The Art of …..Alpaca Farming

When people think of Dutchess County, NY they often think of scenic views with lush fields, deep woods, and babbling streams as well as its delicious restaurants and delightful specialty stores.  Few realize that Dutchess County also has alpaca farms where residents can interact with alpacas and buy goods made from their fiber.  Alpacas are adorable, friendly animals that resemble llamas.  They are fiber animals – their fiber is used to create a variety of products, including hats, blankets, sweaters, purses, socks and boot inserts.

Only a limited number of farms raise alpacas in New York.  Since fiber is particularly important, farmers need to be very selective when choosing alpacas to breed.  They attend shows all over the country to identify alpacas with the highest quality of fiber.  Alpacas come in 22 official colors although specialty colors, such as champagne and maroon, are also possible.  This allows for a variety of color options for products without having to dye the fiber.  The fiber from alpacas is hypoallergenic, warmer than wool, and odor resistant.

Alpaca’s have their fiber shorn once a year usually in the Spring.  The fiber is then sorted into categories and cleaned of all debris.  The fiber can then be used in a variety of ways – often to produce yarn and / or clothing.  The blankets (the fiber on the midsection) are used  in knitwear whereas thirds are used in items such as boot inserts or purses.  Typically, an average alpaca produces 5 – 10 pounds of fiber.

Alpaca’s generally give birth to one baby, called a cria.  Gestation takes 11.5 months.  Pregnancy is confirmed with a spit test.  When a female isn’t interested in breeding because she is already pregnant, she spits at the male to tell him to go away.  While they are not 100% accurate, they are a very good indicator if an alpaca is pregnant.  Cria usually weigh  between 10- 20 pounds.   In the Northeast, cria are usually born between May – September.  Ours are due between May – July this year.

Alpaca farmers provide their herds with grain, hay and plenty of fresh water.  They live in barns or run-in sheds and they enjoy spending time outdoors.  They generally prefer winter to summer – they need fans to keep cool in the summer.  Typically farmers have at least an acre for every  10 alpaca so they have room to graze.  Alpacas are naturally pack animals and enjoy being around other alpacas.  You should never have just one alpaca.

Alpacas are naturally docile and curious.  They can be skittish if startled upon encountering a large group or an unknown circumstance.  However, if they are worked with at an early age, most are very friendly and will even let people walk them on leads.  They seem to recognize repeat visitors and often come to greet them.

This article originally appeared in The Art of ….. digital magazine