The majority of new alpaca breeders come to this industry with little or no agricultural or livestock background. Many will spend time researching and learning about the animals, yet overlook the importance of preparing your pastures and facilities for the task of caring for your alpacas.
“Look Before You Leap”
Before you purchase that perfect piece of property for your future alpaca farm, do your research. Does the current zoning designation allow agricultural activities? Does the neighborhood impose any mandatory restrictive covenants that would prohibit your animals or conducting a business from your future farm site? Some arid western states impose restrictions on various uses of well and spring water for agricultural uses. Even if you can raise alpacas on a particular location, are there any restrictions on how many you can have there? Animal Density Units (ADU’s), usually expressed as a maximum number of certain types of animals that can be raised on a single acre, may be mandated by your county zoning department. (For example, a county zoning plan may forbid having more than 2 horses or 4 sheep per acre on your property.) Many counties have specific limitations for horses, cows, sheep, goats and perhaps llamas, but will almost certainly have no specific guidelines for alpacas. As a result, you may need to educate your county zoning department about why this wonderful, low impact, earth-friendly animal should not be compared to other livestock. Some states or counties may also categorize alpacas as “exotic animals,” rather than as “agricultural livestock,” thereby raising the possibilities of additional legal restrictions on your activities. Almost none of the restrictions mentioned above are insurmountable, and most are merely the result of people’s unfamiliarity with alpacas. Many problems can be resolved with a little education and a visit from a well-trained, lovable yearling.
County Extension Offices
Your local county Cooperative Extension Agronomist can be an invaluable tool in setting up your property. They may be listed under “Cooperative Extension” in the white pages of your phone book or under the County Government listing of phone numbers. If you find no listings in these locations, call your state Land Grant University for the County Agent’s phone number, name and location. Some counties are small and may be grouped together under the guidance of one Extension Agent.
Your state Land Grant University (where the Cooperative Extension is based) offers free or low cost publications that can assist you in planning shelters, manure management, parasite control, local trees/shrubs, beneficial herbs, etc. Take advantage of these publications. Your Cooperative Extension Agent/Agronomist can also assist you with obtaining soil, hay, water, and pasture analysis. He can also advise you about general soil conditions in your locale, noxic and toxic plants in your area, and advise you on the types of grasses that thrive in your area.
Many Cooperative Extension Programs also offer small acreage management consultant training programs. Typically, they are 40 hour training programs covering topics such as warm and cool grasses, pasture rotation, manure management, pesticide control, noxious and toxic weeds and wind breaks. Once you are trained, they will expect you to donate 40 hours of your time to teach and consult with others. Help yourself while you help others in the process.
Planning Your Pasture and Paddock Needs
You will probably need more separate pastures areas and paddocks than you think. For any pasture or paddock area that will receive heavy use, try to plan your areas so that you can give the area at least a month’s break sometime during the growing season in order to allow the area to regenerate. It’s much harder to regenerate an area once its been overgrazed and the weeds have taken over.
So, how many paddock areas will you need?
Breeding and stud paddocks. Are you going to field breed (therefore needing one pen for each stud) or hand breed (with most or all your males kept together in one large paddock when not breeding)?
Weaning paddocks. Young alpacas should be weaned sometime between 4 and 7 months of age, depending on the weight of the weanling (preferably at least 50 lbs.), the condition of their dam (a few dams may become dangerously emaciated due to the nutritional load of a large nursing cria), the weanling’s emotional readiness, and the schedule of his or her weaning companions (misery loves company, and it’s often a good idea to wean several animals at the same time, even if that means delaying one animal’s weaning and hastening another’s).
Young male pen. When the young males are weaned, they can then be removed to a young male paddock. Few males become sexually mature before 18 months of age, however there are recorded instances of males successfully impregnating a female as early as 9 months of age. This has almost always happened as a result of pasturing young weanling males and females together. Because an unplanned pregnancy for an undersized and physically immature female weanling can present a number of dangers, it is best to separate these males into their own pen.
Mid term gestation pastures. The largest group of animals on many farms is the females that have been confirmed to be pregnant and who, together with their nursing offspring, can now be removed from their breeding pens.
