Selecting and Planning your Farm for Alpaca

Practical advice for those who plan to purchase or develop a farm for the purpose of breeding alpaca.Although alpacas are now mainly grown in high altitudes in South America in areas unsuitable for other domestic livestock, this was not always the case. Shortly after the Spaniards invaded Peru in 1532, the Spaniards began the massacre of alpaca grazing on lands suitable for cattle and sheep. This was carried out over a long period of time before Sir Titus Salt began to develop equipment to process alpaca fibre more than three centuries later in 1852.

Alpacas as now being bred in many parts of the world, including the snowfields of Alaska and the Negev Desert in Israel.

Climate

The best climates for alpacas are those that are dry especially in the summer. Alpacas do not like hot, humid weather. As a general rule any areas in Australia where merino sheep are successfully grown should be suitable for alpaca.

When Temperature ( deg F) + Humidity (%) > 180 heat stress is likely to affect alpacas especially pregnant females. Sexually active males may also become infertile for up to six weeks after mating in these conditions.

Along the humid coastal fringes of Australia and New Zealand a fungus toxin (sporidesmin) grows on dead grass during humid wet autumns. Alpacas appear to be more susceptible to this toxin than deer, goats, sheep, or cattle and significant animal and production losses have occurred. The symptoms are secondary photosensitization as a result of liver damage or occlusion of the bile duct. Most animals never fully recover.

Fungus diseases also grow in fleeces during hot, humid conditions.

Stomach worm problems are also minimized in areas with hot dry summers and with cold, frosty mornings. Although (Iver) mectin type drenches have been successfully used to control these worms. Fluke worms are one of the big killers of alpacas in cold, wet areas, which have permanent creeks or are seasonally waterlogged. Liver fluke can be easily avoided by regular drenching with Fasinex 120.

Ticks, both the paralysis and the native bush species can be a problem along the narrow coastal strip of eastern Australia. Especially try to avoid scrubby areas inhabited with bush animals. You may have to spray or dip with a recommended tickicide, which will give limited residual protection.

In the southeastern areas of Australia, cria can suffer from rickets (a lack of Vitamin D). This is due to the low altitudes and lack of sunlight (ultraviolet light) during wet overcast winters. This is becoming more important now that alpacas are being bred with increasing density of fibre on their faces and legs. However this problem can be avoided with injections of ADE or by drenching with Duphasol.

Bovine (cattle) Johnes Disease, a bacterial disease which alpacas can get, is prevalent in dairy herds in parts of Victoria and along the far south coast of NSW as well as in some dairy goat herds. The bacterium is particularly hardy and can survive up to a year in the ground if conditions are continually moist and cool. However, sunlight, heat and dryness destroy the bacterium. There are no known infected alpaca flocks in NSW.

Soils

The best soils for breeding are those, which are naturally fertile. However the finest and highest quality alpaca fleece is grown on poorer soils. The fibre diameter (measured in microns) of alpaca increases even to a greater extent than that of sheeps' wool on nutritious soils.

Consequently the best country for breeding alpacas may not in the long term be the best for growing the finest fibre. (There is a trade off between growth rates versus fibre diameter.

However if you select land with poorer quality soils, be sure to check with your local vet for locally known mineral deficiencies such as selenium, copper and molybdenum. At this early stage in our industry we can only assume that alpacas have similar requirements to ruminants grazing the same land under the same climatic conditions. Although they are more efficient than ruminants in Australia in extracting protein and energy from poor quality forage, alpacas still need calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium potassium and sulfur for metabolism and growth as well as for the bacteria which process the food in their stomachs.

A significant amount of circumstantial evidence from around the world indicated that alkaline and calcareous soils are self-limiting for Johnes Disease.

The soils do not have to be in excellent physical condition. You will find that the structure of your soil will improve when other livestock are removed and only alpacas are run.

The ground pressures exerted by alpaca with padded feet are more akin to those of native animals such as kangaroos, bettongs, dingoes and wombats Static loads exerted on the soil by horses, cattle, sheep and goats are more than double those by alpaca and camel. (See Table 1) These weights were calculated as the weight per projected unit of contact. Considering the shape of sheep and cattle hooves together with the area of contact on hard surfaces these values may well be under-estimated.

Table 1: Exerted ground pressure by a range of animals

Animal Type  kPa
Horse (shod) 295
Cattle 185
Human (shod) 95
Sheep 82
Kangaroo (sitting) 46
Alpaca 39
Camel 33

Pastures

Alpacas are very selective with their split lips and they will naturally eat what they like best as long as they have a variety of food. However, when they are very hungry they will like any other grazing animal be forced to graze toxic pastures. So if they are without food for long periods of time and are left in strange yards make sure the yards are not full of potentially poisonous plants. Alpaca like most of our common native grasses: Windmill, Wallaby, Queensland Blue, Warrego Summer Grass, Microleana, and Red Grass. Mature sexually inactive alpacas can thrive on lower protein pastures (9%) whereas other domestic stock need a higher percentage of protein to maintain body condition (14% protein).

Alpaca will scour on high protein legume pastures and usually prefer grasses to legumes.

Alpaca also like introduced pastures like Kikuyu, Cocksfoot, Paspalum, Phalaris, Fescue and Ryegrass.

Avoid pastures with seeds that contaminate fleeces: Bathurst, Noogora Burrs, Horehound and some medics and trefoils. Suris, because of their long open locks in particular require very clean pastures.

Some grass seeds such as Barley Grass, Wiregrass and Speargrass can get in alpaca eyes and ears especially when they are fully fleeced. These problems can be minimized by shearing in the spring and by removing any large ear tags.

Stocking Rate

The calculation for alpaca stocking rates that is usually used is based on the needs of pregnant females.

