by Robin Day, Luna Rosa Ranch Suri Alpacas
Alpacas are “easy keepers” and can be rewarding family pets. They enjoy walks on a lead and can be trained on obstacles for 4-H type competitions. Their needs are basic.
WATER. Alpacas should have access to fresh, clean water at all times. In the winter, ice must be removed from the top of their water for them. In summer, water must be kept coolish or replenished often – they won’t drink from a bucket of water that has heated up to the temperature of hot tea!
PASTURE. Alpacas subsist just fine on green pasture. If their diet is solely pasture, a source of minerals should be provided. The pasture should be checked for plants known to be poisonous to livestock (such as tansy ragwort, bracken fern, cherry). An acre of pasture will support 5-6 adult alpacas.
HAY. Many alpaca owners supplement pasture with free-access hay put out in a feeder. Alpacas do best on grass hay, and love orchard grass hay. Straight alfalfa hay is not good for alpacas and can cause problems with urinary tract blockage in males. For winter feeding, with no pasture available, about a flake of hay a day per alpaca is adequate. (This is loosely 1 ½ bales per adult per month – more in extremely cold conditions).
SHELTER. Alpacas, especially the suri type, need to be able to get out of rain, snow, wind. A three-sided lean-to type shelter is perfect for them. Owners often make a floor surface of small gravel or sand, covered with some straw for warmth in the winter.
FENCING. Alpacas need to be protected from predators (such as coyotes, neighborhood dogs, family dogs). Sheep-type field fencing, or the more expensive no-climb fencing is perfect for them. Existing rail or board fencing can be easily fitted with this type of fencing by attaching it on one side. Ideal fencing should prevent predators from accessing the pasture over or under the fence. Often a couple of rows of smooth wire is added to the top of existing fences. Barbed wire is not recommended for the main fence, but is sometimes added to the bottom of the fence, outboard a bit, to keep predators from digging under. The alpacas themselves do not challenge fences. The fence is to keep them safe.
GRAIN. Many alpaca owners feed their animals a pelleted feed product labeled for alpacas or llamas. This can be an ideal way to provide minerals and vitamins to an alpaca. However, it is extremely important not to overfeed as too much “grain” can cause bloat, which can be life-threatening. Approximately a half-cup at a time, once or twice a day is adequate for most pet alpacas (follow label instructions). Traditional livestock grains such as “COB” (corn, oats, barley) or “sweet feed” (with molasses added) are not recommended for alpacas and some experts believe corn causes stomach ulcers in alpacas. I recommend feeding in bowls (not a stationary feeder), and feeding at various times of day. Alpacas eating too fast may choke on the grain pellets – if one animal is greedy and runs around to others’ dishes causing them to gulp their food, feeding animals separately may help prevent choke. (A small pen is perfect for this).
MINERALS. Several brands of loose-powder mineral mix formulated for alpacas are available from alpaca vendors. A small amount can be put out in a mineral feeder or bowl and made available free-choice. Alpacas are not “lickers” and solid block type products do not work well for them.
TREATS. Some alpacas like carrots and apples. A few grain pellets can be used as a treat, or training reward.
PEER PRESSURE. Alpacas are a herd animal – very much so. One will NOT leave the group to go to the shelter if it is cold and the others are still out in the field. This is a special consideration in keeping both suri breed alpacas and huacaya breed alpacas together. Suris become colder faster than huacayas due to the central part along their backbone causing them to lose body heat. If the group is dominated by huacaya alpacas, any suri alpacas may need to be more closely monitored and perhaps given coats in inclement conditions.
SHEARING. All alpacas, whether huacaya type or suri type, need to be shorn annually. Any sheep shearer can shear an alpaca. An adult alpaca will typically yield 3-5 lbs of useable fiber.
TOENAILS. Alpacas need to have their toenails trimmed. Dark nails need to be trimmed less often than the white or light ones. The nail should be trimmed even with the bottom of the foot pad and nail clippers are available from alpaca vendors. Nails should be checked for trimming needs every couple of months.
BANGS & CHEEK WOOL. Bangs and cheek wool occasionally need to be trimmed to ensure the animals have unrestricted vision.
VACCINES. Only killed vaccines should be used. Most adult alpacas are vaccinated for CDT once a year. It is important to consult a veterinarian about conditions specific to your location and animals. Pasture shared with other species of livestock may require additional vaccination.
WORMING. Because many parasites are becoming resistant to the drugs available to control them, regular across-the-board worming is no longer recommended. Instead alpaca experts recommend taking fecal samples to a vet a couple of times a year and having them checked for parasites and worms. If any are found, a wormer specific to that particular parasite is used. The two main alpaca wormers are Ivomec and Safeguard. These each address different types of worms, and if needed, an alpaca dose should be used.
FLY CONTROL. A pour-on product, Cylence, available through farm catalogs and at farm stores, can be used on alpacas every three –four weeks as a fly repellant during the fly season. Careful and limited dosing is required as alpacas have been known to have allergic reactions to this product. These include skin irritations and fleece breaks. (We have found that a dose of 4 cc per adult alpaca appears harmless but effective in most cases when applied with a needle-less syringe with a dot to the top of the head and ears, then dots along the topline). Diatomaceous earth (food grade) can be ordered from alpaca vendors and the alpaca’s grain lightly coated with it. This kills fly larvae in manure and helps prevent internal parasites. Fly Predators or Fly Parasites (a small beneficial insect that eats fly larvae) can be ordered at regular intervals from farm catalog companies and placed in the areas where flies are most noticeable. However, these are less effective in windy conditions and should not be used with diatomaceous earth in feed (the diatomaceous earth will kill the beneficial insects). And, fly masks made specifically for alpacas are available from alpaca vendors. The most effective fly control is regular removal of manure from the area.