Late gestation “maternity ward.” It is often a good idea to have a very safe pen close to your house, where you can keep a close watch of any females that are within 30 or 45 days of their projected due date. At times, you can combine your late gestation, weaning and underweight animals together in one paddock as their nutritional demands and observational needs are similar.
Fencing and Layout for Each Pasture and Paddock Area
Remember that the purpose of fencing is more to keep other animals out of the pasture, than to keep your alpacas in the pasture. By nature, most alpacas (with the possible exception of the love-starved herdsire and the newly separated weanling) are not likely to challenge a fence. So, your exterior fencing needs to be chosen based upon the type of fencing necessary to keep your local predators or parasitic host animals at bay. Typically, however, except in areas with mountain lions or areas with white-tail deer, a four or five-foot high wire fence with relatively small mesh squares (small enough that young cria cannot fit their heads through the squares) is quite adequate. In addition, remember that your gates will also need to be predator-proof. Most farm stores sell a “wire-filled” gate that has a pre-installed wire mesh covering over the face of the gate’s larger horizontal bars.
As for the layout of your pastures and paddock areas, that will all too often be dictated by the existing facilities on your farm or the topography of the area. But, remember that at some point in time, you will almost certainly be alone at your farm and will need to move animals from one paddock to another by yourself. You will want to set up the layout of your fencing to accommodate this task efficiently. That generally means either having each paddock area empty into a central location (like the spokes of a wheel), or having a narrow “runway” that abuts and accesses each paddock area. And, you will find it much easier to gather the animals in a paddock if the paddock has a long, but narrow, shape rather than a large square expanse around which your wily alpacas can run you ragged.
For that same reason, each paddock area should have a conveniently placed “catch pen” area, that is a very small (perhaps no more than 16 feet square) inner pen into which the alpacas in the paddock can be run, the “catch pen” can then be closed up, and a single person can easily catch and restrain an alpaca. Temporary catch pens can be set up with special, light weight corral panels that are especially designed for use with alpacas and llamas and which can be ordered through supply catalogues. While the flexibility that these panels affords the breeder is very handy, they are expensive – approximately $50 per 9-foot panel. On the other end of the spectrum, commercial horse and cattle panels work fine and are readily available both new and used. Yet their cumbersome weight makes them best for situations where they will not need to be moved often. Another option for constructing semi-permanent catch pens is to use 16-foot “combination” or “hog” panels that work great with the green t-bars or posts for anchoring. Combination panels cost less than $15 each, and their only real drawback is that it is inconvenient to have to pull up the t-bars should you need to move the catch pen.
Barns and Shelters
A good rule of thumb is that most barns, other than the occasional Northeastern dairy barn, are almost always 25 to 50 percent too small. When building a barn, make sure to plan ahead. Will the barn house only animals and hay? Will you have a separate vet room? If you are going to store equipment in the barn, make sure you position doorways to create a minimum of disruption when moving equipment in and out of the barn. If you can build a solid wall enclosing the area for equipment storage this would be best, in order to reduce gasoline and oil smells, and noise created by starting up machinery. Plan on how you want to move animals in and out of the barn and to switch to different paddock areas. Do you want to use any of the barn for training, weighing, vetting or herd management work? Plan adequate lighting to help you see more clearly when working with the animals and assessing fiber, although it is amazing how much natural light the translucent side and roof panels can let into a barn even on overcast days!
There are many different opinions in the industry on the best flooring for barns and shelters, and in fact it appears that each substance has its benefits and its drawbacks – otherwise some clear preference among the various breeders should have emerged by now. Some breeders prefer concrete floors with drains that enable you to hose the entire area down to clean. But, scraping frozen manure (poopsicles?) off concrete is not a great way to pass your winter, and concrete retains the cold worse than any other substance. Would you like to sit on cold concrete all night? A 6-inch layer of graduated rock and sand can provide excellent drainage. And, although the use of sand is discouraged by the Alpaca Fiber Co-op, it has not seemed to affect the ultimate quality of the fleece – it simply needs to be blown from the fleeces prior to shearing and tends to dull shearing blades much more quickly. Limefines, residual limestone “shakes,” are great to use as it readily absorbs urine and odors. Some people caution that it can cause burns or bad skin reactions on some alpacas stomachs, but we have used limefines mixed with sand and dirt for years and have never experienced a problem. In certain parts of the country, limefines can be hard to find and are very expensive, but in other parts of the U.S., where limestone is more plentiful, it is a very inexpensive product to use.
