Imagine a plateau high in the Andes Mountains covered by nothing but South American camelids and shrubbery. Over the past twenty years, this picture has changed as some South American camelids have found new homes in the United States living very different lives than their predecessors.
The domesticated South American camelids – alpacas and llamas – are sprouting up on farms across the United States. Their intelligence and docile nature make them easy pets for agricultural settings.
Dr. Juan Romano, associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), says that South American camelid interest has increased over the years prompting new South American camelid curriculum for veterinary students.
“Alpacas and llamas are the two most common types of South American camelids in Texas,” Romano said. “Llamas are larger than alpacas with thicker wool. Alpacas’ wool is fine making it more suitable for sweaters and special suits. Alpacas also have ears that stick straight up, while llamas have ears that fold over like bananas.”
Romano says the low-maintenance nature of alpacas and llamas make them viable animals for those with limited agriculture and animal raising experience.
Romano adds that they also make great companion animals, because of their protective nature and their cat-like personality.
“In 2007, the Texas government allowed camelids to be used for livestock purposes so we saw an influx of South American camelids farm growth then,” Romano said. “Today, Texas is one of the most populated states with South American camelids, especially Alpacas.”
Prior to starting a South American camelid farm, it is advisable to speak with a veterinarian and do your research. Initial investment varies, but basic requirements are a simple shelter, fencing, forage, clean water, and fiber.
“Even though the initial investment may seem feasible, right now it is hard to fund a ranch in the United States, because our prices are not competitive with South American ranches cost of production,” Romano expressed. “It is important to do your research and understand the market before you invest in a farm.”
It is also important to remember South American camelids’ natural habitat before starting a new environment for them. Alpacas and llamas originated from the high altitudes of the Andes of Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. They were limited to grasslands of shrubbery and weather that is very dry and cold. It is important to try to keep them in an environment their bodies are accustomed to. If not, you can supply their environment with fans, shelter, etc.
“The Texas heat is an issue for alpacas and llamas,” Romano explained. “Some regions of Texas are at sea level and it is also very humid. Farmers should supply sprinklers, fans, and shade to avoid heat distress in their animals. Shearing once a year in the spring also helps alleviate heat distress.”
South American camelids are familiar with a shrubbery landscape for food. Romano suggests supplying them with adequate quality fiber found from forage. Owners in the United States tend to overfeed these camelids, because they are used to such limited low quality food sources. Avoid overfeeding to reduce additional health problems.
With expected lifespans of up to 25 years, South American camelids can be a trusted farm companion. Their intellect and obedient nature make them enjoyable pets. However, it is best to do your research prior to investing in one of these camelids as they are not natural inhabitants in the United States landscape. If you have any additional questions, contact Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the CVM at 979-845-9127.
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