Alpacas are a progressive and established Primary Industry suited to Australia’s fragile environment and is an agricultural pursuit suitable for all ages and investment strategies.
- Origin: South America (Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina).
- Life span: About 15+ years.
- Breeds: Huacaya (wa-ky-uh) and Suri (soo-ree).
- Digestive system: Functional ruminants – they have three stomachs rather than four in classical ruminants.
- Diet: Grazers and occasional browsers. In Australia, pastures appropriate for sheep (grasses, clovers, legumes) are suitable. Oaten lucerne and meadow hay are good supplements.
- Colours: Australia recognises 12 colours from white, fawn, brown, grey to black.
- Average height: 90-95cms at the withers when fully grown.
- Average weight: Male about 85kgs, female 70kgs.
- Age at puberty: Female 12-18 months (45-50kgs), male 18-36 months (60-90kgs).
- Newborns: Are called cria (cree-ah).
- Number of newborns per pregnancy: One (twins are extremely rare).
- Reproductive frequency in Australia: Average of three crias in four years.
- Average fleece quantity: Unskirted 2.5-3kgs per fully grown alpaca, with some males and wethers up to 5kgs. The industry aims to increase average weights to five or more kilograms.
For those considering embarking on breeding alpacas there are a few basic things which need to be considered first.
Alpacas require similar fencing to sheep, preferably without barbed wire. If however, dog attacks are common in the area, much stronger perimeter fencing should be considered.
A three-metre square (maximum) yard or catch pen with gates is highly desirable for overall handling e.g. for administering vaccinations or catching for shearing. Using these areas for supplementary feeding makes it easier to manage alpacas at such times as they will enter the area more willingly.
Alpacas will eat about 2% of their body weight in feed per day and prefer shorter pastures. Ideally they should have a diet consisting of 20% fibre. They are efficient recyclers of urea, and require protein levels of only 10-12%. They should be pasture fed at all times, and do well on native pastures. Highly toxic plants such as oleander and lantana etc. must be avoided. In seasons with limited pasture, alpacas may be supplemented with good quality hay and/or various grains, depending on their body condition score and physiological state.
Trees and bushes can provide shade in summer and protection from rain and wind in winter. Shelters of poles and shade cloth can be erected in the absence of trees. Sheds of five metres square or larger, although not essential, are beneficial, however, not all alpacas will enter a four-walled shed to seek shelter.
Fresh water must be available at all times. Alpacas may drink as much as 4 litres a day.
A standard unit of carrying capacity equates to a dry sheep equivalent (non-lactating ewe or wether) per hectare (DSE), but this varies depending on pasture quality and climate. Areas of high rainfall with good soil will sustain stock up to 10DSE, compared with dry land areas that might only sustain 1.5DSE. As a rough guide, one alpaca wether is at least equal to 1 DSE, but could be up to 2DSE.
The two distinct alpaca breeds share many features, but the key difference between them is their fleece.
The huacaya carries sheep-like fleece which stands at right angles to the body. Young huacaya fleece should exhibit crimp across each fibre and have obvious staple definition. The crimp definition may vary on older animals. The alpaca should be well covered with a rounded appearance. Coverage should extend down the legs and up to a bonnet on the head with a clean muzzle and ears.
The suri carries a silky, soft-handling, dense, locking fleece that moves freely, yet hugs the body giving the animal a flat-sided appearance. The fleece hangs from the centre part (from the neck through to the tail) with well-defined, independent locks forming close to the skin and twisting uniformly to the ends. The primary characteristics which distinguish a suri fleece are its lock structure, high lustre (shine), silky handle and long staple length.
The Australian Alpaca Fleece Limited (AAFL) located in Melbourne, conducts a national fleece collection and classing operation. Fleeces are classed by quality and colour and growers receive clip reports along with appropriate payment for their fleeces. Such reports are useful tools for growers who are striving to breed for better fleeces. For more information visit www.aafl.com.au Other commercial options for raw alpaca fleece in Australia exist with assorted mini mills and local spinners.
In 2015 the Australian alpaca industry celebrates its 25th birthday – and what a healthy industry it is now.
The first three alpacas arrived from Chile in 1988. They marked the start of what have become established fleece and burgeoning meat industries — with a national herd of approximately 160,000 now treading Australian soils.
The strong growth has been matched by strong demand for exports from the UK, New Zealand, Europe and China.
To many people, alpacas are strange looking creatures, more often than not greeted with, “look it’s a llama”, upon first sight. But while they’re both South American camelids, a llama is about twice the size of an alpaca and has distinctive banana shaped ears.
Since 1988, more than 2,300 breeders have joined original importers in farming these unique animals. The Australian alpaca population has grown to its present size mainly through breeding up from the initial imported stock from Peru, Chile and the US.
Rapid advances in embryo transfer (ET) technology have allowed breeders to concentrate on breeding better quality stock. During the ET process, embryos are taken from genetically superior females and established in recipient females, the result being higher quality offspring from these surrogate mothers. This has also aided the alpaca industry in its quest for a better fleece.
Recently, alpaca markets in meat and hides have also opened up. As well, alpaca wethers are used to guard lambs, kids — and even chickens – from foxes.
Australian animals and fleeces are now ranked amongst the world’s best.
Australian alpaca fibre is used extensively in high fashion garments, as well as knitwear, blankets, doonas – and even carpets. Alpaca fleece features in the designs of Kelly and Windsor, Merino Gold, Creswick “Woollen Mills and Australian Carpet Makers, amongst others.
Australian growers cannot meet international demand for alpaca fleece. This is a situation that is unlikely to change for another 20 years. There is a big push among the industry for more breeders, which is being addressed through seminars and information days across the country.
Many Australians are taking up alpaca breeding as a serious enterprise, one that is very appealing once people understand the versatility and environmentally friendly nature of the animal.