What llamas and alpacas can do for your homestead

What llamas and alpacas can do for your homestead
Photo by Gabor Degre

Hailing originally from the South American Andes, llamas and alpacas may seem like exotic additions to a homestead or small farm. But these camelids can be a natural fit for the homesteading lifestyle.

Though many people keep llamas and alpacas as pets, they are surprisingly versatile and can be used for everything from producing lustrous fiber to guarding other livestock.

“They’re easy keepers,” said Bill Franklin, a retired mammalian wildlife ecologist from Iowa State University. “They’re not very demanding. You just need to give them food, water and proper shelter.”

Here is what you need to know about llamas and alpacas before you add one to your small farm or homestead.

What is the difference between llamas and alpacas?

Llamas and alpacas are usually grouped together because they are both camelids (a member of the camel family) but there are some key differences between the two animals as well as differences in the uses they can have on your homestead.

“They are in the same family, and obviously they are both domesticated,” Franklin said. However, he explained that alpacas were originally domesticated as a producer of wool, while llamas were domesticated for backpacking in the High Andes.

As a result, there are some physiological differences between the two. While alpacas are known for their soft fleece, llamas have a thick double coat with a coarse outer layer. Llamas are also significantly larger than alpacas, almost double the weight and nearly a foot taller on average.

Uses for llamas and alpacas on a homestead

The main difference between llamas and alpacas, though, is how you would use them around your homestead. Franklin said there are some llamas who have been bred for finer wool, but given their ancient history as a fiber animal, alpaca wool reigns supreme.

“Alpaca fiber is better than wool,” said Lennie Foss, president of the New England Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. Foss owns 83 llamas on his breeding farm in West Newfield, Maine. “It’s 99 percent hypoallergenic. Most people who do quilting or work with the yarn that’s what they look for is the alpaca fiber.” Foss said alpacas can produce four to seven pounds of raw fiber a year.

Llamas, meanwhile, are used primarily as guard animals, especially against large predators like bobcats and coyotes.

“They’re a big animal, they stand right out and they don’t give ground. That cowers predators,” said Michael Sheridan, owner of Hemstreet Farm based in Elma, New York. “They’re very good with coyotes. Coyotes don’t come around [llamas]. They’re really fearful of them.”

Sheridan has raised llamas for about two decades and has had great success with them as guard animals. “They have this idea of belonging to a group or a herd and they protect everything that’s in their herd,” Sheridan said. “They’re excellent — better than dogs.”

For the most part, guard llamas can peacefully coexist with other animals after they have bonded to them.

“The only animal I had trouble with were guard dogs,” Sheridan said. “The guard dogs didn’t get along with the llamas because both sets of animals wanted to guard the other set and not be guarded.”

Franklin also said llamas make better pets, if that is why you are looking to have a camelid on your homestead.

“Llamas are good around children,” Franklin said. “They’re great pets. They’re so gentle, they’re used a lot in therapy in hospitals.”

There are some commonalities between the two camelids, though. Both llama and alpaca manure can be used as a rich fertilizer for your garden. As grazing animals, the two camelids are also both effective for pasture maintenance.

“They are very good at maintaining. It looks like a golf course out there,” Sheridan said of his llamas. “You don’t even know they’re down there. There is very little mess and very little smell.”

How to choose a llama or alpaca

Different breeds of llamas and alpacas will mostly vary by length and color of wool. “It’s all personal preference,” Foss said.

When it comes to buying llamas and alpacas, the experts agree that breed matters less than personality.

“Some [individual llamas and alpacas] are more friendly than others,” Foss said. “It’s all how much you interact with them on a daily basis. Some will come right up and nuzzle you. Some look at us [as if to] say, ‘I’m not getting near you.”

For camelids being used as guard animals, temperament matters especially.

“Look for llamas that have been previously trained,” Sheridan said. “When you’re buying a llama, you should be able to put the halter on the llama yourself. If you can’t do it on the farm where you’re buying it, you’ll never do it on your own farm.”

“If you’re buying a guard animal, get a castrated one or a female,” said Colt Knight, state livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Uncastrated males, he explained, are more likely to be distracted by their natural mating instincts. “If you just wanted your llamas or alpacas as guard animals, you can select your animals for less high quality wool.”

