This story was originally published in September 2021.
Robin and Corry Pratt have been raising alpacas on their Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity for two decades. They manage a herd of 41 of the animals that they raise for fiber and the simple joy of it.
It’s a joy they love to share through the farm’s Maine Alpaca Experience — free farm tours offered without reservations six days a week. Just show up and either Robin Pratt or one of the farm workers will take you around, introduce you to the members of the herd and teach you more about alpacas than you may have thought possible.
Here are 10 things you may not have known about alpacas.
There are no wild alpacas.
That’s right, you will not find an alpaca in the wild anywhere. Not even in the Andes, unless it has escaped from its farm, according to Robin Pratt. They are purely domesticated animals and are the result of selective breeding around 6,000 years ago between wild vicunas and, later, llamas.
From left (clockwise): Sherlock, a male alpaca at Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity, has a “mustache” that attracts attention; Thank you notes from children hang on a wall at Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity; One-year-old alpacas, Malawi and Baxter (brown) play together at Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Alpacas are incredibly empathetic.
Alpacas have a highly empathetic family lifestyle. In Robin Pratt’s herd there are two alpha females – eldest herd member 18-year-old Posey and Truffles.
“They are both in charge of this herd,” Robin Pratt said. “One of them takes care of boundaries and protection and the other one works on relationships.”
Whenever a pregnant alpaca is within a few days of giving birth, Posey always knows, Robin Pratt said. She will start to hang around with the soon-to-be mom as it spends more time in the barn. During delivery of the baby alpaca, Posey is nearby, actually coaching the mother along and then helping her with the new baby.
Once they are born, Robin Pratt said the babies are part of a family group and remain very close to their relatives.
“They have a very empathetic style of family,” Robin Pratt said. “They all know their names and they all bond with their families for life.”
Robin Pratt has observed that empathy directed toward people, she said. Alzheimer patients and children with autism have displayed dramatic improved behavior shifts when interacting with the alpacas, she said.
Alpacas are fastidious when it comes to calls of nature.
Like all livestock, alpacas relieve themselves both inside their barns and out in the pastures. Unlike any other livestock, all members of the herd do so in one place, and one place only. The Pratts pay careful attention to these preferred spots inside and outside. That way in the barns they were able to cover the entire floor area with soft rubber flooring that is easy on the alpacas’ feet and leave a square open to the dirt for an alpaca bathroom. In the pasture the designated latrine is evident by a patch of dead grass.
Alpaca poop is like gold to gardeners.
When it comes to natural garden amendments, alpaca poop is highly prized by growers.
“Most animals, when the poop comes out it’s considered ‘hot’ and you have to keep turning it and breaking it down,” Robin Pratt said. “Alpacas are pseudo ruminants and they have one stomach with three stomachs inside of that and because of that, that poop comes out already composted.”
That means unlike the manure from other livestock, alpaca poop can go directly from the animal to the plants.
Because of its quality, manure from alpaca poop is pretty pricey. Online, 25-pound bags of dried alpaca manure are going for around $40 each.
Alpacas are grass connoisseurs.
From left (clockwise): Alpacas nibble on orchard grass at Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity; A young alpaca nibbles on an apple that fell from a tree at Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity on Friday; Alpacas nibble on orchard grass at Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
The alpacas on the Pratts’ farm dine exclusively on high quality orchard grass. It’s a pure grass with no rhizomes and it grows evenly instead of bunching up in clumps. It does well in colder parts of the country and is the best pasture grass found in New England.
“It’s what they would find in the mountains of Peru,” Robin Pratt said. “But it does grow sparsely there and they have learned to eat very, very little and survive.”
If an alpaca is fed the regular hay that is often fed to livestock — which is full of stalks, coarse material and is not highly digestible — Robin Pratt said the animals will develop ulcers and other digestive health issues.
The better and more alpaca-friendly the diet, according to Robin Pratt, the happier the animal and the better the fleece from it.
Since alpacas lack upper teeth, they nibble rather than graze on the orchard grass by snipping off the tops of the individual blades.
“So they don’t ruin pastures,” Robin Pratt said. “They actually just mow down to a height that doesn’t destroy it.”
A happy alpaca is a fleece producing alpaca.
Next to their diet, the biggest thing affecting an alpaca’s fleece is stress.
Fleece samples from every animal on the farm are sent off to a special lab for analysis on 16 microscopic traits, Pratt said.
“Just like you could look at a tree ring and see there was a season of a bad storm or it had a disease, when an alpaca has stress the fleece literally becomes fragile,” Pratt said. “If I had a dog come and run the fence line, I could see in the fleece of the whole herd that day that it happened.”
Alpacas need romance.
Female alpacas never go into a breeding cycle, or heat, like other animals. Females are always biologically ready to mate and breed. But biology is only part of the equation, according to Pratt.
Females are brought to males and if the female does not like that male, nothing is going to happen beyond those first introductions.
“They have a very unique breeding process that is different from any other animal,” Pratt said. “It’s less about the heat cycle and more about acceptance.”
On Pratt’s farm the resident lothario is a prize-winning male named Space Cowboy who has sired 50 prize-winning babies.
Now retired and literally out to pasture living his best bachelor life, Space Cowboy was never rejected by a female. There are no candles or music, but there is something called orgling, a relative and shrill lovesong by the male which is music to the female alpaca’s ears.
“Space Cowboy’s orgle is apparently quite lovely,” Pratt said. “And he’s just so sexy.”
The connection between alpacas in family groups or as friends is so strong, it does not vanish when one dies. They will grieve for that lost member, Pratt said.
The grief felt by one animal and corresponding behaviors from other alpacas is most notable in those cases where a female loses a baby.
“When they lose a baby they grieve for months,” Pratt said. “When one mama is grieving, the whole herd will take turns going back to the barn to sit with her when she doesn’t want to come out into the pasture.”
Alpacas arrange themselves according to color.
On Pratt’s farm there are white alpacas, brown alpacas and tan alpacas. When they are released all together out into a pasture, they naturally clump together by color. According to Pratt, it’s the closest thing alpacas have as a defensive behavior.
“Alpacas often gather in colors in order to look large,” Pratt said. “Especially if they are in an area that looks a little bit risky or new to them.”
As soon as they see anything that looks remotely like it could be a predator — a coyote, dog, groundhog or oddly shaped shadow — the alpacas make a sound called “alarming.” It’s a sound sort of like the hee-haw of a donkey, only more high-pitched.
“It’s a sound they make to warn the herd they see a predator,” Pratt said. “Then they break right out into color groups quickly to look as large as they can to that predator.”
While the alpacas believe organizing by color makes them look like big giant creatures, Pratt said the strategy rarely fools a predator.
“That’s why you see this marvelous 5-foot no-climb fence around the pasture,” Pratt said. “It keeps any predators out and we never have alpacas in harm’s way and they live long, healthy lives.”
Yes, they do spit.
One of the ways alpacas recognize people is through scent. So if you hunker down to get eye-to-eye with one, it will come over and give your face a good whiff. It’s very gentle. The problem is, that same sort of behavior can signal the alpaca is feeling a real or imagined slight from you and is getting ready to put you in your place.
“Sometimes they will spit at you if you are in their grass,” Pratt said. “If they do spit, it’s just grass since they don’t produce a cud and that’s their way of saying, ‘just so you know, this is mine and you are not going to eat any of it.’”