Alpacas are unique
Alpacas are unique. They can be likened to many species but are not the same as anything else. More importantly, they are a prey species; more like a horse than a dog or cat. As a prey species alpacas are very stoic. ie they will hide illness in order to stay alive. It is fair to say most new alpaca owners have never kept livestock before. It is important to buy from someone you like and who will support you for the long term.
How to keep alpacas healthy and happy
In the early days of alpaca ownership we did what everyone else did. It soon became obvious that one rule did not fit all situations. We questioned everything we did and looked for a better way wherever possible. At times, we knew our alpacas were not keen on what we were doing to them. Allowing them to exhibit natural behaviour and to learn from them is a real priviledge and the cornerstone of good management skills. Every alpaca is different and there are many ways to achieve the same result. We choose the nice way and we hope some of the things we have adopted may help others.
Stockmanship is the ability to look after animals well. Training leads to knowledge and awareness leads to understanding. If you do not look you will not find. If you do not understand what you are looking at you will not be able to remedy.
If you were an alpaca what would you need (or not need) to be happy? Most questions can be answered by putting yourself in their shoes. Stress can be chronic and long term or acute and short term. Small amounts of short term stress can be beneficial but chronic stress leads to an impaired immune system which can lead to illness and disease. Stress can be caused by an alpaca’s environmental (eg. overstocking), be physiological (eg pregnancy, change in herd status, poor diet), psychological (fear of handling, bullying by other alpacas).
Reduce competition for resources
Providing fields as large as possible enables natural roaming behaviour. Alpacas have their own routines and like space to roam in a herd environment.
We provide more feed troughs than we need for each group and feed them in a circle so more submissive animals do not miss their daily mineral supplement. Consider feeding them separately in catch pens if you have a small number of alpacas. Hay is available in several places for the same reason. More submissive animals can be pushed out by dominant animals, especially when grass availability is poor during winter months.
There needs to be enough natural and man made shelter for at least every animal. If the herd is growing then this needs to be taken into account. Alpacas spend a significant amount of time cushed and there must be somewhere dry for them to sit without being too close together. Light, open and airy spaces help to reduce stress. Alpacas prefer not to be confined.
Alpacas should be kept with alpacas of the same sex. Young boys are best placed with friendly older boys or wethers when weaned. This helps them to feel safe away from their mothers. It also allows for correct social interaction with other alpacas.
Keeping females together allows family interaction and heirarchy. Yearling alpacas will continue to learn from their mothers and be present at calvings. The hierarchy changes within the herd according to age, social standing and pregnancy status. Allowing the changes within the herd to occur naturally will minimise overall herd stress.
Alpacas in a field are at home. They should feel safe and be able to relax without interference. We never try to catch our alpacas in their fields. Our alpacas don’t mind us wandering amongst them, even when sat down, because they know they won’t be cornered and grabbed. Moving animals from one area of the farm to another via 8 foot wide races prevents chasing and stressful situations.
On our farm, alpacas walk happily into the handling area which is a system of several large pens and some smaller pens. We also have a specially designed catch pen with weigh scales in the bottom. Animals are moved aorund this circular system so they always stay with their herd mates. All husbandry tasks are completed safely in a catch pen of suitable size for the task.
Each group of alpacas should stay together at all times. We use Camelidynamics principles when around alpacas. They are never grabbed around the neck, forcibly picked up or restrained by holding on tight!
Case Study – overcoming fear and gaining trust
In 2002, Ebony was an imported alpaca who was 5 years old when we bought her. In her past we knew she had had skin problems which had been successfully treated. She was the oldest in the group and very wary of people. We were shown how to catch an alpaca and trim its toe nails. We understood this to be a 2 person job. The other 4 alpacas at the time did not mind this too much but when we went to catch Ebony (around the neck) she panicked. She threw her head about, evaded us and kicked out. Clearly this was awful for all of us. I decided to try horse tactics. I approached her shoulder and stopped close to her. She did not move and actually turned her head and looked at me. We both breathed a sigh of relief and this was our eureka moment. I faced towards the back end, ran my hand down her leg and she let me pick up her foot and trim her nails. I could not believe it and I suspect neither could she. I will never forget that moment when she put her trust in me. She has passed her trust in me to her cria over the years too. Now, our alpacas run about on the concrete floor of our barn regularly which minimises the need to trim toes nails at all. There is always another way.