What’s So Special About An Alpaca?

On a recent trip to the alpaca farm of Cheryl and Patrick Burns on Big Tree Road in the town of Busti I learned about alpacas. Mrs. Burns, as she is known at Clymer and Sherman central high schools where she teaches agriculture, has been raising and handling alpaca livestock animals for the past four years.

Alpacas are livestock in the camelid family which includes camels which are native to Asia and Africa as well as llamas, vicunas, guanacos and alpacas native to Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Alpacas were first imported to North America in 1984 but now importation is restricted. Today, alpacas are raised for their hair or fleece which is similar to sheep’s wool but exhibits desirable qualities not present in wool.

The alpaca which weighs an average of 150 pounds has fine soft hair, cleft hooves, large dark eyes, long eye lashes, a long neck and curly bangs over the forehead. Its face is irresistibly cute. Alpaca livestock by nature prefer to live in herds away from humans. Owning and handling alpacas requires patience and a desire to gain their trust and respect. Once earned, alpacas enjoy human attention and will permit their neck and back to be rubbed. They tolerate their nails being trimmed, being led on a halter and being transported in the family van. Most importantly, they submit to being sheared annually for sale of fleece to create valuable luxurious alpaca yarn.

The appeal of alpaca yarn for knitting and weaving clothing can be appreciated by comparing its qualities to popular wool yarn. Wool, a protein fiber, grows from a hair follicle in the skin of sheep. The fiber is covered with overlapping large scales which contribute to stiffness of the fiber causing the “prickle factor” of wool against human skin. The scales reflect light generating the luster characteristic of wool. Since wool fiber conducts heat poorly, wool garments insulate efficiently during cold weather. I find it astonishing that heat is generated by a chemical reaction when wool yarn absorbs moisture from the air. Therefore, a wool garment worn outdoors keeps one warm by insulating from the cold and by generating heat from moisture absorption.

By contrast, alpaca fibers contain air sacs which insulate better than wool of the same volume and weight. Alpaca fibers are thinner than most wool fibers which creates a softer yarn with no “prickle factor” making alpaca clothing comfortable for children and babies. Alpaca fibers are dry and free of grease unlike wool fibers. The scales are smaller than wool scales which yields a softer fiber but at the same time reflects less light than wool thus damping the luster of alpaca yarn.

During my visit to the Burns’s alpaca farm, I tried on gloves, hats and socks woven with alpaca yarn. The fabric was “smooth as silk,” light weight and toasty warm. I learned that alpacas require fewer acres for grazing and less grain for feed than horses. Alpacas tend to poop in one place making pasture clean-up easier. Male and female alpacas are pastured and confined separately since the female becomes receptive and fertile for mating anytime in the presence of the male unlike horses and deer which come in heat or receptive to mate once a year.

Alpacas sell for prices ranging from a couple hundred to many thousands of dollars depending on sex, age and fleece quality. Alpacas are known to spit stomach contents when upset, which I experienced first hand, fortunately on my rain jacket. I was surprised to learn alpacas have no upper incisors (front teeth) to oppose the lower teeth but they still graze on grasses chewing with molars. My family and I were able to help administer injections of a deworming medication (parasiticide) to 14 alpacas which will prevent a meningeal worm infection transmitted through deer to field snails which are eaten by alpacas.

For more information regarding alpaca ownership refer to “The Camelid Companion-Handling and Training Alpacas and Llamas” by Mary McGee Bennett. I am eager to use alpaca clothing so alpaca socks and gloves are on my Christmas list.