kept cool. Before you purchase alpaca you must consider the need to transport to a veterinarian because it will happen! Vets are difficult to find and if you do find a vet sometimes they are so busy they can’t get to you but at least you can transport to them.
Before making the commitment of time and money in purchasing alpacas or llamas consider preparing for your commitment. They are a lifelong joy if taken care of correctly. Living in the southeast gives great pleasure that those in cold areas of the country can’t enjoy, but it does require planning to know that you have given these delightful animals what they deserve. Spending time preparing will save future (preventable) headaches and heartaches.