Alpaca

24.05.17

Overview

Alpacas can be farmed for fibre, meat and leather but in Australia, are grown mainly for their fibre. Alpaca fibre is soft, light, warm and comfortable when worn next to the skin and is categorised as a luxury fibre, being processed into a range of high-quality garments and home wares. Farming alpacas for meat is new in Australia and very small scale with farmers usually selling directly to restaurants.

Alpacas are grazing animals and can be run under the same climate and conditions as merino sheep. Alpacas are relatively easy to care for and cause minimal damage to fragile soils as they have soft feet rather than hooves. In addition to farming for production, alpacas can be run with sheep and goats as guards to protect the herd against predation from foxes.

The industry organisation for alpacas, the Australian Alpaca Association (AAA), can provide comprehensive information on all aspects of alpaca farming including sales and marketing.

Facts and figures

  • Alpacas are a grazing herd animal native to South America
  • There are two main types of alpacas – Huacaya and Suri
  • In Australia, alpacas are farmed mainly for fibre production, with small markets for meat and leather
  • In 2011-12 an estimated 188 tonnes of alpaca fibre was produced in Australia with a gross value of AU$2.6M
  • Alpacas thrive under similar conditions to merino sheep
  • Alpacas are considered ‘green’  as their soft feet cause minimal damage to fragile soils, they do not suffer from flystrike or require mulesing and have similar nutritional requirements to sheep

 

Production status

Alpacas are currently farmed across the temperate and cooler parts of Australia. As at 2011-12, the registered herd size in Australia was around 132 000 with an estimated fleece production of 188 tonnes of fibre with a gross value of AU$2.6M.

Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

In Australia alpacas are farmed mostly for their fleece which is categorised as a luxury fibre and used to make a range of garments and home wares.

There is increasing interest in Australia in farming alpacas to produce high-quality lean meat and leather. As most parts of the alpaca can be used for meat, alpacas offer a high yield with little wastage

New research is looking at therapeutic antibodies from alpacas, used to produce products such as snake anti-venom, as a potential new market in Australia.

Production requirements

Housing

Alpacas are herd animals and can be farmed under the same conditions as other livestock. Some form of shelter against extremes of heat, cold and rain is required, either in the form of trees or man-made shelters.

Alpacas will bond with other animals and can be run with other livestock such as sheep and goats. However, there is a risk of alpacas being kicked by larger animals and so caution should be taken with cattle and horses. If running alpacas with other livestock, particularly ruminants, they may pick up the internal parasites spread by those animals, and so will need to follow the same drenching regime as those livestock.

Alpacas bond well with sheep and goats and can be used as guards against predation of lambs or kids by foxes, to which they will naturally show aggressive behaviour.  Alpacas are not, however, able to protect other livestock from attack by dogs, whether domestic or wild.

Alpacas can be moved around easily without the aid of a dog or other herding assistance and can also be loaded for transport without difficulty.

Feed requirements

Alpacas are principally grazers, eating a variety of plants including native grasses, but do best on good quality pasture. Alpacas also benefit from having access to plant material with long fibres, such as hay, and there are commercial alpaca mixes available as a way to supplement vitamins and minerals.

As with most livestock, growing suitable pasture is a key part of alpaca production. Land suitable for growing good quality pasture with reliable rainfall or water supply is essential and as alpacas are susceptible to the same poisonous plants as other livestock, care must be taken to monitor weeds and other unwanted plants. The stocking rate for alpacas is equivalent to sheep and can be measured using the standard unit ofDry Sheep Equivalent per hectare (DSE). A dry 70kg alpaca has a DSE rating of 1.4.

Feeding can affect fibre quality and reproductive performance and alpacas can eat excessive to their needs, so herds may need to be managed for over-feeding. Excessively rich pasture may lead to coarsening of the fibre (known as “micron blowout”) and obesity. Underfeeding due to high stocking rates, or very poor quality pasture, may cause weight loss and deterioration in fleece quality. If farming alpacas for fleece, it is also best to avoid pastures with seeds that contaminate the fleece such as Bathurst, noogora and horehound burrs.

Alpacas need ready access to good quality, fresh drinking water requiring between 2-10 litres per animal per day, depending on temperature, feed conditions and physiological status (lactating females require a much greater volume per day).

Breeds and breeding

Alpacas live for 15-20 years, with an adult weight of about 70kg. The more common breed of alpaca is the Huacaya which accounts for around 90 per cent of the registered herd in Australia. The huacaya has a soft crimped style of fleece, not unlike that of a merino sheep, which grows perpendicular to the skin, giving the animal a well-rounded appearance. Ideally, fleece coverage is even and extends down the legs showing a uniform crimp along the length of the staple.

