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By October 12, 2017 0 Comments Read More →

Why Keep Alpacas

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When moving from a semi to a smallholding, Neal Reid had to decide which new animals should accompany the family chickens. He chose alpacas, and here’s why…

We started to plan our move to a smallholding (it had a lot more land than our previous semi-detached house) long before we finally moved. From starting to grow veg in pots, to clearing the back garden to build raised veg beds, then taking on one allotment followed by another, it had been a five-year-long, steep learning curve, but we were ready to take the next step – from allotments to a smallholding, and from chickens to… well, what? So, how did we eventually decide?

Before the move, we did a lot of thinking, talking and investigating before deciding what we wanted to achieve, how we wanted to do it, and in what time frame. We set ourselves five years – with targets, costs, benefits and all that, and decided on an end point, planning our time and resources accordingly to get there. We made sure we bought the equipment we needed beforehand, with savings set aside for the projects we wanted to do. We realised early on we would both need to remain in full-time employment during this time to maintain an income to pay for fence replacement, planting an orchard, planting willow for fuel, etc.

In our plan we included livestock other than chickens, as we wanted to use and maintain the land, and livestock, properly rotated, can do this in a green and sustainable way. We do have particular plans for some of the land, but having it maintained for free in the meantime is a bonus.

We also – well, me, actually – wanted poo, and not because I have strange tendencies but rather because I wanted a polyculture within the smallholding, and poo grows stuff that we and the animals can eat, which is then returned as poo to do the same thing over again: a truly sustainable system. This was important to us; modern farming has created large monoculture businesses, requiring chemical fertilisers that are shipped in to feed endless fields of crops. We were determined we were not going to import ours!

Our smallholder in 2014.

Of course, all livestock poo, but most do so indiscriminately. Look at a field after cows, horses, sheep or goats have been there for a while – it’s all over the place. Do you really want to spend your valuable time following a cow to pick up poo? Of course not! Female alpacas kindly poo in the same patch, all the herd together, making collecting it a lot easier; however, males are far less tidy, and spread it even further.

Once you have gathered alpaca poo, you will notice that it is not just run of the mill, but the crème de la crème of poo – it is even said that the Incan Empire was built on it, providing sufficient fertility to sustain whole populations. It is also delivered in concentrated pellets, which can be broken down in compost or layered straight on within straw to create a lovely soil, and it’s free and comes in large quantities! So there was a definite tick when it came to alpacas.

Our next requirement was fibre or wool, which we wanted to dye and spin. My wife is a member of a weavers’ guild, and wanted to use home-produced fleece. She has dyeing, spinning and felting days, when friends huddle round bubbling cauldrons, dropping in strange ingredients they have found to produce arcane recipes from a large book – at least dyeing is what she says they are doing. < pic 2 with caption: Dyeing… fresh from the cauldron. >

Dyeing… fresh from the cauldron.

We decided against keeping sheep, as sheep keepers we talked to told us the basic life skill of a typical sheep was to find a way to die, which they did all too readily – this was, however, disproven over time! We looked at goats: Angora for fibre, and Boer goats for meat. We considered the fences we were starting with and thought again – the fence replacement programme had not included all the fences at once which would be needed to keep goats in situ. Only ponies had been kept here previously, so the fencing was lightweight, and definitely not goatproof.

Alpacas have a high-quality hollow fibre, which can be dyed, spun, knitted and felted, or just shoved in a duvet – but make sure it is cleaned first! It’s dry to the touch, unlike sheep wool, because it does not contain lanolin. There is now a pedigree breeding industry in Britain devoted to improving the fibre quality of alpacas, but it is believed that we still have not reached the quality of fibre produced by the Incas, as found in archaeological digs in South America. So that was a further tick in the alpaca box.

Alpaca fleece does not contain lanolin.

Ease of maintenance and upkeep was another important consideration. We would need to continue working to provide the income to improve the smallholding, and we needed livestock that wouldn’t require constant oversight, or lots of attention moving them in and out dependent on weather or the time of year. Alpacas are very hardy – provide shelter and they will manage themselves. If it is too windy or wet they will go inside, otherwise they will stay out all year. We had shelters adjacent to the fields, and they now come and go as they please. We have a fresh drinking water system, and during winter we keep the shelter topped up with hay. We have looked after sheep and had more work to do with them than with the alpacas. They do, in reality, get fussed over every day, but it’s good to know they won’t fret if it’s later than usual, or shorter. To be fair, I guess goats could be given a tick here as well.