MANURE. Alpacas generally use the same several places in a pasture to “poop”--- making it very easy to clean up after them. Most alpaca owners periodically rake up and remove the poop – called “alpaca beans” (healthy poop looks a lot like black jelly beans). Contrary to old farming practices, alpaca manure should not be spread back on the pasture for fertilizer. The parasites alpacas are susceptible to can live a very long time in the environment. The accepted poop-management method is to regularly remove the alpaca beans from the poop piles in the pasture and place them in a compost area away from the pasture (or at the far edge). The heat generated in composting kills parasites and the compost may be spread back on the pasture to enrich the soil or used in gardening.
PASTURE MAINTENANCE. Mow, mow, mow. Mowing regularly in the spring is the best way to rid a pasture of weeds. Round Up seems to be a safe product to use around alpacas, but is a vegetation killer – it kills everything, so it needs to be selectively spot-sprayed. Alpacas can graze in an area treated with Round Up after about 24 hrs of sun. Products containing 2-4-D (“agent orange”) are NOT SAFE FOR ALPACAS. These are broadleaf killers sold under many different brand names and some are sold at farm stores for livestock pasture – even labeled as having no grazing restrictions. However there are numerous instances of alpacas dying from eating grass in areas sprayed with 2-4-D, even a number of weeks after spraying. In general, only products from farm stores (grass seed, weed spray, fertilizer, etc) should be used in pastures for live stock, not household products sold at home improvement/garden stores. Several types of ornamental grass seed used in lawns are not healthy for livestock.
TACK & HALTERS. Alpacas enjoy interacting with humans they trust. Taking an alpaca for walks on a lead is a nice way to share time with an alpaca (note – if walking in woods or areas outside of their pasture, prevent them from eating unknown vegetation that may be poisonous). A halter and lead are all that is required. Many brands are available from alpaca vendors. Of utmost importance is halter fit – the noseband must be properly fitted so as to be high up on the nose close to the corner of the eye (within ½ -3/4 inch of the corner of the eye). The halter must then be cinched up tight on the back of the neck so as to prevent the nose band slipping down the nose and off the nose bone onto the cartilage. To be sure, tug on the front of the halter and see if the nose band slips down. If so, it needs adjustment. Alpacas cannot breathe well through their mouth. They must be able to breathe through their nose. A halter noseband slipping down their nose feels to them a bit like drowning and they are likely to “freak out”. A properly fitting nose band held firmly in place is the key. An adjustable noseband is a component of a good halter. For training, a fixed ring in the center of the halter also helps more precisely control the alpaca. Halters should be put on to work or attend to an alpaca, then removed afterwards. An alpaca should NEVER be kept in a halter. And alpacas should not be “tethered” or “staked- out”. A broken neck is the likely result. Do not leave a tied alpaca unsupervised .
HOW TO CATCH AN ALPACA. If an alpaca is part of a group of alpacas, catch the entire group and separate out the ones you do not want to catch. Attempting to catch one separate from its group is fruitless and next to impossible. Organize your facility with a small “catch pen” area that the alpacas are familiar with and go in/through regularly and have neutral or good experiences in (treats - not just shots). I recommend feeding them in such an area, and also feeding at various times each day – that way they will learn to happily follow a grain bowl into the pen, even if it is not “meal-time.” Alpacas can be trained to know their own name, and some will come when called. However, most alpacas cannot be walked up to in an open field and caught. Chasing an alpaca around a large open field for 45 minutes before giving up will cause them to be frightened and to distrust you. Getting them in a small pen to eat is easy and then it is another easy step to slip a halter on them in a small space where they aren’t running wildly about .
HOW TO MOVE AN ALPACA. Alpacas can generally be herded along in daylight conditions by people walking behind them, waving their arms a bit. (Or, they can be trained to follow a human carrying and shaking a bowl of grain, if they normally eat their grain out of bowls.) However, alpacas are afraid of the dark. At night, if you need to move alpacas, one person behind herding them along won’t work. In the dark, to move alpacas, a person must walk in front of them with a light, calling and encouraging them to come. Sometimes it is helpful if another person walks behind as well. Ideally, any moving from barn to pasture, or pasture to pasture, etc. is done under daylight conditions. Alpacas will be much more cooperative and much less afraid if they can see what’s out there.
A HEALTHY ALPACA. How to tell a healthy alpaca? A healthy alpaca will stand up when approached. All alpacas love to sprawl in the sun . . . and look like they’re dead. But if you call their name, they should wiggle an ear, cock their head, and hop up if you approach. A “downed” alpaca is cause for concern and maybe a vet visit. An alpaca not with its group needs investigation. If all the group but one has moved from the shelter to the grazing area, go check it out. A healthy alpaca has “beans.” Occasionally, clumps of stuck-together beans (“grapes”) are also normal. A soft dairy cone-like “plop” may be the result of too much grain or fresh pasture. This is also normal from time to time. But spurty or runny diarrhea, “pudding” or “liquid poop” needs treatment. A healthy alpaca is the correct weight. This is determined by “body-scoring” --- a technique of feeling along the backbone. A fat alpaca feels like a semi-circle along the backbone. You can barely feel the backbone and the profile looks rounded when viewed from the tail end. A too-thin alpaca feels bony along the spine, you can feel the spine on the top and sides. A just-right alpaca is sort of triangular along the spine – you can feel the backbone, and some flesh on each side but it does not look rounded or feel pudgy, nor does it look bony and you cannot feel around the entire backbone. It is important to actually feel each animal regularly – fleece covers up a lot.
See our articles on Heat Stress and Cold Stress for what to do when the temperatures are extreme.
FUN. Remember to enjoy your alpacas. Alpacas provide wonder and delight in your world.
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Updated December 26, 2012