Let’s learn about alpacas and llamas!

Alpacas 04 sml

It’s a creative remake of The Sound of Music.

Some of you may recall that we expanded the Quiet Farm team a few weeks ago. We now have five alpacas and one llama on our farm, and they currently spend the majority of their time grazing placidly on our pasture. We’re new to livestock, and are doing as much research as possible, and we thought you might be interested in learning more about our new residents, too.

Alpacas 08 sml

See you at the old watering hole?

First, what even are these odd creatures, anyway? Llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Vicugna pacos) are both members of the camelid family, along with their wild cousins, viçunas and guanacos. (Collectively, this group is known as lamoids.) Camelids actually evolved in North America; some of their ancestors migrated to Africa to become the desert camels we’re familiar with. Other ancestors migrated south to what is now South America and evolved into the llamas and alpacas we associate with indigenous tribes of South America. As bison were essential to the Native Americans, so were llamas and alpacas to the indigenous peoples. These animals provided food, fiber, grease, draft power, fertilizer, fuel, leather and protection.

Llama Kingston 03 sml

Kingston is relaxed but always alert.

It’s easy to confuse llamas and alpacas, unless you’re able to see them side-by-side. Llamas are larger than alpacas; an adult llama can weigh between 250 and 500 pounds, whereas a full-grown alpaca typically won’t top 225. Llamas can be nearly five feet in height at the shoulder, and an alpaca won’t ever be much more than three. The ears are another easy way to differentiate the two: llama ears are longer and often curved, like bananas; alpaca ears are shorter and spear-shaped.

Alpaca Paihia 03 sml

Paihia plans to dress up as a sheep for Halloween.

Both llamas and alpacas are often bred for their fleece, though it’s technically hair because the individual fibers are hollow. There are two types of alpaca fleece: huacaya, which is similar to sheep’s wool, and suri, which is far less common and resembles silk. Unlike sheep’s wool, the fleece has no lanolin, making it hypoallergenic; it’s also naturally water-repellent and fire-resistant. The animals should be sheared annually, usually in the spring; ours obviously haven’t been sheared recently and that will be one of our toughest tasks in the new year. We’ll need to halter-train the animals first before we have any hope of shearing them; alpacas are sheared by either trussing them or tying them to a board. It sounds cruel, but it’s the safe, humane way things are done – and our animals will be much more comfortable once they’ve lost those heavy winter parkas.

Alpaca Paris 03 sml

Our alpha male, Paris, is constantly on guard.

Although we have a gelded male llama and an intact male alpaca, both of whom act as guard animals, we move the herd into our protected corral each evening and let them out each morning to graze for the day. We have packs of coyotes in the area, as well as mountain lions and bears, and our littlest one might be vulnerable to attack. Alpacas and llamas have an innate distaste for any canine; we’ve heard that a group of alpacas could actually stomp a coyote to death if threatened, but we’re not prepared to test the theory. They’ll feed on pasture until the snow renders that impossible, then live on hay for the winter. As animals native to the high Andes, neither our elevation nor our dry climate nor our harsh winters faze these creatures one bit.

Alpacas 06 sml

Who doesn’t love playing in the sprinkler on a hot day?

Alpacas and llamas are very quiet, clean animals; they create a “communal litter box” in the corral or pasture where all animals use the same space for their toilet needs. This tidiness makes collecting their manure for use as fertilizer much easier! They do hum occasionally, especially when they first moved here and were adjusting to a new environment. They also cluck, snort and grumble, depending on the circumstances, and they can actually scream if under attack. They also spit, but typically only at other animals and not at humans – although we have been sneezed on. (We’re trying to teach them to sneeze into their sleeves, per pandemic hygiene rules.)

Alpaca Adelaide 04 sml

So adorable! Don’t even think about petting her. You won’t get within five feet.

Llamas and alpacas don’t touch or cuddle each other the way many other species do, and though they can be taught to tolerate human contact, they definitely don’t seek it out. Our camelid reference book says it best: “Like wary cats, these animals like what they like, when they like it. You can’t push yourself on llamas and alpacas and expect them to reciprocate. They’re intelligent and forgiving, so once they trust you, even if they’ve suffered injustices in the past, they happily submit to further training – as long as you treat them fairly. If you want an in-your-face, ‘Pet me! Pet me!’ animal friend, buy a dog. Or a goat.” Proud, independent and a bit stand-offish? Perfect for Quiet Farm.

Alpaca Kona 03 sml

They tuck their legs under themselves in defiance of basic physics!

In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, raising llamas and alpacas suddenly became very trendy in the U.S. People started importing breeding stock from Peru and launching grand alpaca operations, with the lofty ambition of outfitting every American in alpaca clothing all year round. It was a guaranteed moneymaker! Invest today! Since no fiber processing infrastructure existed, however, this unsurprisingly turned out to be a risky speculative market – essentially a loose pyramid scheme, in which alpaca breeders needed to sell more and more offspring to offset their costs, and the bubble of course burst. Many people, emboldened by lax U.S. tax laws, simply used the reasonably docile and low-maintenance animals to designate their property as agricultural land – so much so that the phrase “a California alpaca farm” became a common euphemism for a (possibly illegal) tax shelter.

Alpacas 07 sml

Let’s see what’s over this ridge!

We are not using our llama and alpacas as a tax shelter, legal or otherwise. Nor will we use them for weddings, or alpaca yoga, or in a petting zoo. We are using them to maintain our pasture, because we believe responsible, well-managed grazing by animals designed to live on grass and other vegetation is the best way to care for our land. We are using them for their beneficial organic waste, which can be used to directly fertilize edible plants without going through the compost pile first. We are using them for their funny personalities and their regal, proud demeanor, and because we like having animals on our land. Eventually, we may process and sell their fiber, but that’s a long way off. For the moment, we’re simply happy to have them here, and we’re happy to approach them cautiously and feed them carrots and apples, and we’re happy to leave them alone when they’ve had enough of us, and we’re happy to provide them with a safe, pleasant home. These creatures are a lovely addition to Quiet Farm.

Alpaca Adelaide 03 sml

 

 

4 thoughts on “Let’s learn about alpacas and llamas!

  1. Love your new additions- thanks for the info on them. I did not realize that their ‘hair’ does not have lanolin nor did I know they were so independent! Have these cuties ever been sheared? Sounds like a daunting task…………Karen

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    • Hi Karen! I don’t think these alpacas have ever been sheared…or if they have, it was at the minimum a few years ago. Doubtful they’ll remember it as a pleasant experience. The two young ones (the fluffy sheep and the adorable baby) definitely haven’t been. We have quite the task ahead of us! Thanks for reading, and hope you and yours are healthy and well.

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