Alpaca is a Spanish word derived from the Aymara name allpacu. The Aymara Peoples of South America, along with the Quechua Indians are the traditional owners of alpacas. These peoples existed in the highlands (or altiplano) of South America long before the rise of the Roman Empire, and they still today, farm alpacas.
The beautiful soft, cashmere-like fleece of the alpaca was used in the garments of Incan Royalty and archeologists have discovered mummies in ancient burial sites still robed in alpaca garments. Alpacas began to be imported from South America in 1984 by those adventuresome American farmers who desired a new type of livestock. In 1997, importation of alpacas was closed, and the building of a national herd was begun. We are still in the process of building that herd, with numbers now just above 100,000.
Alpacas are fleece producers, and unlike sheep, their wool is free of lanolin, therefore making it less of a problem for those people who cannot wear wool clothing against their skin. Their fiber is sought by high-end garment producers all over the world.
Alpacas are gentle, intelligent creatures who are easy to handle. They are shy by nature, but curious and will approach people if they do not feel threatened. They live in family groups and are not suitable for being separated from other alpacas. Their padded feet do not make ruts in the terrain, unlike cows and horses. The alpaca is the most color-diverse fiber producing animal in the world, with 22 colors in varying shades. They stand approximately 36 inches tall at the withers, and have a teddy bear like appearance.
Alpacas are shorn once a year, but otherwise subsist on grassy pastures, small amounts of specialized alpaca feed mixes, and hay. Generally speaking, one can raise six alpacas per acre, but in milder, wetter climates with an abundance of fresh pasture, ten or more might be suitable.