 

The less common type is the Suri, representing around 10% of the Australian (and world) herd. The suri has a fleece which grows in long locks hanging straight down from the animal’s backline. The fleece has high lustre and its feel is more silky than that of the huacaya. Both huacaya and suri come in a range of colours from white, through shades of fawn and brown, to grey and black.  For commercial fleece production, white is the preferred colour, but there is also a good market for coloured fleece from niche markets such as hand spinners and craftspeople.

Alpacas can be mated at any time of the year. Females become sexually mature at around 12 to 18 months of age and once they reach 45-50kg in weight. Males can display sexual interest from a few weeks of age but are not sexually active or fertile until 18 months to 3 years of age.

Like rabbits and cats, female alpacas are ‘induced ovulators’ which means it is the act of mating that causes them to ovulate. Gestation is between 11-12 months and mating should therefore be timed so that cria (baby alpacas) are born to coincide with when the best feed is available (generally early spring). Females are usually re-mated 2 to 6 weeks after giving birth.

Sourcing stock

Alpacas can be sourced directly from breeders and information is easily available on the internet.

The Australian Alpaca Association maintains a pedigree register, the International Alpaca Register (IAR), held at the Agricultural Business Research Institute. The register records details of animals’ tag identification, age, breeding and ownership.  The Australian Alpaca Association encourages buyers to source animals that are registered on the IAR and can provide further information on alpaca prices and sales.

Health care & pests and diseases

 Alpacas are considered relatively easy to care for, requiring basic husbandry skills, such as toe nail clipping.

Alpacas are vaccinated twice yearly with the same ‘5 in 1’ vaccine used for sheep and goats to protect against tetanus, pulpy kidney, black leg, black disease and malignant oedema. In some geographic locations the ‘7 in 1’ vaccination may be required to also vaccinate against leptospirosis.

Alpacas are less susceptible to internal parasites such as stomach worms and liver fluke than some species, due to their habit of using communal latrines, around which they do not graze.  However, in warm, wet conditions and particularly when pasture is scarce or land is overstocked, alpacas may require drenching for internal parasites. Paralysis ticks can be a problem along the coastal strip of eastern Australia.

If running with other livestock alpacas can pick up internal parasites and will require treatment with suitable anti-parasitic products specific to the situation and type of parasite. As all parasite management procedures are ‘off label’ for alpacas, veterinary advice may be required.

Alpacas are susceptible to sporidesmin, a fungal toxin that grows on dead grass during warm, humid conditions. This toxin can cause facial eczema and liver damage which can be fatal. In these geographic locations, pasture conditions need to be managed to reduce the risk of sporidesmin development. During high risk weather conditions in particular, avoid slashing paddocks as this leads to a build-up of dead plant material and can increase the risk of sporidesmin.

Infrastructure Requirements

Paddocks and fencing suitable for sheep can also be used for alpacas. Barbed wire is not necessary to contain alpacas which are generally easily contained by a standard sheep mesh or hingejoint fence.  If plain wire is used then 7-strands is recommended.  Electric fencing is not commonly used, except perhaps when temporary subdivision of a paddock is required. A small yard or pen is required to catch and confine alpacas for shearing, vaccinations or general husbandry.

Dogs (wild or domestic) can be an issue in some areas so boundary fencing suitable for keeping dogs out may be required. Dog attacks can have disastrous consequences, as although alpacas will deter foxes or a small, single dog, they cannot withstand an attack by two or more dogs.

Harvesting, Processing and Selling

Prices for alpaca fibre differ according to fibre diameter, length and colour – fine, white fibre will typically command the highest price. Commercial processors primarily want only white fibre, which is fine and uniform in micron and staple length. Alpaca fibre is graded by professional classers under the auspices of the Australian Wool Exchange (AWEX).

Alpacas are shorn once a year in spring.  Standard electric sheep shearing equipment is used and there are many shearers now specialising in the shearing of alpacas.  Alpacas need to be tethered on the floor or shorn on a special shearing table.

To maximise the financial return from fleece it is important that it is properly prepared and bagged or baled. Further details are available on the Australian Alpaca Association website in the Shearing Shed and Pre-Classing Code of Practice.

Some alpaca owners also process their own fibre and add value by processing it into yarns and garments.

