What is the difference between alpacas and llamas?

Alpacas and llamas both come from a group of 4 animals belonging to the Camelid species.

Llamas Vs Alpacas

Alpacas are the smallest domesticated camelid and were treasured by the ancient Inca civilisation. There are currently about 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean Altiplano region of Peru, Chile and Bolivia.

Llamas are about twice the size of alpacas and have banana shaped ears. Their fleece is much coarser than alpaca and they are mainly bred as pack animals.

Vicuñas are the wild cousins of the alpacas, are found in Northern Chile and Peru, and produce the finest fleece of all the camelids.

Guanacos are the wild cousin of the llama and live predominately in Southern Chile. They also produce a fine fleece.

What types of alpaca do we have in New Zealand?
There are currently around 20,000 alpacas in New Zealand. Of these about 90 % are huacaya and 10% are suri.

The Huacaya is the most common type of alpaca and has a dense soft fleece, growing an average of 80–120 mm in length over a year.

The Suri has a lustrous, tasseled fleece that hangs down in dreadlocks from the body, creating an amazing curtain of tightly spiraled ringlets.

The fleece of both huacaya and suri comes in any one of the five main colors: black, brown, gray, fawn and white. Within these core colors, there are a multitude of individual shades of light, medium and dark; and patterns of roan, rose, multi, pinto, appaloosa or fancy (multi-coloured).

The Huacaya fleece is more suited to the production of high-end woolen goods, such as sweaters, jumpers, overcoats, ponchos, throws, blankets, socks, etc. while the Suri produces an excellent silky cloth, suitable for shawls, suits, and high quality women’s clothing.  The best use for the fleece is usually determined by the quality (fineness, softness and lustre).

Alpaca terms
Male – Machos
Female – Hembra
Castrated male – Wether
Baby Alpaca – Cria
Birthing – Unpacking
How long do alpacas live?
Alpacas can live for over 20 years and females can continue to breed for many years as long as they are fit and well. They may produce 10 – 12 offspring (cria) in their lifetime.
How much space do alpacas need?
This will depend on what sort of pasture you have. NZ pastures can usually carry up to 50% more alpacas than equivalent sheep.  However this depends on the status of the alpaca –  for example pregnant females need more feed than wethers (castrated males). Keeping this in mind you may be able to have 6-9 alpacas per acre on your property.  With good pasture management and feeding of supplementary hay when required, you may be able increase your stocking rate.

Alpacas can also bond well with other livestock but large aggressive dogs may be a threat to them as well as cattle.  Some livestock, for example sheep, have the same internal parasites and may increase the worm burden in your animals.

Can you keep males and females together?
Once a female alpaca becomes pregnant she no longer wants anything to do with the male so the females and ‘entire’ males are kept separately.  Wethers however are happy to be companion animals for females and their cria.
How many should I buy to start with?
You should start with at least 2 and preferably 3 alpacas. They are very sociable herd animals and they suffer mental and emotional deprivation if they are on their own.  This can lead to the development of undesirable or aggressive behavior.
Do you need special fencing?
Any fencing that is adequate for sheep (not electric or with barbed wire) is satisfactory.  Alpacas do not usually jump fences but can easily clear a standard fence if they are spooked by something unexpected.  Entire males will sometimes jump fences to reach a desirable female and for this reason deer fencing or special camelid mesh fencing (higher than standard fence but not quite as high as deer fencing) is recommended if you have to keep entire males and receptive females in adjacent paddocks.

It is also important to have a small yard or you can start with a portable pen made of 4 gates that fit together (sheep hurdles). If your alpacas are fed (with alpaca pellets) in the pen they will become very easy to catch when required.

It is essential that shade trees are available in each paddock as alpacas with a full fleece can overheat on very hot days in spring and summer (before their annual shearing).

What do alpacas eat?
Alpacas are principally grazers but enjoy casual browsing like goats. They are highly adapted to eat small amounts of a variety of plants. They chew their cud like a cow and their digestive system is somewhere between a horse and a cow.

Although they have evolved to survive in very harsh conditions they do best on good quality pasture. They enjoy meadow and lucerne hay and also alpaca nuts (but not more than ½ cup of these per day as these are a very concentrated feed). Do not feed your alpacas any form of grain-based foods (these include multi nuts, horse nuts, pig nuts or bread). These can lead to ulcers  in their gut and possible death.

Some gardens contain a number of common plants that are toxic to most livestock. These include oleander, rhododendron, irises, buxus hedging and ngaio trees. Although alpacas usually avoid plants that are toxic to them, they are curious animals, have long necks and may be able to reach overhanging branches from trees in the adjacent paddocks.  Prunings and dead plants are just as toxic as the live specimens. (If you belong to the Alpaca Association NZ you will have a “Paddock Card for Toxic Plants”)

Your alpacas need to have access to good quality, fresh drinking water. They don’t drink much in the winter but they do drink up to 2 litres a day over summer when the weather is very hot.

Are they easy to look after?
Alpacas do not get bloat, flystrike or footrot and are easy care compared with other stock. Maintenance for alpacas includes annual shearing and vaccination, trimming toenails, worming and vitamin A, D & E injections.
What diseases do they get?
They are prone to Rye Grass Staggers (which can be avoided through choice of pasture) and to Facial Eczema which can be fatal (the risk can be reduced by feeding zinc pellets in the high risk season or by spraying paddocks with fungicide).
Do alpacas make good pets?
Generally the more alpacas are handled when they are young, the quieter they will be as adults. If you buy alpacas for pets, make sure that they are halter trained. This will ensure that they are easy to handle when you need to catch them for health maintenance checks. Although they look very cuddly, most alpacas do not like being touched, especially around their head and face.
Do they kick or bite?
Alpacas are sensitive around their back legs and if touched unexpectedly they will instinctively kick.  You can learn how to approach them in order to touch their hind legs and feet (for toenail trimming) without being kicked.

It is very rare for an alpaca to bite a person.

I’ve heard that lamas spit. Do alpacas spit as well?
Alpacas spit at each other to establish and maintain their position in the herd. It is quite rare for alpacas to spit at humans.  However you can be on the receiving end if you get caught between two squabbling alpacas.
How often do alpacas need to be shorn?
Alpacas are shorn once a year, usually in spring or at the beginning of the summer.  They are usually restrained on a “shearing table” where first one side is shorn, then they are turned over to do the other side. Equipment is the same as for sheep.  Each alpaca takes 10-15 minutes.
When can females be mated?
Alpacas are induced ovulators (they do not have a cycle) and can be mated at any time if not pregnant.
Female alpacas can start breeding at 12 months if they weigh over 40 Kgs and are ready for mating. Males do not start working until 2-3 years of age.

Gestation is 11–12 months (or 335 days) and the females usually deliver their cria between 9am and 4 pm on fine days. A cria weighs between 5–8 Kg.

What can you do with the fleece?
The quality of the fleece from each alpaca varies depending on breeding (genetic factors), age and the condition of the alpaca.  The fineness of the fibre slowly decreases with age.  There are different uses for alpaca fibre depending on the fineness (micron). Options are:

  • You can process the fleece yourself in order to spin into yarn
  • You can sell your superior fleeces to local spinners
  • You can have your own fleece processed (by a mill) into yarn to use or sell
  • You can sell your raw fleece to one of several buyers who collect and accumulate large quantities of fibre in order to fill large overseas orders
  • You can make your own felted or woven products for sale
Useful information & links
If you are a member or you join the Alpaca Association New Zealand you will be able to access information about the History of Alpacas, Health and Husbandry, Breeding and Genetics, Alpaca Fibre and much, much more.