Both llama and alpacas should be kept with companions.

“For a small farm, llamas really need a companion,” he said. “If they’re going to buy more than one, make sure the llamas that you’re buying are compatible with one another. Llamas are very sensitive to status.”

Likewise, alpacas need the companionship.

“[Alpacas] are herd animals, so you definitely need at least three of them,” Foss said.

When minding the flock, however, Sheridan said that llamas should be assigned guard duty one at a time. “If you have two cops you might find them in a donut shop rather than a patrol car,” he said. “It’s the same with llamas.

What do you need to raise llamas and alpacas?

Alpacas and llamas do not require much land. Sheridan recommends two acres of pasture for up to a dozen llamas (a maximum of six llamas per acre), and Foss said you should have one acre of land for every six alpacas.

Sheridan said that llamas need some fencing, but it does not need to be especially strong or high. “I’ve got split rail fencing and that’s fine,” he said.

Because they are smaller, alpacas need a little more protection. “Make sure you have at least five-foot-high, no-climb wire fencing to keep any predators out,” Foss said.

The diet of an alpaca or llama is comprised primarily of grazed grass and hay with some oats during the winter and an occasional vitamin supplement.

“Just make sure you have no poisonous plants to alpacas that are in the field,” Foss said. Such plants include buttercup, azaleas, rhododendron and ragwort. “You also need second cut hay for your alpacas. First cut hay does not give alpacas the nutrition they need.”

Camelids are generally hardy, but they do require shelter from extreme temperatures. Many farmers use three-sided shelters for their llamas and alpacas to provide shade and shelter from the cold.

“The big thing is having a proper shelter for them where they can get in and out of the wind,” Foss said.

Llamas and alpacas also require routine care. Franklin said both llamas and alpacas should be sheared once a year in the early spring, though woolier breeds may need to be sheared twice a year.

“You might find somebody who can come in and shear them,” Sheridan added. Many owners shear their own llamas and alpacas, but you may want to have a professional shear your camelids if you do not have experience shearing wooly creatures. Sheridan also recommended having a professional shear your animals if you want to process the fiber to sell it to ensure the quality of the fine fleece.

Llamas and alpacas also have long toenails. Without the regular wear of Andean mountain climbing, they will need to be regularly trimmed.

“Like all animals, their whole body depends on how their feet and their legs operate,” Sheridan said. “Like us, their toenails grow and they have to be clipped. That’s something that should be done every three months or so.”

Owners can clip the toenails themselves, but it takes some practice. Though Sheridan said that toenail clipping gets easier as camelids develop a relationship with their owners, llamas and alpacas can panic when they have their feet touched, so the animals need to be tied or restrained. Stand behind the leg, lift the animal’s foot by bending the leg on the natural bend of the knee and clip the toenail with a proper tool (one designed expressly for clipping camelid toenails is best, though gardening shears also work well) until the toenails are in line with the natural pad of the foot.

Making sure your camelids have the proper vaccines is also important for their health. Check with your area livestock veterinarian to vaccinate your llamas and alpacas against rabies, tetanus and other common diseases.

Sheridan said to be especially careful about meningeal worm, which infects camelids’ nervous systems. He regularly has a vet provide shots and oral medication to deworm his llamas, which provide protection against the meningeal worm.

You do not need to be homesteading in the Andes for llamas to be a great addition to your livestock. With some care and consideration, these camelids might find a comfortable home on your homestead

  1. RUTH says

    Thank you Sam for this article. Are you going to continue to follow up with articles quarterly about the livestock you write about? There is so much involved at any level of raising and for what, no matter what you are breeding. I think the subject of culling needs to be addressed in all aspects of raising livestock. You have to cull to breed when you have a large operation. It’s a business. It’s Homesteading.

    1. Sarah Walker Caron says

      Hi Ruth, I’m Sam’s editor. We will be writing more stories about livestock, focusing on different aspects of selecting, raising, growing, etc. And we always welcome story ideas! Thanks for the tip on culling — we’ll add it to our potential story list.

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