Some alpaca farmers are venturing into meat production and there are several abattoirs in Australia that process alpaca meat. The marketing and sale of meat is generally done directly by farmers, mainly to restaurants.

Markets and Marketing

There are many processors who purchase alpaca fleece direct from the grower.  Some processors will purchase all grades and colours, while others have particular requirements in terms of micron or colour.  A list of fleece buyers is available on the Australian Alpaca Association website.

Some alpaca fleece producers value-add by processing their own fibre and selling tops, yarns or finished products direct to the public.

Alpaca animal sales are generally directly between breeders (rather than via saleyards) either by private sale or on-farm auctions.

Marketing of alpaca meat is done primarily by specialised alpaca processors or farmers, with sales primarily being direct to restaurants.

Risks and Regulations

The alpaca industry in Australia is still transitioning from a breeding/stud stock industry to a commercial fleece and, to a lesser extent, meat industry. Although there is a very strong industry body, the Australian Alpaca Association, the industry faces the challenges associated with a large number of primarily quite small herds, with differing foci, leading to some fragmentation. Not only are there the two distinct types (huacaya and suri) but also a wide range of colours, which raises challenges in achieving a critical number of alpacas for a viable fleece industry. The commercial fleece industry demands high quality, uniform fibre with white being the primary colour desired. There are currently also challenges associated with a lack of fibre processing facilities in Australia. Growers need to understand the market demands for the product/s they are producing (fleece, meat, stud stock etc.) in order to select the right alpacas for the purpose. As the industry is transitioning into different products there is also a need to develop the markets and marketing for these different products in order to grow demand. As such there is always a risk in securing a market and buyer for products.

If alpacas are grown in climates in which they do not naturally thrive – particularly in areas of high rainfall/humidity and summer heat – then they will require a much higher level of input by the farmer in order maintain their health status.

As in any livestock industry, biosecurity is key to managing risk; new stock should always be drenched and quarantined; boundary fencing should be secure and animal health monitored regularly to detect a sick animal early. The Australian Alpaca Association takes a pro-active approach to biosecurity through its membership of Animal Health Australia and use of the Alpaca Market Assurance Program (AlpacaMAP) and Quality Assurance Program (Q-Alpaca) on which further information can be found at www.alpaca.asn.au

Regulatory Considerations

Regulations regarding animal welfare and well-being are the responsibility of state and territory governments and so there may be differences in these regulations. For example, some restrictions on animal movement may apply, particularly between states, and requirements should be checked before transporting alpacas. The Department of Agriculture  has produced standards and guidelines for the Land Transport of Livestock, including alpacas.

There may also be differences in veterinary regulations between states and individual state and territory requirements should be checked for animal welfare regulations. Another consideration for veterinary services is that, as at 2013, there were no pharmaceutical products registered for use on alpacas and so any use of products is off-label and may require veterinary supervision.

Also worth noting is that there is currently no National Livestock Identification System in place for alpacas as with other livestock. All alpacas registered with the Australian Alpaca Association are identified with a brass ear tag, engraved with a unique registration number which allows the animal to be identified/traced through the Association’s International Alpaca Registry (IAR). It is not a requirement that alpacas are registered with the Association, but non-registration will limit the value and saleability of stock.

In New South Wales it is a requirement that anyone who keeps livestock on their property, including alpacas, obtains a property identification code (PIC) issued by the livestock health and pest authorities (LHPAs). PICs are a vital part of biosecurity in the event of an emergency animal disease (EAD) outbreak.

Publications

Managing Alpacas in Australia– AAA training publication

AgGuide: A Practical Handbook – Farming Alpacas – NSW Department of Primary Industries

Alpaca AgSkills: A practical guide to farm skills – NSW Department of Primary Industries

Alpaca Fleece Classing Code of Practice – AAA publication

Other resources

The Australian Alpaca Association (AAA) website at www.alpaca.asn.au provides comprehensive information on all aspects of alpaca farming including sales and marketing.  The AAA website also has links to the network of AAA Regions across the country.  The AAA Regions will be able to offer advice specific to that part of the country and most organise regular training events for the new alpaca breeder.

 

Other Resources

03.03.09

Emerging Animal and Plant Industries - Their Value to Australia (2nd Edition)

28.02.13

Therapeutic antibodies from Alpaca: A new market opportunity - fact sheet

03.06.13

Quantitative Genetic Analysis of Micron Blowout in Alpacas

02.01.14

Quantitative genetic analysis of micron blowout in alpacas - fact sheet