In the Winter, to help provide warmth in our animals shelters, we use straw and old hay for bedding. This can create a nightmare for the first year fleeces, but it typically works it way out well before shearing time if you remove the bedding in March and shear in May. Wood shavings, however, seem to take a much longer time to work their way out of the fleece and can be very unsightly.
The Three-Sided Shelter
Alpacas are very hardy animals and their fiber provides great insulation against cold temperatures and wind. In the vast majority of environmental conditions, enclosed barns are not absolutely essential and are more for the comfort of the humans working with the alpacas. So, while barns are great, not every budget can afford one.
An entirely adequate compromise is the modest three-sided shelter, large enough and deep enough to accommodate the maximum number of animals likely to be in that paddock area. A few hard-earned tips will make your three-sided shelter that much more effective: (1) Face the opening of the shelter on the side opposite the prevailing winter winds. (2) Most alpacas are skittish about going into the back of a deep enclosure and are even more reluctant to step over another alpaca seated in the doorway of a shelter. Therefore, position your rectangular shelters so that one of the widest sides contains the door, which is wide enough so that several alpacas can come and go at a time. Otherwise, the first alpaca will position herself in a narrow doorway, and all latecomers to the shelter will be forced to settle down just outside the shelter door! (3) It’s great to have a slanted roof on your shelters so that water and snow cannot accumulate, but be sure to make the height of the rear wall tall enough so that you don’t bump your head if you walk to the rear of the shelter! (4) In extremely cold weather, you can attach a large tarp to the front in order to partially close off the door and thereby reduce the heat loss out of the shelter. With an ample amount of straw on the ground for bedding, and by putting their hay tubs in the rear of the shelter to encourage them to stay indoors, it’s amazing how toasty warm a shelter with 10 alpacas can be even in severe winter weather.
Vet Room. While an enclosed barn with a separate room for vet work is the best option, a corner of your garage can work great. In any event, its very handy to have some dry, warm location where you can work with the animals and house a sick one. It’s preferable to have the vet room close to the house in order to provide close observation for sick animals, especially if you are up every several hours at night bottle feeding! A floor drain is great and makes clean up significantly easier. Likewise, the walls should have a high gloss paint or bathroom stall lining for easy clean up after spitting. In addition to your normal vetting equipment and scales, its nice to equip the vet room (or a nearby closet), with your supplies, a small dorm size refrigerator for storing medicines and a white board for hastily scribbled notes and weights. (You can use shower stall lining from the hardware store in place of white board and avoid the high price of office supply stores.)
Other Basic Equipment
Waterers. Alpacas need a constant supply of fresh water, which can be supplied by small buckets (the rubber ones do not freeze and crack in the winter), or large stock tanks. While you might think that the larger containers will save you labor, the opposite can be true. Alpacas tend to dip their neck fiber in the water when they drink (especially in the summertime), and their neck therefore picks up more and more dirt. Your stock tank quickly fills with cloudy, muddy water long before the animals have drunk even a tenth of the water, and you are left with the task of emptying that large amount of water (what a waste!) and then cleaning and refilling the tank.
In the winter, you can certainly get by with rubber buckets refilled frequently before they freeze, but the alpacas benefit greatly from having warm water to drink. There are safe, heater coils or self-contained heated buckets on the market that work quite well. But, one of the greatest labor-saving and healthful improvements for your alpacas is the installation of electric, automatic waterers. One tip: If you can afford it, don’t skimp here. The better waterers will be easy to clean (some come with a stainless steel bowl that clips off for easy handling) and will not overflow. The less expensive models that work with a cutoff valve triggered by what looks like a toilet float need to be installed absolutely level, and preferably on a concrete pad, in order to avoid overfilling. The better waterers will also be rust resistant. The amount of time you can spend cleaning, sanding, priming, painting, leveling, repairing and adjusting the less expensive waterers can justify the greater front-end expense of the better models.