Although the average weight of a mature hembra (65kg) is 25% greater than that of a mature merino ewe, alpacas are reputed to about 25% more efficient in extracting energy and protein from pastures. Therefore when estimating alpacas stocking rates you can use the same figure that are commonly used for merino sheep on similar pastures in the same district. (It is important to remember however that hembra need to be maintained in good condition during the last 3 moths of pregnancy and the first 3 months of lactation when they need almost double the normal amount of feed).

Setting up your Farm

Water

Good quality, fresh water is required, i.e. less than 5 dS/metre conductivity (< 3000 ppm salt). Alpaca each need a maximum of about 5 litres per day. They drink a little at a time but they drink often. NB. Cria also require access to water from an early age. Sturdy plastic or concrete troughs, which can be easily kept clean, provide the best water. Avoid dams if possible. Alpaca will sit in them in the heat; their fleeces may get muddy and eventually rot.

Alpacas will cool themselves down by standing or sitting under sprinklers. They will use small areas or water like troughs to stand in or wet their necks.

Shade and Shelter

Recently shorn alpacas are the first to seek shade and shelter. In hot dry conditions alpacas are cooler when they have reasonable cover of fleece with the exception of the testicles of males when they are mating. So don't be disappointed if alpacas sometimes stay out in the sun on some very hot days even though you have provided shade. It is the combination of heat and humidity which stresses them most.

Shelter is especially useful after shearing and if cria are born during a cold change of weather. If possible try to plant trees and shrubs for windbreaks at right angles to the direction that critical cold winds are likely to blow at the time when you are shearing or when hembras are unpacking their cria. (See fig.1.)

Sheds

It is not necessary to shed alpacas in most parts of Australia, but a shed is useful for storing bits and pieces and any hay, grain or other supplements that you may be using. But a shed is also useful for attending to sick animals (especially if the vet is visiting during unpleasant weather) and for shedding alpaca before and after shearing or prior to showing.

The floor should be solid. Earthen or slatted wooden floors are best, although a concrete floor can be covered with straw. Adequate natural lighting is important, as alpaca don't like dark places.

Electricity is useful for lighting for shearing inside and for the vet's ultrasound machine.

Fencing

Fences don't have to be exceptionally high or strong, as alpaca usually don't force themselves against fences unless they are hungry and are straining to get at feed in the next paddock.

Any fence that will keep in a merino wether will do i.e. a 1.2metre high 6 plain wire fence will suffice. In fact a single rope across a gateway will keep in most alpaca for short periods of time unless they are cria, machos or very hungry hembras. However ringlock fences are recommended for containing sexually active machos (these can be as young as 12 months old in Australia). Don't underestimate their mating and fighting urges. Remove barbwire to avoid injury.

Rabbit netting or chicken wire fences are best for small birthing paddocks to prevent cria from stumbling through fences out of reach of their mothers. Electric fences are not recommended especially in birthing paddocks

If you need a quarantine area with double fences try to design tree-lots and windbreaks to minimize fencing. Laneways and driveways are also useful for quarantine purposes as well as providing easy access to stock and vehicles to all your paddocks.

Yards

Yards ideally need to be a little higher (30cm) than for sheep and it so is best to add an extra rail to sheep-yards. Simple portable panels will do until you have designed the "perfect" set-up for your farm. Light-weigh gates are ideal panels while you are assessing your longer-term needs.

One pen is okay for a few alpacas but, for large numbers, a forcing yard and a race will save time especially for vaccinating, weighing and drenching. During adverse weather conditions a covered handling area makes life more pleasant for everyone

Shearing

Just ask your local shearer, he can use his normal gear for a few alpaca. However a hand-piece on a flexible cord makes it easier to manage their longer necks. Also a slow or variable speed hand-piece with a wide comb does a better job. You can use a snow comb to leave more fleece if you are concerned about sunburn or impending cold weather. They can be shorn standing up on a lead, sitting down or more commonly they are held down on their side or tied down with suitable alpaca shearing ropes.

Shear in a shed with a clean floor and good lighting but if you only have a few to do a tarp on the ground protected from the wind is adequate. In Peru they are often shorn on bare ground.

A trampoline makes an acceptable wool sorting table as long as you are careful to pick out any second cuts, which will not fall through.

Other equipment needed

Mutipurpose weighing scales are useful for weighing fleeces, cria when they are born and to check the general health of your animals. Scales that weigh from 50gms to 100kg are ideal. Body condition can be masked when alpacas are in full fleece. However you can also use body scoring to estimate body condition in a ranking from 1 to 5. Alpaca hooves and teeth grow long on soft soils. So foot parers and teeth trimmers may be needed.

Acknowledgements

Much the technical information used in this article has come from a number of published papers. These have not been referenced with the aim of trying to make this article shorter and easier to read. However I would to thank Peter Cosgrove our local vet at Wellington for checking the veterinary information and to my wife Julie for proof reading the final copy.

About the Author


John and Julie Lawrie and their family have been involved with alpacas in Australia for more than 15 years. We are original members of both the Australian Alpaca Association and the Central Western Region of NSW. We have been and are still very much involved in Association activities.

We manage up to 300 alpacas on our homestead block near Wellington which we integrate with a sheep and cattle enterprise with wheat/canola crops on our nearby farm. Our five children have all contributed to the success of our family business over many years as well as John's brother and sister and their families.

John and Julie believe the Australian alpaca industry will become the major producer of highest quality alpaca fibre in the world within 20 years. We have been members of the Alpaca Co-op since 1996 and continue to provide our entire annual clip to the Australian Alpaca Fibre LTD (AAFL) to produce quality Australian made products for local and overseas markets.

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