By a process of elimination we decided that alpacas, at least on paper, were the livestock for us, so to find out for sure we arranged to spend a day at an alpaca stud farm in Hertfordshire. We were taught how to handle them, halter train them, walk them, and even to check teeth, cut toenails and – importantly – to score condition checks. These courses are a very good way of getting hands-on experience, and we left confident that we could handle, care for and look after them.

After a cooling-off period, we returned to talk to the owners, and they agreed to sell us two pregnant females and a companion female who could no longer breed; you should always keep at least three in a group, as they are herd animals and create and live in social groups. It was interesting to see the group dynamics as two, then three, then five animals were added to the group. Why did we take pregnant ones? Well, we wanted to keep our options open – perhaps to be able to increase our herd, or perhaps to breed to create future income. Stud farms always have alpacas for sale – animals which were top of the class several years ago are often already obsolete, in breeding terms. They can be expensive – it’s a quality thing as with all livestock – but non-intact males are comparable to other livestock, cost-wise.

They arrived in November and went straight into a field full of fresh green grass. They began tucking into it straightaway – a good start to our relationship. The horses in the next field immediately stopped in their tracks and stared for a long time at these strange exotic new neighbours, and continued to do so for the next month.

The following April two youngsters – known as ‘crias’ – were born. An alpaca pregnancy lasts eleven months, and they are ready to breed again within a month. The following year we acquired three more youngsters and now have eight in our herd – or rather herds, as we have one group of boys and one of girls. We still haven’t decided whether to breed them, and have about six months before the decision will have to be made. Alpacas get to know both you and the family’s domestic pets. One cat we had used to sleep in the straw of the shelter – even when the Alpacas were there. They also seem to keep foxes and deer away – their fields cross half of our smallholding, and both seem to avoid the area.

Next year we shall put some chickens in with the alpacas to see if they can be used as guardians, which they certainly are in South America.

But how does the reality match our actual requirements? Firstly, in answer to the most frequent question we are asked: they do, indeed, spit like llamas – alpacas even have a full range of spitting, too, including some so horrible that an immediate shower and change of clothes is required, but this experience is usually reserved for vets.

As regards maintaining the fields, alpacas like pasture to be a certain length – any longer and they won’t be quite so keen to eat it, especially if shorter stuff is available. Consequently, you have to manage your field rotation well – or be prepared to do a lot of topping in the growing season. Not being a great rotation manager, and with some extremes of weather over the last few years, topping has become second nature to me, but this effectively means giving up more of the valuable smallholding time we had hoped to save. However, for newcomers to the land (as we were) topping is a good introduction to what grows where and how good the pasture is – so there is some benefit, but it’s not something we want to keep having to do.

Alpacas do not eat nettles, docks or thistles, and are fussy eaters – hay will be picked at, and if it hits the ground it won’t be touched again. Obviously, you do need to give them supplementary food to maintain good health, and cunning strategies have to be devised to ensure they all get their fair share of this, as the weakest can get pushed out in the rush.

And the poo? I hear you ask. It’s really good and plentiful, and the difference it makes to the veg patch is noticeable, breaking down heavy soil and improving the quality – a definite success!

In early June we have a shearing day, providing us with full-grown fleeces. Have we spun, dyed and made clothes? Am I walking round dressed from head to toe in alpaca? Well, no, but due only to lack of time. We have spun and dyed some, and some has been felted, with several scarves made. However, the fleeces have been kept safe and dry, and we have done the calculations for sending them off for milling and then selling the resultant yarn. In theory, and from experience, there is a profit to be made, so alpacas have definitely been a good decision for us – we have just had to adjust our plans slightly to make it happen.

Summing up, they are easy to keep. We vaccinate yearly, with additional worm and mite jabs at regular intervals. We have only had one accident – one of the adults stepped on a cria’s leg, causing what we thought was a break. The vet was called, X-rays taken and a cast applied, although it was thought not to be too serious. We certainly appreciated the strength of the maternal bond during that episode, having to include the mother in everything we did with the cria. Come rain or shine they have always been perfectly happy to use the shelters – or not – as they felt fit. In summer they enjoy sitting under a water sprayer, and love a paddle, using their front legs to splash water over themselves to cool down.

By looking at our requirements and listing them, then comparing various livestock, we were able to identify the best option for our individual needs. Alpacas seemed to fit the bill, and I for one am very glad those ticks went against their names.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in: Alpacas & Llamas

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