Hay trough. Again, there are many different types of hay feeders in use by breeders, from simple plastic tubs, to traditional sheep and horse feeders, to elaborate designs that promise to cut down on the alpaca’s natural inclination to pick through the hay, eat the choice parts, and then drop the stems and stalks on the ground. Whatever system you try, stay away from the horse-height feeders that hold a large amount of hay in a “V”-shaped rack suspended a few feet above a lower tray. Invariably, the animals will pull the hay from the rack and it will fall to the tray below. Then, as one alpaca eats from the lower tray, another will continue to pull hay form the upper rack, sending a shower of hay dust and bits down on the neck of the other alpaca. By shearing time, the neck fiber will be a matted and ruined. If you must use these feeders, use only the bottom tray to hold hay.
Grain and Minerals Feeders. The best feeders we have found are also the least expensive! Vinyl rain gutters or large PVC piping that has been sliced into two open halves can be easily mounted on fences, shelters (inside or out) and barns, thereby providing even the more submissive alpacas in the herd with their own chance to “belly up to the bar!” (See the Chapter on Nutrition for a in-depth discussion of why “line feeding” is preferable to “piles” of feed.)
Digital Veterinary Scales. A must for every serious breeder! Alpacas are stoic animals that rarely show overt signs of illness on the rare occasion when something is bothering them. And their huge mass of dense fiber can easily hide an anemic, even emaciated body. Unfortunately, especially when used with new-born crias, a bathroom scale or sling style scale is often not accurate enough to confidently measure changes of a ½ pound or less. A digital vet scale, on the other hand, weighs in .2 lbs. increments. A substantial investment to be sure, but the early detection of one sick alpaca or at-risk cria, and these scales have paid for themselves! Great digital scales can be purchased for about $800; see the Resource Appendix for some of the best deals on very good scales.
Feed Storage. Stainless steel trash cans on a dolly or roller allow you to keep your grain and pellets safe from mice (its amazing how easily mice can chew right through a thick vinyl garbage can!) and lets you move full cans easily.
Manure and Hay Wheelbarrows. Always use separate wheelbarrows for feeding and for manure collection in order to better control the spread of parasites! We like a wide base, large 2-wheel cart that can carry several bales of hay at a time. For manure collection, the heavy duty “Rubbermaid” type wheelbarrows hold up much better than metal ones.
Manure grinder and spreader. Definitely not an essential piece of equipment, but a gas powered manure vacuum grinds manure like espresso grinds. This is great to use when applying ‘paca droppings as fertilizer as it assimilates more quickly into the soil. Likewise, a ground driven, small manure spreader can also be pulled by a riding lawn mower or small tractor.
Riding Garden Mower. A 20-hp riding lawn mower not only can mow your lawn and small pastures, but pulls most of the small equipment you might use for the ranch: disker, fertilizer broadcaster, manure vacuum/grinder, manure spreader.
Tractors and PTO Attachments. While not absolutely necessary for many small-scale alpaca operations, there are times a small tractor with the right attachments can save a lot of physical labor and a tremendous amount of time – you may wish to go with a blade, bucket, rototiller, post hole digger, etc.
Copyright 1999 – All “ABC” Alpaca Buyers’ Clinic materials are protected by federal copyrights held by The Fireweed Ranch, Ltd. Any reproduction or commercial use of these materials beyond the limited use license issued to the purchaser of the “ABC” Alpaca Buyers’ Clinic Kit, without the express written permission of the Ranch and/or the author, is strictly prohibited by federal copyright law.
About the Author: Teri Phipps and Dave Schieferstein of Fireweed Farms Alpacas have been an integral part of the alpaca industry since 1993 and have been providing education and assistance to new owners and breeders for almost that long. The above article is excerpted from the textbook for their acclaimed seminar series: "ABC Alpaca Buyers Clinic ( --The Building Blocks of the Alpaca Industry.)" Fireweed Farms is currently located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and will begin moving to Richmond, Virginia by the end of the 2003.
Visit Fireweed Farms at www.fireweed-ranch.com or our AlpacaNation farm site.