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Alpacas Are Awesome

Here, a dozen reasons why alpacas are a fine choice for people considering a later-in-life agricultural career or hobby.

1. An alpaca is easier (and on an annual basis, cheaper) to care for than a dog: Alpacas don't need much food: A single one typically eats about a bale of hay a month. The approximate yearly cost: $100 a year. Clean hay, water, and fresh grass in a pasture are essentially all this animal needs. Although alpacas require vaccinations and routine parasite preventatives, they are considered to be virtually disease-resistant animals. Veterinary bills are minimal. Another plus: Unlike dogs, alpacas can be left unattended for a few days, such as when their owners are traveling.

2. Alpacas are not llamas: Although both are camelids and share the South American continent as their ancestral home, alpacas are about half the size of llamas. Adult alpacas usually stand about 3 feet from the ground to their shoulders and weigh between 150 and 200 pounds. Llamas were bred as pack and guard animals, but the intended purpose of the alpaca, which was first imported into the United States in 1984, is entirely as a fiber producer. Their fiber—or fleece—is warmer, lighter and less itchy than wool. Huacaya (pronounced wah-KI-ya) alpacas grow short, dense, wooly, or fluffy-looking fiber. The fleece of the less common Suri alpaca is silkier and often hangs like dreadlocks.

3. Alpacas can stand the heat, and the especially the cold: Because they're indigenous to the mountains of Peru, alpacas take snow and freezing temperatures in stride. Their heavy coats protect them in the winter, and so long as they are sheared before summer, they do fine in the heat. (However, on really hot days, alpacas do appreciate being able to cool off in a wading pool.) Alpaca ranches exist in diverse climates throughout the United States. Visit the Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association to find one near you.

4. Alpacas are easy to house: They don't need large parcels of land; up to 10 can live on one acre. As for shelter, although the animals wouldn't refuse a decked-out stable with proper doors, windows, and a roof, all alpacas really need is a three-sided dwelling with a covering to protect them from the wind and rain. They won't jump fences, but alpacas do need to be fenced so they don't wander or become dinner for a coyote or other predator.

5. Alpacas "potty train" themselves: Alpaca herds select a spot—such as in their pasture or barn—and that's where they relieve themselves. (Yes, all of them use the same location.) Hence, cleanup is relatively easy, as is avoiding an unpleasant misstep.

6. Alpacas need minimal grooming: Because alpaca fleece has no lanolin, their coats don't get sticky or matted. Alpacas occasionally need to have their nails clipped, but they don't have to be brushed or washed. Any mud that gets on them dries, and they shake it off. However, they should be sheared annually, typically before the peak heat of summer.

7. Alpacas are good lawnmowers: They nibble the tips of grass instead of pulling the blades from their roots. On the downside: Alpacas don't like weeds, so they aren't good weed-whackers. 

8. Alpacas are environmentally friendly: Because alpacas have soft, padded feet and toenails (like a dog) rather than hard hooves (like a cow), they don't tear up pastures. Their pellet-sized droppings make good fertilizer that doesn't need to be aged, and unlike wool, alpaca fleece doesn't require chemical cleaning during processing.

9. Alpacas don't bite: They don't have incisors or upper teeth, so they essentially can't bite. However, alpacas can chomp and they do spit. On the plus side, they generally spit only when they're mad or scared, and such ire is usually directed at fellow alpacas and other animals.

10. Alpacas can ride in cars: Because they're the size of a large dog (albeit a very large dog with a very long neck), an alpaca can be transported short distances in a minivan or sport utility vehicle. Just walk them in and they sit down—no cage, carrier, pick-up truck, or trailer needed.

11. Alpacas are useful all their lives: The typical alpaca lifespan is 15 to 20 years, and alpacas can provide fleece regardless of their age.

12. Alpacas make good neighbors and good pets: They're friendly, cute, and quiet. (The standard alpaca sound is a soothing hum.) The only time alpacas make a racket is when they think they're in danger. In those instances, they honk!

Are you now thinking about getting an alpaca? If the answer is yes, know that you'll need at least two. Alpacas are herd animals, so they like company.

For more information, visit Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association and Ideal Alpaca Community.

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