Buying your first alpaca

What should you consider when buying alpaca for the first time?

Buying your first alpaca

It has been a few years since we purchased our first alpaca and I wish I knew then what I know now.

Don't get me wrong, I love our alpaca. They bring plenty of joy and we've had wonderful cria that have gone on to win prizes at shows. But I would have done things a little differently if I had read this article.

The challenge is knowing why you want to get into the world of alpaca and then being flexible enough to change direction once you have. Talking to other alpaca owners, some start with the notion of having some cute animals to keep the grass under control. Others want to build a business around them.

Over time, their herds grow, either with the addition of purchased alpaca, through breeding within the herd or mating with an external stud. Soon they became breeders and alpaca became a significant and wonderful part of their lives.

Very quickly you find your way. And for most alpaca owners, increasing the size of the herd, breeding for the perfect colour or aiming for a magnificent fleece quality are goals to aim for.

So what is a safe and reliable way to buy your first alpaca so that you make good decisions on day one?

A minimum herd size of three

The first question is the optimum herd size for alpaca.

Professional alpaca breeders will not sell you alpaca unless they'll be in a herd of three animals or more.

By herd, I mean the group they'll spend most of their time with. So one male and two female alpaca is a herd of one and another herd of two.

Herd size is essential for your alpacas wellbeing. We have systematically altered the size of our herd slowly, both increasing and decreasing, looking for behavioural variations. By having a herd in isolation and adjusting the number in the herd, it is easy to observe their individual responses.

Being both herd animals and prey in their natural environment, a small herd is generally a nervous herd. They share the responsibility of looking for danger and alerting the rest of the herd. This is especially important when they are vulnerable, such as eating, sleeping, or moving between territories.

So the smallest number of alpaca you should have is three. Maybe three males or three females. If you'd like both male and female, or find yourself in this position as new cria arrive, you'll be looking at a minimum of six alpaca. Three of each.

The positive results quickly show as this number increases. If your budget and land support four, or more, your alpaca will be happier in their larger herd. However beware of over stocking. Scarcity of resources, including space and food, can have the opposite effect.

How much to invest

Over time, depending on your land and infrastructure as well as the quality of alpaca you choose, it is likely that alpaca priced at the pet market will cost you several times more over their lifespan than their original purchase cost. Budget with this in mind, as fencing, water, shelter, food, veterinary bills and other essentials quickly add up.

If you are fortunate to have land that is immediately suitable, adequate shelters and all of the usual services in place, alpaca could be more affordable, especially with a larger herd where the economies of scale bring the overhead costs down.

If you are looking to generate an income from your alpaca, through fleece, stud services, breeding and sale of alpaca, you’ll benefit from starting with a higher quality alpaca on day one. Otherwise, you’ll need to work your way up through careful and calculated breeding, which is a slow process and can be uncertain.

Can wethers run with females?

My personal advice is no. We understood that they could when we first purchased our wethers. However there is evidence that the act of castration doesn't always change the natural instinct of the males who have been known to try mating with their female companions. The process is very private so it may go unnoticed for some time.

It is possible that this can cause your females distress and even physical harm.

So although views differ on this, we have observed first hand, as have others, that wethers should never be kept with female alpaca.

Full alpaca health record

Alpaca should receive routine health checks, nail clipping, shearing, vaccinations, body scoring and other regular checks.

Occasionally, they’ll require some medication, either as a precaution or to resolve a health issue. This may not be a concern if the problem is documented.

When buying an alpaca, ensure your breeder can provide a full and complete list of all interventions, medications and vaccinations as well as regular and appropriate interventions.

A full alpaca health record is an indication of a breeder that cares for their alpaca and records information for themselves and future owners. Be sure to check this before you make your purchase.

If you are buying a female alpaca with the purpose of mating, information such as how often they have given birth to a live cria and how quickly they become pregnant are very important. Your breeder will have this information and should be willing to share it with you.

Pay particular attention to any gaps or omissions. Late or incomplete data may be a concern. The same is true for irregular dosages of medication. This may not be an issue, so ask the breeder as there may be a good explanation. Your veterinarian specialist may be able to help you understand the alpaca health record and answer any of your questions.

Should you buy a pregnant alpaca?

Some breeders will sell you a pregnant alpaca. This is a great way to get two for one value from your purchase and you’ll have the joy and excitement of a cria in your herd from birth. There is nothing more adorable than a cria in its early weeks.

But buyer beware. Although alpaca births are generally hands off and routine for experienced mothers, be prepared to intervene if needed. The costs can add up quickly if you require a vet to assist you, so be sure to understand your role in the event that you are needed.

The alternative is to buy a female alpaca with a cria at foot. The cria is still drinking milk from the mother and the two are bonding, so you’ll experience seeing this very special period in their relationship.

An advantage of cria at foot is that you know the gender of the cria, the colour if this is important to your long term strategy and you’ll have comfort in knowing that both mother and cria are healthy.

Cria at foot typically comes at a higher price. However with the risk removed and the certainty about the cria in every way, it is the only option I would personally recommend for first time alpaca owners.

Sire, Dam and Progeny

If you are looking to register your alpaca with an association or other recognised registry, you’ll want to know details of the parents. If breeding from your alpaca is important to you, then DNA testing may also be necessary. Talk to your local association to see if this is a service they provide. It provides the association with a valuable revenue stream and helps you retain value in your herd. DNA testing is easy and quick and is essential to ensure your alpaca are recognised in the local, national and international market.